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Learn Hebrew: Pirkei Avot

May 9, 2012 | by Shira Cohen-Regev

Words of wisdom from the second century Sages.

On Shabbat afternoon in the summer months, it is customary to study one chapter from Pirkei Avot (פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת). Known as “Ethics of the Fathers,” this is a compilation of teachings from the Sages of the Mishnah (משנה) compiled in Israel some 1800 years ago. Unlike the other sections of the Mishnah that discuss Jewish law (halacha - הלכה) (agriculture, holidays, civil law, family relations, and much more), Pirkei Avot is completely devoted entirely to Jewish morals, values and ethics (musar - מוסר).

Pirkei Avot begins with the chain of Torah transmission, starting with the original revelation at Mount Sinai:

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשְׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים
וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה.
“Moses received Torah from God at Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly.

הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה.
They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

We live in an information age, bombarded by a constant flow of information, images, and ideas aimed at shaping how we see the world. Pirkei Avot opens by telling us the source and transmission of all Torah wisdom. The ethics, philosophy and moral standards are not the products of human minds. They are not merely the pithy sayings of wise men who preceded us. The ultimate source for all decency and morality is God and it can't exist in His absence. This Torah was received by Moses at Sinai, and handed down generation by generation – from Moses unto you.

More Wisdom

Here are some other well-known sayings from Pirkei Avot:

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים.
“The world is sustained by three things: Torah, service, and deeds of loving-kindness.”

מַרְבֶּה נְכָסִים, מַרְבֶּה דְאָגָה.
“The more possessions, the more worries.”

אַל תִּסְתַּכֵּל בַּקַּנְקַן, אֶלָּא בַמֶּה שֶׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ.
“Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains.”

הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים וְאֵין אַתָּה בָּא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע, מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן.
“Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning.

מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ - מִטִּפָּה סְרוּחָה
From where have you come? – from a putrid drop.

וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ - לִמְקוֹם עָפָר רִמָּה וְתוֹלֵעָה
Where are you going? – to the place of dust, worm, and maggot.

וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן - לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא.
Before whom are you destined to give account and reckoning? – before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed is He.”

Related Vocabulary Words

Translation: world
Transliteration: olam

Translation: Jewish biblical and rabbinic literature
Transliteration: Torah

Translation: service
Transliteration: avodah

גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Translation: deeds of loving-kindness
Transliteration: gemilut chasadim

Hebrew Word Search -

Try to find all these Hebrew words in the puzzle below.

BONUS: All of the left-over letters compose a well-known saying from Pirkei Avot. (Answer at the end of this article.)

Related Hebrew Name

נְהוֹרַאיNehoray is a boy's name, derived from the Aramaic word נְהוֹר (nehor) or נְהוֹרָא (nehora), meaning "light." Nehorai was a great Sage from the Mishnaic period (second century CE) whose words are cited in Pirkei Avot.

Answer to Word Search:

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי.

“If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”

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