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Why is the Tractate Named "Fathers"?

Why is the Tractate Named "Fathers"?


It would seem that the appropriate name for this tractate would be one along the lines of its common English name, "Ethics." What is the connection between Avot, "Fathers," and a code of ethics and morals?

Many reasons have been suggested for the curious name of this tractate. Here is a sampling:

  • While ethical teachings are imperative for all to learn and implement, they are particularly important for parents and educators. Not only to learn them and teach them to the next generation, but to be role models of the behaviors taught in this tractate. As Shammai said (Ethics 1:15): "Say little and do much."

  • Compressed in these six brief chapters is our entire moral code"Fathers" can also be translated to mean "general principles"; principles that contain myriads of sub-lessons. Compressed in these six brief chapters is our entire moral code. The more we study its passages, the more messages we will uncover. To use the words of Ben Bag Bag (Ethics 5:21): "Delve and delve into it, for all is in it..."

    Indeed the hundreds, if not thousands, of works authored on this tractate demonstrate the truth of this idea.

  • The teachings expressed in this tractate are the "father" to -- i.e. they must precede -- all other Torah teachings. This idea is succinctly expressed by Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah (Ethics 3:17): "If there is no common decency, there is no Torah."

    This is also the reason why it is customary to study Avot during the seven weeks of the Omer count: the teachings of this tractate are a necessary prerequisite to receiving the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot.

  • Teach someone an idea -- no matter how lofty or holy that idea may be -- while you have increased his or her knowledge, you have not effected a real change in that individual. If, however, you have successfully taught that person to be a mentsch, then you have transformed that person. You have "fathered" a new, refined human being.
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Anonymous USA December 4, 2013

timelessness ummm... If the text says "father" then it says "father". You can't change it. Reply

Anonymous uSA July 24, 2013

Why Is The Tractate Name "Fathers" What is a "mentsch?"? If I could understand this word, maybe I would be able to understand the sentence. I, on the other hand understand pretty well what the Rabbi is trying to convey. G-d gave His laws to men, for what I personally understand, because men are not as spiritual as women. Not meaning that there could never be spiritual men, but in the sense that men have a different perspective of what the spiritual world is than women. The world is changing. Women are becoming warriors. They enroll the military all over the world. They go to war like men do. Their children are given to other people, sometimes, to be taken care of, because of their career. This situation is bringing a great revolution into the world. We do not know the consequences this would bring. But, it is happening. The teachings were for men to maintain the responsibility G-d gave them concerning their families. Some obey them, some don't. The struggle is becoming harder as we go along the future. Meditate on this. Reply

Bette California June 3, 2013

I understand and take great comfort in the station of the father of the household to be a loving father and teacher of great wisdom, however the parenting role must be embellished by the nurturing role of the mother in the household as being the first teacher of the children. Reply

Ben Elia March 7, 2013

Explanation of Title Why not just modify every historical and religious document, regardless of age, including the Torah and the whole corpus of Rabbinic literature to reflect 2013 liberal gender values - and heavily Westernized ones if that? Instead of reading so much into the ambiguities of the wording of Sages that you fail to compare to in the least of ways, perhaps you Torah-phobes should actually read this 'crowning gem that sits atop the diadem that is the Talmud.' Just a thought. Reply

Miryam Tampa August 10, 2012

Mothers That's true, why not mothers? I am a mother and the only one teaching my adult children. Just a thought. Toda. Reply

Anonymous lost angeles, california May 20, 2011

derech eretz kadmah l'torah why does it say Derech Eretz Kadma L'Torah?, why is Derech Eretz a prerequisite for learning or obtaining Torah (is it that Hashem will not truly grant us Torah insights and wisdom, unless we are kind and respectful of other people?) Reply

BC New York, NY April 14, 2010

MOTHERS Yes. Rabbi. Why not Ethics of our MOTHERS, or PARENTS? Reply

Anonymous Thornhill, Canada June 20, 2008

fathers nice answers, but it would seem in that case that Mothers would be more appropriate. Any thoughts on this, Rabbi? Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.
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