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Pirkei Avoth (Hebrew: Chapters of the Fathers, פרקי אבות ) or simply Avoth is a tractate of the Mishna composed of ethical maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period. It is the second-last tractate in the Mishnaic order Nezikin.
The tractate consists of five chapters. The first four chapters contain sayings attributed to sages from Simon the Just (3rd century B.C.E.) to Judah haNasi (3rd century C.E.), redactor of the Mishnah. These aphorisms concern proper ethical and social conduct, as well as the importance of Torah study.
The fifth chapter of Avoth departs from the organization and content of the preceding four in that it consists mostly of anonymous sayings structured around numerical lists, several of which have no direct connection with ethics. The last four paragraphs return to the format of moral aphorisms attributed to specific rabbis.
In liturgical use, and in most printed editions of Avoth, a sixth chapter, Kinyan Torah ("Acquisition of Torah") is added; this is in fact the second chapter of tractate Kallah, one of the minor tractates. It is added because its content and style closely approximate that of the original tractate Avoth. From at least the time of Saadia Gaon (10th century C.E.), it has been customary to study one chapter a week on each of the seven Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot, or nowadays until Rosh Hashana; the tractate is therefore included in many prayer books, following the Sabbath afternoon prayers. In the course of such study, it is common to preface each chapter with the Mishnaic saying, "All Israel has a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 10:1), and to conclude each chapter with the saying, "The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to bestow merit upon Israel; therefore he gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance" (Makkoth 3:16).
The tractate includes several of the most frequently-quoted rabbinic sayings, such as "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am [only] for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Avoth 1:15), and "It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it" (Avoth 2:19).
Although Avoth does not have an accompanying Gemara, one of the minor tractates of the Talmud, Avoth deRabbi Nathan ("The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan"), is an expansion of the Mishnaic tractate containing numerous additional ethical teachings and legends.
- Pirkei Avoth (Hebrew Full text), mechon-mamre.org
- Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers translation at Chabad.org
- Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, an 1897 English translation by Charles Taylor
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