The Most Important Mitzvah

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There is a famous story of a Jewish man, imprisoned in the 16th century, who was unexpectedly given the opportunity to choose one day of freedom. On that one day, his captor explained, he would be free to go home to visit his family and to practice his religion in any way that he saw fit. In a sense he …

It’s a Free Country

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Does man actually have free will? The scientific theory of determinism posits that a set of rules, the laws of nature, predetermine everything that takes place in the universe, including the behavior of human beings. Said differently, individuals have no free will and perhaps can therefore not be held morally responsible for their actions. While this is certainly but one …

Build Your Fence

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“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense.”   Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall” highlights the reality and the challenge of building fences. A fence not only protects by restricting access, but what surrounds the fence can often only be …

Be On Time!

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Pirkei Avot is comprised not only of a wealth of teachings on how to live the best ethical, moral, and Jewish life, but it is also comprised of many different and even at times competing values as taught by different Rabbis. More than that, however, what is most striking about Pirkei Avot is that there is really no one set …

Nature and Jewish Life

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Living in the Capital District affords the opportunity to go out and appreciate nature in a way that you cannot do living in other communities. A short drive in almost any direction leads to beautiful views, great hikes, and inspiring landscapes. It is for that reason that Chapter 3 Mishna 9 is so concerning and difficult to understand. Rabbi Yaakov …

Counting Women

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The beauty of Pirkei Avot lies not only in its ethical teachings, but also in how it guides us as Jews in living our lives. In particular, there are a number of Mishnayot throughout Pirkei Avot that allude to different pragmatic elements of Jewish Law (Halacha). One such example can be found in Chapter 3 Mishna 4. Here, Rabbi Shimon …

How to talk to a heretic?

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As we have explained over the course of the last few weeks, the main focus of Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avot is on Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and his five students. Each of these great sages taught critical lessons that would forever serve both as the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism as well as the continuation of the chain of Mesorah, …

Why Should We Pray?

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Prayer is one of the most important and fundamental Jewish ideas. Its no surprise that in Pirkei Avot Chapter 2 Mishna 18 we see Rabbi Shimon describe how one must be careful in their prayer. It is clear from his words that this meticulous and cautious attitude to prayer reflects just how important and powerful prayer can be.  In fact, …

Can Tradition Change? Part II

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Last week we raised some major questions on the Mishnayot in Chapter 2. In particular we explored how the emphasis on tradition, of one sage receiving and transmitting the mesorah from one generation to the next abruptly ends with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. It was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who the Gemara teaches chose to reestablish the Sanhedrin in Yavneh …

Can Tradition Change? Part I

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The focus, structure, and theme of the first chapter of Pirkei Avot can be summed up in one word—Mesorah (Tradition). In fact it is the very first Mishna that sets this tone by clearly delineating the chain of transmission of the Torah from Moshe to Yehoshua all the way down to the Men of the Great Assembly. Throughout the rest …