May 30, 2024
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Avot as Ancestors

Masechet Avot seems to get its name from the opening listing of our ancestors who transmitted the Torah Sheba’al Peh from generation to generation. “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and passed it to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Zekeinim; the Zekeinim to the Nevi’im; and the Nevi’im to the Anshei Knesset Hagedola.”1

The obvious question is why this mesorah of chachamim appears here—at the end of the third Seder of Mishnayot—and not at the beginning of Masechet Brachot? Why not list the mesorah at the beginning of the Shas?

The Meiri2 answers that the mesorah is listed here to emphasize the significance of the topics discussed in this masechet. Since Masechet Avot focuses on issues that are neither halachic nor derived from pesukim, people might see these issues as not really mitzvot or aveirot and therefore not be careful about their observance. To stress their importance, the mishnah links them to the greats of our mesorah—the leaders of past generations.

 

Avot as Principles

The Meiri then presents a second explanation for the name “Avot.” As when used to describe the melachot of Shabbat and types of nezikin (damages), “Avot” here means “root principles”—the principles from which other concepts originate.3

Both of Masechet Avot’s central components facilitate living a meaningful life.

First off, the middot taught by Masechet Avot are the precondition for Torah itself, “Derech eretz kadma l’Torah”4. In addition, Masechet Avot addresses matters of faith and hashkafa (outlook). It teaches us how we are meant to see the world and our place and role within it.

Both of these ideas highlight the importance of Masechet Avot. In order to live proper Jewish lives, we need to know and internalize Judaism’s outlook on the world and human life as well as behave properly. The Gemara5 teaches that we become a chasid by studying Masechet Avot. We live life most ideally when our hashkafa expresses itself in our behavior and our behavior is rooted in our hashkafa.6

 

Parent Principles

The Meiri presents these two explanations of Avot as a continuation of one another. Indeed, our Avot principles come from our Avot ancestors. This is not only because it makes sense to learn from earlier generations, but also because Judaism is a religion of continuity.

Judaism is not just about individuals understanding and worshiping God. It is about belonging to a people who descend from and still identify with our Avot and Imahot. Though all ancient peoples have living descendants, Jews are the only ones who name children after ancestors. This is because we emulate them and their relationship with Hashem.

Despite the depths to which we descended in Mitzrayim, we were redeemed because we continued using the names of our ancestors. Upon heralding redemption, Hashem identified Himself as the God of our ancestors and at the Yam Suf climax of the redemption we related to Hashem as “Elokei avi va’aromimenhu.” Understandably, we begin Shemoneh Esrei by describing Hashem as not only our God, but also as that of our ancestors, because we know that our relationship with Him is a continuation of theirs.

By leaving the areas of middot and hashkafa (mostly) unstated clearly by the Torah, Hashem ensured that we would learn these Avot of our faith from the Avot of previous generations. Like the halachot of Torah Sheba’al Peh, we learn our principles of faith, hashkafa and middot from our biological parents as well as our spiritual Avot.

I look forward to learning the principles of Masechet Avot with you in the coming months. May our learning to live by Avot hashkafot and up to Avot standards reinforce our place as links in our people’s avot-banim mesorah.

*Written up by Yedidyah Rosenswasser

1 Avot 1:1.

2 Beit Habechirah, Masechet Avot Peticha

3 The Tiferet Yisrael adds that Avot’s ideas are the root for the philosophy and middot discussion that we find in all other Jewish and non-Jewish texts.

4 Pesachim 118a; Vayikra Rabbah, Tzav.

5 Bava Kama 30a

6 This is why the Rambam includes his discussion of middot in Hilchot Dei’ot.


Rav Reuven Taragin is the dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the educational director of The World Mizrachi Movement.

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