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Why is it customary to study Ethics of our Fathers during the Omer period?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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Firstly, let's talk a little about this custom: Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) contains six chapters,* and there are six Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot. Every Shabbat (customarily after Minchah), one chapter is studied. Many (including Chabad) continue this chapter-a-week regiment throughout the summer months, until Rosh Hashanah.

After the Jews left Egypt, they embarked on a period of self-refinement and character improvement. This was critical, in order they should be worthy of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. (See What is the spiritual significance of the counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot (“the omer”)?)

While counting the Omer, we too try to perfect our character. To achieve this, we study Avot, the tractate which is devoted to piety, humility, kindness and ethics.

Similarly, the summer in general is a time when people are more active, tend to vacation, and all too often relax their standards. The chapter-a-week of Avot is meant to keep us spiritually strong and healthy; and prepared to face the moral challenges the summer months present.


 *The original tractate contained five chapters; one chapter was added from braita (a collection of the teachings of Tannaic scholars which were not included in the Mishnah).


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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Passover
A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
Chabad
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Omer
Starting from the second day of Passover, we count forty-nine days. The fiftieth day is the holiday of Shavuot. This is called the “Counting of the Omer” because on the second day of Passover the barley “Omer” offering was offered in the Holy Temple, and we count forty-nine days from this offering. [Literally, "Omer" is a certain weight measure; the required amount of barley for this sacrifice.]
Shabbatot
Plural form of "Shabbat." Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Avot
"Ethics of our Fathers." A tractate of the Mishna (original rendition of the Oral Law) which discusses Jewish ethics and piety.
Minchah
Afternoon prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
Mishnah
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.