The first paragraph of Pirkei Avot does not say what people think it says


            The first paragraph of Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, states:

                        Moses received Torah from Sinai

                        And delivered it to Joshua,

                        And Joshua to the Elders,

                        And the Elders to the Prophets,

                        And the Prophets delivered it to the Men of the Great Assembly.


Each of these five statements is problematical.


  1. Even a cursory look at the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch) reveals that the entire five books were not revealed at Sinai. The book of Exodus only states that the Decalogue (popularly called Ten Commandments) was revealed there. Additionally, three and a half of the five books contain events that occurred after the Sinai revelation.

The first statement does not say that Moses received “the” Torah, only Torah. When the word Torah appears in the Five Books of Moses it means “teaching,” a single subject, not a book, and not the Five Books of Moses. The traditional understanding of its use here is “the rabbinical interpretations and elaborations and innovations,” called “Oral Torah.” It is saying that the multiple changes and additions developed by the Pharisees and rabbis are significant “as if” they were, like the Decalogue, revealed at Sinai.

  1. Neither the Five Books of Moses nor the book of Joshua state that Moses gave the Five Books of Moses to Joshua. When the word Torah appears in Joshua, it refers to a teaching, not a book or books. There are also indications in the book of Joshua that its author knew nothing about the Pentateuch, as I detail in my “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Joshua.”
  2. There is no indication, even a hint, in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel that a group of people existed who were called Elders, and no statement that Joshua gave the Torah to anyone.
  3. No passage in any biblical book suggests that the prophets received the Pentateuch. There are many verses that show the books’ authors knew nothing about the Pentateuch.
  4. As with the Elders, we have no information about the existence of the Men of the Great Assembly. Scholars suppose that this was a collection of people who aided Ezra in assembling the Pentateuch. The dates of Ezra’s existence are disputed, but he probably lived around 444 BCE.

The second paragraph of Pirkei Avot states that Simon the Just was a survivor of the Great Assembly. These paragraphs as well as what follows are designed to show an uninterrupted transmission of Torah, but there are gaps. There were two Simon the Justs. One died around 270 BCE and the second around 199 BCE. There is a large gap between 444 and 270 or 199. Josephus identifies the Simon of Pirkei Avot as the first one.[1] There is also a large gap of 110 years between Simon the Just who died in 270 and Jose ben Joezer who lived around 160 BCE. Pirkei Avot states that Antigonos of Socho came between Simon and Jose but “there is approximately a period of eighty years to be accounted for.”[2]



            Although the first paragraph of Pirkei Avot is frequently cited as the rabbinic view that Moses received the Torah from God and transmitted it without interruption to successive leaders of every generation, an examination of this source shows it does not say what it is claimed to say. The paragraph is not speaking about the Pentateuch, but about the interpretations and additions of the rabbis whose enactments (Oral Law) were as significant as the Decalogue that was revealed at Sinai. There is no biblical source for any of the mentioned people receiving or even knowing about the Pentateuch of Oral Law; and there are many verses suggesting they had no knowledge of the Pentateuch. There is no proof, biblical or extra-biblical, that two of the transmitters, Elders and Men of the Great Assembly, existed. There are gaps in the transmission showing that even if the rest of the paragraph is true, there were times when transmission did not occur.


[1] Antiquities 12.2.5 and 4.10.

[2] R. Travers Heford, “The Ethics of the Talmud,” Schocken Books, 1962.