The Ethics of the Talmud

Sayings of the Fathers

Pirke Aboth

Text, Complete Translation and Commentaries

By R. Travers Herford

Schocken Books, 1962, 176 pages


There are dozens of commentaries in many languages on the Talmudic book of ethics called in Hebrew Pirke Aboth and known in English as Ethics of the Fathers, although a true translation of the Hebrew is Chapters from the Fathers. Most of these books are homiletical, sermonic; focusing on moral lessons in which the modern commentary’s author offers his or her own opinion, sometimes ideas that are not even hinted in the text, and often anachronistic, ideas that did not exist when the book was composed. What distinguishes R. Travers Herford’s lucid book is that it is a scholarly book by a man who was very familiar with Jewish history, laws, and customs, and who was able in clear and readable language to introduce his readers to information they would not be able to find elsewhere without hard and time-consuming searches.

R. Travers Herford, born in England in 1860, was a distinguished Christian scholar of Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism, which he always treated with deep respect. He was by far not the only Christian scholar who did so. This volume, first published in 1925 and still popular, is not his only book on the Talmud, Midrash, Pharisaism, and Rabbinic Judaism. All of his books have been praised by scholars and lay readers of all religions. Herford knows his subject and, although he is a Christian commenting on a Jewish book, we are reminded of Maimonides’ advice, “The truth is the truth no matter what its source.”

Herford offers readers a wealth of information. For example, among much else, he points out that the book was given the title Pirke Aboth by Christians. The original name was Massechet Aboth, Tractate of the Fathers. He explains that the book is a kind of epilogue to the books of the Talmud and the opening paragraph (Mishna) about the transmission of Torah, meaning the rabbinical teachings, from Moses through successive generations, is designed to teach that although what is contained in the Talmud is a development of what is in the written Torah, these rabbinical teachings are so significant that they are “as if” they were revealed by God at Sinai.

He tells us about all of the 66 sages mentioned in the Ethics, gives their dates and historical information about them. He reveals that we have no information about the “Elders” and “Men of the Great Assembly” cited in the first Mishna, and they are not mentioned in the Bible, and gives us scholarly and traditional information about them. He shows us that while the book attempts to present an uninterrupted transmission of Torah, with names, there are instances where there are gaps between one name and the named person or institution that follows. He explains that while there is a chronological sequence in chapter 1, interrupted with four Mishnas that is out of sequence, with the sequence continued in chapter 2:5-19, the other Mishnas are not in sequence, and he discusses why this is so.

He suggests that one may want to compare the Ethics with wisdom books in the Bible, such as Proverbs and Kohelet. Seeking wisdom is not unique to any culture. He raises the question why Ethics was placed at the end of the books of Nezikin, and explains that it is used as an epilogue. He tells us why a sixth chapter was added to the Ethics from another source, from where, and why. He reveals how the Pharisees began and how they differed with the Sadducees, and how the Pharisees developed into Rabbinic Judaism, and why. He devotes a section on why the sage Rabban Johanan ben Zaccai is discussed at some length: he changed Judaism. He was the leader when the stress on sacrifices ceased when the temple was destroyed. Yet, despite his importance, only one saying is attributed to him: “If you learned much Torah, do not take credit for it, because it was for this that you were created.” Why only this one statement when others are usually cited with three, and what does it mean?

In short, these few examples out of many dozens should show readers that there is great benefit in reading – indeed studying – this informative book.