Peninsula rabbi gives Ethics of the Fathers a makeover

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To become a righteous person, one must observe the mitzvahs of Torah and Talmud. But to become a true spiritual powerhouse, one must study the Pirkei Avot, or the Ethics of the Fathers.

That worldview led Yosef Marcus, rabbi at Chabad of the North Peninsula, to compile a new commentary on the classic Jewish text. In its six chapters, the sages of the Pirkei Avot serve up a virtual owner’s manual for humanity.

Rabbi Yosef Marcus

“In its short, concise sentences the sages seem to get to the heart of things,” says Marcus. “If people lived their lives according to the Pirkei Avot, they would have very productive and spiritually rich lives. It’s a unique book in all of Judaism. In all the Mishnah [Talmud], it’s the only one that deals entirely with character.”

So many iconic aphorisms fill the Pirkei Avot, it could be called “Judaism’s Greatest Hits.” To wit:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

“The world stands on three things: Torah, service and deeds of lovingkindness.”

“Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

Sound familiar?

Knowing there have been many commentaries on the Pirkei Avot over the years, Marcus wanted to take a different approach. He incorporated not only excerpts from classical commentaries, he also added mini-biographies of the sages, kabbalistic perspectives and historical fun facts. He says he tried to keep out any commentary that would require much previous knowledge of Jewish texts.

Marcus borrowed the English translation of Pirkei Avot that appears in the Chabad siddur, though he admits he “tampered with it.” He also added artistic flourishes, with blue borders, logos for different headings and a pen-and-ink portrait of a sage.

It’s all part of Marcus’ intention to make the volume user-friendly and then some, appealing to readers at all levels of Jewish education, including those with none.

“The innovation, the new thing here, was to give it a Chassidic spin,” Marcus adds. “A lot of the commentary in there is from Chassidic teachings and particularly from Chabad teachings. That was totally original.”

Being a Chabad rabbi, Marcus drew on the teachings of the late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose synopsized Pirkei Avot commentaries Marcus wove throughout the volume.

“If a person reads this they will get a good sense of the rebbe’s philosophy,” Marcus says. “One of the ideas that comes out of it is the unconditional love for one’s fellow, a very nonjudgmental love.”

Marcus admires the sages of the Pirkei Avot, who compiled the text during a time of great stress for the Jewish people.

“These rabbis were living under severe persecution,” he says. “The Romans, the destruction of Israel and the Second Temple, this was the time these ideas were being taught. You would think people under such physical torment, the last thing they’d be thinking about would be spiritual work. I found it very inspiring.”

Marcus says the Pirkei Avot can help anyone become a better person because it focuses on the individual, rather than the other great tenet of Judaism, tikkun olam (repairing the world). “Our efforts at fixing the world are greatly enhanced when we are engaged in fixing ourselves,” he says, “and Pirkei Avot helps us fix ourselves.”

The book is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the Chabad couple murdered in the Mumbai terrorist attacks last year. Marcus says they embodied the spirit of the Chassid — a term relating to the Hebrew word chesed, meaning kindness.

It’s a Chassidic tradition to study Pirkei Avot in the summer, which means Marcus will soon be taking a close look at his own book.

Familiar as he is with Pirkei Avot, how does Marcus keep the material fresh and alive when it comes time to study?

“Thankfully my memory is not as good as it used to be,” he says with a laugh. “When I read my own commentary I say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty interesting. I wrote that?’ ”

“Pirkei Avot — Ethics of the Fathers,” compiled by Rabbi Yosef Marcus ($44, Kehot Publication Society, 242 pages).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.