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Q & A: Tractate Avot


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QUESTION: Why is Avot prefaced with a mishna from another tractate? Also, why do we refer to this tractate as Avot, meaning “fathers”?
Shlomo Feivelson
Coconut Creek, FL
ANSWER: The Gaon R. Meir Grunberg, zt”l, the Keizmarker Rav, who served as deputy Av Beit Din of the Rabbinical Alliance (Igud Horabbonim), discusses the name of Tractate Avot in his Zichron Meir (Vol. 1), published by the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He explains that the ethical standards that characterize the Jewish nation are enumerated in this tractate, and they are derived from the character and behavior of our forefathers, starting with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They set the foundations of our nation based on love of G-d and love of our fellowman.R. Grunberg notes that when Abraham beseeched G-d on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:27), he demonstrated profound humility, stating, “Vaya’an Avraham va’yomar, hineh ho’alti ledabber el Hashem, ve’anochi afar va’efer - Abraham answered, saying, behold, may I speak to G-d, and I am but dust and ashes.”

R. Grunberg also mentions the incident at Elonei Mamre (Genesis 18:1-2): “Va’yera elav Hashem be’elonei mamre, vehu yoshev petach ha’ohel kechom hayom. Va’yissa einav va’yar ve’hineh shelosha anashim nitzavim alav, va’yar va’yaratz likratam mi’petach ha’ohel va’yishtachu artza - Hashem appeared to him (Abraham) at Elonei Mamre as he was sitting in the doorway of the tent, and he lifted his eyes and saw three men standing before him; he ran toward them and bowed to the ground.” Rashi and Siftei Chachamim note that Hashem’s appearance to Abraham was a visit to the sick.

Here is a person of advanced age (Abraham was 99 years old at that time), three days after his circumcision, yet he does not send messengers to greet potential guests but runs, at the risk of his health, to welcome three nomads into his home. R. Grunberg also notes another verse that emphasizes Abraham’s trait of generous hospitality (Genesis 21:33): “Va’yita eshel bi’[B]e’er Sheva va’yikra sham be’shem Hashem Kel olam - And he [Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Be’er Sheva and called there on the name of Hashem, the Everlasting G-d.” The word eshel, spelled alef, shin, lammed, is explained as an acrostic for achila (food), shetiya (drink) and lina (provision for staying the night), again pointing to Abraham’s hospitality even to strangers.

R. Grunberg’s explanation is strengthened by Rashi’s comment in Sotah (10a) that the lammed stands for levaya, escorting the guests on their way after they have been given food and drink, and that the word eshel means inn.

Our patriarch Isaac was ready to be sacrificed in order to abide by the will of G-d. An angel intervened to prevent Abraham from slaughtering his son, yet Isaac is referred to as “a holy offering to G-d” because his willingness to become a sacrifice is considered as if he had indeed been offered as a sacrifice. A good intention, machashava tova, is considered the equivalent of an accomplished fact (Kiddushin 40a).

We read in Parashat Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 24:63), “Va’yetze Yitzhak lasu’ach basadeh lifnot arev … – Isaac went out to meditate in the field at evening time … ” R. Grunberg remarks that the commentators find the structure of this verse to be different from other scriptural verses. We would have expected the verse to read ‘Isaac went out at evening time to meditate in the field’, since the time of the incident is usually mentioned before a description of the incident itself. For an explanation R. Grunberg refers to his father, who remarks, in accord with Tractate Shabbat (89b), that when G-d said to Abraham, and later to Jacob, “Your children have sinned,” each one responded, “Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Your Name.” However, when G-d addressed the same complaint to Isaac, Isaac responded with the following reasoning: A person’s normal lifespan is 70 years, but he may only be punished for sins he committed during 50 of these years, since until the age of 20 the Heavenly Court does not punish. Out of the 50 years, 25 are considered nighttime. [The Gemara continues with the argument Isaac made that half of the other 25 years is taken up by daily occupations such as praying, eating and the like. That leaves 12-and-a-half years (in which one could be punished for sins committed). If You, G-d, Isaac continued, are willing to bear those, all is well. Otherwise, let me bear half of it and You, G-d, the other half. And if You desire that all be borne by me, was I not (already) offered as a sacrifice before You?] Isaac went out to the field to meditate and pray in order to remove the condition of erev (akin to nighttime) so that G-d would not punish his children for sins committed at night.

Isaac was not praying for his own need or benefit but for the needs of others, for Klal Yisrael. Thus Isaac, too, like his father, demonstrated love for G-d and for his fellow man.

Jacob is referred to as “the chosen of the patriarchs” (see the Maharsha in his Chiddushei Aggadot ad loc., who explains in detail Abraham’s and Jacob’s reactions when rebuked for their children’s sins). He is called (Genesis 25:27) an ish tam yoshev ohalim, a wholesome man who sat in the tents [of Shem and Ever to learn Torah]. During the 14 years he spent there he gave up sleep in order not to miss any time of the study of Torah. He made a vow to G-d (Genesis 28:22), saying, “Vechol asher titen li, asor a’asrenu lach – And of all that You shall give me, I will surely give a tenth to You.” The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 70:7) notes that Jacob tithed not only his earnings and profit but also consecrated a tenth of his children, the tribe of Levi, to the service of G-d. (The Midrash ibid. explains the concept of one tenth although Levi was, in fact, one of 12 sons.)

Rav Grunberg also notes that the Torah says regarding Jacob (Genesis 33:18), “Va’yavo Ya’akov shalem ir Shechem asher be’eretz Canaan bevo’o miPaddan Aram va’yichan et penei ha’ir - Jacob arrived intact at the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan, upon coming from Paddan Aram, and he set up camp before the city.” The Gemara (Shabbat 33b) derives from this verse – interpreting va’yichan to indicate chanan, was gracious - the fact that Jacob, out of gratitude to the inhabitants of Shechem, established for them coinage, bathhouses and marketplaces. Here, too, we see a display of the traits of love of G-d and love of man.

All these examples clearly illustrate the character traits of our patriarchs, the avot, who always endeavored to serve G-d and to show kindness to all of mankind.

(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 yklass@jewishpress.com.


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