As many of you know, there is a widespread Jewish custom of learning Pirkei Avos in the six week period between Pesach and Shavous. Some have the custom to keep on learning a perek a week until Rosh Hoshana.
Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Beit Shemesh, Israel has an excellent commentary to Pirkei Avos over at Torah.org.
A few years ago, to facilitate review of Pirkei Avos, I cut and pasted Rabbi Rosenthal’s translation into a document so that I could print off the perek of the week and keep it in my wallet for review. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the man administering Torah.org, Cross-Currents.com and other spreading Torah projects was gracious enough to allow the document to be downloaded here.
Here is the link for the English Translation of Pirkei Avos.
Almost everybody knows certain sayings from Pirkei Avos, such as “He (Hillel) used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.” I was wondering what people thought are the most popular sayings and why they think they are so popular.
Here is the translated text of the Second Perek of Pirkei Avos.
1 “Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is glorious / praiseworthy for himself, and honors him before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) like a severe one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure received for sinning compared to the punishment. Consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you – an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”
2 “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will in the end result in waste and will cause sinfulness. All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community’s forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.”
3 “Be careful with authorities, for they do not befriend a person except for their own sake. They appear as friends when they benefit from it, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.”
4 “He used to say, make His will your will, so that He will make your will His will. Annul your will before His will, so that He will annul the will of others before your will.”
5 “Hillel said, do not separate from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place, do not make a statement which cannot be understood which will (only) later be understood, and do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you do not have free time.”
6 “He (Hillel) used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are involved excessively in business will not become a scholar. In a place where there are no men, endeavor to be a man.”
7 “He (Hillel) also saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: ‘Because you drowned you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.'”
8 “He (Hillel) used to say, the more flesh the more worms, the more property the more worry, the more wives the more witchcraft, the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more slaves the more thievery. The more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom, the more advice the more understanding, the more charity the more peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah acquires a share in the World to Come.”
9 “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai received [the transmission] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, if you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself because you were created for this.”
10 “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai had five [primary] students. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.”
11 “He (Rabban Yochanan ben (son of) Zakkai) used to list their praises (the praises of his five primary students). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos is a cemented pit which never loses a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya fortunate is she who bore him; Rabbi Yossi the Priest is pious; Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel fears sin; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an increasing river.”
12 “He used to say, if all the sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hurkenos on the second side, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name, if all the Sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale with even Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos among them, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on the second side, he would outweigh them all.”
13 “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a good way to which someone should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said a good eye; Rabbi Yehoshua said a good friend; Rabbi Yossi said a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said one who considers consequences. Rabbi Elazar said a good heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”
14 “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a bad way which a person should avoid. Rabbi Eliezer said a bad eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said a bad friend. Rabbi Yossi said a bad neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said one who borrows and does not pay back. One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from G-d, as it says, “A wicked person borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous One is gracious and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Rabbi Elazar said a bad heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”
15 “They (the five students of Rabban Yochanan – see above Mishna 10) each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer said: The honor of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own. Do not get angry easily. Repent one day before you die. Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages. But be wary with their coals that you do not get burnt, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”
16 “Rabbi Yehoshua said, an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of another person remove a person from this world.”
17 “Rabbi Yossi said, let your fellow’s property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.”
18 “Rabbi Shimon said, be careful in reading the Shema and the prayers. When you pray, do not regard your prayers as a fixed obligation, rather they should be [the asking for] mercy and supplication before G-d, as the verse says, “For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, great in kindness, and relenting of the evil decree” (Joel 2:13). Do not consider yourself a wicked person.”
19 “Rabbi Elazar said, be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. Know before Whom you toil. And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor.”
20 “Rabbi Tarfon said, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”
21 “He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say, it is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be given much reward, and faithful is your Employer that He will reward you for your labor. And know that the reward of the righteous will be given in the World to Come.”
First published April 27, 2006
Also, does anyone know where online I can access the hebrew text of rabbeinu yonah’s commentary on pirkei avot?
I believe that this blog post is relevant for 2012, especially during this time of year… A happy Omer-counting to all!
If you’re looking for a good translation of Pirkei Avot, last year my brother published an excellet translation of the Classic commentary of Rabbeinu Yona.
Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand Pirkei Avot in deapth.
The classic answer is that our teachers are considered out fathers because “One who learns Torah with his friend’s son is as if he had given birth to him”. That’s why the students of the prophets are called Bnei haNeviim.
Good point, Bob. I wrote too confidently about a general rule that’s not as general as I suggested. But I don’t think it carries the day.
For Jews who speak English, I recommend the Yalkut Meam Loez Pirkei Avot.
When we use the term “minhag avoseinu” that usually means the custom of our ancestors in a more general way.
Also “avos” by us means Avrahoam, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Not the chachomim.
I don’t think the translation is meaningful in the other sense: Chapters of Fathers? It doesn’t say Avoteinu but even if it were Chapters of our Fathers (meaning forefathers?) it still doesn’t really explain its content. Whereas Chapters of Principles makes perfect sense and explains the content.
R Berel Wein, in his JP weekly column this week, has a wonderful column on the significance of Avos.
I once read that tractate Avot was praised as “a subtle philosophy” by Thomas More, the leading Renaissance humanist scholar who lived from 1478 to 1535, and was recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
If anyone has an exact written source for that quote by Thomas More, it would be appreciated.
Exact written source means: title of book, name of author, chapter number, page number, year of publication, name of publsher, or something similar.
1. Maybe the Indians really were from our lost tribes.
2. “Avot” may be used here in both senses.
While the English translation is nice, it would be even better if the translation of the title were accurate. It is not, as the site suggests, “Chapters of (Our) Fathers” but rather much more sensibly, “Chapters on Principles”; the word avot is used as in an “av melacha” on Shabbos, meaning a principle melacha, one of the main categories of work.
My childhood doctor was a secular Jew.
A sign in his office said:
“DO NOT JUDGE ANY MAN UNTIL YOU HAVE WALKED A MILE IN HIS MOCCASINS. (Ancient Indian Saying)”
This “Ancient Indian Saying” was a ripoff of Tractate Avot, chapter 2, paragraph 4, which teaches to not judge anyone until we have experience the same things he has.
Shammai said, “…say little and do much…”
Does this mean we should blog less?
In college I saw this on some pamphlet I was mailed — was it from Hillel (the foundation, not the Tanna) — and snipped it out and put it on my door. I didn’t know what it really meant or what Pirkei Avos was, but it just seemed to true to me.
I didn’t even know what “the task” was.
We do know what the task is now, don’t we?
David’s citation to b’makom sh’ein anashim, however, is also, for me, the ultimate aspirational motto.
aaaah ever the rugged individualist :)
“BTW the question is essentially unfair – it’s like choosing your favorite child:)”
Whenever someone says something like “This is a great parsha”, a Rav I know responds: They’re all great, this one just speaks to you more.
This one speaks to me:
U’Vimkom sh’ein anashim, hishtadel l’hiyos ish — In a place where there are no “men”, strive to be a “man”.
Ben He He omare l’fum tsaara agra – according to the effort comes the reward (sort of an earlier version of “no pain, no gain”
not to be confused with the Talmudic dictum “l’fum gamla shichna” – according to the camel, the load – also a priceless gem
BTW the question is essentially unfair – it’s like choosing your favorite child:)
I LOVE the pirke avot! When I first seriously started paying attention to Judaism, I really gravitated toward it for some reason- I don’t know why, but I’ve been reading it during the omer period for years now. I also go back and look at the section on teachers and students whenever I get discouraged in my profession. Its one of our greatest treasures and I wish more conservative/reform Jews would learn more about it.
Here’s the link for Rabbi Goldson’s article on Mishna 2.2:
And here’s the link for Rabbi Goldson’s article on Mishna 2.8:
My apologies for self-promotion, but I have a running column on Pirkei Avos that can be found on aish.com. Chapter 3 Mishna 3 should be up on Sunday.
Ruby, It’s a good question but the first saying of the Men of the Great Assembly, Mishna 1.1 “They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.” is not so popular and it has the pole position.
Although you could probably bring additional support for you location hypothesis from the popularity of the first Rashi in each parsha.
I think one of the reasons “Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chasadim” is so popular is because it is such a foundational statement. For me it’s my number one in terms of importance.
Rich, wise, mighty, honored definitely makes it into my top 5, possible my top 3.
Location, location, location… Mark, do you think that saying would be as popular if it weren’t the first saying in Pirkei Avos?
I vote for the Who is’s: rich, wise, mighty, wise.
Thanks Bob, but I don’t want to leave a comment with just a thanks, so here is probably the most popular saying from Pirkei Avos:
1.2 “Shimon the Righteous was of the last survivors of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, the world is based upon three things: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.”