Friday, May 1, 2009

Ethics of the Fathers

Ethics - it’s a big word in our day and age. Between political corruption and financial misdeeds, it is easy to wonder what ever happened to even the most basic ethical standards.

Although superficially it seems that the Torah’s primary focus is on civil, religious and ritual law, in actuality, the entire Torah is a blueprint for ethical living. The Mishnaic tractate of Avot (Fathers) is dedicated to the moral and practical teachings of the great sages. Because of its homespun approach and penetrating wisdom, it is probably the best known and most widely studied section of the Oral Law.

Pirkei Avot (literally, Chapter of the Fathers, but better known as Ethics of the Fathers) begins with a simple but important idea: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly...” While, within the Mishna itself, different rabbis are given credit for their specific comments and thoughts about life, this opening statement delineates the flow of transmission to emphasize that these statements are very much part of Torah. One cannot pick and choose to observe only certain morals and ethics. It is all part of Torah, part of the “total package” that Jews must observe.

Since the time of the Gaonim (circa 8th-10th century, Babylon), Jews have studied one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat during the six Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot. In many communities, this custom has been extended so that Pirkei Avot is studied from Passover until Rosh Hashana. Since many synagogues study Pirkei Avot communally each Shabbat after the afternoon service, the six chapters of Avot may be found in most Shabbat prayerbooks after the Mincha service.

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