Pirkei Avot in the Summer

There is a widespread custom to study one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat afternoon during the summer months.[1] Some observe the custom for the first six weeks following Pesach thereby completing the entire tractate of Pirkei Avot once[2] as a preparation for Shavuot and “kabbalat hatorah.”[3] In most communities, however, the Pirkei Avot study is continued beyond Shavuot right through to Rosh Hashanah.[4] Most people who study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons do so following mincha,[5] while others do so before mincha.[6]

There are a number of other variations to the custom of studying Pirkei Avot, as well. Some communities study Pirkei Avot from Pesach and continue until the Shabbat before the 17th of Tammuz.[7] There were also communities which studied Pirkei Avot from the Shabbat of Parshat Yitro until the Shabbat of Parshat Masei. In some communities the study of Pirkei Avot was deferred until after Shavuot and concluded on the Shabbat of Parshat Masei, studying two chapters a week.[8] The Jewish communities of Syria,[9] Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Gerba have no record or tradition of specifically studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons in the summer.[10]

The custom of continuing the cycle of Pirkei Avot until Rosh Hashana, thereby completing it four times, is intended to recall that Moshe Rabbeinu taught the Jewish people the Torah four times, as well.[11] It is interesting to note that the original custom regarding Pirkei Avot was that it be studied every Shabbat throughout the year. It is not completely clear how and when studying Pirkei Avot became and activity reserved specifically for the Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot.[12]

If one is concerned that studying Pirkei Avot will prevent one from properly fulfilling the mitzva of seudat shlishit then it should be deferred[13] or studied during the seudat shlishit. Indeed, one of the reasons that Pirkei Avot is not studied in the winter is because there is simply not enough time to allow for both Pirkei Avot study and seudat shlishit to be properly discharged when Shabbat ends relatively early.[14] There is also a custom to perform the Pirkei Avot study Shabbat morning.[15] One who is in mourning should not study that week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot.[16]

There are a number of reasons why the practice of studying Pirkei Avot was instituted. Among the more popular explanations is that the summer months are a more recreational and relaxed time of the year making the ethical teachings of Pirkei Avot especially appropriate.[17] Additionally, it was established in order to provide the unlearned folk with an organized structure for Torah study to occupy themselves with on Shabbat afternoons.[18]

Consistent with the teaching that “derech eretz kodma latorah,” Pirkei Avot is also intended to prepare us for Shavuot with proper guidance on how a Torah Jew is to behave.[19] It is believed that during the sefira period when the Jewish community is in a saddened state, mourning the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, one will be more receptive to the teachings of Pirkei Avot.[20] It is also noted that Moshe Rabbeinu died on a Shabbat, making Pirkei Avot, which opens with his name, an appropriate study in his honor on Shabbat afternoon.

Pirkei Avot is not read on Shabbat Chazon[21] or when Shavuot falls out on a Shabbat. After Pirkei Avot is read each week, the Mishna of Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia is then recited followed by either a “rabbi’s kaddish” or “mourner’s kaddish.” It is interesting to note that the difference of opinion as to which kaddish should be recited following Pirkei Avot reflects the uncertain status that this weekly study occupies. According to one view, the weekly study of Pirkei Avot is to be considered a genuine Torah study session like all others, and hence, it is the rabbi’s kaddish which should be recited. However, according to the view that the weekly Pirkei Avot study is more of a communal reading rather than a true study session, it is the mourner’s kaddish which should be recited.[22]

According to all customs, the study of Pirkei Avot is always preceded by the Mishna “kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek l’olam haba”. The reason that this opening reading was instituted was to inspire even those who are otherwise unlearned in Torah that all Jews are beloved before God.[23] The teaching of Rabbi Chanania Ben Akashia which is recited at the conclusion of the Pirkei Avot study also serves to encourage the less learned.[24] It was also chosen for its beauty.[25]

[1] Rema O.C. 292:2, Minhagei Eretz Yisrael (Gallis) 20:62

[2] Kaf Hachaim 292:23

[3] Abudraham;Yemei Haomer

[4] Machzor Vitri 143, Mateh Moshe 486, Siddur Ba’al Hatanya

[5] Rema O.C. 292:2

[6] Chatam Sofer, cited in Nitei Gavriel;Pesach 41 note 13

[7] Minhagei Maharil, Minhagei D’vei Maharam Mirottenberg

[8] Orchot Chaim

[9] Minhagei Aram Tzova 68

[10] Yalkut Minhagim

[11] Me’am Loez;Pirkei Avot 1

[12] Kol Bo 40

[13] Magen Avraham 292:12

[14] Maharal in the introduction to Derech Chaim on Pirkei Avot

[15] Kaf Hachaim 292:23

[16] Kaf Hachaim 292:24

[17] Kaf Hachaim 292:22

[18] Machzor Vitri 424

[19] Abudraham cited in Nitei Gavriel;Pesach 41:2

[20] Nitei Gavriel;Pesach 41:2

[21] Rama O.C. 553:2

[22] Kaf Hachaim 292:22

[23] Machzor Vitri 424, Kol Bo 40

[24] Orchot Chaim

[25] Machzor Vitri 424