Publisher’s Foreword to the Present Printing

Pirkei Avos is revered as a classic Torah text and is reviewed several times a year. Now classic texts that are reviewed continually become worn. Moreover, they get recommended to new readers, producing a need for continuous reprinting.

For these reasons, we are publishing a new edition of In the Paths of Our Fathers which communicates the Rebbe’s insights on these ageless teachings. May the study of this text enable us to walk in the Rebbe’s paths and shoulder the spiritual burden with which he charged us: to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of Mashiach.

Sichos In English
12 Sivan, 5764

Publisher’s Foreword to the First Edition

Pirkei Avos has always been treasured for its unique insights, which enhance our relationships with our fellowmen and with G‑d. These insights acquire special flavor when seasoned with the teachings of Chassidus. For Chassidus adds a depth that enables us to penetrate to the core of these relationships.

The teachings included in this volume were collected from the works of the Rebbe Shlita. Each week at summer farbrengens, the Rebbe would devote some time to the chapter of Pirkei Avos being studied that week. After Shabbos, these insights were written down by a select group of scholars and circulated for in-house study. On certain occasions, the thoughts were further developed and, after being edited by the Rebbe Shlita, published in Likkutei Sichos, or in Sefer HaSichos 5748-5751. Moreover, the Rebbe often refers to Pirkei Avos in his other works, and several passages were taken from these. A large portion of these thoughts were published in Hebrew under the title, Biurim LePirkei Avos.1

It must be emphasized that this is not a comprehensive treatment of Pirkei Avos. There are many clauses of the mishnayos on which we were not able to find comments from the Rebbe, and others on which his remarks deal with non-literal interpretations, without focusing on the simple explanation. Moreover, there are many comments on Pirkei Avos by the Rebbe which we felt require a thorough familiarity with the language and style of Talmudic and Kabbalistic writings, and do not lend themselves to translation into English. But indeed, a comprehensive work on Pirkei Avos would fill several volumes. Our intent was to present a sampler of the Rebbe’s unique approach which would help readers as they dedicate themselves to the lifetime task of studying and applying Pirkei Avos.

When considering a presentation of these ideas in English, the decision was made to adapt the Rebbe’s talks rather than to translate them literally. This involved omitting some points, telescoping others, and at other times adding explanations from different sources in order to bring the ideas involved closer to our readers.

As the work began to take shape, we realized that we had explanations for most, but not all, of the mishnayos in the tractate. To allow for a more complete work, we took the added liberty of borrowing ideas which the Rebbe had related elsewhere in regard to the general subjects mentioned in the mishnayos, but not in direct reference to the teachings of Pirkei Avos themselves.In these instances, the connection to the mishnayos in Pirkei Avos was made in the process of the adaptation. To distinguish these comments, they have been marked with a star.

In this context, the work contains several oft-repeated concepts which command attention. Among them:

a) that the teachings of Pirkei Avos are mili dechassidusa2 — guidelines for pious conduct beyond the measure of the law. Every person who desires to live a Torah life commits himself to the Law; a pious person commits himself to the Law-Giver. His concern is not merely with the discharge of his own duty, but with satisfying G‑d’s desire.

This is the thrust of Pirkei Avos. Even when the teachings appear to be straightforward laws or points of fact, they contain an inner meaning intended to propel us toward the all-encompassing commitment of piety.

b) the connection of the teachings to the divine service of their authors. On the phrase from the Haggadah, Chacham mahu omar (lit. “The wise son, what does he say?”), the Previous Rebbe offered a non-literal interpretation: “the wise son, what he is, he says.” Similarly, with regard to the teachings of Pirkei Avos, each teaching reflects the nature of its author.3

c) that each mishnah has several different levels of interpretation. Our Sages4 speak of the “seventy facets of Torah,” and our Rabbis add5 that every Jew has his own “letter in the Torah,” i.e., a way of appreciating the Torah which reflects his unique spiritual potential. In this light, we must consider every teaching of the Torah — and particularly the teachings of Avos — as multi-dimensional.

* * *

Our Rabbis ordained6 that Pirkei Avos be studied on the Shabbasos between Pesach and Shavuos in preparation for the giving of the Torah. For this reason, in addition to the Mishnayic tractate of Avos, which includes five chapters, a sixth chapter — a collection of bereisos7 — was appended so that a chapter of Avos could be studied on each of the six Shabbasos between these two holidays.8 One of the explanations for this custom is based on the adage,9Derech Eretz (ethical conduct) takes precedence over the Torah.” Before reliving our acceptance of the Torah on the holiday of Shavuos, we renew our commitment to its ethical standards through the study of Pirkei Avos.

In his text of the Siddur, the Alter Rebbe writes that there are those who study Pirkei Avos on all the Shabbasos throughout the summer. This is the present Lubavitch custom.10 Among the reasons given11 is that during the summer, more attention is paid to physical recreation and relaxation. To insure that the “strengthening of the body” does not lead to a “weakening of the soul,”12 attention is directed to the eternally relevant truths of Avos, which nurture balance and harmony between the physical and the spiritual.

* * *

Pirkei Avos also encourages balance and harmony between people. This principle found expression, not only in the content of this work, but in its very composition. Each contributor brought a different perspective, and the patience and forbearance to consider that of his colleagues. Among those who efforts contributed to this synthesis were: Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, who adapted the texts from their Hebrew and Yiddish originals; Gershom Gale, who edited the book; Rabbi Aharon Leib Raskin who supplied many of the references, Yosef Yitzchok Turner, who is responsible for the tasteful layout and typography; and Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, Director of Sichos In English, whose initiative fueled this project and encouraged it at every phase.

And thankful acknowledgment must be made to Rabbi Nissan Mangel, whose translation of Pirkei Avos in Siddur Tehillat HaShem served as the basis for our translation.

* * *

Our Sages state:13 “A person who desires to be pious should observe the teachings of Nezikin (‘damages’), Avos, and Berachos (‘blessings’).” This implies that the study of Avos shields us from damages, repairs them, and arouses Divine blessing.14

May the study of the Rebbe Shlita’s insights into Pirkei Avos arouse blessings which will restore his health, and enable him to lead our people to Eretz Yisrael in the most immediate future.

The publication of this volume comes in connection with the Rebbe Shlita’s 92nd birthday, Yud-Alef Nissan, 5754. The Baal Shem Tov taught15 that every day, a person should recite the psalm in the Book of Tehillim that corresponds to the years of his life.

The Rebbe’s 92nd birthday thus reflects the transition from psalm 92 to psalm 93. May he merit the blessings mentioned in the conclusion of psalm 92: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree.... They shall blossom in the courtyards of our G‑d. They shall be fruitful even in old age; they shall be full of sap and freshness.” And may he lead our people and the world at large to the perfect state alluded to in the beginning of psalm 93: “G‑d is King; He has garbed Himself with grandeur,” i.e., the Era of the Redemption when G‑d’s Kingship will be revealed throughout all existence.

Sichos In English
11 Nissan, 5754 [March 23, 1994]
The 92nd Birthday of the Rebbe Shlita
לאורך ימים ושנים טובות