“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?