Joe Rosenstein

Reflections on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers):

Not Just What My Rebbe Taught Me

What is Pirkei Avot?

Pirkei Avot is a collection of about 100 teachings by sages between 300 bce and 200 ce. Many of the teachings deal with ethical behavior, so the collection became known (in English) as Ethics of the Fathers. These teachings became the foundation for subsequent ethical movements in Judaism and for subsequent more systematic treatments of Jewish ethics. Many familiar aphorisms appear in Pirkei Avot, and Pirkei Avot is well known to observant Jews because of the 1000-year old custom of studying the six chapters in Pirkei Avot each year on the six Sabbaths between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Tabernacles).

Watch an Interview of the author on Abigail Pogrebin’s “In the Spotlight” program on the Jewish Broadcasting Service ( in July 2022.

Features of this book on Pirkei Avot

There are literally hundreds of books dealing with Pirkei Avot.  As do other books, this book provides commentary on each of the teachings in Pirkei Avot.  However, it presents the teachings in Pirkei Avot from a broader perspective.

Why is a broader perspective needed … and why is it useful?  Each teaching in Pirkei Avot, in general, has nothing to do with the teaching that precedes it or the teaching that follows it.  Since the teachings in Pirkei Avot are usually studied in order of appearance, you may not be aware that there are, perhaps, three other teachings that deal with the same subject as the teaching you are considering at the moment, and that they present different perspectives on that subject.  That is information that you should have access to.

The broader perspective is reflected in this book in the following ways:

  • It compares and contrasts different teachings that deal with the same topic in the discussion of each mishnah.
  • It provides separate chapters dealing with themes that are significant in Pirkei Avot, chapters on (a) the oral Torah, (b) olam haba (life after death), (c) rewards in Pirkei Avot, (d) punishments in Pirkei Avot**, (e) the study of Torah, (f) balancing the study of Torah with work and with good deeds, (g) honor and humility, (h) anger in Pirkei Avot, and (j) the ethical principles in Ethics of the Fathers and our task of incorporating those ethical principles into our lives. 
  • It transforms the ethical teachings in Pirkei Avot, which appear in general and often ambiguous terms, into imperative statements, as directions for how we should behave.   The 90 principles that result are then organized in chapter (j) above.
  • It was written during the Covid epidemic and relates the teachings of Pirkei Avot to what was happening in the world around us, including the political turmoil, and serves in a sense as the author’s memoir of that period.
  •  It relates the teachings of Pirkei Avot to contemporary events.
  • It also relates the teachings of Pirkei Avot to events that took place in ancient times, and that are not mentioned in Pirkei Avot itself.
  • It boldly challenges, when appropriate, the assumptions of the ancient teachers and the subsequent commentators, pointing out when teachings are faulty and when commentators miss the points that the teachers are making.
  • It features jousting with Maimonides, who wrote extensive discussions of Pirkei Avot in the 12th century.
  • It is written in an informal style, to appeal to beginners as well as to scholars.

** Watch two presentations by the author on “Rewards and Punishments in Pirkei Avot” at the Jewish Study Center in Washington DC at and 

The Second Edition of Reflections on Pirkei Avot

The Second Edition of this book was published in December 2023 and includes about 25% more text than the First Edition, that was published in February 2022. 

The Second Edition includes many changes throughout the book that respond to questions, objections, and suggestions that were presented to me by readers of the First Edition and by participants in the courses that I have taught using the book … and to new things that I have learned.  However, the most noticeable changes in the Second Edition are:

  • The number of Ethical Principles has increased from 69 to 90 as the ethical implications of additional teachings were added and as interpretations of different commentators were included. (For example, the first part of Mishnah 1:14 (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”) is usually interpreted that a person should be an advocate for himself or herself because no one else can be counted on to be your advocate.  Maimonides, however, understood this teaching differently: only you can commit to improving your ethical practices; no one else can do this for you.)
  • “Kavvanot (prayerful readings)” have been composed for each group of Ethical Principles to assist the reader in focusing on how to implement the Ethical Principles into their own lives and item (j) in the list above has been renamed as indicated.
  • Theme chapters have been added on “Punishments in Pirkei Avot” and “Anger in Pirkei Avot,” items (d) and (h) in the list above.
  • Three appendices have been added – a Glossary, a list of Surprising Facts, Teachings, and Conjectures, and an index indicating the page on which each Mishnah appears. Also appearing as an Appendix is a Summary of Maimonides’ Introduction to Pirkei Avot.

A few copies of the First Edition (blue cover) are still available, and they can be purchased at almost 50% off the price of the Second Edition (green cover).


Reflections on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Not Just What My Rebbe Taught Me (Second Edition) is a soft-bound book with 430 pages (each 8.5” x 11”).

The price of one copy of this book is $44, including shipping and handling.  If you would like to order a copy within the United States, please click below.

Sale price of First Edition:  $24 (almost 50% off) as long as supplies last!

 Purchase a copy for yourself or for someone who is interested in learning more about Judaism.  If you would like to order a copy within the United States, please click below. 

Either the First Edition or the Second Edition would be a great gift for Chanukkah, BMitzvahs, and other occasions! 

If you are in Canada and would like to purchase a copy click below.


If you are in Europe or Israel and would like to purchase a copy click below.  For prices to other sites, contact the author.

Europe & Israel

Pirkei Avot Course:
Would you like to read and discuss the book with others, including the author?  If so, registration is now open for my fifth course, which will have nine sessions, all from 5:00pm to 6:15pm (all EST, except for the first session, which will still be EDT) on nine consecutive Sunday evenings after Simchat Torah, from October 27 to December 22, 2024. There will be a fee of $90 per participant, and the course will be limited to 15 participants.

Speaking Engagements:   
Joe Rosenstein conducted a virtual book tour at a dozen sites in the months following the publication of his book.  He is now available to speak and respond to questions (either in person or remotely) about Pirkei Avot — either a single session or a multi-session course.  A list of speaking engagements (including those in the virtual book tour) can be found here

View a recording of the May 3, 2022 event on YouTube –