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.).
“From the academies of Babylonia the custom traveled to the Jewish communities of Ashkenaz, the France and Germany of over 900 years ago, and we find it mentioned by Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel [Ibn Yarhi, 12th century] in his Sefer HaManhig (Hilchot Shabbat 63). But in Kol Bo [an anonymous work of the 14th century], we read that the custom varied among the communities: Some study the chapters only from Passover to Shavuoth, others all year or during different periods of the year. In his Siddur Avodath Yisra’el, published in Roedelheim in 1868, Dr. Seligmann Baer lists three different customs current among the German Jewish communities of his time.”
He continues, “In the Mishnah itself, Avoth has only five chapters. But between Passover and Shavuoth there are six Saturdays, and apparently for this reason a sixth chapter was added yet in the days of the Geonim, since Rav Amram Gaon speaks of ‘Avoth and Kinyan Torah.’ This added chapter, Kinyan Torah, is a baraitha: it is material quite similar to the Mishnah, which Rabbi Judah haNasi did not include in the Mishnah when he compiled it.
“Our custom, from time immemorial in East European Jewry, is to recite and study Avoth from the Sabbath after Passover to the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, fifteen Sabbaths in all. On each of the first twelve we study one chapter, on each of the last three, two chapters. Since the Hebrew for ‘chapter’ is perek, ‘chapters’ is p’rakim, and ‘chapters of’ is pirkei – the work has come to be called Pirkei Avoth, or more simply, Perek.”
He further states, “It is no accident or coincidence that originally the time for Perek seems to have been from Passover to Shavuoth. On Passover we celebrate going free from Egypt, and its physical enslavement, to a destiny of G-dliness and Torah. Our people, however, were not ready to receive the Torah at once, and it was only weeks later, when they stood at Mount Sinai, that our people received the Torah – at Shavuoth time. In the symbolic language of the Sages, on Passover we became ‘betrothed’ to the Torah; on Shavuoth the spiritual ‘wedding’ took place, as we made an eternal, irrevocable pact, a covenant, with the Almighty and His Torah. Now, in a time of betrothal, bride and groom get to know one another, in preparation for a lifetime together. Between Passover and Shavuoth, as we ‘count the days’ by observing s’firah, waiting to receive the Torah anew from Sinai, it is good to prepare by studying Avoth, to gain some idea of the greatness, wonder and profundity of Torah, this unique spiritual ‘bride’ that we are going to receive. Even a non-Jewish scholar, George Foot Moore (Judaism, Cambridge, 1927-30, Vol. II, p. 157), has observed: ‘For a knowledge of the ideals of Rabbinical ethics and piety, no other easily accessible source is equal to Avoth.’
“Nor is it a coincidence, I believe, that we begin studying Perek in the springtime. This is when nature renews its great cycle of annual life and growth: the warm, vital forces of regeneration begin to stir and flow. Man too feels powerful instinctual urges rouse within himself. At this time of year, it is therefore best to listen to the wisdom of the Sages, to learn how to overcome temptation and passion, develop our will power and control our actions. Pirkei Avoth provides instruction, mussar, a blueprint of Torah for the life that comes with renewed force in the spring.
“But, you may ask, do we really need this special instruction? We have the Shulchan Aruch, an elaborate legal code that delineates right and wrong, the just and the unjust, in all practical circumstances. And the very passage from the Mishnah that we say before each chapter of Avoth proclaims, ‘The people Israel all have a share in the world to come.’ Why should we have this special mussar, this teaching and chastisement?
“The answer is that a Shulchan Aruch, a legal code of right and wrong, is not enough. Our goal under heaven is not simply to observe the law, important and functional though it is. The goal of Torah is to transmute the human spirit, the character, into something fine and G-dly. David the Psalmist entreated the Almighty, ‘Guard my life, for I am a hasid’ (Psalms 86:2). In its age-old classic sense, this means a person of deep goodness, benevolence and piety. We mentioned the prescription of one sage: ‘The one who wants to become a hasid should observe the laws of n’zikin, laws concerning injuries and damages’ (Bava Kamma 30a). In other words, you should learn from the Torah how to avoid causing injury, and how to pay proper damages for the harm that you may bring. But for another sage this is not enough; his advice for becoming a hasid is, ‘Let him observe the teaching of Avoth.’ Knowledge and strict observance of the Law is not the be-all and end-all. The true hasid is one whose profound piety carries him above and beyond the strict letter of the Law. If he has the slightest doubt that he may be wrong in a dispute, or that his potential claim is questionable, he will give his fellow man the benefit of the doubt rather than use his legal rights aggressively. The hasid overcomes his acquisitive nature and looks beyond, to the spirit of the Law.”
R. Bunim concludes, “If you wish to reach this level of beneficence and loving piety, if you would be a hasid, the teachings of Avoth are essential.”
(To be continued)
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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