Perkei Avos - Key to the Oral Torah
Perkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers, is relatively unknown to non-Jews, though it has great significance to Jews. It is one of the tractates of the Mishnah. It is the only tractate that is not halachic in nature. It is rather a treatise on moral conduct, ethical behavior and everyday wisdom. It is read in the synagogue starting on Shavuot (the feast of Pentecost) and continues through Rosh Hashana (the feast of Trumpets).
The first chapter is particularly important in the discussion of the validity of the Oral Torah. The Mishnah, and therefore the Talmud, are said to be the official written version of the Oral Torah, which was passed verbally, by memorization, from one generation of rabbi's to the next. The Mishnah was finally reduced to writing in the first 200 years of this era because of the loss of Jerusalem and the temple by the Jews. They felt that knowledge of the Oral Torah could be otherwise lost.
Not all segments of Judaism accept the validity of the Oral Torah. The Pharisees, who engendered the Rabbinical Judaism of our time, were the chief advocates of this teaching. Much of the character of modern Judaism is based on this notion of the Oral Torah.
The implications are far reaching. A great deal of the requirements placed on individual Jews are derived from the Talmudical interpretation of Torah, although they are not specifically spelled out in Torah. It also has great implications for the non-Jewish Noahide. Much Rabbinical teaching that is directed toward Noahides contains such Talmudical based teaching.
What is particularly important about Perkei Avos, is the very first chapter, which makes nearly explicit the claim for the Mishnah as Torah. Stated another way, this chapter makes the claim that the Mishnah should be regarded as canonical. This is done by showing a supposed chain of tradition, or a chain of transmission for the Oral Torah. The names mentioned are the very ones quoted throughout the Mishnah. Accordingly, by setting the law-code's authorities in a direct chain to Sinai, the author of Avos claims that what these authorities teach falls into the category of the Torah of Sinai. Therefore, a path is shown for the transmission of the Oral Torah in a straight line from Moses down the sages who wrote down the Mishnah, thus establishing its claim to canonicity.
This one chapter is key to the issue of the validity of the Oral Torah. It is not our purpose in this brief article to comment on this issue. We merely present this chapter of Perkei Avos for your enlightenment.
Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly.
They [the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment. Develop many disciples. Make a fence for the Torah.
Simeon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the great assembly. He would say: On three things does the world stand: On the Torah, and on the Temple service, and on deeds of lovingkindness.
Antigonus of Socho received the Torah from Simeon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be like servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward, but like servants who serve the master not condition of receiving a reward. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you.
Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yose ben Yoezer says: Let your house be a gathering place for sages. And wallow in the dust of their feet, And drink in their words with gusto.
Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem says: Let your house be open wide. And seat the poor at your table And don't talk too much with women. He referred to a man's wife, and the more so is the rule to be applied to the wife of one's fellow.
In this regard did sages say: So long as a man talks too much with a woman, He brings trouble on himself, Wastes time better spent on studying Torah, And ends up an heir to Gehenna.
Joshua ben Parahyah and Nittai the Arbelite received the from them. Joshua ben Perahyah says: Set up a master for yourself. And get yourself a companion-disciple. And give everybody the benefit of the doubt.
Nittai the Arbolite says: Keep away from a bad neighbor. And don't get involved with a bad person. And don't give up hope of retribution.
Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetah received from them. Judah ben Tabbai says: Don't make yourself like one of those who advocate before judges while you yourself are judging a case. And when the litigants stand before you, regard them as guilty. But when they leave you, regard them as acquitted when they have accepted your judgment.
Simeon ben Sherah says: Examine the witnesses with great care, And watch what you say, lest they learn from what you say how to lie.
Shemaiah and Avtalyon received from them. Shemaiah, says: Love work. Hate authority. Don't get friendly with the government.
Avtalyon says: Sages, watch what you say, lest you become liable to the punishment of exile, and go into exile to a place of bad water and die, and disciples who follow you drink bad water and die, and the name of Heaven be thereby profaned.
Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel says: Be disciples of Aaron, loving People and drawing them near to the Torah.
He would say in Aramaic:
A name made great is a name destroyed, And one who does not add, subtracts. And who does not learn is liable to death. And the one who uses the crown, passes away.
He would say:
If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when?
Make your learning of Torah a fixed Obligation. Say little and do much. Greet ever body cheerfully.
Rabban Gamaliel says:
Set up a master for yourself. Avoid doubt. Don't tithe by too much guesswork.
Simeon his son says:
All my life I grew up among the sages, and I found nothing better for a person than silence. And not the learning is the thing, but the doing. And whoever talks too much causes sin.
Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: On three things does the stand:
On justice, On truth, And on peace. As it is said, Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.
(C)Copyright 1999 by Wayne Simpson Distributed by: Biblical Research Foundation 629 Lexington Road Sapulpa, Ok 74066
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