Pirke Aboth

PIRKE ABOTH pĭr’ kā əvōth (פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת, lit. Chapters of the Fathers; also sometimes called just Aboth, The Fathers). A collection of rabbinic maxims and sayings from the 3rd cent. b.c. to the 3rd cent. a.d., arranged with some regard for chronology and naming a considerable selection of rabbis.

Since Aboth, like the Mishnah, is basically a compilation of sayings, the question of authorship is really a question of editorship. After the reformation of Ezra in the 5th cent. b.c., a continuing need was felt for more and more explicit precepts concerning righteous conduct. In response to this, there developed an accretion of prescriptive interpretations of Scripture alongside of Scripture itself. These “traditions of the elders” were amplified and extended through each succeeding generation until the whole became an entirely unwieldy and ponderous mass. Rabbi Akiba (a.d. c. 50-c. 135) was seemingly the first to attempt the task of organizing and reclassifying these traditions. Rabbi Akiba’s initial attempt was carried on further by the efforts of Rabbi Meir, but it was Rabbi Judah (d. a.d. 219) who accomplished the organization of the whole into the Mishnah. Aboth is one of the sixty-three treatises of the Mishnah and is found in the fourth of the six orders.

Although Aboth is contained in the Mishnah, the nature of its contents is considerably different from that of the Mishnah. The Mishnah is basically halachic in content—that is, its contents are in the form of prescriptions for conduct, designed to aid the individual in meeting the requirements of the law. Aboth, on the other hand, is basically a list of the main Fathers who produced the Mishnah, together with some of their non-halachic sayings. Aboth is included in the tractate dealing with “injuries” or “damages” but would seem more appropriate as a kind of covering preface or introduction to the Mishnah as a whole. That the Gemara contains a number of references to Aboth introduced in the same way as are references to the rest of the Mishnah implies that Aboth was a part of the Mishnah from early times in spite of its aberrant character.

As it now exists, Aboth contains six chapters. The first four chapters include a list of prominent rabbis, or “Fathers,” some sixty in all, through whom the Mishnaic traditions were developed and passed on. Chapter 1 traces the handing on of tradition from Moses until about the time of the war of a.d. 68-70. Chapter 2 gives a further list, which pays less attention to chronology and prob. was designed to indicate how the tradition was re-established after the war. Chapters 3 and 4 simply give various traditions from this later period. Chapter 5 gives additional gnomic material, related not to authors but to certain numbers. Chapter 6 was evidently not added to Aboth until much later. The Mishnah as a whole became, in the years following its compilation, the subject for study in the rabbinical schools. Aboth itself apparently came to be used in the Middle Ages as a book for certain Sabbath readings in colleges and synagogues. Since certain Jewish readings were supposed to be read over a period of six sabbaths, it may be that this was the reason for the addition of the sixth chapter. This last ch. is usually called the “Chapter of Rabbi Meir” or the “Acquisition of Torah,” the latter designation describing quite accurately its contents.

Aboth is not a theological treatise in the strict sense of the term. It is mainly concerned with ethical maxims, though it is well to remember that no sharp distinction between theology and ethics was tolerable to the rabbinic mind. Torah, in its widest sense of “divine thought” or “divine truth,” is the main theological concept in Aboth. The name of God does not occur in the treatise except in Scriptural quotations; other terms, such as the “All-present,” are used. Considerable stress is laid upon God’s justice and upon reward and punishment. In general, Aboth makes no distinctive contribution to theology but simply participates in the views that are known from the Mishnah as a whole and from the Talmud.

There are about 170 MSS of Aboth, found either separately or together with the Mishnah or the Talmud. The most important of these is in the Cambridge University Library and contains the whole Mishnah in the Palestinian recension, which dates from the 14th cent. Here Aboth has only the first five chapters. Several other important MSS of Aboth are in Britain, dating from the 13th cent. and later, and usually containing the text of six chapters and a commentary on the same.


C. Taylor, Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, 2 vols. (1900); R. T. Herford, APOT, II (1913), 686-714; H. Danby, The Mishnah (1933), 446-461; P. Blackman, Mishnayoth, IV (1951-1956), 487-553; R. T. Herford, Sayings of the Fathers (1962).