A Breathtaking Rabbinic Bestseller: Avigdor Shinan's Pirkei Avot, A New Israeli Commentary

Avigdor Shinan's Hebrew volume, Pirkei Avot, A New Israeli Commentary, is a breathtaking rabbinic bestseller. The publication of this book was supported by the Avi Chai foundation. We've know professor Shinan for over thirty years. He is a leading Israeli scholar both of rabbinics and of Jewish liturgy.

The most common English renderings of the title of this tractate of the Mishnah are, "Ethics of the Fathers" or "Chapters of the Fathers." We've always preferred to render Pirkei Avot a bit more elastically as "Outline of the Primary Principles" since Av in classical rabbinic usage often implies a primary category.

That is what the tractate is about - the primary principles of rabbinic etiquette and daily wisdom. The book is a diverse collection of sayings about how to be a good Jew according to the rabbinic view of life. It's also been the subject of many previous commentaries, as is the case for every rabbinic primary text.

Why is this commentary different from all the others? The reviewers emphasize that it is more accessible in its presentation and more aesthetically attractive. Each mishnaic pericope is accompanied by two pages of textual commentary and an appropriate artistic illustration chosen by David Sperber.

It's what we in the USA call a coffee table book in the best sense of the idea. And we are told that Israelis do not have a comparable concept. Books are for reading. Who would buy a book, to put it out on a table in the living room to display it?

Zvia Walden in Haaretz ("The art of succinct statements") summed up the reasons for the book's success:
How can one explain the suc­cess of a volume such as Shinan's? Is it due to the ever-growing thirst to "preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel," as Dinur had it? Or is it due to the acces­sible writing style of the editor, a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University? Or, per­haps native Hebrew speakers are attracted to this edition because Shinan chose to devote much at­tention to the Hebrew text and to connecting the tractate to names, places and landscapes in Israel, while sufficing with only a brief survey of Pirkei Avot's tradi­tional commentators? Certainly, one factor behind the volume's popularity is the abundance of artwork, carefully and wisely chosen by David Sperber, with the goal of not only providing an aesthetic accompaniment to the text, but also -- and perhaps main­ly -- to foster an ongoing dialogue between the text and contempo­rary readers.

It is interesting that the num­ber of artists and works of art in the book nearly equals the num­ber of sages whose words appear in Pirkei Avot. The book's success can also be attributed to its el­egant design, which is the work of Dov Abramson: easy-to-read fonts printed in green and pages laid out in columns, inviting readers to stroll briskly through the text.
Others have given the book good notices.

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