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Ma’asei Avos:
Pirkei Avos through the Eyes of the Students
of the Baal Shem Tov and Their Disciples
Rabbi Tal Moshe Zwecker, ed. and trans.
© 2017 by Menucha Publishers
1235 38th St.
Bklyn, NY  11218
718-232-0856

review by
Rabbi Eli Mallon

“Pirkei Avot” (“Ethics” or “Wisdom” or “Chapters” of the “Fathers”) is a short book, filled with terse rabbinic quotations; almost like “sutras” in Yogic literature. It’s customarily read during the 6 Shabbatot between Pesach and Sh’vuot — one chapter for each Shabbat.

It can be read at any other time of year, too, of course. The “Birnbaum” siddur included it for just that purpose: Make it available at any and every time. While it’s a book about “ethics,” it’s not about legal principles or rules. Rather, it’s the spiritual and ethical guidance given to us by the great rabbis of our tradition. There’s even a rabbinic commentary on it, entitled “Avot d’Rabbi Natan” — a collection of discussions about, or based on, the text of “Pirkei Avot.” 

Versions of the text can vary slightly in the placement and numeration of some of the “verses” or “mishnayot.” One need not own more than one version to derive great benefit.

However, commentaries on “Pirkei Avot” are innumerable. New ones (or translations of old ones) appear all the time. With regard to them, one might not be able to own enough of them; especially ones in a Hebrew-English edition.

The commentaries can vary deeply, depending on the orientation of the commentator or writer. Yet, any and all make a contribution to our understanding of the text, as well as to Jewish culture, itself. 

“Ma’asei Avos” is an anthology of quotations from Hasidic rebbes that Rabbi Tal Zwecker has chosen to illuminate some aspect of the original text. The edition reviewed here has a largely Hasidic orientation, and draws on homiletic orMa'asei Avos “ethical” statements from there, rather than more “mystical” ones. The great Hasidic rebbes seem to have rediscovered the devotional and inspirational roots that were familiar to the rabbis of the Talmud (in the idioms of their own day, of course). The great rebbes could speak with a spiritual genuineness that a rabbi who is only an academic master can do no more than cite or analyze.

Rabbi Zwecker’s layout is very conducive to using this text for learning. 

At the top of a page is a mishnah in English, facing the same in Hebrew. The statements of the rebbes fill the rest of the pages; sometimes several on one page, at other times covering multiple pages. 

For example, “[Hillel] said, ‘A fool cannot have fear of Heaven [lit. ‘fear of sin’], the ignoramus [lit. ‘am ha’aretz’ — an uneducated person] cannot be a hasid’…” [1]

On the first phrase in this mishnah, the Kotzker Rebbe taught: “If a fool had any fear of Heaven, he would not remain a fool, for he would then study and learn and be a fool no longer.” [2] The rebbe seems to be challenging our typical excuses about our current limitations, whatever they might be, saying: If we have at least the degree of mental ability to recognize that our actions have inescapable consequences, then we can and must make progress. 

On the second phrase, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vurka “…explained the term ‘am ha’aretz’ (usually translated as ‘an ignoramus’) literally as ‘people of the land.’ A person who says he can only serve Ha-Shem in one land is no hasid at all…” [3] The Vurka rebbe seems to be reaffirming the fundamental Hasidic emphasis on God being everywhere, and that one might not rightly use a familiar geographical setting as an excuse not to progress spiritually.

The book is full of such quotations, along with many stories or “ma’asehs” (in Yiddish, “maysehs” — stories; in Hebrew, it can also mean “deeds,” “works,” or “actions”) that have not appeared in other popular Hasidic anthologies.

Also, unlike Martin Buber, Elie Weisel or Louis Newman, Rabbi Zwecker is writing from within the Othodox/Hasidic world. His book has a certain authenticity, a certain “nearness to original sources” that a non-Hasid can’t quite attain. As the back jacket says:

“[Rabbi Zwecker]” illuminates the teachings of our sages in a style that is eminently down to earth…yet inspires us to reach for the heavens.”

Doing so, he captures something of the spirit of the rebbes themselves.

He cites the sources of some of the quotations and anecdotes. I’d have preferred that he had cited them all — either at the end of each anecdote, or at the end of the text via a footnote, etc. Some short biographical information about each of the “contributing” rebbes would have been interesting and helpful, too. There’s also no thematic index to help us look up a rebbe’s teaching on a specific topic — again, something that a reader might find helpful.

Nevertheless, “Ma’asei Avos” makes a significant addition to our access to Hasidut and what it can teach us.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Pirkei Avot 2:6
[2] Zwecker; p. 82
[3] Zwecker; p. 82-3

 

Rabbi Eli Mallon

photo by Carl Merkin (cmerkin@verizon.net

Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW

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