Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary. In this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.
There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah. This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot.
The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study. While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon, the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition. A different suggestion on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually.
Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise.
Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives.
Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.
It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence.
Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth.
Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration.
Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, both published by CCAR Press.
 There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/
 BT Bava Kama 82a
 See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”
 T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46
 The Midrash Shmuel
 BT Bava Kama 30a