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One of the more notable things about Pirkei Avot is that it's empty of Halacha for the most part.

It establishes a series of ethical ideals and opinions written by our sages but these ethics and ideals aren't connected to Halacha.

My question is pretty straightforward. If these ethics exist unsourced or rationalized through Halacha, would it not be acceptable to say that Pirkei Avot establishes that morality can exist independently from Halacha?

If this book is by definition a book of morality and ethical philosophy, isn't this saying those ideas can be independent from the law?

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    Isn't this just a word game? If you define Pirkei Avot as empty of Halakha then it is, and if you define the maxims in Pirkei Avot as laws then it isn't. As with all word games: so what?
    – Double AA
    Apr 21, 2020 at 15:56
  • Isn't the first mishna saying that this all is part of the process of establishing normative and proper practice as steeped in the chain of transmission of Torah and not independent of it? These are the pirkei Avot, not Pirkei Fred. What these sages said was an effect of that Torah-law system (IMHO). These ethics are a consequence of the halachic system and don't exist without it.
    – rosends
    Apr 21, 2020 at 16:05
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    See Bartenura on the opening Mishnah.
    – Alex
    Apr 21, 2020 at 16:18
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    "in this tractate the tanna began "Moshe received Torah from Sinai," to tell you that the principles and morals which are in this tractate were not fabricated by the hearts of the Mishna’s sages; rather, they too were stated at Sinai." h/t @Alex
    – rosends
    Apr 21, 2020 at 16:37
  • Halakhah is a floor, not a ceiling. The Sifra (Rav, not that long after Pirqei Avos was compiled) talks about making oneself qadosh in terms of separating from things that are permitted to you but will distract you from the path. So, there has to be a standard of morality that halakhah is a baseline for and/or a tool to achieve. But that's not Avos establishing that point, so this comment isn't an answer to the question as asked. Apr 23, 2020 at 17:41

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Who says Pirkei Avos isn"t halacha?

1) Major parts are codified by the rambam, tur and Shulchan aruch (see rambam hilchos Talmud torah which quote numerous mishnayos from P.A. dealing with Talmud torah; and hilchos deos, especially perek 5 which quote many more sayings. Tur starts off Orach Chaim by quoting the Mishna of "R' Yehduda ben Teima omer havei ratz k'tzvi etc."

2) lots of halacha isn't codified in Shulchan Aruch. Especially when it comes to avodas halev- concepts like emunah, bitachon, Simcha, ahavas Hashem etc.- and also mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro- like lashon hara, nekama/revenge, judging favorably etc.- the Shulchan left out lots of these ideas. They are still halacha. The meforshim mention many of these ideas- magen Avraham and Mishna berurah on Shulchan Aruch O.C. 155 (I think- laws of going to work after learning in the morning) and kitzur Shulchan aruch among others- and it's clear that these are halachic concepts.

Most of Pirkei avos falls into these two categories- avodas halev ("chovos halevovos") and bein adam lachavero.

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  • Then I think you're back to @doubleAA 's question- how are you defining halacha? I understand halacha to be the codification of how to fulfill the mitzvos (which are also expressions of the ratzon hashem). Just like you have to keep the mitzvos of Shabbos, and kashrus, and mishpat, you also have to keep the mitzvos of emunah, and anava, and dan lecaf zchus, and v'ahavta ler'acha kamocha, and v'halachta b'dracha etc. Just like maseches Shabbos, chullin and seder nezikin help you fulfill the former, avos helps you fulfill the latter. Working on the concepts of pirkei avos is also obligatory.
    – Binyomin
    Apr 21, 2020 at 18:40
  • @Binyomin When a prophet tells you to temporarily offer a korban outside the temple, would you say you are following halakha or temporarily breaking halakha? I didn't mean to imply the OP's use of halakha was wrong, as you are implying. Just we all need to be aware of what we actually mean to say or our attempts at communication are completely pointless.
    – Double AA
    Apr 21, 2020 at 18:55
  • I didn't mean that @Michael's definition was wrong per say; but I don't think he fully explained himself. As he says in his comment, "It's not a document of laws but a document of sayings and philosophies about how one should act." What makes a "law" distinct from "sayings about how one should act"? Both instruct you about proper conduct. Both are obligatory. Even "halacha" has concepts which are not mandatory but are proper- hidur mitzvah, for example. What makes "greeting people pleasantly" of P.A. less halacha than buying a beautiful tefillin? This was my intention of my earlier comment.
    – Binyomin
    Apr 21, 2020 at 21:03
  • @Michael I'm not sure your distinction is applicable here for a few reasons: 1) Lots of halacha isn't enforceable and definable by a Jewish court. If your tefillin is less mehudar, no one will say anything. And a person's level of emunah cannot be quantified at all. yet clearly hidur mitzvah and emunah are halachos. In fact a lot of mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro- many mentioned in Pirkei avos- are mentioned in the torah with the words ויראת מאלהיך אני ה' 'you shall fear your G-d I am Hashem' why? says the gemara- these mitzvos depend on your intention, and only G-d know it.
    – Binyomin
    Apr 21, 2020 at 22:40
  • @Michael 2) Your distinction is valid, but not about (most of) P.A. We find your point a lot in gemara. i.e Shabbos (17?) says RaShbI learned all day and was exempt from davening; but Brochos (fifth perek) says chasidim rishonim davening 9hr/day and their learning was 'perserved'. Who's right? It clearly depends on each person. This is like your distinction. But most of PA isn't like this. "Make your learning fixed and your work transient" is an agreed aspect of Talmud torah. "Greet everyone pleasantly" is part of ואהבת לרעך and .הלכת בדרכיו These are halacha- we are supposed to work on this.
    – Binyomin
    Apr 21, 2020 at 22:45
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The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah (4a) cites the following beraita:

האומר סלע זו לצדקה בשביל שיחיו בני ובשביל שאזכה בה לחיי העולם הבא הרי זה צדיק גמור

‘If a man says, I offer this sela’ for charity in order that my children may live and in order that through it I may merit the future world, he may still be a wholly righteous man?’

(Soncino translation)

Tosafot there raises a contradiction – in Avot 1:3 we are told not to worship for the sake of receiving reward:

והא דתנן פרק קמא דמסכת אבות אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס

The Penei Yehoshua there notes that this is not necessarily a contradiction at all. Avot is a guide for the "pious", which is a level that is higher even than "wholly righteous". Thus, while one may be wholly righteous if he offers charity in order to receive reward, he has still failed to be pious:

נמצא דלפ"ז לא קשיא דהכא בישראל נמי לא קאמר אלא דהוי צדיק גמור כשאומר בשביל שיחי' בני אבל חסיד לא הוי משא"כ ההיא דאבות משנת חסידים היא כדאמרי' בעלמא מאן דבעי למיהוי חסידא לקיים מילי דאבות

This seems to assume that not only is the subject matter of Avot not "strict law", it is not even "wholly righteous"; it is yet further removed – a guide for the especially pious.

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See the first words of the Bartenura on masechet Avot.

אומר אני, לפי שמסכת זו אינה מיוסדת על פירוש מצוה ממצות התורה כשאר מסכתות שבמשנה, אלא כולה מוסרים ומדות, וחכמי אומות העולם ג"כ חברו ספרים כמו שבדו מלבם בדרכי המוסר כיצד יתנהג האדם עם חבירו, לפיכך התחיל התנא במסכת זו משה קבל תורה מסיני, לומר לך שהמדות והמוסרים שבזו המסכתא לא בדו אותם חכמי המשנה מלבם אלא אף אלו נאמרו בסיני

Since this tractate doesn't treat hallachic issues, but morality is the topic treated here, and sages of other people published many tractates about morality, based on their creativity, the author of the Mishna makes a point to say that the moralistic thinking he reports here aren't invented by the sages of the Mishna but are transmitted from Sinai. So, we understand that there is a need to transmit the right morality, and a man cannot reach it alone.

However, the Gemara in Eruvin 100b says that we can learn righteousness from Animal Kingdom.

R`Johanan observed: If the Torah had not been given we could have learnt modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the cock who first coaxes and then mates.

That is, some basic rules are understandable by modeling, but a deep understanding needs learning from Tora, and the application of the rules needs a conjunction of this understanding with the halachot of the Torah, as the Rambam explains in Shmone Perakim, e.g. regarding the balance between two opposite principles, as to be good for someone else and to be good for oneself for example.

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  • I would question your translation slightly. You translated the phrase אינו מיוסדת על פירוש מצוה ממצוות התורה as "doesn't treat halachic issues." Literally, however, it translates as "isn't founded upon explaining mitzvos of the torah." I think the intent is very different. All other mishnayos are taking a known mitzva and explaining it. Shabbos is explaining the guidelines and boundaries of Shabbos (Avos, toldos, rabbinic enactments, what shiur is required, under what circumstances, etc.) Avos doesn't explain explicitly the mitzvos the same way. This isn't discussing being halacha or not.
    – Binyomin
    Apr 23, 2020 at 20:39
  • mitsvot are part ofhalacha, avot, toldot are all nafka minot regarding halacha, e.g. how many chataot, and more, even for Rabbi Eliezer. I feel that the bartenura want to say that there is midot and mitsvot, and avot treats midot. The sifre hamitsvot, rambam, chinuch and smag, even rasag are all halachic books
    – kouty
    Apr 23, 2020 at 21:06
  • I think there might be some semantic issues (I don't want to be called anti-semantic!) But what you call midos also includes mitzvos, and many are discussed in those very halachic sefarim you quoted. topics like gaava, dan lechaf zchus, anger/kaas, etc which are brought in PA are discussed in those works you mention. But they're not quantified the same way. "Be exceedingly humble for your end is worms" is a different qualitative statement than "Milk that splashes on meat requires 60/taam." There's no 'pirush hamitzvos"; but the mitzvos are discussed- and brought lehalacha.
    – Binyomin
    Apr 25, 2020 at 21:28
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    Yes you are right, I didn't think about some Mitsvot tmidiot as הולכת בדרכיו, בו תדבק, אהבה, יראה
    – kouty
    Apr 26, 2020 at 2:12