Pirkei Avot

On the Importance of Studying Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

There is a custom in many Jewish communities to learn Pirkei Avot throughout the summer months, a chapter a week on every Shabbat. What we’d like to suggest is that if there is a choice over what public Torah learning program to establish, it should be on Pirkei Avot. Additionally, Pirkei Avot is perhaps the very best material with which to bring Jews closer to Torah and mitzvoth observance. If you have connections with other Jews, there is nothing that has more power to bring Jews back to Torah and God than learning Pirkei Avot.

Three Rectifications

According to Kabbalah, there are three different conscious levels of the psyche. These are known by their acronyms:

  • Chabad: the intellectual faculties of Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge).
  • Chagat: the emotive faculties of Chesed (loving-kindness), Gevurah (might), and Tiferet (beauty).
  • Nehi: the behavioral or action faculties of Netzach (victory), Hod (acknowledgement), and Yesod (foundation).

Of these three, our present emphasis is on rectifying chagat, the emotions. Specifically on correcting our emotions through the study of Pirkei Avot. Whereas the study of Chassidut, specifically Chabad Chassidut, rectifies the intellectual faculties, and observing the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) the actions, studying Pirkei Avot rectifies the emotions.

Rectifying the Emotions

Emotions play an important role in inspiring us to act according to our soul-root. Whereas behavior ideally expresses itself as natural and stable, emotions are full of conflict and compulsion.

It is as a result of the tumultuous nature of the three emotions of the heart – loving-kindness, might, and beauty – that makes their rectification so very important. This is especially so during the summer months, the time especially when one must “guard” his eyes to see only that which is good and modest. As the sages teaches, “the eye sees and the heart desires.”

Whereas the observing the Shulchan Aruch rectifies the more stable behavioral faculties – victory, acknowledgement, foundation – as mentioned, it is specifically through the study of Pirkei Avot that we rectify the more impulsive emotions.

The Arizal says that someone who refines the emotive powers of their soul completely and automatically rectifies their mind – the three intellectual faculties of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. But someone who refines their actions – victory, acknowledgment, and foundation – has not necessarily and automatically rectified their emotive faculties and character traits, the midot. Rabbi Sa’adyah Ga’on writes that the main task of life is to rectify our midot. That is what Pirkei Avot is about.

Studying with Joy

King David also knew that when one rectifies his emotive faculties, he automatically rectifies his intellect. A good Jew is automatically a wise Jew. But, David made the mistake of assuming – before the sin with Batsheva – that the same is true of someone who has rectified his actions.

You have to rectify your actions—but, don’t think that if your actions are rectified, that automatically means that your midot, your character traits are rectified (you can look around you and see that this is true).

May we merit that through our increased study of Pirkei Avot during these summer months, we come to the purification of the heart through joy. As is known, the same King David who is the consummate example of a returnee (ba’al teshuvah) in the Torah, is also known as the “sweet singer of Israel.”

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