May 3, 2012
The Kosher Bookworm Our Sages in Pirkei Avot: Their Biographies
Perhaps the most popular tractate of the Talmud among our people is the Mishnah Avot.
What is unique to this particular book of the Talmud is that, unlike the other tractates, this one is a book of ethics not law.
Also, this tractate, unlike the others, can be found in its entirety in most prayer books after the Shabbat afternoon minchah service.
According to our tradition, Avot is read and learned on the Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot, and for many till Rosh Hashanah, thus further enhancing its profile and popularity among our people.
One aspect of the study of Avot has been the almost total absence of the literary treatment of the biographies of the sages who inhabit the pages of this valued work…that is until now.
In 2007, Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau authored, in Hebrew, a three-volume set of books entitled, “The Sages” and, in 2010, the first volume dealing with the sages of the second Temple period was published in English translation by Michael Prawer. This volume gives Avot a new dimension since it fully presents the biographies of all the major sages quoted in Avot, describing in detail their backgrounds and diverse points of view as reflected in their teachings and studies.
Rabbi Lau is a well-known community leader in Jerusalem, long active as a social activist.
He founded Beit Morasha’s Moshe Green Beit Midrash for Women and directs the Beit Midrash for Social Justice.
Further, Rabbi Lau serves as the rabbi at Jerusalem’s famed Ramban Shul and is a lecturer on Halacha at Bar Ilan University.
He learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion and received a Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University.
“The Sages: Volume One” [Maggid Books / Koren, 2010] is organized into five parts, each focusing upon a different historical period, starting from the establishment of the Men of the Great Assembly, the eras of the zugot (pairs), the role that disputes play in the establishment of law, the legacies of Hillel, Shammai and their students, all culminating in the era of the destruction of the Temple.
Each chapter is capped at the beginning with a thematically relevant quote from Pirkei Avot, thus giving the personalities described therein a direct tie to the Talmudic text.