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 and read the last chapter, Kinyan HaTorah (lit., “the method of acquiring Torah”), on the Sabbath before Shavuot. This chapter 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 we prepare for receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot through the 48 methods of acquisition listed in the last chapter of Avot. He adds that Pirkei Avot are replete with important matters that enable the soul to come closer to its Creator and awaken a person to service of G-d. The last chapter focuses on the attainment of Torah, and, as such, is appropriate to study before Shavuot.
In his work “Ethics from Sinai,” R. Yitzchak Meir (Irving M.) Bunim, zt”l, writes that Moshe passed away on Sabbath afternoon and we commemorate him by studying Avot at that time since it begins with his name: “Moshe received the Torah….”
R. Bunim notes that it is no coincidence that Avot was initially recited from Pesach to Shavuot. On Pesach we celebrate our redemption from slavery in Egypt en route to a destiny of G-dliness and Torah. However, we were not ready to receive the Torah until several weeks later, on Shavuot. Symbolically, we became “betrothed” to the Torah on Pesach and had our spiritual “wedding” on Shavuot. During the time of a betrothal, a bride and groom get to know one another in preparation for a lifetime together. Between Pesach and Shavuot, therefore, as we count the days of sefirah, waiting to receive the Torah at Sinai, it is beneficial to study Avot in order to gain an idea of the greatness of Torah that we are going to receive.
R. Bunim asks why we require the special mussar of Pirkei Avot when we already have the Shulchan Aruch, an elaborate legal code that delineates right and wrong in all practical circumstances. He answers that our goal is not simply to observe the law, but to transform the human spirit and character into something fine and G-dly. This is what Avot teaches us.
* * * * *
The Gemara you cite in posing your second question is clearly Gittin 56a, where the Gemara states, “Because of the anavah of R. Zechariah b. Avkulus [one of the Sages], the Temple was destroyed.”
The Gemara explains that an individual named Bar Kamtza was once accidentally invited by his enemy to a public feast instead of an individual named Kamtza who was a friend of the host. Upon seeing his enemy at his party, the host asked him to leave. No amount of entreaties could move him to change his mind.