Avot of Rabbi Natan

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (Hebrew: אבות דרבי נתן), usually printed together with the minor tractates of the Talmud, is a Jewish aggadic work probably compiled in the geonic era (c.700–900 CE). Although Avot de-Rabbi Nathan is the first and longest of the "minor tractates", it probably does not belong in that collection chronologically, having more the character of a late midrash. In the form now extant it contains a mixture of Mishnah and Midrash, and may be technically designated as a homiletical exposition of the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot, having for its foundation an older recension (version) of that tractate. It may be considered as a kind of "tosefta" or "gemarah" to the Mishna Avot, which does not possess a traditional gemarah. Avot de-Rabbi Nathan contains many sentences, proverbs, and incidents that are not found anywhere else in the early rabbinical literature (Cashdan 1965). Other rabbinical sayings appear in a more informal style than what is found in the canonical Mishna Avot redacted by Judah I.

The two existing forms (recensions) of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan

Touching its original form, its age, and its dependence on earlier or later recensions of the Mishnah, there are many opinions, all of which are discussed in S. Schechter's introduction. There are two recensions of this work, one of which is usually printed with the Babylonian Talmud in the appendix to Seder Nezikin [the sixteenth volume], preceding the so-called Minor Treatises, and another, which, until the late 19th century, existed in manuscript only. In 1887 Solomon Schechter published the two recensions in parallel columns, contributing to the edition a critical introduction and valuable notes. There were likely other recensions as well, since the medieval rabbis quote from other versions.

In order to distinguish the two recensions, the one printed with the Talmud may be called A; and the other, B. The former is divided into forty-one chapters, and the latter into forty-eight. Schechter has proved that recension B is cited only by Spanish authors. Rashi knows of recension A only.

The methodology

The content of the two recensions differ from each other considerably, although the method is the same in both. The separate sentences of the Mishnah Avot are generally taken as texts, which are either briefly explained—the ethical lessons contained therein being supported by reference to Biblical passages—or fully illustrated by narratives and legends. Sometimes long digressions are made by introducing subjects connected only loosely with the text. This method may be illustrated by the following example: Commenting on the sentence of Simon the Just, in Pirkei Avot, i. 2, which designates charity as one of the three pillars on which the world rests, the Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (recension A) reads as follows:

How [does the world rest] on charity? Behold, the prophet (Hosea, vi. 6) said in the name of the Lord, 'I desired charity [mercy], and not sacrifice.' The world was created only by charity [mercy], as is said (Ps. lxxxix. 3), 'Mercy shall be built up for ever' (or, as the rabbis translate this passage, 'The world is built on mercy'). Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, accompanied by R. Joshua, once passed Jerusalem [after its fall]. While looking upon the city and the ruins of the Temple, R. Joshua exclaimed, 'Wo unto us, that the holy place is destroyed which atoned for our sins!' R. Yochanan replied, 'My son, do not grieve on this account, for we have another atonement for our sins; it is charity, as is said, I desired charity, and not sacrifice. (Ch. iv.)

The chapters of the two recensions of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan correspond with those of the Mishnah Avot as follows:


Nathan the Babylonian, whose name appears in the title of the work under treatment, cannot possibly have been its only author, since he flourished about the middle of the 2nd century, or a generation prior to the author of the Mishnah. Besides, several authorities are quoted who flourished a long time after R. Nathan; for instance, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. The designation "De-Rabbi Nathan" may be explained by the circumstance that R. Nathan is one of the first authorities mentioned in the opening chapter of the work (but not the first, that being Yose ha-Galili). Perhaps the school of the tannaite R. Nathan originated the work, however. Probably due to political differences that Rabbi Nathan had with Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Nathan's name does not appear in the version of Avot compiled by redactor of the Mishna Rebbi (the son of the aforementioned Shimon ben Gamliel). However, it is known that Rabbi Nathan made an independent collection (Cashdan 1965), and it is possible that Avot de-Rabbi Nathan derives from that source.

It is also called Tosefta to Avot (see Horowitz, Uralte Toseftas, i. 6, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1889; Brüll's Jahrbücher, ix. 139 et seq.). The two recensions of the work in their present shape evidently have different authors; but who they were cannot be ascertained. Probably they belonged to the period of the Geonim, between the 8th and 9th centuries.



Schechter gives the commentaries to Avot de-Rabbi Nathan in his edition, xxvii. et seq. Emendations were made by Benjamin Motal in his collectanea, called Tummat Yesharim, Venice, 1622. Commentaries have been written by Eliezer Lipman of Zamość, Zolkiev, 1723; by Elijah ben Abraham with notes by The Vilna Gaon, Wilna, 1833; by Abraham Witmand, Ahabat Ḥesed, Amsterdam, 1777; and by Joshua Falk Lisser, Binyan Yehoshua, Dyhernfurth, 1788 (reprinted in the Vilna Talmud).


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