The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

USU­ALLY trans­lated as “Chap­ters of the Fa­thers”, PirkeiAvot is a Mish­naic trac­tate that com­prises apho­risms on the topic of ethics. Among the cel­e­brated say­ings of PirkeiAvot is: “Hil­lel would say, ‘If I am not for my­self, who will be for me? And when I am for my­self, what am I? And if not now, when?’” (1:14).

Avot lit­er­ally means “fa­thers”, but in Mish­naic He­brew, it also refers to fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples, as in the four avot nezikin — the four prin­ci­ple cat­e­gories of civil dam­ages. In this light, PirkeiAvot can also be trans­lated as “Chap­ters on Fun­da­men­tal (Eth­i­cal) Prin­ci­ples”.

One might be sur­prised to find PirkeiAvot at the end of the Or­der of Civil Dam­ages (Seder Nezikin). Why con­clude a Mish­naic or­der that deals with the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of theft, as­sault, and oxen gone wild with six chap­ters on moral­ity? What does the ev­ery­day re­al­ity of crime have to do with the quest for moral im­prove­ment? Ev­ery­thing.

The Ma­haral of Prague ex­plains that Nezikin in­volves the per­fec­tion of one’s re­la­tions with the other — the state of never harm­ing an­other — while PirkeiAvot in­volves the per­fec­tion of one’s self, one’s moral char­ac­ter.

It is cus­tom­ary to study PirkeiAvot on Shab­bat af­ter­noon at this time of year. In what seems a very English ex­pla­na­tion, the Ma­haral states that the mild weather of th­ese spring months were ideal for study.

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