Elchanan Poupko

Pirkei Avot, a Journey to Ethics of Our Fathers

12th Century Pirkei Avot, Kaufman Manuscript (public domain)

During the summer months, it is customary for many Jewish communities to study the Mishnaic section called Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers. Some say it is because during the heat of the summer, we might succumb to unkind behavior, so we remind ourselves of what proper behavior might look like. Let us delve into this centerpiece of Jewish ethics. 

Pirkei Avot, also known as Ethics of the Fathers, appears in the Nezikin section of the Mishna. This section usually deals with judicial issues, monetary damages, and matters relating to governing. Many of the issues in Pirkei Avot relate specifically to the Jewish judges–the Dayanim–and guide them in how to be better judges. Yet these very same pieces of advice that are often applied to judges became essential wisdom to each and every Jew. Each and every one of us, regardless of our position in life, is a judge. We make big decisions for ourselves and for others. This is why we are cautioned to “judge” people favorably, give people the benefit of the doubt, not be biased, and many more commands that are usually reserved for a judge. 

Often, the judgment that we do as individuals will carry far more weight on people’s lives than that of a court. Assumptions we make about people, who we choose to include or exclude, who we show high regard for and who it is that we do not, who we teach Torah to and who we do not, how we treat and think of ourselves–can all have a far greater impact on individuals than a judge sitting on a courtroom bench. 


In many versions, this Mishna begins with words taken out of the Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin: All of the Jewish people have a share in the World-to-Come, as it is stated: “And your people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, for My name to be glorified” (Isaiah 60:21)

The translation that Jews “have a share in the world to come” is not perfect. I remember, around the year 2005, going to the synagogue of Rabbi Chaskel Besser on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for Shabbat afternoon services. The Rabbi, who was originally from Katowice, Poland, spoke about this introduction. He pointed out the fact that it said “Helek La’Olam Haba“; they have a share to the world to come, not “Ba’olam Haba” in the world to come. Rabbi Besser said that the fact that every Jew has a part in the world to come does not necessarily mean they will get it. It reminded me of a college professor of mine who began the semester by saying: “You all already have an A+ grade for this semester; now you just need to make sure not to ruin it. Rabbi Besser said we all have a right to the world to come, but it does not mean we will not spoil that part. It is up to us and the work that we do in this world to determine what our share in the world to come w might be be. We have the right to Olam Haba, and it is our job to ensure that portion is large.  

When we study this Mishna it is easy to think about the implications it has to our own lives; the share we have to Olam Haba, the fact that God refers to all of us as righteous, and the proud work of God’s hands. Yet a more important lesson for us is to also make sure we see this virtue in our fellow Jews as well. Every time you encounter another Jew, remember this Mishna. Remember that they two are: “Kulam Tzadikim,” all righteous, ma’aseh yadai le’hitpae’r,” God’s glorious work. 

A great Lithuanian Jewish Magid (spiritual preacher) once told a congregation he was speaking to that it was time to stop thinking about others and start thinking of themselves. The audience was deeply surprisedThey knew that in Judaism, we must always strive to do more to think of others. The Maggid went on to explain that when a speaker gets up to reprimand people and speak about the inequities of society, we usually go out thinking: “Wow, that is exactly what my neighbor needs to hear.” Yet when the same speaker praises us collectively, individuals assume the speaker is speaking just about them. 


Interestingly, it is customary to study the Mishna of Pirkei Avot as the summer begins, in the months following Passover. Since Pirkei Avot has six chapters in it and there are seven weeks until Shavuot, many communities study one chapter a week as a way to prepare for Shavuot. From this perspective we study Pirkei Avot as a way to spiritual elevation; this study gives us the spiritual preparedness to receive the Torah. It is a study that inspires and uplifts us. 

Others say that the rationale behind this custom is the weather. How so? Once Passover is over and the summer is here, people have a shorter temper and feel the influence of the heat. Interestingly, a study done by the University of Southern California found that violent crime increases by 5.7% once temperatures go above 85 degrees (about 30 degrees Celsius). From this perspective, the study of Pirkei Avot is a preventative one. It makes sure we do not act in a hastiness or mindless heartlessness. It warns us against rushing to judge others and urges us to let calmer heads prevail. 


Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua–many note the fact that it says Moses received the Torah at Sinai, while it does not say Moses gave it to Joshua; he only transmitted it and passed it on to Joshua. When we are blessed enough to study the Torah, it is important to remember that we are only its guardians, not its owners. We do not give the Torah to future generations; we simply transmit what we have received. This explains something I was privileged to hear from one of the great scholars from the previous generation, Rabbi Zelig Epstein. Rabbi Epstein was from the town of Slonim, who studied in the Mir Yeshiva in prewar Europe, fled during the Holocaust to Kelm, then to Shanghai, and from there to Toronto, Canada. He was married to the granddaughter of the great Rabbi Shimon Shkop’s granddaughter, and both of them embody the traits of devotion to Torah and humility of the prewar Mussar scholars of Lithuania. Rabbi Epstein used to elaborate on the words of Maimonides at the beginning of the laws of Talmud Torah (1:2), where Maimonides states:

“Just as a person is obligated to teach his son, so, too, is he obligated to teach his grandson….this charge is not confined] to one’s children and grandchildren alone. Rather, it is a mitzvah for each and every wise man to teach all students, even though they are not his children, as [Deuteronomy 6:7] states: “And you shall teach them to your sons…” The oral tradition explains: “Your sons,” these are your students, for students are also called sons.” 

The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah is unlike any other Mitzvah. The more of it you have, the more you have to give, not to anyone specific, but to anyone who is willing to learn. While every Mitzvah is applied equally, the Mitzvah of teaching Torah is applied differently based on how much Torah knowledge one possesses. It is a mitzvah that obliges us to treat complete strangers like our own children and grandchildren and to make sure that our knowledge of Torah is taught to others. 

The imperative behind this form of teaching Torah is very much because of what is said in this Mishna; the Torah is never something that belongs to us; it is a gift we must pass on. By receiving the Torah, we are obliged to pass it on. Moses did not give the Torah to Joshua; he simply transmitted it to Joshua so that Joshua could pass that Torah on to others. Every time you study Torah, remember: Torah is not yours to keep–it is yours to teach and pass on to others. For every single Jew, the obligation is to teach it to their children and grandchildren, while for those who have been blessed with higher levels of Torah knowledge, the obligation is to teach anyone who would like to learn.  


They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.

While it is easy to treat these as three good and unrelated tips for better judgment, commentaries see these in a very different way. Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, a primary commentator on the Mishna, explains that these three imperatives are grouped together because the very survival of Torah depends on them. When the men of the Great Assembly–Knesset Hagdola– passed these imperatives on, it was in the context of Judaism’s very survival. 

Yes, the mixture of these three imperatives can be understood as speaking to judges, rabbis, or common folk. Yet, the simple reading is that this speaks to judges and leaders of the Jewish people. Judges must make sure that they are patient and that they do not rush to judgment. Yet this is also very true for rabbis, doctors, teachers, engineers, and anyone doing a task that will impact the lives of others; judging hastily can lead to terrible injustices. The demand for patience here is not merely a demand for cooler heads to prevail and for judges not to rush to judgment in courts, but it is key to our survival. 

From the tragic haste of the golden calf, the rush to follow the Bar Kochva rebellion, the rush to follow false messiahs like Shabtai Tzvi in the 17th century, the rapid abandonment of religion that drew so many young Jews following the Enlightenment movement, or the speed with which many Russian Jews chased Soviet communism, haste can be highly detrimental to us as a people. Rabbis and leaders must know that when history calls on them to address a rapidly changing world, they have a responsibility to respond to those changes–not with complete disregard, but also not with too much haste. Whether it is an individual, communal, judicial, or national issue, the rabbis of the Mishna urge us to make sure we are thoughtful and deliberate before rendering judgments. 

Interestingly, the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 7B): “Bar Kappara taughtFrom where is this matter that the Sages statedBe temperate in judgment (Avot 1:1)? As it is written: “You shall not go up by steps onto My altar” (Exodus 20:23), i.e., do not ascend hurriedly, and juxtaposed to it, it is written“Now these are the ordinances that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1)

The rabbis elsewhere in the Talmud (Yoma 21a) state that the prohibition on using steps and mandating of the use of a ramp up to the alter, also includes an obligation on the Kohanim to ascend to the Mizbe’ach in the smallest of steps–” a heal touching the toe“. 

Just as one should not rush hastily up the alter because of its sacredness, so too judges should not rush to judgment. Implied in this statement is the idea that when we render judgment and make big decisions, we must treat them with the same kind of reverence the priests have when going up to the altar. We must never “trample” upon a big decision, just as we must not treat the sacred with haste or cavalier behavior.  

It is important to note that this must be balanced with a different consideration in Jewish law, and that is the concept of Inuy Hadin–if there is someone who is awaiting our judgment, we must not prolong their verdict too much. We must find the balance between thoughtful and deliberate judgment and making sure we do not leave people awaiting their verdict forever. 


Raise many disciples- Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura notes that this statement, urging us to raise many disciples, is stated in opposition to Rabbi Gamliel’s position. The Talmud states (Brachot 28a) that Rabbi Gamiliel was of the position that the only ones who should be taught in the hall of study are sincere students who come from good families. This position was one of the things that led to the toppling of Rabbi Gamiliel and his replacement by Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, who believed that all should be given an equal opportunity in studying Torah. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk(1843–1926) is known throughout the Jewish world for his great piety and scholarship and whose books Ohr Same’ach and Meshech Chochma are studied in every Yeshiva to this very day. It was said that Rabbi Meir Simcha was once sitting at a meeting with many great Torah scholars, all discussing communal issues. As many of these rabbis came from families of great Torah scholars, they often began their statements by quoting an original Torah thought brought forth by their father or grandfather. One of the participants turned to Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, knowing his non-rabbinic family background, and in an apparent tease, said to R’ Meir Simcha: “Would you like to share what your father has said?”

Without blinking, R’ Meir Simcha said: “my father was a simple baker and was not able to teach me much Torah but what he did teach me was that a freshly baked bread is much better than a week old fancy cake.” Rabbi Meir Simcha was referring to the fact that there are those who use the glory of their forefathers’s Torah scholarship, while not having much to offer themselves. 

The greatest Torah scholars our people have seen are often people who rose from humble backgrounds. From Hillel being a descendant of converts to Onkelus, who translated the Torah, to Rabbi Akiva being both a descendant of converts and growing up as an ignoramus, and many more scholars, the Torah often is at its best with humble beginnings. When the Mishna instructs us to raise many disciples, it is not just about quantity; it is also about quality. When we have many disciples and do not put in intense filtering in terms of whom we teach Torah to and to whom we give prominence, it gives rise to an entirely different class of Torah leaders. Torah thrives most with a broad pool of Torah students to choose from and a truly meritocratic system. From the Baal Shem Tov to Rabbi Elijah–the Gaon of Vilna, from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to Rav Kook and other great Torah scholars, our sages often came from modest backgrounds. This is because of the compelling commandment of the rabbis here that we must raise many disciples. 


Make a fence around the Torah-When my grandfather Rabbi Baruch Poupko, president of the Mizrachi movement in America, met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, he shared with her this very Mishna in the following way. “Ms. Meir, you just spoke and said that Israel must have defined, defensible, and recognizable borders. I was deeply moved by that because our sages say the exact same thing about our Torah; it must have defined, defensible, and recognizable borders–va’asu Syag LaTorah“.

The idea of Syag LaTorah, making a fence around the Torah, is often seen in the context of an individual’s Mitzvah; the rabbis make the rule of Mukzah, forbidding one from even picking up or moving hammers, sewing needles, money, and other objects used for forbidden activities on Shabbat. Others refer to prohibitions rabbis made on close encounters between men and women that might lead to incest or promiscuity. These are all true on an individual level. Yet the statement here is more than just individual; it is the key to the survival of the Torah. In order for the Torah to last through the centuries of exiles, for Judaism to survive the many difficulties that come with being a minority religion, and for the Jews to last as the people of the book, the borders of the Torah must remain unambiguous. Inherent to the existence of a physical border is the recognition that the physical representation is there to speak for an indisputable understanding of where one place ends and where the other begins.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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