Question: Why do some people have the custom to study Mishnayot for the departed? Also, does Pirkei Avot have five chapters or six? In my Mishnayot, it has five, but in my siddur it has six.
Answer: It is very meritorious to study Mishnayot for the departed. “Mishnah” and “neshama” (soul) are written with the same four Hebrew letters, hinting that study of Mishnayot is of great benefit to a departed soul.
As for the number of chapters in Avot, many Mishnayot, indeed, only contain five of them. However, in the larger Mishnayot editions that contain the complete, unabridged Tosefot Yom Tov commentary, we find a sixth chapter. Yet, even in these editions, the three Hebrew words, “Nishlema Masechet Avot – Tractate Avot has now been completed,” is printed at the conclusion of the fifth chapter.
On the other hand, the sixth chapter is an integral component of Avot in the Vilna Shas, where we find the equivalent of these three Hebrew words in Aramaic, “Slikah lah Masechet Avot – Tractate Avot is now completed,” at the conclusion of the sixth chapter.
For an insight into this seeming inconsistency, we turn to Ethics from Sinai, the labor of love of Irving M. (Reb Yitzchak Meir) Bunim.
Mr. Bunim, zt”l, a great Torah scholar and successful businessman, was also an important leader of Jewish communal life during World War II and in the post-war years. His most important activity centered around the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (now in Staten Island and Edison, NJ, headed by Dr. Marvin Schick). As one who lectured extensively on Avot, the author was well-equipped to answer whether Tractate Avot consists of five or six chapters.
We cite from his introduction to the sixth chapter:
“In the introduction to this work, it was noted that in the Mishnah itself, as R. Judah haNasi arranged it, there are only five Pirkei Avot (chapters of Tractate Avot); but already in the era of the Geonim, it would seem, the custom developed to recite and study one perek (chapter) every Sabbath afternoon between Passover and Shavuot – and between these two Festivals there are six Sabbaths. (It is our tradition to continue this weekly study through the summer, until Rosh Hashana). For this reason, evidently, the sixth perek was added. If it is not part of the Mishnah proper, it is, as the preamble states, in the language of the idiom of the Mishnah; for it derives from the same source – the immortal statements and traditions of our Sages.
“Those teachings of the Sages which R. Judah haNasi did not include in the Mishnah are generally designated as Baraita [from the Aramaic root word bar, meaning outside – since they were left out of the Mishnah]. But as Machzor Vitri notes, such excluded teachings were sometimes gathered by a particular Sage, and were then called his Mishnah: thus we find mentioned, respectively, the Mishnah of R. Hiyya, R. Hoshaya, Bar Kaparah, and Rabbi Akiba. And one Midrashic work bears the title ‘The Mishnah of R. Eliezer.’ Quite aptly, then, the preamble continues, ‘Blessed is He who chose them and their Mishnah (their teaching).’ This name of eminence can also be applied to the added sixth perek. The very sages who teach, counsel and guide in the five chapters, speak here with the same clear vision and trenchant phrasing. All in all (as Midrash Shmuel remarks), this chapter is hardly less important and distinguished than the other five.”
Rabbi Bunim continues: “The content of the sixth perek is originally Chapter 17 of the Midrash called Seder Eliyahu Zuta, and also forms Chapter 8 of the minor tractate Kallah Rabbati. Was it chosen at random? Hardly. It was selected for study on the last Sabbath before Shavuot; and Shavuot, in the Jewish tradition, is the anniversary of the great revelation at Sinai, when we received the Torah, the unalterable touchstone of our destiny. In the metaphor of our Sages (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus XLI: 5) the Torah is likened to a bride, to which we were wed at Sinai. . . at the time that the Holy, Blessed One gave the Torah to the people Israel, it was as beloved to them as a bride is beloved to her mate.’ (Sifrei, Deuteronomy 345 and Midrash Tanaim 212): ‘morasha – an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4) – read not morasha but me’orasa, betrothed; for the Torah is the betrothed of the people Israel.’ (cf T.B. Berachot 57a, Pesachim 49b, Sanhedrin 59a. Yalkut Shimoni II: 535) and [let] the bride [go forth] out of her pavilion (Joel 2:16) – this alludes to the scroll of the Torah.’
“‘How should you dance before a bride?’ asks the Talmud. ‘The School of Shammai says: The bride [is to be described] as she is; the School of Hillel says, [We are to] sing out, ‘O lovely and graceful bride (Ketubot 17a).’ On the Sabbath directly before Shavuot, as the time draws near to relive and renew the spiritual wedding with Jewry’s ageless betrothed, we heed both views: We study this chapter which describes the Torah ‘as it is,’ but what a charming, inspiring, life-giving ‘bride’ of the spirit it is – truly ‘lovely and graceful.’ R. Amram Gaon already calls it Kinyan Torah, the chapter of the Acquisition of Torah; for it sings the Torah’s praises, arouses in us the yearning to make the Divine word our own; and it guides us in the ways by which the Torah can become ours. What better choice could our forebears make for a sixth chapter?
“How telling are the words of Rabbi Joseph Yaavetz: ‘The Torah will dwell only in one who is emptied free of evil qualities, and filled with praiseworthy qualities. Therefore did the Holy, Blessed One give the bidding, Be ready by the third day; do not go near woman; and for the same reason the washing of clothes [before the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai] – that they should be cleansed of the defilement and uncleanness that bar the soul from its capacities. All the preceding chapters [of Avot] are filled with noble thoughts that move the spirit toward its Creator and arouse it to worship Him. Hence it became the custom to read them on the Sabbaths before [the Festival of] Matan Torah, the time of year when the Torah was given . . . Now, this entire chapter arouses an eagerness and love for Torah.”
Rabbi Bunim concludes, “While such material also occurs in the earlier chapters to a great extent, this chapter contains nothing else – to impress upon us that this is the end-purpose, the goal of the earlier chapters. Through its words, precious as the finest gold, we will be stirred to make the Torah our own at this appropriate time. For beyond any doubt, at this time [before Shavuot] we will be receptive to every word about the worship of the Holy, Blessed One, more so than at any other time, as the impression which our souls received then [at Sinai] will now flash to life within us…”