Question: I have two questions regarding Pirkei Avot. First, is there a specific reason that the last chapter is read on the Sabbath before Shavuot, or is this just a quirk of the calendar? Second, in that last chapter we find a list of qualities that enable one to acquire Torah knowledge, including anavah, humility. I find this difficult to believe in light of the Gemara in Gittin that chastises one of the scholars for his anavah, saying that it ultimately caused the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
Summary of our response up to this point: The study of Pirkei Avot through the summer is specified in halacha (Rema, Orach Chayim 292:2). While we generally refrain from organizing study sessions on Shabbat between Minchah and Ma’ariv, we do recite Pirkei Avot at that time starting after Pesach until Rosh Hashanah.
Since there are six Sabbaths between Pesach and Shavuot and six chapters in Pirkei Avot, we devote an entire Sabbath to the study of each chapter. In the month of Elul, there are weeks when we double up and learn two chapters on one Sabbath. We always read the last chapter on the Sabbath before Shavuot and the fifth and sixth chapters together on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah.
This last chapter is referred to as Kinyan HaTorah, lit., “the method of acquiring Torah.” It is not part of the original Mishnayot compiled by R. Yehudah HaNasi, but is rather a compilation of Tannaitic Beraitot that was added to Pikei Avot at a later date.
In the preface to his sefer Matnot Chayim, HaRav Matisyahu Salomon, shlita, of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ, explains that Pirkei Avot is studied prior to Shavuot because we prepare for receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot through the 48 methods of acquisition listed in the last chapter of Avot.
The Hasid Ya’vez states: “The Torah can only dwell in one whose being is devoid of negative traits, and who is full of important [and admirable] traits.” Rabbi Salomon adds that one must purify oneself from ritual impurities and uncleanliness that restrain the soul from reaching its highest level of attainment. Pirkei Avot are replete with important matters that enable the soul to come closer to its Creator and awaken a person to service to G-d. The last chapter focuses on the attainment of Torah, and, as such, is appropriate to study before Shavuot.
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Let us now quote from Ethics from Sinai, the wonderful work of the legendary R. Yitzchak Meir (Irving M.) Bunim, zt”l:
“In the times of the Geonim, it became the custom in the academies of Babylonia to recite and study a chapter of Avoth on Saturday afternoons after the minchah service, as Rav Amram Gaon [ninth century] notes in his siddur about his academy. The Geonim knew of a tradition that Moses had passed to his eternal rest on a Sabbath afternoon at this time (Otzar HaGeonim, Shabbat 314-317, p. 103). [For this reason they included the three verses of tzidkath’cha tzedek: ‘Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness…’ as a prayer of justification and acceptance of his death.] And it became the practice to follow the minchah service with a chapter of Avoth to commemorate him, since it begins with his name: ‘Moses received the Torah, etc.’ Rav Paltoy Gaon [ninth century] gave another reason: ‘The Talmud (Moed Katan 22b) teaches that when a Sage passes away, all the Houses of Study and Worship in his city are to cease their activity.’ This suggests that in commemoration of Moses’ passing, it would be appropriate not to have intensive, concentrated Talmud study, but rather to learn and review the lighter subject matter of Avoth (Otzar HaGeonim, ibid.).