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The Kabbalah of Ethics

‘Ethics of Our Fathers’ on Five Levels

Decode the successive layers of meaning embedded in the classic teachings of Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot), from the basic understanding to the more mystical interpretation—encompassing five levels of meaning.

All Jews Have a Place in the World to Come
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
The prevalent custom is to study a chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers each week starting the Shabbat after Passover. Prior to studying each chapter, we add the introductory teaching of ‘Kol Yisrael’ (All Jews). Learn why this is inserted as a preface to Pirkei Avos.
The Ethics of Sinai
Audio | 30:15
The Ethics of Sinai
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Ethics of Our Fathers begins by stating that Torah was received by Moses at Sinai and was passed down to the subsequent generations. The Mishnah specifies five generations in particular, why?
The World Stands on Three Pillars
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness. (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2)
What Is the Straight Path for Man?
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Rebbi [Yehudah HaNassi] would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind. (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:1)
Beloved Are Jews
Audio | 28:39
Beloved Are Jews
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G d]; Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of G d; Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article was given to them. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.3:14)
The Crown of a Good Name
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Rabbi Shimon would say: There are three crowns—the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty—but the crown of good name surmounts them all. (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:13)
According to the Pain is the Reward
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it (Torah), for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better. Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.5:21)
What King David Learns from Achitofel
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
One who learns from his fellow…a single law…must treat him with respect. For so we find with David, king of Israel, who did not learn anything from Achitofel except for two things alone, yet he called him his "master," his "guide" and his "intimate"… (Ethics of Our Fathers, ch.6:3)
G-d Wants Us to Be Meritorious
Why we need so many mitzvahs
Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya said: “The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to make the people of Israel meritorious; therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundant measure, as it is written: ‘The L rd desired, for the sake of his [Israel’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’”
Hillel and the Floating Skull
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
He (Hillel) also saw a skull floating upon the water. Said he to it: Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and those who drowned you, will themselves be drowned. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.2:6)
Reflect on Three Things to Avoid Sin
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came--from a putrid drop; where you are going--to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting--before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.3:1)
Why the World Was Created with Ten Utterances
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.5:1)
Who Is Wise, Strong, Rich, and Honored?
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.4:1)
The Heavenly Voice
Audio | 21:25
The Heavenly Voice
Learning Pirkei Avot on Five Levels
Said Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: "Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.”And the tablets are the work of G d, and the writing is G d's writing, engraved on the tablets"; read not "engraved" (charut) but "liberty" (chairut)---for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.6:2)
R’ Yochanan ben Zakai’s Five Disciples
Learning Pirkei Avot
Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai had five disciples: R’ Eliezer the son of Hurkenus, R’Yehoshua the son of Chananya, R’ Yossei the Kohen, R’ Shimon the son of Netanel, and R’ Elazar the son of Arach. He would recount their praises… (Ethics of Our Fathers ch.2:9)
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