MASSEKETH ABOTH, best known [with the addition of Pereq Rabbi Meir] as Pirqe Aboth, or Chapters of the Fathers, is a Mishnah Tract in Seder Neziqin, where it stands between 'Abodah Zarah and Horaioth. It takes its name from the fact that it consists to a great extent of maxims of the Jewish FATHERS whose names are mentioned in its pages, and is chiefly valued as a compendium of practical ethics, although it is not without a mystical element in portions of its Fifth and concluding Chapter. Its simplicity and intrinsic excellence have secured for ABOTH a widespread and lasting popularity, and have led to its being excerpted from the Talmud and used liturgically in the Synagogue, at certain seasons, from an early period. "It was the custom," writes Sar Shalom Gaon, "in the house of our Rabbi in Babel, to recite ABOTH and (the supplementary sixth chapter) QINYAN THORAH, after evening prayer upon the Sabbath;" and the "Six Chapters" are found at the present day in Prayer Books of the Ashkenazic rite.
The Talmudic saying that Whosoever would be pious must fulfil the dicta of the FATHERS is quoted by Rabbinic commentators in their introductions to Pirqe Aboth, and the Tract has been described, with reference to this saying, as "Mishnath ha-Chasidim," a course of instruction for the pious.
The First Chapter opens with the statement that Moses, having received the Law from Sinai, handed it down to Joshua, and he in turn to the Elders, and the Elders to the men of the Great Synagogue. The Mosaic succession having been thus far established, the men of the Great Synagogue speak their three WORDS, which express the aim and function of the new school of Soferim: "Be deliberate in judgment; and raise up many disciples; and make a hedge to the Law." Next comes Simon Justus, with his saying, that the three pillars of the world are Revelation, Worship, and Humanity; and after him the first teacher of Greek name, Antigonus, whose inculcation of disinterested service is described in a Jewish tradition as the ultimate source of the negative tenets of the Sadducees, or "Sons of Zadok." From this point onward to the end of the Fourth Chapter we have a series of moral sayings, which are put into the mouths of Rabbis who lived within the period from two centuries before to two centuries after CHRIST.
The Fifth Chapter is characterised by something of a more speculative tendency. It touches upon the cosmogony; upon miracles, and their relation to the order of nature; upon the connexion between the moral and the physical; upon the varieties of men, and minds, and motives; upon the antitheses of the good and the evil dispositions. In form it is a series of groups of ten, seven, four, and three things; its sayings, unlike those in preceding chapters, take the form of historical narrative, or of systematic classification; and it makes no mention of the name of any Mishnah Teacher, until we come, at or near the end, to a saying which is ascribed to Jehudah ben Thema: "Be bold as a leopard, and swift as an eagle, and fleet as a hart, and strong as a lion, to do the will of thy FATHER WHICH IS IN HEAVEN."
Of commentaries upon ABOTH, the best known is that of Maimonides, which is found--sometimes in the original Arabic, but more commonly in Hebrew--in separate Manuscripts, or
in his work on the whole Mishnah, or in Jewish Prayer Books of the Italian rite. Another great commentary, which has been ascribed to R. Jacob ben Shimshon, to R. Shemuel ben Meir, a grandson of Rashi, and even to Rashi himself, is found likewise in separate Manuscripts, and in a great number of Prayer Books, especially of the Franco-German rite. In its most complete form it belongs apparently to the beginning of the thirteenth century, but it is based upon traditions of a much earlier date. A third work which is indispensable for the criticism of ABOTH is the Arabic commentary of 'R. Israel' of Toledo, which has hitherto been supposed to have perished, except in so far as it was embodied in the Hebrew commentary of his descendant, Isaac ben R. Shelomoh; but a manuscript of R. Israel's work has been lately purchased for the Bodleian Library , and will be found described and identified in [No. 90 of] the forthcoming Catalogue of MANUSCRIPTS OF THE TEXT OF ABOTH AND OF COMMENTARIES UPON IT.
The printed text of the Five Peraqim is from an important manuscript of the MISHNAH, [which was purchased for the Cambridge University Library in 1869, and has been edited by Mr W. H. Lowe, of Christ's College]. The sixth Pereq is taken from a modern Ashkenazic Prayer Book.
The Comparative Index of the Mishnah gives the title of each Tract according to the MS., with its positions in the MS. itself and in the well-known edition of Surenhusius respectively. The Index is followed by extracts from the Mishnah
including two complete specimen pages, which, with the exception of the headings, have been transcribed literally and line by line from the MANUSCRIPT. [The Index and the extracts above-mentioned are now transferred to the APPENDIX.]
ST JOHN'S COLLEGE, April 9th, 1877.