Kosher Bookworm

On Pirkei Avot: The wisdom of our ancestors


With Shavuot past, we now come to the second cycle in the weekly study of the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). While the core observance of this study is between Pesach and Shavuot, the tradition has developed to continue throughout the summer season.

According to Rabbi Avraham Davis in the introduction to his classic commentary, “Pirkei Avos: The Wisdom of the Fathers” (Matsudah Publications, 1980), “Pirkei Avos should be studied throughout the warm season [until Rosh Hashana] because it is precisely during this time that people tend to relax their standards of discipline and vigilance.

“During this period of mild, pleasant weather, people are prone to adopt a more relaxed, easy-going, informal way of life. Since this kind of ‘lifestyle’ can easily lead them to relax their commitment to the Torah ‘way of life,’ it was felt that the study of Pirkei Avos, with its proper emphasis on proper conduct and moral discipline, would help people maintain the dignity, propriety and self-control that has always been synonymous with the life of the Jew, loyal to Torah.”

In learning “perek,” we should all take to heart the seriousness of Rabbi Davis’s admonitions.

This review of Pirkei Avot bookis will involve two commentaries that are derived from two distinct Jewish religious traditions, one following the teachings of the Sephardic rabbis and the other, the teachings of the Ashkenazic and Chassidic rabbis. Ironically both works have the same title in English as well as in Hebrew, “Pirkei Avoth: Ethics of the Fathers.”

The Sephardic work published by Ktav in 2007 was written in Spanish by Rabbi Meir Matzliah Melamed, of blessed memory. It was translated into English by the late Prof. David Fintz Altabe, a noted scholar of Ladino language and literature at Queensborough Community College.

Rabbi Matzliah Melamed’s commentary follows the traditions of his Sephardic forbearers. In this commentary he devoted this work mainly to that of “mussar v’dinim,” ethics and practical laws. He extends this to a universal and humanistic attitude that is common to much Sephardic commentary. This could prove to be a theological as well as rhetorical novelty to the Ashkenazic reader, but it is worth the experience to visit the Sephardic tradition through this eloquent and well-organized volume.

Prof. Altabe first met Rabbi Matzliah Melamed in 1975 on a family trip to Miami. The Altabe family in Miami attended services at the Cuban synagogue where Rabbi Matzliah Melamed was the rabbi. It was there that he first became acquainted with the rabbi’s commentary and nurtured the dream to someday translate it into English. Ironically, after a long career of having published numerous works and articles on Ladino and Sephardic history, this work was to be his final work. What follows next is a bit of local color to the story behind it.

According to his son, Richard Altabe, his father was president of the Sephardic shul in Long Beach (1970–1982) where he established a long and close relationship with its rabbi, Rabbi Asher Abittan, of blessed memory.

It was Rabbi Abittan’s classes on Pirkei Avot that generated within him a greater love for the text and further inspired him to complete his translation of Rabbi Matzliah Melamed’s original Spanish work. A further inspiration was that of his attendance at Rabbi Yecheskel Lichtman’s Perek classes in Far Rockaway whenever he visited his son, Richie Altabe and his family, for a Shabbat.

The next work of the same title was compiled by Rabbi Yosef Marcus and published by the Kehot Publications Society in 2009. This is an anthology from the works of the classic commentators as well as the Chassidic masters. The basic translation of the mishnah text was based upon that published originally in Siddur Tehillat Hashem (Kehot, 1978) compiled by Rabbi Nissan Mangel. In some minor instances, this was modified by Rabbi Marcus.

This coffee-table sized sefer of 240 pages follows a unique organization. Aside from the basic text and translation, we have “beneath the line” a detailed commentary in simple, non-technical English, that explains the concepts and vocabulary of the text, examining the intent of authors and sharing with the reader the various Chassidic and non-chassidic takes for many sugyot that were rarely, if ever before, explained in the vernacular.

Also unique to this sefer is the inclusion of biographies of each of the sages cited in this mishna, including a sample of stories that help define the lives and hashkafot of each. This helps place a face upon the printed word found on each page. Also included are background materials that utilize the etymology of words and mishnaic links to further enhance the learner’s appreciation for the text.

The bulk of the commentary is derived from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This stemmed from a work titled “Biurim L’Pirkei Avot” published in 1996 in Hebrew and compiled by Rabbi Eliyahu Friedman of Sefad.

Other sources are drawn from the works of Derech Chaim, Midrash Shmuel, the Maharal, the Abarbanel as well as Rashi, Rambam, the Bartenura, and Sforno.

It should be noted that this sefer is dedicated to the sacred memory of Rabbi Gavriel Noach and Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg, hy’’d, who were murdered al kiddush Hashem on Rosh Chodesh Kislev in Mumbai, India.

It is the author’s hope, as well as this writer’s, that these works will serve to deepen the appreciation of the serious learner of “perek.” Hopefully, the depth of learning will increase as a result of the exposure that the reader will gain from learning from these two diverse and valuable traditions of our people.

Originally published in 2009.