7th day Pesach – 26 April 2019
Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 7 May 2019
One of my earliest introductions to Jewish ethical teaching came in my childhood synagogue, Hendon United. Or, more precisely, the introduction was outside the synagogue, via a noticeboard where, behind glass, were sheets headed ‘Hebrew Ethical Teachings.’ They had Jewish sayings, most often (if I remember correctly) from Pirke Avot, translated as ‘Ethics of the Fathers.’ The sheets would be changed every few weeks, with a new aphorism. I still remember one of them: “repent one day before your death.” I soon discovered that Pirke Avot was in Singer’s Prayer Book, under the title ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ and spent many a happy hour reading it during the service. Sadly I don’t recollect reference being made to them from the pulpit, nor indeed of hearing much about Jewish values or Jewish ethical behaviour.
It must have been five or ten years later that I came across Pirke Avot again – but this time in the Reform synagogue.
One of the things that attracted me to Progressive Judaism was that it spoke of ‘Prophetic Judaism,’ of the ethical and moral teachings of the Biblical Prophets. It encompassed ethical and moral behaviour, care for the world we live in, the physical environment, and the poor and the oppressed, it spoke for justice, and so on. I had recently come across Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” – this must have been in the early 60s – and become aware of the concerns that have become so much more acute, more than half a century later, and are motivating the climate change protests on the streets of London as I speak.
A friend at school asked if I would be interested in going to a youth club at West London Synagogue? I went, liked it and stayed – he moved to other pastures. Some of the people I met then are now members of this synagogue (and some of them are still speaking to me!) I got drawn into the Junior Membership and became chair the year that Hugo Gryn became rabbi at West London. He become a teacher, mentor and guide for me. I started going to a Shabbat afternoon-pre-Havdalah discussion group he led for older teenagers. For some time we used this book for our discussions. This translation is by a Christian scholar called Travers Herford and was published in 1925. He called it simply Pirke Aboth, though this 1960s re-issue of his translation calls it “The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers.”
It started life simply as Avot, one of the tractates of the Mishnah, the first redaction of Jewish law, done in Palestine, dating from somewhere around the 2nd Century of the Common Era. The rabbis of the time called it Avot, which we know as the plural of Av, ‘father.’
While Avot carried the sense of ‘ancestors.’ as in the Biblical phrase speaking of somebody dying and being buried with their “fathers” – eg Jacob in Genesis 49:29. In Rabbinic Hebrew, though, Avot often meant something like ‘categories.’ So, for example, the rabbis identified 39 categories of work associated with Shabbat, and called them ‘avot melachah.’
Maimonides knew it still as Avot and it only came to be called Pirke Avot later in the Middle Ages. The Singer’s Prayer Book section has a rubric saying: “One of the following chapters is read on each Sabbath from the Sabbath after Pesach to the Sabbath before Rosh HaShanah.” So what Hugo Gryn did all those years ago was well in the tradition of this book.
In his introduction, Travers Herford says it’s a mistranslation to call it ‘Sayings of the Fathers’ or ‘‘Ethics of the Fathers’’ Sometimes it’s better to keep the original rather than settling for a poor translation that doesn’t quite express the sense.
Herford didn’t deny that there were ethical sayings in Pirke Avot but thought that its main purpose was to show how the Mishnah was the work of many teachers – some obscure, some well-known – over two centuries, but all of whom were working as an act of service for God. You can find a selection from Pirke Avot in our siddur where it explains: “it contains ethical teachings and aphorisms of the rabbis. These were the spiritual ‘fathers’ of the Jewish people, which is one explanation of the title of the tractate,” adding that it is a custom to read it on Shabbat Afternoons, in particular the six Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot.”
Given what Travers Herford felt about calling it ‘Sayings of the Fathers’ he might well have squirmed in his grave when that 1962 re-issue called it “Pirke Aboth” with the subtitle “The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers.”
So what attracted that callow boy, outside Hendon United Synagogue in the mid-1950s, no doubt in his short trousers, to Pirke Avot? And what continues to attract him?
Then as now, I think it was the mixture of ethical, moral and also theological teaching found in it. There’s a profundity of original thought that I still find appealing, attractive and challenging.
It’s said that the poet Montaigne had the beams of his house inscribed with pithy sayings. If I had a house with beams I too would inscribe aphorisms on them and many would be my favourites from Pirke Avot.
So, for example, we read that Ben Zoma asks four questions, giving each one an answer that might not automatically occur to us. “Eizeh hu chacham,” he asks, “who is wise?” (Avot 4:1) We might expect an answer which perpetuates the old confusion between cleverness and wisdom. He answers his question with, “those who learn from all people.” “Who is strong?” he asks – “those who control their passions.”. Nothing to do with physical strength but with inner resolve and conviction. “Who is rich?” he asks. Nothing to do with material wealth but “those who are happy with what they have.” I find this one difficult. I wouldn’t dream of saying “be happy with what you have” to the homeless, the beggar or the refugee. I know what Ben Zoma means – you’ll invariably be unhappy if you feel what you have is never enough. But there’s a ‘but,’ or a ‘however.’ His last question “who is honoured?” “Those who honour others.”
Pirke Avot offers political advice. “Be careful of those in power! For they draw no one near them except in their own interest. They seem like friends when it is to their own advantage, but they do not stand by people in their hour of need.” (Avot 2:3) “Rabbi Chanina says, ‘Pray for the welfare of the government, because but for the fear it inspires, people would swallow each other up alive.” (Avot 3:2)
One of the thorniest issues in any religious belief system is that of free will. To put it bluntly, if we say that God is all-knowing, then we are little more than puppets with God pulling the strings. But if we have free will what does that say about God’s power, however we might understand it? Rabbi Akiva grasps the nettle. Just 4 words in the Hebrew – “hakol tsafui, v’ha’reshut netunah.” Avot (3:19) “Everything is foreseen, yet free choice is granted” is how it’s translated in our siddur. Travers Herford translates it as “Everything is foreseen and free will is given.” In his commentary he says “It’s a declaration concerning divine foreknowledge and human free will.” He doesn’t try to resolve the contradiction between them. So people were already grappling with that contradiction some 2000 years ago.
Or there’s personal advice: “Hillel says: do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge others until you have been in their position.” (Avot 2:5)
Another of my favourites: “Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘repent one day before your death.’” To which the obvious retort is: how do I know today that I will die tomorrow? You don’t – therefore live each day as if it were your penultimate one on earth.
I spent many a happy Shabbat morning in my childhood reading Pirke Avot during the sermon. And I must say that it needs a pretty good sermon to beat the wisdom of Pirke Avot!