Orah Hayyim 292:2 in the Rema
Question from Dr. Josh Greenfield, New York: In your article last May (Responsa in a Moment, Vol. 13, No. 4) you stressed the importance of studying Pirkei Avot as one of the most basic rabbinic texts. I have a follow-up question: According to many siddurim, Parashat Nitzavim (September 28, 2019) will be the last Shabbat to recite Pirkei Avot this year, and we should start reciting Barekhi Nafshi and Shirei Hama’alot (Psalms 104, 120-135) on Shabbat Bereishit (October 26, 2019). Are there specific customs for what to study on the three Shabbatot between now and then (Shabbat Shuvah-Vayeilech, Shabbat Ha’azinu, and Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot)?
Responsum: Now that the holidays are over, I have a little time to answer your question. I think that your question assumes that there is a standard custom to study Pirkei Avot from Pesah to Rosh Hashanah and to recite Barekhi Nafshi/Shir Hama’alot from Shabbat Bereishit until Pesah. If so, what do we recite in between these two customs?
Yet, in fact, there is no standard custom.
The custom to study Avot began in the Geonic period before ca. 850 CE, while the Shir Hama’alot custom is first mentioned by Orhot Hayyim in Provence ca. 1300 and by Abudraham in Seville in 1340. Originally, there was no connection between these two customs.
The Geonim recited all of Avot by heart every Shabbat all year long, while Orhot Hayyim and Abudraham say to recite the Shir Hama’alot chapters every Shabbat all year long.
I. When do we recite/study Pirkei Avot?
In the past, there were many different customs. Here are the ones that I have found thus far:
A responsum attributed to Rav Sar Shalom Gaon, the Gaon of Sura from 848-853, or to Rav Natronai Gaon, the Gaon of Sura from 853-857, is quoted in full by seven Geonim and Rishonim,(1) and in an abbreviated fashion by many other rabbis.(2) Here is a partial quotation from the version found in Seder Rav Amram Gaon, who succeeded Rav Natronai as Gaon of Sura:
And thus said Rav Sar Shalom Gaon [or: Rav Natronai Gaon]… it is the custom of the house of our teacher in Bavel that after Tefillat Minhah on Shabbat one recites Avot and Kinyan Torah [the sixth chapter appended to Avot] by heart…
Rav Sar Shalom (or Rav Natronai) also explains that we recite Avot, which begins “Moses received the Torah at Mt. Sinai”, in memory of Moshe Rabbeinu, who died on Shabbat afternoon, a fact which was disputed by many other rabbis.(3)
Prof. Louis Finkelstein suggested many years ago that the custom of reciting Avot, which stresses the chain of rabbinic tradition, developed as part of the dispute with the Sadducees, who rejected the Oral Law (see Sharvit, p. 171 and note 11). However, this theory is not that convincing since most of Avot is post-Sadducean and the custom of reciting Avot only appears in the ninth century. It is more likely, as Ya’akov Gartner maintains, that the Geonim recited Avot as part of their polemic against the Karaites, who rejected the rabbis and the Oral Law.(4
In any case, the simple meaning of the passage by Rav Sar Shalom/Rav Natronai seems to be that the five chapters of Pirkei Avot and the 6th chapter entitled Kinyan Torah were recited every Shabbat all year long. This custom was summarized by Rabbi Natan b”r Yehudah (Hamahkim, p. 27) in Spain in the 13th century: “for it is the custom of [Bavel] to recite Massekhet Avot in the summer and the winter”.
This custom is also mentioned by Mahzor Vitry (France, ca. 1120, p. 112), who says that some read Avot “every single Shabbat”. It was also the custom of Rabbeinu Tam (France, d. 1171) who, after a brief quote from Rav Sar Shalom Gaon, writes (Sefer Hayashar, Responsa section, ed. Rosenthal, Berlin, 1898, p. 85): “… but one reads Massekhet Avot and one finishes five chapters [i.e., he did not recite Kinyan Torah] every Shabbat Minhah”.
II. Barekhi Nafshi and Shirei Hama’alot
The original custom was to recite the Shir Hama’alot chapters (Psalms 120-134) every Shabbat all year long: Abudraham, p. 182, Spain 1340, OR: Psalm 119 and the Shir Hama’alot chapters every Shabbat all year long: Orhot Hayyim, fol. 66c, paragraph 8, Provence, ca. 1300.
However, this custom was less widespread then the Pirkei Avot custom. According to Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1543-1620), his teacher the Ari, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572), did not recite the Shir Hama’alot chapters and Psalm 119 at all (Sha’ar Hakavanot, fol. 51d and 60a at bottom; also quoted by Kaf Hahayim to Orah Hayyim 292:2, paragraph 25).
III. The merging of the two customs
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema (Cracow, 1525-1572), says in his glosses to Orah Hayyim 292:2 that “we recite Pirkei Avot in the summer and Shir Hama’alot in the winter, every place according to its custom”. In other words, he was aware of both customs and he or someone before him decided to merge the two customs. This is similar to the well-known Talmudic principal of Rav Papa: when there are two or more liturgical formulae, hilkakh neimrinhu l’tarvaihu, “therefore, let us say both” or hilkakh neimrinhu l’khulhu “therefore, let us say all of them” (Berakhot 11b in the manuscripts; Berakhot 59a, 59b, 60b; Ta’anit 6b-7a; Megillah 21b; Sotah 40a). It should be noted that none of the three rabbis quoted until now – Orhot Hayyim, Abudraham or the Rema – mentions Barekhi Nafshi at all.
On the other hand, Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612; Levush Orah Hayyim 669), the Rema’s student, says that it is customary to recite Barekhi Nafshi and the Shir Hama’alot chapters from Shabbat Bereishit until the Shabbat before Shabbat Hagadol. He explains that we recite Barekhi Nafshi on Shabbat Bereishit because they both speak of the Creation. Using a midrash, he also attempts to connect the Shir Hama’alot chapters to the Creation.
IV. Conclusions and practical halakhah
We have seen that, originally, the Jews in Bavel in the 9th century recited all of Pirkei Avot by heart every Shabbat all year long, while in Provence and Spain (ca. 1300-1340) they recited the 15 Shir Hama’alot chapters all year long. When the two customs were merged by the Rema, the Levush and others, there were a few Shabbatot between Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Bereishit when neither Avot nor Shir Hama’alot were recited.
Thus, on these Shabbatot, you could study Avot as per the original custom or according to custom No. 12 above; or recite Shir Hama’alot as per the original custom; or neither. But, as Rav Sar Shalom/Rav Natronai Gaon stresses, it is certainly better to study Torah on Shabbat between Minhah and Ma’ariv than to sit quietly and do nothing.
Isru Hag Hasukkot 5780
My thanks to my brother Cantor Abe Golinkin with whom I discussed some of the customs presented here.
I. About Pirkei Avot
Abudraham – Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, by Rabbi David Abudraham, (Seville, 1340), ed. Kroizer, Jerusalem, 5723, pp. 179-180, 182, 245
Cohen — Y.Y. Cohen, Kiryat Sefer 40 (5725), pp. 104-105 = Mekorot Vekorot, Jerusalem, 5742, pp. 40-41
Gartner — Ya’akov Gartner, Sidra 4 (5748), pp. 17-32 = Gilgulei Minhag Be’olam Hahalakhah, Jerusalem, 5755, Chapter 4
Hamahkim — Sefer Hamahkim, by Rabbi Natan b”r Yehudah (Spain, 13th century), ed. Freimann, Ha’eshkol 6 (1909), pp. 26-27
Hamanhig — Sefer Hamanhig by Rabbi Avraham of Lunel (written in Toledo, 1204), ed. Refael, pp. 187-190
Kol Bo – Kol Bo (Provence, ca. 1300), ed. Avraham David, Part II, Jerusalem, 5750, cols. 238-241
Magen Avot – Magen Avot by Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemah Duran (Majorca and Algiers, 1361-1444), ed. Katznellenbogen, in: Mishnat Reuven, Massekhet Avot, Perakim 1-2, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 94
Maharil – Minhagei Maharil by Rabbi Zalman of St. Goar, recording the customs of Rabbi Ya’akov Moellin (Mainz, 1360-1427), ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 5749, pp. 152-153
Mahzor Vitry – Mahzor Vitry by Rabbi Simhah of Vitry (France, ca. 1120), ed. Horvitz, Berlin, 1889-1897, pp. 111-112 et al
Orhot Hayyim — Orhot Hayim, by Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Lunel (ca. 1300), ed. Venice, Laws of Shabbat, fols. 66b-c, paragraphs 4, 7, 8
Sharvit – Shimon Sharvit, Shnaton Bar Ilan 13 (5736), pp. 169-177
Zunz — Leopold Zunz, Die Ritus, Berlin, 1859, pp. 85-86 = Minhagei Tefillah Upiyyut Bikehillot Yisrael, Jerusalem, 2016, pp. 87-88
II. About Barekhi Nafshi/Shir Hama’alot
Baer – Yitzhak Baer, Seder Avodat Yisrael, Rodelheim, 1868, p. 266
Eisenstein – Y.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, p. 56
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.