The Mystery of Avos 6:12 (and Other Secrets Revealed)

Take a look in your Pirkei Avos. Does it have a mishna 6:12? Maybe it does. Or maybe it has an unnumbered mishna after 6:11. Or perhaps it just ends after 6:11. Why is this? This is just one of the unusual features of Pirkei Avos.

Why is it called Avos?
Pirkei Avos literally means “chapters of the fathers” although in English it is commonly rendered “Ethics of the Fathers.” The “fathers” refers to the great Rabbis and teachers of the past, who were “fathers to the world.” Rashi explains “Avos” to refer to our ancestors, since the mesechta begins by explaining the transmission of the Torah from generation to generation. Alternatively, “Avos” means “the great ones” (as in “Av melacha” or “Av HaTumah“). The teachings are themselves the “Avos“, i.e. the great lessons.

How is Avos different from other mesechtas?
All other mesechtas deal with issues of halacha—Jewish law. Avos deals with issues of ethics, good character traits to acquire, and proper conduct.

So why is it in Seder Nezikin?
Seder Nezikin deals with legal issues—damages, torts and the like. Avos is strangely out of place. So why place it among laws of damages which are expected to be known by judges? There are several reasons. First of all, it establishes the authority of the court. As mentioned, the first chapter of Avos begins by relating the transmission of the Torah back to Moshe. This teaches us that the judges who will hear our cases for damages are empowered by the unbroken chain of Torah that stretches back to Sinai. The second reason is that these laws must also be studied by the judges. People learn behavior from their leaders and if the judges of each generation do not have the proper midos, it can damage that entire generation.

Why is the sixth chapter different?
Avos really only has five chapters. The sixth chapter (called “Kinyan Torah“, The Acquisition of Torah or “Perek D’Rabbi Meir“) was added later. This is because of the custom to learn a chapter of Pirkei Avos on each Shabbos from Pesach to Shavuos. There are six Shabboses, but only five chapters, so an appropriate chapter regarding acquiring Torah was added from the Braisa (a work contemporary with the Mishna) for the week prior to Shavuos, which commemorates our receiving the Torah.

What’s with the introductory and concluding pieces?
Each chapter is prefaced by a mishna from Sanhedrin which expresses that every member of klal Yisroel has a share in the World to Come. This mishna is read as an introduction to Avos for several reasons. First, it is meant to motivate us to the study of Torah. Additionally, the expectations of behavior stated in Avos may be intimidating; this mishna reminds us that we have a portion in Olam Habah even if we are not 100% perfect. It also reminds us that others have this portion in the World to Come and we should remember to treat everyone in the fashion described in Avos.

At the end of every chapter is a mishna from Makkos. In some editions of the mishna you find it with commentary at the end of the sixth chapter and in a very few it is numbered- perhaps erroneously- as 6:12. (Now the title of this dvar Torah makes sense!) This mishna (“Rabbi Chananiah ben Hakashia says that Hashem wanted to bestow merit upon Israel, therefore he increased for them Torah and mitzvos…”) is appended for two reasons. First of all, it contains a beautiful and important message: Hashem gave us so many mitzvos that it would be impossible for someone not to be doing something right and thereby merit a share in Olam Habah. An additional, pragmatic reason is that we only say kaddish after learning a piece of Aggada (the non-halachic portions of the Talmud). Since this mishna is Aggada, the practice is not only to say it after learning Pirkei Avos, but after many other pieces of Torah before kaddish is said.

There are many interesting facets of Pirkei Avos. If there’s this much (and much more!) to say just about the name of the mesechta, its location in shas, and the number of chapters, imagine how profound the actual contents must be! Learn it and see for yourself!