Ethics of the Sages: Pirke Avot-Annotated & Explained


The clear and compelling wisdom of the rabbinic sages can become a companion for your own spiritual journey.

At the heart of Judaism is an ethical imperative to live life from your true self, as the image and likeness of God. To do this, you must see the greatness of God manifest in all things, and therefore engage each moment with grace, humility, and justice. This imperative flowers in the words of the early Rabbis (250 BCE–250 CE), who captured God’s call to be holy in Pirke ...

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The clear and compelling wisdom of the rabbinic sages can become a companion for your own spiritual journey.

At the heart of Judaism is an ethical imperative to live life from your true self, as the image and likeness of God. To do this, you must see the greatness of God manifest in all things, and therefore engage each moment with grace, humility, and justice. This imperative flowers in the words of the early Rabbis (250 BCE–250 CE), who captured God’s call to be holy in Pirke Avot, a collection of pithy sayings on how best to live an ethical life.

This engaging introduction to the wisdom sayings of the rabbinic sages puts you in direct conversation with them, allowing the sages to speak directly to you about what matters in life and how to live it with dignity. With fresh, contemporary translation and provocative commentary, Rabbi Rami Shapiro focuses on the central themes in this Jewish wisdom compendium—study, kindness, compassion. He clarifies the rabbinic proverbs and parables in order to expose the ethical principles at their root. By recalling the ancient voices of the rabbinic sages, he shows us the contemporary significance of their timeless wisdom and distills Pirke Avot not as a book about ethics but as a practical guide to living ethically today.

Now you can experience the wisdom of the early Rabbis even if you have no previous knowledge of Judaism or rabbinic literature. This SkyLight Illuminations edition presents the ethical teachings of the rabbinic sages, with insightful yet unobtrusive commentary that conveys Pirke Avot’s core challenge of God to the Jewish people, and through them all humanity: We are to be holy as God is holy. We are to be, in a human way, what God is in a divine way.

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Editorial Reviews

Jewish Media Review - Dov Peretz Elkins
Pirke Avot has always been my favorite book in the vast sea of rabbinic literature. It is a remarkable collection of relevant proverbs on how best to live an ethical, sensible, reasoned life. Rabbi Shapiro's comments help the reader to apply the ethical wisdom of the Rabbis to our own lives. The author writes: "When you realize God is all, you engage all as God. You meet each being as a manifestation of the One Being and treat all things with justice, compassion, and humility. This is the politics of Olam HaBa [the World to Come] that Pirke Avot promotes."

There are thousands of commentaries on Pirke Avot, so why another one? I have a strong predilection toward the writings of Rami Shapiro. See his other books also published by SkyLight Illuminations, and you will catch his particular style, theology and philosophy. He tends to mix some Eastern religious views into his writings, but nothing that would contradict Judaism- in fact it can only enhance what Judaism brings to the table. Those who reject the Buddhist view that God is everything may not be totally comfortable with his views, but we can all learn from his unusual perspective. What he brings to the book are ideas that a reader will not find in other commentaries, and therefore collectors of books on Pirke Avot (like me) must add this important addition to their library.

Rabbi Shapiro focuses on the central themes in Pirke Avot – study, kindness, compassion, showing us the contemporary significance of their timeless wisdom and distills this Jewish wisdom compendium not as a book about ethics but a practical guide to living ethically today. Once you have tasted this excellent book, you’ll want to turn to Shapiro’s other excellent books on Hasidic Tales, the Hebrew prophets, and others.

Spirituality & Health - Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
"You are the way God writes symphonies and bad checks. You are the way God cries over newborns and last breaths. You are the way God is God as you," writes Rabbi Rami Shapiro in one of his commentaries on the words of the early Rabbis (250 BCE to 250 CE) gathered together in Pirke Avot, "a compendium of pithy, insightful, and engaging sayings on what matters in life, and how to live it with dignity." This paperback is a more elaborate volume than Shapiro's Zenlike interpretive version Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot (1995). It contains biographical sketches of the Rabbis, the ethical teachings of these sages, and notes and commentaries on the teachings' meaning and relevance to the contemporary scene.

One of the things that is crystal clear in the eyes of these spiritual teachers is that each and every person has a special destiny and calling. As Shapiro puts it: "You are an extension of God as a branch is an extension of a tree. You are the way God manifests in your place and time." Armed with this perspective, the day takes on a brighter tint and meaning. The sages had little respect for "the narrow mind" which is animated by fear, violence and greed. Instead, they lifted up "the spacious mind" which is fueled by love, justice, compassion, and humility. No wonder Shapiro writes: "There is only one question you need to ask to judge yourself: Have you made the world a better place for your having been born into it?"

The sages from yesteryear saw learning as "a holy enterprise" and saluted the art of asking the right questions as "the master tool of wisdom." They honored spiritual teachers but advised those on the spiritual path to find their own way for "wisdom cannot be secondhand." Shapiro's high regard for all religions comes across in the sagacious ways he interprets the Jewish sages and their openness to others. For example, he observes: "What is the right path? One that honors the senses, celebrates love, promotes reason, affirms diversity, and recognizes unity." And even more radical: "Do not imagine your home as a castle, a defense against the world. Rather, live without defenses, seeing everyone as family, sons and daughters of the Only One we call God." Taken together, Shapiro's commentaries provide a path of holiness that encourages us to become more human.

Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues - Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, is one of the most loved collections of early rabbinic wisdom in classical Jewish literature. In this original translation of the classic, Rabbi Rami Shapiro brings the approach that he has followed so successfully with other similar publications such as Hasidic Tales and the Hebrew Prophets.

Each statement in Avot is annotated, succinctly and clearly, by the author, and his translations do much to bring the text to life. The introduction is excellent, and a valuable source of material for students and teachers alike, and his mini-biographies of the rabbinic contributors to Pirke Avot an added bonus.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594732072
  • Publisher: Skylight Paths Publishing
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Series: SkyLight Illuminations Series
  • Edition description: ANN
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 147
  • Sales rank: 804,389
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Rami Shapiro, a renowned teacher of spirituality across faith traditions and a noted theologian, is a popular speaker on the topics of religion, theology and spirituality. He is author of the award-winning The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice; Recovery—The Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice and Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained; among other books.

Rami Shapiro is available to speak on the following topics:

  • Writing—The Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice
  • Stop Playing God: 12 Steps as Spiritual Practice
  • Biblical Wisdom for Post-biblical Times: An Exploration of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job
  • The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Cultivating Compassion in Daily Life
  • Hasidic Wisdom: An Exploration of Hasidic Storytelling, Theology and Contemplative Practice
  • Saints and Sages: Biblical Prophets, Ancient Rabbis and the Building of a Just World
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