Pirkei Avot (Hebrew: ; also spelled as Pirkei Avoth or Pirkei Avos or Pirke Aboth), which translates to English as Chapters of the Fathers, is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinical Jewish tradition. It is part of didactic Jewish ethical literature. Because of its contents, the name is sometimes given as Ethics of the Fathers. Pirkei Avot consists of the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, the second-to-last tractate in the order of Nezikin in the Mishnah, plus one additional chapter. Avot is unique in that it is the only tractate of the Mishnah dealing solely with ethical and moral principles; there is little or no halacha (laws) found in Pirkei Avot.
In the title Pirkei Avot, the word "pirkei" is Hebrew for "chapters of".
The word avot means "fathers", and thus Pirkei Avot is often rendered in English as "Chapters of the Fathers", or (more loosely) "Ethics of the Fathers." This translation engenders an appealing and not entirely mistaken image of "patriarchal teachings".
However, the term 'avot' is not usually used as an honorary designation for 'rabbis' or 'sages'; in rabbinical usage, it refers to the Patriarchs of the Bible. Rather, in the Mishnah, the word avot generally refers to fundamentals, or principal categories. (Thus, the principal categories of creative work forbidden on Shabbat are called avot melacha, and the principal categories of ritual impurity are referred to as avot tum'ah.) Using this meaning, Pirkei Avot would translate to "Chapters of Fundamental Principles". Additionally, the possibility that the title was intentionally worded to support multiple renderings - both "fathers" and "fundamental principles" - cannot be ruled out.
The recognition of ethical maxims as 'Fundamental Principles' may derive from the high regard in which the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud hold such wisdom. "Love your neighbor as yourself," states the Bible (Leviticus 19:18), an injunction that Rabbi Akiva in Genesis Rabbah 24:7 famously calls a "great principle" of the Torah. In Shabbat 31a, Hillel says "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: This is the entire Torah, the rest is the explanation, go now and learn it." (This maxim is not included in Pirkei Avot.) The attribution of Biblical Wisdom books to King Solomon (e.g., Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Book of Wisdom) attests also to the central importance that Jews of this period placed on transmitting the ethical way of life.
The Mishnaic tractate Avot consists of five chapters. It begins with an order of transmission of the Oral Tradition; Moses receives the Torah at Mount Sinai and then transmits it through various generations (including Joshua, the Elders, and the Neviim, but notably not the Kohanim), whence it finally arrives at the Great Assembly, i.e., the Rabbis (Avot 1:1). It contains sayings attributed to sages from Simon the Just (200 BCE) to shortly after Judah haNasi (200 CE), redactor of the Mishnah. These aphorisms concern proper ethical and social conduct, as well as the importance of Torah study.
The first two chapters proceed in a general chronological order, with the second focusing on the students of Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Chapters Three and Four are thematic and contain various attributed sayings in no explicit order. Chapter Five departs from the organization and content of the preceding four in that it consists mostly of anonymous sayings structured around numerical lists, several of which have no direct connection with ethics. The last four paragraphs of this chapter return to the format of moral aphorisms attributed to specific rabbis.
In liturgical use, and in most printed editions of Avot, a sixth chapter, Kinyan Torah ("Acquisition of Torah") is added; this is in fact the eighth (in the Vilna edition) chapter of tractate Kallah, one of the minor tractates. It is added because its content and style are somewhat similar to that of the original tractate Avot (although it focuses on Torah study more than ethics), and to allow for one chapter to be recited on each Shabbat of the Omer period, this chapter being seen well-suited to Shabbat Shavuot, when the giving of the Torah is celebrated. (See below.) The term Pirkei Avot refers to the composite six-chapter work (Avot plus Kinyan Torah).
Modern scholars suggest that Avot 5:21 ("He would say: Age five to Bible [study], age 10 to mishna [study]...") was not authored by Rabbi Yehudah ben Teimah (the author of 5:20, and seemingly the referent of "He would say" in 5:21) but rather by Shmuel ha-Katan, and was not part of the Mishna tractate of Avot, but rather added later to Pirkei Avot. In Machzor Vitry, for example, this passage is printed after the words "Tractate Avot has ended".
"The structure of the tractate differs greatly from the thematic structure of the other tractates and Avot sayings employ a highly stylized language instead of the clear and straightforward mishnaic prose. In addition, the anomalous character of Avot is heightened by the biblical influences on its linguistic expressions, grammatical forms, and vocabulary."
Pirkei Avot is typically printed with a sixth chapter, which however was originally part of the minor tractate Kallah Rabbati and not part of the Mishnaic tractate Avot, and was added for liturgical reasons, so that a chapter could be recited on every Shabbat between Passover and Shavuot.
From at least the time of Saadia Gaon (10th century), it has been customary to study one chapter a week on each Shabbat between Passover and Shavuot; today, the tractate is generally studied on each Shabbat of the summer, from Passover to Rosh Hashanah, the entire cycle repeating a few times with doubling of chapters at the end if there are not a perfect multiple of six weeks. The tractate is therefore included in many prayer books, following Shabbat afternoon prayers.
In the course of such study, it is common to preface each chapter with the Mishnaic saying, "All Israel has a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 10:1), and to conclude each chapter with the saying, "The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to bestow merit upon Israel; therefore he gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance" (Makkoth 3:16).
The tractate includes several of the most frequently-quoted rabbinic sayings on a variety of topics, including:
Mishnaic tractates, composed in Mishnaic Hebrew, are usually accompanied by commentaries in Aramaic known as gemara ("the teaching"). Unlike the majority of Mishnaic tractates, Avot has no corresponding gemara. Some have said this is because the concepts in it can never be dealt with completely, being the "fifth part of the Shulchan Aruch" (being intrinsically "derekh eretz": wise practices).
Although Avot does not have an accompanying gemara, one of the minor tractates of the Talmud, the Avot of Rabbi Natan is an expansion of the Mishnaic tractate containing numerous additional ethical teachings and legends.
The number of medieval and modern commentaries on the Tractate of Avot is large, and probably not known accurately. Among the best-known commentaries are the following:
A comprehensive bibliography of Hebrew commentaries on Pirke Avot has been published, including over 1500 detailed entries. The appendix lists over 500 additional books that contain a short segment on Avot, and over 400 published references on Avot in general or individual mishnayot.
In the early 20th century, parts of Pirkei Avot were translated into Yiddish by Yehoash.
A Chinese translation of Pirkei Avot by Prof. Ping Zhang from Tel Aviv University was published in 1996 by CASS Press, together with footnotes and an introduction of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The first edition, of 1500 copies, sold out immediately. A revised version of Zhang's translation, with some influence from the Chinese Catholic Bible, was published in 2001 under the title "?··" ('Jewish sacred teachings, records, and ethics articles'). It is available online.