Pirke Avot: Opening and Closing

We have been spending the past few weeks studying a chapter of Pirke Avot each Shabbat between Pesach and Shavuot. Let’s look at the opening and closing statements for each chapter. At the beginning of each chapter of Pirke Avot, it is customary to say the following from Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1 (translation from The Sefaria edition of the Mishnah with community translation):

כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא, שנאמר (ישעיה ס) ועמך כלם צדיקים לעולם יירשו ארץ נצר מטעי מעשה ידי להתפאר

All Jews have a share in the World to Come, as it says, (Isaiah 60:21), “Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.”

Although the translation says “All Jews”, the Hebrew says “All Israel”. Everyone, all of B’nai Yisroel, have a share in the Olam Ha-bah (World to Come). Why should each chapter start this way (even though it is not printed in every edition of Pirke Avot)? To answer this, think about the spiritual elevation that took place suring the seven weeks from the Exodus (yitziat mitzrayim) to the receiving of the Torah (matan Torah). recall the first mishnah of pirke avot: Moshe kibul ha-Torah (Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai). It then says that Moses transmitted it to Joshua, and then the elders, etc (the Masoretic chain). To merit matan Torah, the Israelites spent seven weeks of purification. Recall that the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim (which alludes to narrowness or metzer). The spirituality of the Israelites at the Exodus was at its lowest depths. To be worthy of receiving the Torah, B’nai Yisroel had to demonstrate their acceptance (na-asei v’nishmah; we will do and then we will understand) fully.

When we study Pirke Avot, we are studying the wisdom of the Sages that followed Matan Torah and it is our own personal way of elevating our souls to commemorate matan Torah on Shavuot in about two weeks.

B’nai Yisroel are described (metaphorically and anthropomorphically) by Isaiah as “The branch of My planting…the work of My hands”. Torah has been described as a “Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it”. A branch is a literal part of the tree, just as all parts our soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah) are a part of Hashem. We are all connect directly to Hashem and through Torah and Mitzvot. What a better reminder than to recite this passage at the beginning of each chapter of Pirke Avot.

It is also customary, that at the end of each chapter of Pirke Avot, to recite a Mishnah from Makkot 3:16 (translation from The Sefaria edition of the Mishnah with community translation):

רבי חנניא בן עקשיא אומר, רצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לזכות את ישראל, לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצות, שנאמר (ישעיה מב) יי חפץ למען צדקו יגדיל תורה ויאדיר

Rabbi Chananaia son of Akashia stated, God wanted to grant merits to Israel, therefore he gave them many laws and commandments as it states, “Because God wants righteousness he increased the amount of Torah and splendor.” (Isaiah 42:21).

As we prepare for the Festival of Shavuot, we should reflect on thes ideals and may we always be worthy to receive Torah each and every day.

About the Author
Jonathan Wolf is a retired high school physics teacher. He retired to NJ with his wife. He is an adjunct professor of physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has published professional papers and has been the author of AP Physics review books as well as general HS and college physics review books. He is a past President and ritual chairman at a conservative synagogue on Long Island, NY before he retired to NJ.
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