Pirkei Avot: Benefits of Listening to the Elderly

The young man walks faster than the old man, but it is the old man who knows the way.
(African proverb)


Anthropologists claim that even in prehistoric times wisdom and experience were left as a legacy by the oldest of the clan who, like a lamp, continued to illuminate the path of their descendants even after their departure. Listening to the advice of the elders made it possible to promote well-being through generations and even survival for millennia. The elder of the family was often the only one who knew how to cultivate the land, manage a drought, overcome a famine, and cure diseases. Grandmothers then managed to increase their grandchildren’s chances of survival by taking care of them and even by providing them with food. Consulting the elders is really something innate in human beings’ nature, and even the people’s governors asked them for advice during emergencies and difficulties.

Pirkei Avot (in Hebrew: פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת) is translated into Italian with “Chapters of the Fathers”, and in fact this treatise is a collection of ethical teachings and maxims of the Jewish rabbinical tradition attributed to the elders of the people. Since the Mishnah, Avot’s treatise is part of the Jewish ethical didactic literature and is the penultimate written of the order of Nezikin. Avot is a truly unique reading as it is the only treatise in the Mishnah that deals exclusively with ethical and moral principles and contains no laws (halacha).

The tradition

Jewish tradition reports that at the top of Mount Sinai, over forty days and nights, GOD taught Moses the entire Torah. But over the centuries, the “written Torah”, transcribed in the Five Books of Moses (and later extended to all 24 books of the Holy Scriptures) has been supported by an “oral Torah”, a commentary necessary for the explanation of the written Torah. The oral Torah was passed on orally from teacher to student through the generations, and only later in the second century AD, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, also called Judas the Prince, understood that the Oral Law would soon be forgotten if it had not been transcribed, and so he compiled the basis in a six-part document called Mishnah. The Mishnah contains 63 volumes (treatises) covering all topics of Jewish law: civil law, family relations, agriculture, liturgical service, sacrifices, purity of body and much more. One of the treatises, however, is completely dedicated to Jewish morality, values and ethics. This treatise is called Avot, translated literally as “Fathers”.

The Structure

The Avot mishnaic treaty is composed of five chapters. It begins with an order of transmission of the Oral Tradition; Moses receives the Torah on Mount Sinai and then transmits it through successive generations including Joshua, the Elders and the Neviim (Prophets), and then reaches the Great Assembly, the Rabbis (Avot 1, 1). It is interesting to note that the Kohanim (the priestly caste) were not included in this lineage. The Pirkei Avot contains sayings attributed to many wise men, such as Simon the Just (200 B.C.) or Judas HaNasi (200 A.D.), the Mishnah’s editor. These aphorisms concern the correct ethical and social conduct and the importance of the study of the Holy Scriptures.

The first two chapters proceed in general chronological order, while the second focuses on the students of Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Chapters three and four are thematic and contain various sayings attributed in random order. The fifth chapter differs from the organization and content of the previous four because it consists mostly of anonymous sayings structured around numerical lists, many of which have no direct connection with ethics. The last four paragraphs of this chapter return to the format of moral aphorisms attributed to specific rabbis.

Modern scholars suggest that however, some additions may have been made to the original text. In Avot 5:21 (“He said: from five years to the Bible [study], from ten years to mishna [study]… “) was not written by Rabbi Yehudah ben Teimah but rather by Shmuel ha-Katan, and was not part of Avot’s Mishna tract, but was added later to Pirkei Avot. In Machzor Vitry, for example, this passage is printed after the words “The Avot tract is finished”.

“The structure of the treatise is very different from the thematic structure of the other treatises and the Avot sayings use a highly stylized language instead of clear and simple mishnaic prose. Moreover, the anomalous character of Avot is accentuated by biblical influences on its linguistic expressions, grammatical forms and vocabulary”.

Pirkei Avot is typically printed with a sixth chapter, which however was originally part of the minor Kallah Rabbati tract and not the mishnaic Avot tract, and was added only for liturgical reasons.

Some sayings of the Treaty

Show kindness to others

  • “The world stands on three things: On Torah, on works (“avoda” can mean labor, or prayer or sacrificial offerings), and on kindness to others” (1:2)
  • “Your house should be open wide, and you should make the poor members of your household.” (1:5)
  • “Meet every person with graciousness.” (1:15)
  • “He [Yohanan ben Zakkai] said: ‘Go and see what is the right way that a man should seek for himself.’ Rabbi Eliezer said ‘A good eye’. Rabbi Yehoshua said ‘A good friend’. Rabbi Yose said ‘A good neighbor’. Rabbi Shimon said ‘One who sees consequences.’ Rabbi Elazar said ‘A good heart’. He [Yohanan] said to them, ‘I prefer the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach to yours, because his words include yours as well.'” (2:13)

Respect the other person’s rights

  • “What is the right path a man should choose? Whatever is honorable to himself, and honorable in the eyes of others.” (2:1)
  • “Let your friend’s honor be more dear to you than your own.” (2:15)
  • “The evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of men, drive a person out of the world.” (2:16)
  • “Let your friend’s money be more dear to you than your own.” (2:17)

Strive for greatness

  • “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” (1:14) This saying is written in simple and terse Hebrew and is attributed to the sage Hillel, who was famous for succinct expression.
  • “What is the right path a man should choose? Whatever is honorable to himself, and honorable in the eyes of others.” (2:1)
  • “In a place where there are no worthy men, strive to be worthy.” (2:5)
  • “He who acquires a good name, has acquired himself something indeed.” (2:8)
  • “Do not regard yourself as an evil person.” (2:18)

Respect GOD

  • “Do His will as if it were your own, so that He will do His will as if it were yours. Nullify your own will before His so that He will nullify the will of others before you.” (2:4)

Seek peace

  • “Be amongst the students of Aaron: Love peace and pursue peace. Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (1:12)
  • “The more charity, the more peace” (2:8)

Take precaution to avoid transgressions

  • “Make a fence for the Torah” (1:1)
  • “Keep far from an evil neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of divine retribution” (1:7)
  • “Evaluate the loss of not fulfilling a commandment against its reward, and the reward of committing a transgression against its loss. Consider three things, and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you, a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all of your deeds written down in a book.” (2:1)

Be humble

  • “Love work, and do not admire official positions, and do not become too acquainted with the governing power.” (1:10)
  • “One who makes a name great, destroys it” (1:13)
  • “Anyone who works for the community, let your work with them be for the sake of Heaven… And as for you all, I will make your reward great as though you had accomplished all the work.” (2:2)
  • “Be cautious regarding the ruling power. Because they only befriend a person when it serves all. They appear as friends when it suits them, but they do not stand by a man in his time of need.” (2:3)
  • “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not be sure of yourself until your day of death.” (2:4)
  • “The more flesh, the more worms. The more possessions, the more worry. The more wives, the more witchcraft. The more maidservants, the more uncouthness. The more servants, the more theft.” (2:8)
  • “If you have learned much Torah, do not flatter yourself about it, because it was for this purpose you were created.” (2:8)
  • “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.” (2:12)

Be intent in prayer

  • “Be careful when reciting the Shema and tefilla. Do not pray as though by rote, but plead for mercy and grace before God.” (2:18)

Combine Torah learning with labor

  • “Torah learning is best combined with an occupation, because the effort of both will keep one from sin. Torah study alone without work will in the end be nullified and lead to sin.” (2:2)

Do not exploit your learning

  • “One who exploits the crown (of scholarship) will pass away” (1:13)

Be careful with speech

  • “All my life I was raised amongst the Sages, and I never found anything better for a person than silence… one who talks too much causes sin.” (1:17)
  • “Do not speak (excessively) much with women. This regards a man’s own wife, how much more so regarding another man’s wife!” (1:5)
  • “Sages, you should be careful in what you say, lest you be punished with exile and be sent to a place of evil waters, and your pupils who follow you will die, and the name of Heaven will be disgraced.” (1:11)
  • “Say little and do much.” (1:15)
  • “Do not say something that cannot be understood, thinking it will be understood later.” (2:5)

Do not seek rewards

  • “Do not be like slaves who serve the master in order to obtain a reward. Rather, be like slaves who serve the master not to receive a reward. And let the peace of Heaven be upon you.” (1:3)
  • “Be as careful in observance of a minor commandment as in a major commandment, because you don’t know the respective rewards for the commandments.” (2:1)

Do not leap to judge another person

  • “Judge every person favorably” (1:6)
  • “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.” (2:5)

Be fair and deliberate in legal decision

  • “When judging, do not act as an advocate. When the litigants are before you, regard them all as guilty. And when leave you, regard them all as meritorious, when they have accepted your judgment.” (1:8)
  • “Be thorough in examining witnesses, and watch what you say, so they do not learn from you how to lie.” (1:9)
  • “On three things does the world stand: On justice, truth, and peace.” (1:18)

The time for action is now

  • “If not now, when?” (1:14)
  • “The main thing is not study, but doing.” (1:17)
  • “Do not say ‘I will study when I have the time’, for perhaps you will never have time.” (2:5)
  • “The day is short, the labor vast, the toilers idle, the reward great, and the Master of the house is insistent.” (2:20) (attributed to Rabbi Tarfon)
  • “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (2:21), attributed to (Rabbi Tarfon)


  • “A boor cannot be sin-fearing, and an ignoramus cannot be pious. A shy person cannot learn, and an impatient person cannot teach.” (2:6)
  • “Do not be quick to anger.” (2:15)

The punishment matches the sin

  • “He saw a skull floating on the water, and said to it, ‘Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And they will also eventually be drowned because they drowned you.'” (2:7)