Ethics of the Fathers

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A treatise, compiled not later than the end of the second century ce, containing Rabbinic maxims of various kinds. In reality this treatise is not a separate work at all but a tractate of the Mishnah. Its original name is Avot, ‘Fathers’, so-called because its sayings are those of successive generations of Jewish teachers, the ‘fathers’ of Rabbinic Judaism. In current editions of the Mishnah, Avot belongs in the order of the Mishnah known as Nezikin, but the association with this order, which deals with jurisprudence, is far from clear. It has been suggested that originally Avot was an appendix at the end of the whole Mishnah corpus, since it is in the nature of a summary of the teachings of the Mishnaic ‘fathers’. The treatise was often published as a work on its own and was given the full name, Pirkey Avot, ‘Chapters of the Fathers’. The name Ethics of the Fathers is not of Jewish origin but was given by Christian writers who found the book attractive and read it as a series of ethical maxims. The truth is, however, that while the book does contain such maxims, it is not an ethical treatise in the strict sense, its main thrust being to provide a series of statements of the basic ideas of each particular teacher mentioned.

Ethics of the Fathers has been extremely popular throughout the history of Jewish learning and piety, receiving a number of commentaries from prominent Jewish teachers, each of whom used the book as a vehicle for his own ideas and so, in a sense, continued the theme of the book itself. Ethics of the Fathers is in Hebrew, like the rest of the Mishnah, with one or two Aramaic sayings but it has been translated into many other languages.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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