It is an accepted practice to print the six chapters of Pirkei Avos — the Chapters of Our Fathers in the Siddurim (daily prayer books). Pirkei Avos is a tractate of the Mishnah, devoted to moral and ethical rules and values, nevertheless, since it is customary to recite chapters of Avos on Shabbos afternoon the editors of the Siddur liturgy put the Pirkei Avos into the Siddur.

On Shabbos Naso the Rebbe Shlita turned his attention to the Chabad custom of studying Pirkei Avos through the summer and explained that a Jew needs a continual preparation for further advances in Torah study and therefore Pirkei Avos should be studied all through the summer.

Morality before Scholarship

In the Siddur edited by the Alter Rebbe there is a prefatory note to Pirkei Avos which states:

It is customary to recite one chapter of Pirkei Avos on each Shabbos between Pesach and Shavuos at Minchah time .... Some continue to recite one chapter of Pirkei Avos on each Shabbos through the Summer.

The classic reason for studying Pirkei Avos between Pesach and Shavuos is to provide a preparation for receiving the Torah, in correlation to the Midrashic dictum: ‘The duty of Derech Eretz preceded the Torah’ (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3), which means that moral and ethical values are a prerequisite to Torah study.

There is another reason for the practice of learning Pirkei Avos that connects it to the summer season. In spring and summer there is an awakening and renewal of nature. The world of flora comes into bloom and the natural forces are invigorated and reveal themselves. In this setting one might be tempted to interrupt his studies and admire the beauty of a particular tree or natural phenomenon. It is also possible that the inner forces of nature and the mundane bodily tendencies will be emboldened and erupt during this period.

For this reason it is suggested to temper the mundane forces of the natural world with words of piety by studying ethics and the moral teachings in Avos. When these subjects are studied on Shabbos the whole week will be influenced for the good.

Study Pirkei Avos and nurture your Soul

There is yet another explanation given, more in the way of remez symbolism. In the period between Shavuos and Rosh Hashanah, Pirkei Avos is repeated three times and chapter one is begun three times, once on Shabbos Naso, once on Pinchas and once on Shoftim. The acrostic of these three Torah portions is NeFeSh. This indicates that by studying Pirkei Avos one may bring an improvement and perfection to his soul, even if he is only on the lowest soul level of Nefesh and not Neshamah. Our custom (in Lubavitch) has been to recite Pirkei Avos all through the summer. The basis for this practice may be found in the custom among the Nesi’im to recite Chassidic discourses through the summer beginning with verses from Pirkei Avos and corresponding to the order of the summer recital.

Since we do read Pirkei Avos every Shabbos it would be appropriate for us to analyze the underlying reasons and determine the definitive logic for this custom; as it is not only because of the reemergence of natural forces. Rather, we will find that even after Shavuos when we study Pirkei Avos every Shabbos it serves as a preparation for receiving the Torah, just as it does before Shavuos. There are, however, different levels of preparation.

Let us analyze this concept. Our Sages have taught:

Each day they should be to you as something new, as though you had received the commands that very day (for the first time). (Rashi, Devarim 26:16)

This means that every day a Jew must relive the experience of Matan Torah as if it were actually reoccurring on that day. For this reason when we recite the daily blessing for Torah in the morning, we use the present tense ‘Who gives the Torah.’

The thunder and fear must be real

Moreover, contemporary Torah study must also be similar to the way Torah was studied when it was received. Again, our Sages tell us:

Just as there it was in dread and fear and trembling and quaking, so in this case too, it must be in dread and fear and trembling and quaking. (Berachos 22a)

We must study Torah today as if we had received it today. Chassidus elaborates on this phenomenon and explains:

The essence of Matan Torah is the introductory statement of the Ten Commandments: ‘G‑d spoke all these words saying (laymor) — I am...’ (Shmos 20:12). Why does the Torah use the term ‘laymor’ (lit. — to say)? After all, Moshe did not have to repeat the Ten Commandments, all the Jews had heard them? The explanation is that all the Jews must transmit all that they received at Sinai (laymor). This power was given to the Jews at Sinai that in all later generations when they teach Torah it will be considered the ‘word of G‑d...’ This is a state of bittul — submission — to G‑d. The words of Torah spoken by a Jew are part of Torah being repeated by the individual: ‘My tongue will teach Your tradition.’ (Tehillim 119:172)

One who meditates on this will discern its magnitude and will be filled with fear and trembling in the study of Torah. For he will realize that the Torah that he studies is the actual word of G‑d given to Moshe... ‘Just as there it was in dread... so in this case, too.’ (How can this be) at Matan Torah the people saw the voices and the thunder and G‑d spoke to them face to face? This is not the case when the individual studies Torah... Yet, since his words of Torah are G‑d's words said to Moshe, he will be encompassed by fear and awe as if he had received the Torah today at Sinai. (Torah Or, Yisro 67b)

In simple terms: when a Jew learns Torah in any period he must remember that he studies the word of G‑d given to Moshe at Sinai and he must put himself in a state of mind similar to the way he stood at Mount Sinai:

All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram's horns and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance. (Shmos 20:15)

While it is true that now he sees no sounds or thunder, nor the trembling people — if he did suddenly begin to tremble he would be seen as a ‘wild animal’ — this should not hinder him, for he knows that he has something infinite, the word of the Holy One, Blessed be He, in all His glory, for at Sinai G‑d spoke face to face with the people.

Scholars, Teamsters and... Horses

Should one say that he does not feel this enthusiasm, he is reminded of the well-known parable of the wise men traveling in a carriage, which was pulled by horses and driven by a simple wagon driver. As the carriage speeds along the road the horses think only about the fresh hay they will receive at the end of the journey. The driver is concerned only about the payment he will accept for his labors. All the while the wise men who sit in the wagon are involved in intellectual pursuits. The lowly cogitations of the horses and the teamsters make not one bit of difference to the scholars and their intellectual endeavors. In our case the lack of feeling and sensitivity on the part of the individual does not change the fact and reality of the situation.

In fact, even after receiving the Torah on Shavuos there can-and must be a continual increase, and greater innovation on the theme of Matan Torah as we say, ‘Who gives the Torah,’ and ‘every day they shall be as something new.’

This continuation and increase in the process of receiving Torah applies in the area of the ‘fear and trembling ‘ and in the system of Torah study as well.

Different systems need different preparations

The Gemara relates that R. Zeira fasted 100 fasts to forget the Babylonian Talmud. (B. Metzia 85a) The question is asked, to forget one's learning (mishnaso) is seen in very negative light (cf. Avos 3:8), how could R. Zeira have purposely acted to forget all his studies?

There is however a difference between forgetting one's Torah knowledge (mishnaso), the rulings, practices and legal regulations of Torah, referred to in Avos, and the ‘Babylonian Talmud,’ which means the system of study and discipline of study that was followed in the Babylonian exile where Talmud Bavli was formulated and compiled. The system of study from which Talmud Bavli evolved was based on sharp argument and discussion, many challenging questions and responses, all leading to the emergence of clear cut and refined Halachah. When R. Zeira desired to study by the Jerusalem system, which was the basis of Talmud Yerushalmi, he realized that he would have to rise to the immeasurably higher level of the clear illumination of Torah, the ‘direct light,’ unblocked, unfiltered and unshaded by argumentative attacks and roadblocks. This loftier approach of Talmud Yerushalmi could only be attained by fasting 100 fasts to rise out of the restricting and limiting framework of Bavli and climbing into the clear system of Yerushalmi.

It is now clear that in Torah study there may be more than one system and discipline of study. Consequently, after Matan Torah there can still be another ‘innovation’ in Torah by rising to a higher state of learning Torah.

Torah ‘Lions’

We may expand our appreciation of this concept by observing and analyzing our own limited, different approaches to Torah study. This may then serve as an exemplum from which to interpolate and thereby draw an analogy to the subject of varying levels in receiving Torah.

It is a clearly observable phenomenon that some Torah scholars find enthusiasm and satisfaction in Torah study only by attacking a troublesome and difficult subject, slashing through the complications with argument and response in order to reach a clear understanding of the matter. They find no enjoyment in simply studying a topic that is clear and unequivocal to begin with.

Their greatest satisfaction it seems, is to disprove or undermine a theory expounded by another. Of course they immediately rise to a higher level and ‘add wisdom to their wisdom’ by questioning even their own theories.

In other words, much effort and hard work is invested into the problem until a hypothesis is reached which seems to solve the difficulty at hand. Their colleagues who will review the theory objectively will agree that they have proposed a sound solution and praise them with their ‘bravos.’ Nevertheless, the more one strives and the more diligent one is and the deeper one delves into the matter, he begins to see that his own theory is really insufficient and new questions are raised in his own mind which undermine the earlier hypothesis. At this point one must energetically delve further into the new problem until he chances upon a new hypothesis which is once again reviewed by his colleagues who again agree that the new solution is many times better than the earlier theory. Here we see clearly how he ‘added wisdom to wisdom.’

Now, one who by nature pursued the system of study just outlined, must expend much effort and hard work to change this nature when he wishes to rise to a loftier form of study.

From self-serving to altruistic

We may now draw a parallel to the theory of levels in receiving the Torah which will incorporate the idea of a new Matan Torah after Matan Torah.

While it may appear that the aforementioned approach to Torah seems to border on the self-serving, it is nevertheless a legitimate form of Torah study and as such it is a level upon which to build.

Parenthetically, on the subject of altruism in study the Gemara rules that one should study Torah even if he has ulterior motives, for even if his study is not now solely for the sake of Heaven, nevertheless, (metoch) ‘out of’ the not altruistic study he will reach true study for the sake of Heaven.

The reason for this: metoch — the essence of Torah is the word of G‑d which is pure as fire and cannot be adulterated — so long as the study follows the true path of Torah. And metoch — the essence of the student, which is a part of G‑d above, and is always faithful to his Creator.

The essence of Torah and the essence of the Jew create Innovation

So, you must always study Torah, no matter what the motivation, for eventually the essence of Torah and the essence of the Jew will bring you to altruistic study.

The scholar who enjoys ripping apart theories and positions may not be on an altruistic level of Torah study as yet, nevertheless he does add to the sum total of Torah. So, too, the rule is that intellectual jealousy will increase wisdom — and even when there is a feeling of self-importance involved — it still increases wisdom. In fact, rising from a manner of study which was self-satisfactory to an altruistic level is also a form . of innovation in Matan Torah.

With this in mind we may see how Pirkei Avos can serve as a preparation for Matan Torah all through the summer. Even after Shavuos, there is a daily increase in Torah; ‘Who gives the Torah,’ present tense. The Torah is daily new and therefore there is a daily need for preparation to receive the Torah anew, just as there was a need before Shavuos. We therefore study Pirkei Avos every Shabbos during the summer months as a weekly (daily) preparation to receive the Torah anew.

Pirkei Avos all year round?

Here, however, we are faced with a dilemma. Why not study Pirkei Avos every Shabbos all through the year? Why only during the summer?

The Torah divides the year into six seasons of two months each, as we find in Scripture:

“Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter.’ (Bereishis 8:22)

The summer season differs from the winter season (in the middle-east) in that the winter is the rainy season and the summer is dry. Now, rain is associated with man's (spiritual) toil and labor, as our Sages explain: ‘My doctrine shall drop as rain — means: let men break their stubbornness, and the rain shall immediately descend.’ (Bereishis Rabbah 13:14)

Dew does not stop, but rain does, and therefore we must pray and work for rain to fall. One aspect of that work is Torah study, as it says: ‘If you follow My precepts’ — ‘being diligent in Torah study,’ then ‘I will give rain in its season.’ Here we may comprehend why we study Pirkei Avos only in the summer and not in the winter. During the winter, when the necessary Divine service includes breaking the stubbornness to bring rain it will also eliminate the problem of spiritual stubborn-stiffneckedness, and there is no need for an additional preparation for Torah based on Pirkei Avos — matters of moral and ethical values. In the summer, however, when there is no rain and it is not clear if the people ‘broke’ their necks or not, it becomes necessary to recite the Pirkei Avos to be certain that the Torah study will proceed in the proper manner.

Different levels, Different customs

We may also appreciate why some communities do have the custom to read Pirkei Avos in the summer while others do not. Since we are dealing with preparing varying levels of development in Torah learning — the newness has different states and may be applicable to certain people and not others. It is therefore voluntary. We must also remember and keep in mind that the practice of saying Pirkei Avos after Minchah on Shabbos — both before Shavuos and after Shavuos is based on custom, for we speak of a preparation to Matan Torah — as such it comes before the binding rules of Torah and thereby they are only binding as custom and not law.

In any case, the practice is of the essence and all areas of Divine service should be pursued: learning Torah, observing mitzvos, practicing good customs, beyond the letter of the law and with greater piety — may all this be done with joy and gladness of heart, with the joy of Shabbos, and the ultimate joy.

“Everlasting joy upon their words.” (Yeshayahu 35:10)