Avos D’Rebbi Nosson
Translated by Avraham Yaakov Finkel
The classic work of Judaism, Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers” in English, is a book written during the first half of the first millennia of the Common Era. It is read frequently by many Jews because of the undeniable wise lessons in it. Many Jews even follow the practice of reading the entire book or a chapter of it every Saturday evening during the summer months, as a kind of preparation before the High Holidays in the fall, because the book teaches good ethics and can serve as a stimulant to improve one’s behavior before the holidays. It is a short book of six chapters, less than twenty pages.
Avot d’Rabbi Natan, or Avos D’Rebbi Nosson as Finkel transliterates the Hebrew, is a translation from the Hebrew of a similar book that has forty-one chapters. It is similar in that it contains much that is in Pirkei Avot, but dissimilar because it expands upon the sayings in Pirkei with long imaginative, frequently impossible but often fascinating legends and parables, many of which are based on superstitious notions. Finkel’s title reads Hebrew in the Ashkenazic pronunciation rather than the now-acceptable Sephardic pronunciation. The former is the way European Jews pronounced the Hebrew. The latter is the pronunciation used today in Israel, what scholars believe was the pronunciation of former time, one preserved, for example, by Jews who lived in Yemen.
We have no idea who composed this book or why or when. Some scholars even think it is not an expansion of Pirkei Avot but preceded it and that Pirkei Avot is a shorter version, an unlikely idea. It is more reasonable to assume that unlike Jews who read Ethics of the Fathers today to be stimulated to improve their behavior, the author of this volume used Ethics as a spring board for his collection of oft-impossible tales. While its title seems to indicate that Rabbi Natan wrote or compiled it, the consensus is that the book has Rabbi Natan’s name only because he is one of the first rabbis mentioned in the book. Rabbi Natan lived during the second century but the book was probably composed centuries later.
Many tales in this book are found in the Talmuds and Midrashim, the latter being books that contain expositions on the Bible, but which, like this book, have didactic tales. However this book also contains sayings and stories not found elsewhere such as a poignant description of the death of Moses and how the angel of death had a hard time searching for Moses’ soul.
Examples of other legends and sayings in this ancient collection are:
Rabbi Natan said that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God, God kept him waiting for six days, during which time Moses did not eat or drink, to “dissolve all the food and drink in his intestines, sanctifying him, and making him like one of the ministering angels.”
Rabbi Shimon lamented the punishment inflicted upon the serpent who seduced Eve in the beginning of the Bible. “If the serpent had not been cursed, every Jew would have two serpents in his house, sending one to the east and one to the west to bring him precious gems, costly pearls, and every kind of precious article in the world.”
Rabbi Yehuda said that Adam sat leisurely in the Garden of Eden while angels cooked meat and cooled wine for him.
Adam was created on Friday. He was frightened that night when the world became dark. He thought that he was being punished for eating the forbidden fruit. In the morning when it was light again, Adam realized that the darkness was a natural phenomenon. He sacrificed an ox to God. Three groups of angels descended during the sacrifice and played all kinds of musical instruments.
In sum, one can see in these examples the worldview of its author: This world, unlike the understanding of scientists and rational thinkers, functions in mysterious ways. God has ministering angels who serve God as the servants of an Oriental Pasha. Jews should be like these angels, pure, not sullied by food and drink – although, the book has a contradictory notion that angels and other beings should attend upon humans supplying them with the best foods and drinks as well as wealth. Jews, like angels should also minister before God by killing animals that God created as a kind of tax to the Pasha or as a bribe to solicit the Pasha’s good favor or simply to make God feel good.