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.