Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

The best summer reading

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- DURING the time period between the end of Passover until Rosh HaShana, the custom of the Jewish people is to recite one of the chapters of Tractate Avos each and every Sabbath after the Mincha -- Afternoon -- prayer service. This book of the Mishna has been loosely translated as the "Ethics of the Fathers." It contains, in its original form in the Mishna, five chapters.

However, since there are six Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuos (Jewish Pentecost) and the original custom was to read these portions of the Mishna only during that period of time, a sixth chapter was created in addition to the five of the Mishna. This sixth chapter, which was always read before Shavuos, the holiday of the granting of the Torah, was therefore appropriately titled Perek Kinyan Torah --- the Chapter of the Acquisition of Torah. This chapter contains assorted statements of the rabbis regarding the imporatnce of Torah study.

The custom of reciting Pirkei Avos --- the chapters of Tractate Avos plus the sixth chapter of Perek Kinyan Torah --- was so beloved among Jews that they no longer restricted the recital of these chapters to the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. The chapters of Pirkei Avos came to be recited during the entire summer and the cycle (with doubling up the chapters at the end of the summer if necessary) of reading these chapters was completed five times. It also became customary to conduct classes in depth during the summer regarding Pirkei Avos and not merely content one's self or the congregation with the dry recitation of the words.

There is no Talmudic commentary to the contents of Tractate Avos. However, over the centuries many hundreds of great scholars wrote commentaries to the work. And in our times, Pirkei Avos and many of the commentaries to it have been translated and published in English as well as French, Spanish and Russian. The lessons of Pirkei Avos are timeless and pertinent. They deal with the basic Jewish value system of life --- of the relationship between a Jew and his Creator and between a Jew and other Jews and between Jews and all mankind. There are no metaphysical explanations of G-d in the work, nor is there much theology to be found in its pages.

Rather it deals directly with the problems of humans --- with arrogance and anger, insensitivity and wrong behavior. It was not for naught that the rabbis of the Talmud stated: "One who wishes to be pious, righteous and good should dwell upon the words and teachings of Avos." Within Avos is found the key to acceptable, if not even superior, human behavior.

The basic lesson of Avos however does have faith and theological overtones to it. The work begins with the words: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai..." That statement reiterates the Jewish position regarding human morality and behavior. Moral goodness requires a faith foundation if it is to be lasting and continuous. Man-made moralities, no matter how sincere and logical they may be, do not stand up to the test of time. Moral relativism is a human weakeness, almost inbred within the human psyche. It is one of the major ills that afflicts our current society. An absolute, unwavering, uncompromising system of morals is a much stronger brake to human desires, faults and weaknesses.

Therefore, Avos introduces itself as a system of morals that has been Divinely granted --- it is the book of instructions that comes with human life and teaches us how to operate the machine correctly and nobly. There is much wisdom in the book of Avos. It is practical and realistic, preaching moderation and not abstinence or excess, good common sense and not extremism, happiness and satisfaction and not frustration and anger. Therefore, it is probably the best summer reading that we can hope to accomplish in this season of warmth and sunshine.

Rabbi Wein has two series of audio tapes on Avos available for purchase:
Vol. 1 Chapters 1 - 3
Vol. 2 Chapters 4 - 6

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com. You may contact Rabbi Wein by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2000, Rabbi Berel Wein