A Journey Through the Rebbe’s Pirkei Avos

During these weeks when we learn Pirkei Avos weekly, we bring you a fascinating overview of the Rebbe’s analysis of these perokim: the questions, the names, and the lessons for life.

By A Chassidisher Derher

What is Pirkei Avos?

There are dozens of mesechtos that focus on halacha, on things that we are obligated to do; Pirkei Avos teaches how to have good middos and yiras Shamayim; it teaches us mili d’chasidusa, things that are above and beyond the letter of the law. As the Gemara tells us, “He who wishes to be a Chossid should fulfill… the matters of Avos.”

Overall, the Rebbe focused on Pirkei Avos as teaching us behavior beyond the obligation of Torah, and when we find Mishnayos that seem to be encouraging us to fulfill halachos, the Rebbe always asks: What is the mili dichasidusa message here? How does this qualify as beyond our obligation?

The primary setting for the Rebbe’s sichos on Pirkei Avos was during the summer Shabbos farbrengens, which generally followed this order: After the first couple of sichos—usually general sichos about the significance of the day and so on—came the maamar. Then came the second half of the farbrengen, which focused on specific Torah-subjects: The Rebbe would take a Chumash, read a Rashi, and ask questions on it. Then he would read a selection from Likkutei Levi Yitzchak and ask questions on it. And if it was the summertime, he would read a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos and do the same. After a niggun, the Rebbe would answer the questions one by one. (Obviously, the sichos often included other subjects as well and didn’t always fit this exact set-up.)

When the Rebbe analyzes a Mishnah, he doesn’t just read it dryly and make some observations; he gets involved in the Mishnah and asks questions with a shturem; “This Mishnah is ingantzen nisht farshtandik! It is entirely not understood!” “One question… and then a bigger question… and then the kushya gedola that no-one even mentions!”

Then when it comes to the answer, the Mishnah becomes alive before our eyes—what the Mishnah means to us and how it must change our lives. The lesson could be about the importance of hiskashrus and learning from every word of the Rabbeim, or about simple matters such as davening before work and not listening to recordings of kol isha. It can be teaching us lofty levels in Torah lishma, or philosophical understandings in the nature of creation.

Unlike the explanations on Rashi which generally followed a specific guideline—finding the peshuto shel mikra (and, additionally, the Chassidus and sometimes halacha components)—in Pirkei Avos there is no such protocol. One week the Rebbe would resolve the questions with beautiful illuminations in the basic meaning of the Mishnah, focusing on the understanding of the “ben esser l’Mishnah,” the ten-year-old studying Mishnah, and the following week he would resolve them with profound explanations according to Chassidus and Kabbalah. (On more than one occasion, the Rebbe explained a Mishnah according to all levels of Pardes—pshat, remez, drush, and sod.)

Pirkei Avos talks about many themes that are understood in an entirely new manner once seen through the lens of Chassidus—e.g. bittul to Hashem, studying Torah lishma, ahavas Yisroel—so when the Rebbe discusses a Mishnah already explained by mefarshim, it isn’t only that the Rebbe is looking for a better explanation in pshat—he is illuminating the Mishnah according to the giluy of Chassidus.

Sometimes, the Rebbe’s interpretation seems to contradict those of the earliest mefarshim. There have been hundreds of sefarim written on Pirkei Avos throughout the generations: the first pirush, Avos D’Rebbi Nosson, was compiled by a Tanna, and this was followed by pirushim by some of the greatest Rishonim (Rambam, Rashi) and early Acharonim (Tosfos Yom Tov, Bartenura, Maharal, etc). Every Mishnah has been discussed and explained multiple times. The Rebbe sometimes mentions that other mefarshim discussed the Mishnah —or that they missed out some essential questions—but many times he focuses only on the Mishnah itself.

On many occasions the Rebbe discussed, that in areas of halacha, the interpretation of the Tannaim—and later the Rishonim—is binding to all future generations. But Avos is coming to teach us yiras Shamayim and middos tovos, and everyone has the ability to learn their own interpretation in it—as long as it follows the klolim of Torah, and as long as one is careful not to distort the meaning. Therefore we find that Rashi and Rambam (Rishonim) contradict the Avos D’Rebbi Nosson; the Bartenura and Tosfos Yom Tov (early Acharonim) contradict the Rishonim; and the same is true of the later Achronim like the Maharal and so on.

(Furthermore, the Rebbe added: We have an obligation to innovate in Torah, so when one finds difficulties with an earlier explanation— no matter the author—he must toil to find an alternative one. As an example, the Rebbe notes that Rashi occasionally writes “Lo yadaati”—I don’t know [the pshat meaning] of this passage in Chumash. He doesn’t write “Lo yadua—it is not known,” because every person who reads the Rashi has the ability and responsibility to find the explanation, as we stand on the shoulders of giants.)

The Significance of the Author

Most of the mesechtos in Shas are arranged (roughly) by subject. If you want to learn about the halachos of marriage, you would look in Mesechta Kiddushin; for the laws of Shabbos, Mesechta Shabbos, etc.; and the Tannaim are quoted based on the subject matter.

But Pirkei Avos, the single mesechta of mili d’chasidusa, is organized very differently. It starts with a history of the oral tradition of Torah from Moshe through the generations, and as it introduces us to each person—in lieu of a biography—it quotes one (or more) of his teachings in mili d’chasidusa.

These aren’t simply teachings that they once said—it is their message that they each embodied throughout their lives:

The mefarshim explain that when Pirkei Avos uses the term that the Tanna says—omer— it’s different than anywhere else in Shas. There are two terms the Mishnah uses when a Tanna says his opinion: Amar (said), and omer (says). Amar is used when someone is simply stating an opinion; but omer implies an argument (e.g. Rabbi Yehuda omer this-and-this, but Rabbi Meir omer this-and-this).

Pirkei Avos always uses the term omer—yet there are almost never any arguments. Why does it use this term? Because these quotes aren’t simply things that the Tannaim once said—amar; in the past-tense—these are teachings that the Tannaim were constantly saying—omer, presently. These statements reflect who each of these Tannaim were, how they served Hashem, and what they expected from us.

Now, in all areas of Torah the Rebbe searched for a connection between the author and the teaching (an approach emphasized by the Rebbe’s father, Harav Levi Yitzchak). In Pirkei Avos, this approach is widely taken by the mefarshim, and the Rebbe develops it still further, unearthing connections even when they don’t seem apparent. Sometimes it’s about finding the connection between the Tanna and his message—a connection with his personality, an event that happened in his life, or another teaching of his—and sometimes we can only understand the Mishnah by knowing who said it. Sometimes the connection is a positive one—where they are encouraging us to follow in their ways, or expressing their personality— and other times they are cautioning us against doing what they did.

Some interesting examples:

Yehoshua Ben Perachia pushed oso ha’ish away “with two hands.” As the Gemara tells us, oso ha’ish once made an inappropriate comment, and Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachya excommunicated him and didn’t accept his attempts to return. That eventually led to a major spreading of avoda zara. Therefore, Rabbi Yehoshua warns us: Judge every person favorably, even when they don’t deserve it.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s entire being was invested in Torah; he was the first one in the beis midrash in the morning, and he didn’t walk four cubits without Torah. For 40 years he taught Torah to the entire nation. Therefore, he is the one who can make the statement, “If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself—it is for this that you have been formed.

Rebbi Elazar ben Arach excelled in the innovation and creativity of Torah, unlike his colleague Rebbi Eliezer who excelled in retaining the Torah of his teachers. At one point in life Rebbi Elazar was separated from the other Chachamim and forgot his learning. Therefore, as someone who primarily focused on creativity, he still warns us: Be diligent in the study of Torah, so that your innovations are based on your teachers and that you always retain your learning.

Rebbi Shimon ben Yochai was so invested in Torah that he was able to change the world with it, even bringing rain with his Torah study. Therefore, he speaks about the importance of “Three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah,” that Torah must permeate a person’s physical world.

What’s in a name?

The Frierdiker Rebbe once told the fascinating story of Reb Baruch Mordechai, rav of Babroisk, a Chossid of the Alter Rebbe who was a tremendous gaon and learned with the greatest scholars of his day.

In one episode, the Frierdiker Rebbe relates how Reb Baruch Mordechai’s brother-in-law, the rosh yeshiva and gaon Reb Avigdor, came to visit him in Babroisk. A gathering was arranged in the big shul, where Reb Avigdor was to deliver a pilpul. As Reb Avigdor was waiting in the side room, the chabadnitze, he heard the sweet sounds of someone davening with heart-rending sincerity. He asked whose voice he was hearing, and he was told that it was Zalman Leib the shmaiser, a wagon driver.

Reb Avigdor mockingly said, “Zalmen Leib the shmaiser is oich mir a davener… He’s no more than the heel of a davener!” Reb Baruch Mordechai didn’t say anything. But afterwards Reb Avigdor repeated this comment publicly, and Reb Baruch Mordechai felt that he had to reply. “The heel of a davener is a great thing according to Torah,” he said, “and brings benefits in three matters.” Knowing the wisdom of Reb Baruch Mordechai, everyone waited to hear what he meant. When he saw that they were unable to understand what he meant, he explained that this was a clear Mishna in Pirkei Avos: Akavya Ben Mehalalel Omer, histakel bishlosha devorim. The heel (Akavya=Eikev=heel) of a davener who praises Hashem (Mehalalel=hallel=praising) says three things.

The Frierdiker Rebbe went on to say that although this was only a tzachus, it reflects the fact that Chassidus uplifts everyone, so that even the heel of a Chassidisher davener can give these three fundamental messages for a person’s life.

In the Teshuvos U’Biurim column in Kovetz Lubavitch, a periodical published before the nesius, the Rebbe wrote that there had been a strong response to this interpretation. It seemed that everyone agreed that it was no more than an allegorical interpretation that made no sense and had no basis in Chazal—how does Akavya son of Mehalalel become a heel who is davening and praises Hashem?! The difference was only this: Detractors found an opportunity to denigrate Chassidim, while people with a better attitude argued that there’s nothing wrong with a cute vort. But Chassidim were upset that it had been so widely published.

Therefore, the Rebbe said, this would be a perfect example to show how everything in the sichos has a clear basis in Torah. The Rebbe went on to give a fascinating overview of the significance of names in the Torah—that the name reveals the character of a person, it even affects him, and that even a parent’s name can affect their offspring.

Then the Rebbe adds an unbelievable thing: This specific interpretation of Akavya ben Mehalalel is actually written explicitly:

Mehalalel: The Midrash says that Mehalalel did teshuva and began praising Hashem. Akavya: It is written in the Kisvei Ha’Arizal that the neshama of Akavaya comes from the heel of Adam Harishon.

“This explanation of this ‘odd’ tzachus can serve as a good example for us,” the Rebbe concludes, “that certainly all the sayings in the holy sichos, even those that seem surprising to us, have a good explanation. On such matters Chazal say, ‘If you find it empty, it is from you, for you have not toiled in Torah.’”

Although, as mentioned above, many mefarshim search for connections with the personality or life-story of the Tanna, the idea of analyzing someone’s name is uncommon. We find this approach very often in Harav Levi Yitzchak’s writings, and in Pirkei Avos the Rebbe sometimes does it as well.

The Alter Rebbe’s version

The Alter Rebbe printed the entire Pirkei Avos in his siddur. This would seem to be out of character: Printing was very expensive in those days, and the Alter Rebbe even omitted tefillos in order to save on printing. For example, if you would be davening Shabbos Musaf from his original siddur, you would have to flip back to Shachris in order to find Retzei and Modim. Pirkei Avos is a part of Mishnayos which happens to be studied on Shabbos afternoon; so the Alter Rebbe could have simply written to read it from a mishnayos. Why the need to print it in the siddur?

The Rebbe explains (based on the Shaar Hakolel), that this is because there are variations in the wording and vowelization of the Mishnayos, and also in how exactly it is divided. In order to establish the correct version, the Alter Rebbe published Pirkei Avos in the siddur.

The Rebbe would often explain why the Alter Rebbe chose one version over the other; why he chose the version that puts two seemingly unrelated Mishnayos together, why he chose the version quoting one Tanna and not another, and so on. (The Rebbe also sometimes used the alternate version to understand the meaning of a Mishnah.)

[The division of the Mishnayos would seem to be a minor issue, almost an afterthought, but, as the Rebbe often pointed out, it can actually have a serious halachic ramifications: If someone gets married on the condition that he is able to “lishanos”—that he knows Mishnayos—he is only halachically married if he knows three Mishnayos. Now, since the Mishnayos are not divided based on the quantity of teachings—i.e. some Mishnayos are long and contain several teachings from several people, while others are very short. Depending on the exact version of how the Mishnayos are divided, this person would be considered able lishanos or not—and married or not.]

The Chassidus-In depth

As mentioned above, the Rebbe would often explain the Mishnayos according to Chassidus, revealing tremendous depth and exploring profound concepts of Chassidus and Kabbalah. Many Mishnayos have been explained by the previous Rabbeim, and they form the basis for fundamental /teachings of Chassidus.

Click here to read the full, beautifully laid out article

In keeping in line with the Rabbonim's policies for websites, we do not allow comments. However, our Rabbonim have approved of including input on articles of substance (Torah, history, memories etc.)

We appreciate your feedback. If you have any additional information to contribute to this article, it will be added below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

advertise package