Q. Why do we read the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat afternoons?
A. The long-standing practice is to read one chapter each week after Minchah, from the first Shabbat after Pesach up to and including the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah. The complete book of six chapters is finished for the first time on the Shabbat before Shavu’ot and is recommenced on the following Shabbat, and twice more during the months leading up to Rosh HaShanah. In the northern hemisphere this is the time of year when Shabbat afternoons are long and there is ample time for study. In the southern hemisphere the days are shorter, so a special effort needs to be made to have time for the weekly perek (chapter).
Pirkei Avot is a tractate of the Mishnah and belongs to Seder Nezikin (“Damages”). Why is it placed in the section of the Mishnah which deals with law and legal procedure? Maimonides replies, “It is because none are so in need of the ethics propounded in Pirkei Avot as the judges. If ordinary people do not behave in an ethical way, they harm none but themselves, whereas a judge who behaves unethically harms others in addition to himself.”
The title Avot - “Fathers” – derives from the fact that its contents – ethical behaviour and good manners – are the teachings of our spiritual fathers, or perhaps because these are seminal categories of the Torah.
According to one view, just as the Children of Israel sanctified themselves before the first Shavu’ot when the Torah was given, so we prepare ourselves each year to receive the Torah by studying ethical teachings each Shabbat.
Originally Pirkei Avot had only five chapters. Later, a sixth chapter was added so that there would be a chapter for each of the six Sabbaths leading up to Shavu’ot. The origin of reading Pirkei Avot after Minchah is said by Sa’adya Ga’on to be a mark of honour, ordained by the sages, to Moses our Teacher, who died on Shabbat at Minchah time.
No tractate is so easily understandable. The sayings it contains are terse and stimulating. They give wise advice as to how to live; they have something for everybody.