"He who wishes to become a chassid should fulfill the words of Avot"
Talmud, Bava Kamma 30a
Transmission of Ethics
Atop Mount Sinai, over the course of forty days and nights, G‑d taught Moses the entire Torah. The Torah was a two-part study: the "Written Torah," transcribed in the Five Books of Moses (and later extended to include all the 24 books of the Scriptures), and the "Oral Torah," a commentary on the Written Torah. The Oral Torah was orally transmitted from teacher to student for many generations. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Judah the Prince felt that the Oral Law would be forgotten unless it was transcribed. So he compiled the basics into a six-part document called the Mishnah.
The Mishnah contains 63 volumes (tractates) which discuss all areas of Jewish law: agriculture, holidays, civil law, family relations, sacrifices, ritual purity, and much more. One of the tractates, however, is completely devoted to Jewish morals, values and ethics. This tractate is called Avot—literally translated as "Fathers." (See also Why is the Tractate Named "Fathers"?)
It is customary to study Pirkei Avot (the "chapters of Avot") on the Shabbats between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, the seven weeks of the Omer counting.
Many continue the chapter-a-week regimen throughout the summer monthsPirkei Avot contains six chapters, and there are six Shabbats between Passover and Shavuot. Every Shabbat, customarily after the afternoon Minchah prayers, we study one chapter. After the Jews left Egypt, they embarked on a period of self-refinement and character improvement. This was critical in order that they be worthy of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. While counting the Omer, we too try to perfect our character. To assist in achieving this goal, we study Avot, the tractate which is devoted to piety, humility, kindness and ethics.
Many (including Chabad) continue this chapter-a-week regimen throughout the summer months, until Rosh Hashanah. The summer is generally a time when people are more active, tend to vacation, and all too often relax their moral and religious standards. The chapter-a-week of Avot is meant to keep us spiritually strong and healthy, and prepared to face the moral challenges the summer months present.
There is a wealth of commentary on the Pirkei Avot, available at any Judaica store, and it makes for very enjoyable and thought-provoking reading. For on-line commentary, visit our Ethics Insights sections, or maybe treat yourself to an Ethics audio class.
Considering that studying an entire chapter each week can be a daunting task, the Rebbe encouraged – in addition to reciting the weekly chapter, preferably with the aid of translation into the vernacular if necessary – the in-depth study of one Mishna (paragraph) of the weekly chapter.