Saturday, April 22, 2006

Pirkei Avot

Interesting thing I noticed today about the structure of Pirkei Avot. It actually formulated in response to the age-old question of why Pirkei Avot starts with the whole Mesorah thing. While the other people in our unofficial Pirkei Avot group were running through the usual gamut of answers, I started flipping through the text and realized how different this Mishna is from all the others that I have studied.

Pirkei Avot is not grouped by topic, like other mishnayot are, and not even by one of the Talmud's regular little Talmudic streams of association. Instead, it's formulated by person, with different Sages set out in the context of their intellectual traditions and contemporaries. This structure, uniquely suited to Pirkei Avot, also sheds a whole new light on the whole thing. Pirkei Avot isn't a list of do this, don't do this, or even do A, but somebody else says do B. Instead, it's watching each person lay out his life philosophy. The format makes it personal. It allows for a range of opinions even beyond the regular halachic give and take; each Tanna gives his own three line life philosophy, and you can watch the way that it builds on those of his teacher, interacts with those of his contemporaries, echoes those of the Sages before him. It reflects the fact that it is not simply a law book, but an ongoing and personal morality.

I know, of course, that this is diametrically opposed to the explanation of the first mishna that the others were saying around me- that the chain of mesora is there to let us know that the forthcoming code is not simply the Sages' personal advice, but actually cast-iron, writ in stone, word of G-d sort of thing. And both of these are correct. That's what makes Pirkei Avot such a popular topic for shiurim- it is so jam-packed full of absolutely everything that you can get almost anything out of it. And that's rather my point. That Pirkei Avot is the spectrum of opinions of generations of the greatest Sages, and that each one was able to put in or take out something different from the same Torah that imbued them all. Pirkei Avot is both personal and Divine, open to a million different explanations, precisely because it is what it is- dozen of individual giving over the insights of a life of Torah, personalized and with the variations of each one's mind and personality.

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