ABOT ("The Fathers") or PIRḲE ABOT ("Chapters of the Fathers"):
By: Moses Mielziner
The name of a small but highly valuable treatise of the Mishnah containing the oldest collection of ethical maxims and aphorisms of rabbinical sages. It is the last of the nine treatises belonging to Neziḳin, the fourth section of the Mishnah collection. The word "Abot" in the title of this treatise is used in the sense of chief authorities whose favorite sayings are quoted in this work. On account of the preeminently ethical character of its contents, the treatise is commonly designated as "The Ethics of the Fathers." It is divided into five chapters, which are subdivided into paragraphs. The first chapter opens by stating the continuity of tradition from Moses to the Men of the Great Synod, and from these down to the principal teachers of the Mishnah. The object of this historical statement was evidently to give the ethical teachings collected in this treatise more weight and authority by linking them through the chain of tradition to the Law of Moses proclaimed on Sinai. At first the treatise comprised only the chain of tradition down to the school of Johanan ben Zakkai, but it was gradually enlarged and interpolated (see Hoffman, "Die Erste Mishnah," p. 26, and "Seder Neziḳin," p. 20, Berlin, 1898).Amplification of Biblical Passages.
The first four chapters of Pirḳe Abot contain sentences of sixty distinguished teachers who flourished during a period covering about four hundred and fifty years that extends from the time of Simon the Just to the close of the compilation of the Mishnah. Every teacher is credited with one, and some of them with several sayings. The sentence thus ascribed to a certain teacher is generally one which was habitually in his mouth as his favorite maxim, or one which is a condensed summary of his experience and wisdom. Like the Biblical proverbs, these rabbinical sentences are generally brief and concise in style, each conveying some important truth or precept. Some of them are like precious stones of many facets; for instance, Hillel's sentence: "If I do not care for myself, who will care for me? and if I care only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when?" (i, 14); which sentence reminds us of the duties of self-preservation and self-cultivation, and at the same time warns against selfishness and against procrastination. Some of the sentences are either a condensation or an amplification of Scriptural teachings. Thus, the Biblical laws of justice and love toward fellow men are summarized in the sentences: "Thy neighbor's property should be precious to thee as is thine own" (ii. 12); "Let thy neighbor's honor be as dear to thee as thine own" (ii. 10); "Meet every man with kindness and friendliness" (i. 15, iii. 12). In some instances the rabbis gave a new setting to a Biblical maxim. Thus, the Biblical teaching "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Eccl. vii. 1) is beautifully set in the rabbinical sentence: "There are three crowns, the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excelleth them all" (iv. 13). In some of the sentences we find single pearls of Biblical wisdom gracefully applied to practical life, as in the following sentence of Ben Zoma (iv. 1):
"Who is wise? He who learns from everybody, as is said (Ps. cxix. 99, Heb.): 'From all who could teach me have I obtained instruction.' Who is a hero? He who suppresses his passion, as it is said (Prov. xv. 32, Heb.): 'He that ruleth his spirit is better than he that taketh a city.' Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot, as it is said (Ps. cxxviii. 2, Heb.): 'When thou eatest the labor of thine hands, thou shalt be happy, and it is well with thee.' Who is honorable? He who honors his fellow men, as it is said (I Sam. ii. 30, Heb.): 'Those that honor me I will honor'" [implying that in honoring the creature you honor the Creator].
The fifth chapter differs in form and in contents from the preceding four chapters, and was evidently an additional collection made by another compiler. With the exception of the last four paragraphs, the sentences of this chapter are not quoted in the name of their authors, but are given anonymously. They contain historical, legendary, and ethical aphorisms, arranged, in the main, according to certain numerals, especially the numbers ten, seven, four, and three, as:
"By ten divine words the world was created," etc. (v. 1). "Seven are the characteristics of the wise and seven of the uncultured," etc. (v. 7). "There are four kinds of dispositions among men," etc. (v. 10). "He who possesseth the following three virtues is of the disciples of Abraham," etc. (v. 19).
Although ethics is not treated in Pirḳe Abot in a coherent system, but given in single pithy sentences coming from the mouths of various teachers who belong to different periods, still these rabbinical sentences, if properly arranged, present an almost complete code of human duties. They are, besides, replete with wise observations, practical rules of life, and also with some purely religious aphorisms concerning prayer, repentance, and the future life.
The treatise Abot holds the same place in the rabbinical literature as does the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. A celebrated Babylonian teacher of the fifth century properly remarked: "He who wantsto become truly pious and virtuous, let him study and practise the teachings of Abot" (B. Ḳ. 30a). The high estimation in which this little treatise is held in Judaism is evident from the fact that it was embodied in the old prayer-book as a part of the liturgy for the Saturday afternoon service during the summer months. In that prayer-book, the five chapters of Abot are increased by a sixth chapter containing rabbinical sentences collected in a Baraita (extraneous Mishnah), called "Ḳinyan Torah" (Acquisition of the Law). Through this liturgical use the treatise Abot became the most popular of all rabbinical writings, and in this way its ethical contents exercised the most beneficial influence on the Jewish masses.
There is no Gemara on Abot, as the nature of the contents of this treatise admitted of no discussions; but see Abot de-Rabbi Nathan.
- The treatise Abot is printed in all editions of the Talmud and in those of the Mishnah, as well as in numerous separate editions. An edition of the Hebrew text, accompanied with useful literary notes in German, was published by Prof. Hermann L. Strack, Leipsic, 1882.
(2) Commentaries:Besides the general commentaries on all parts of the Mishnah there are numerous Hebrew commentaries exclusively on Pirḳe Abot. A collective commentary under the title of Midrash Shemuel was published by Samuel da Uceda (Venice, 1579), and has since passed through seven editions. Valuable comments on the first three chapters of Abot are published in Abraham Geiger's Nachgelassene Schriften, iv. 281-344. The value of Abot from a historical point of view was investigated by Z. Frankel, in his article Ueber den Lapidarstyl der Talmudischen Historik, in Monatsschrift, 1852, pp. 203 et seq., 403 et seq. (3) Translations:Latin translations of Abot were published, one by Sebastian Münster, the celebrated disciple of Reuchlin, Basel, sine anno, and one by Paulus Fagius, Isny, 1541. It has since been translated into almost all modern languages. As to English translations, special mention may be made, on account of its valuable notes, of Charles Taylor's Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, 2d ed., Cambridge, 1899. For a full list of translations see Bischoff, Kritische Geschichte der Talmud-Uebersetzungen, § 56. (4) Homiletical Works on Abot in modern languages:Lazarus Adler, Sprüche der Väter, Fürth, 1851;
- W. Aloys Meisel, Homilien über die Sprüche der Väter, Stettin, 1855;
- Alexander Kohut, The Ethics of the Fathers, translated from the German by Max Cohen, New York, 1885.