Q. Why is the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot read each Shabbat from Pesach until Rosh HaShanah?
A. Originally Pirkei Avot (“The Ethics of the Fathers”) was read from Pesach until Shavu’ot. The tractate had five chapters, but a sixth was compiled from rabbinic sayings about Kinyan Torah – the Acquisition of the Torah. The medieval writer, Abudarham, explained that like a lover who eagerly awaits the coming of his or her beloved, the reading of Pirkei Avot shows our eagerness to arrive at Shavu’ot, the time of the giving of the Torah. Another view is that at harvest time the evil inclination tempts us, and Pirkei Avot calls us back to Torah.
Some limited the reading to the weeks leading up to Shavu’ot, others continued until Sukkot and some read the tractate all year. The generally accepted usage is to place the reading on Shabbat afternoons after Minchah, and to continue it throughout the northern hemisphere summer until Rosh HaShanah.
This may be linked to the forty years in the wilderness, during which the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai but then lapsed with the golden calf. They lost the original tablets of the Ten Commandments, which Moses shattered when he saw the people’s sin.
A second set of tablets came with the Divine message, salachti – “I have forgiven” (Num. 14:20), on Yom Kippur. This is recalled by reading Pirkei Avot again after Shavu’ot until Rosh HaShanah, symbolising the fact that though unfaithful to the Torah the first time, the Israelites yearned for the replacement Decalogue and rejoiced when they received it.