Introduction to Tractate Avot

1.     Tractate Avot – “One is My Dove, My Perfect One”

Sixty Queens – Sixty Tractates Excluding Tractate Avot

In Shir Hashirim Rabah,[1] Rabbi Yitzchak expounded, “‘There are sixty queens,’ these are the sixty tractates of halachah (Jewish law) etc.” By stating “the sixty tractates of halachah” Rabbi Yitzchak intended to exclude Tractate Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) from the calculation of sixty because it deals with morals and rectifying the emotive powers of the soul, and is not a tractate of halachah.[2] In fact, there are 63 tractates in the six orders of the Mishnah, but when the three “Bavot” (Baba Kama, Baba Metzia and Baba Batra) are considered as one “Tractate Nezikin” – and Tractate Avot is excluded from the calculation, then there are exactly sixty tractates, “There are sixty queens.”

The following verse states, “One is my dove, my perfect one.” By relating to Rabbi Yitzchak’s emphasis in the midrash that the sixty queens are the sixty tractates of halachah, we can say that “One is my dove, my perfect one” alludes to Tractate Avot.

Tractate Avot: “One Is My Dove, My Perfect One” – “Good Etiquette Preceded the Torah”

One of the reasons[3] why this tractate is called “Fathers” is because refining the emotive powers of the soul is the “parent” principle and the root of observing all the practical commandments in the Torah; the halachot. As the sages state, “Good etiquette preceded the Torah”[4]  (in Kabbalah and Chassidut, this statement is explained to mean that good etiquette, i.e., refining the emotive powers of the soul, takes precedence over the Torah, i.e., teaching halachot). One numerical allusion to this idea is that “Fathers” (אָבוֹת) has the same numerical value as “One” (אַחַת) – “One is my dove, my perfect one.”

2. Ethics of the Fathers – Learning How to be Good

The goal of Ethics of the Fathers is to be good – a good Jew (יְהוּדִי טוֹב) behaves as a son (בֶּן) to his Father in Heaven; indeed, the two Hebrew terms share the same numerical value. All the tractates of halachah (the sixty “queens”) teach us how to correctly observe the mitzvot out of pure faith (“All Your commandments are faith”), however, learning how to be a good person and an honest individual (in addition to observing the commandments and all their details) is also to be learned from the Torah, since “There is no goodness other than Torah.” This study material is covered in Tractate Avot, which begins, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai,” as the sages described in a familiar conundrum, “Good [referring to Moses, of whom it states, ‘For he was good’] will come, and receive good [referring to the Torah, of which it states, ‘For I have given you a good moral’] from Good [God, of whom it states, ‘God is good to all’] to the good ones [the Jewish People, of whom it states, ‘God has benefited the good ones.’]”[5]

This is stated explicitly in the second chapter of Ethics of the Fathers in reply to the question, “Which is a good way that an individual should cling to?” in the all-inclusive reply of “a goodly heart.”[6]

“Goodly heart” (לֵב טוֹב) equals 49, which is an allusion to the general rectification achieved during the forty-nine days of the Omer. These are the days when Ethics of the Fathers are read and studied, thus observing the precept of “good etiquette preceded the Torah” i.e., rectifying the emotive powers of the soul before receiving the Torah on Shavuot.

“A goodly heart” (49) = 7 times 7, which alludes to the interinclusion of the seven emotive powers of the soul, from loving-kindness in loving-kindness through to kingdom in kingdom, as we are familiar with from the intentions we have when counting the Omer.

Moreover, beyond the rectification of the seven attributes of the heart, goodness is the rectification of the psyche from beginning to end – by power of faith, the first power of the soul (the inner motivation of the upper head of the sefirah of crown), down to the power of lowliness, the final power of the soul (the inner motivation of the sefirah of kingdom).  The numerical allusion to this is that out of all the names of the powers of the psyche, only the first and the last are divisible by 17 (“good”; טוֹב). Faith (אֶמוּנָה; 102) equals 6 times 17 (the six combinations of the three lettered word “good” (טוֹב) and “lowliness” (שִׁפְלוּת; 816) equals 48 (mind; מֹח) times 17 (i.e., 8 times “faith”; אֶמוּנָה), alluding to the fact that “The end is wedged in the beginning and the beginning in the end.” This allusion teaches us that the intrinsic point of all the powers of the soul, from beginning to end, is goodness (the goodness of God, who is the essence of goodness, and the goodness of every Jew, who―from the point of view of his inner essence―is essentially good). This point of goodness is the highest intention we can reach by studying Ethics of the Fathers.

3. Ethics of the Fathers – Take Something Good

The purpose of Tractate Avot is to teach us how to be good. Indeed, in the six chapters of the tractate, there are 108 (the gematria of “take”; קח) mishnayot (“verses”) that teach us how to be good. This numerical allusion relates to the verse, “Return, Israel, unto Havayah, your God… take words with you… and take goodness.”

The 108 mishnayot in Tractate Avot also allude to the word “statute” (חֹק; 108).

Whereas a statute is a type of super-rational commandment, goodness is something that can be grasped with “good” reasoning. So, all the teachings in Ethics of the Fathers are somewhat paradoxically “good statutes,” affording the individual an inner sensitivity to the goodness and dearness of the Torah’s teachings even when they are not fully understood in their minds. The amazing teachings in Tractate Avot are accepted as Divine statutes whose goodness is perceived well both by the mind and the heart.

The expression “a good statute” (חֹק טוֹב) is mentioned explicitly in the Bible in the verse, “And upon Mt. Sinai You descended and spoke to them from Heaven and You gave them honest laws and genuine teachings, good statutes and commandments.”

In the entire Bible, the phrase “Mt. Sinai” appears 17 (“good”; טוֹב) times, alluding to the “good moral” that there is in Tractate Avot, which begins, “Moses received Torah from Sinai” (“Good will come and receive goodness from the Good for the good ones”; as above). Of these 17 times, 16 are in the Five Books of “Moses’ Torah” and once in the abovementioned verse in Nehemiah. The book of Nehemiah is in fact the second half of the book of Ezra and the sages relate to the two as one book. Since Ezra-Nehemiah (עֶזְרָא נְחֶמְיָה) equals Joshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ) we can see how the secret of the opening mishnah of Ethics of the Fathers is alluded to here, “Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders and the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly [during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah].”

[1] Parashah 6 9:2.

[2] See Chidushei Harashash on Bamidbar Rabah, Korach, 23.

[3] On these lines see, Tiferet Yisrael, and explanations on Ethics of the Fathers by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

[4] Tana Devai Eliyahu 1.

[5] This is alluded to in the gematria, “Moses received Torah from Sinai” (מֹשֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִינַי), which equals 74 (עֵד, “witness”) times 17 (טוֹב, “good”) – the Jewish People are witnesses to God’s goodness, “You are My witnesses, says God.”

[6] The allusion here is that Ethics of the Fathers (פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת) equals “good” (טוֹב; 17) times “for it is good” (כִּי טוֹב; 47) with the average of 17 ┴ 47 being 32, which is the numerical value of “heart” (לֵב), which is the “goodly heart” that includes all the goodness of an individual’s soul.

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