Avot Rabbi Nathan Open this page in a new tab


PA - Pirke 'Abot (Chapters of the Fathers) also known as 'Abot (Fathers)
ARNA - The traditional version of 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan
ARNB - Version B of 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan

Saldarini (1975:4) describes 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN) as follows:
ARN is a unique literary work. It does not fit precisely into traditional categories of Jewish Literature. As a further complication, ARNB itself is a composite of several parts which differ one from the other. As a consequence no one term or category can characterize the whole work. ARN has been categorized with the minor tractates of the Talmud because it usually precedes them in the Talmud. Yet, in structure and content it is very different from them. Scholars who have written about ARN have disagreed on the name by which they characterized it.
Goldin (1955:xvii) also describes 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN):
THE FATHERS ACCORDING TO RABBI NATHAN — or, as the work is generally referred to by its Hebrew title, 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan — is one of the so-called extracanonical Minor Tractates of the Talmud. Briefly it may be described as a commentary and amplification of the renowned mishnaic tractate — more accurately, as we shall see, of an early form of that tractate — called 'Abot (Fathers) or Pirke 'Abot (Chapters of the Fathers).
Goldin (1955:xvii-xviii) describes Pirke 'Abot (PA) as follows:
PA is the only tractate of the Mishnah devoted exclusively to Agada, to that unlimited range of contemplative themes and teachings which are of a religious-ethical-folkloristic character. As such, PA stands in sharp contrast to all the other sixty-two tractates of the Mishnah, which deal with Halakha, that is, with matters of law, with legal discussions concerning civil, criminal, ritual, ceremonial, marital, agricultural, and similar questions. Another distinctive feature of PA is that its contents are in the form of sayings and maxims; each of these, as a rule, especially in the first four chapters, is transmitted in the name of a particular Sage; and the succession of authorities — in part drawn up in chronological order — reaches, on the one hand, as far back as the Men of the Great Assembly and Simeon the Righteous (ca. 200 B.C.E.), and on the other, down to Rabbi Judah the Prince, the redactor of the Mishnah (d. ca. 220 C.E.), and his immediate successors. Thus the material gathered together in PA constitutes a kind of repository for the thinking and teachings of the Tannaite Fathers, for the spiritual, moral, and practical values emphasized by Israel's Sages during the first five centuries of talmudic Judaism.
Goldin (1955:xviii-xix) further describes 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN):
In subject matter ARN is the same as PA, that is to say, it too is entirely devoted to Agada, it too is a compilation of the wisdom of the Fathers, of their reflections, ideals, disciplines, and above all the expression of their singular commitment to "the study of Torah."

As for its literary character, the bulk of ARN consists of commentary on the sayings and maxims of PA, now interpreting and elucidating their meaning, now expanding their import and implication, now illustrating by means of parable, now again dwelling on the lives of the authorities quoted and other distinguished personalities referred to in passing. The interpretations of the PA text in ARN are not merely of literal meaning but of what might be called their larger intent. In effect, therefore, the relation of ARN to PA is that of the Midrash to the Scriptures: a verbal peculiarity or suggestive phrase may become the cue for homiletical, imaginative interpretation. And like the Midrash, ARN will frequently offer not one but several explanations of a saying, so that when we are done with one, "another interpretation," and often still "another," will be forthcoming. Again like the Midrash, discussion in ARN lends itself easily to digression, winding from one theme to the next, to expound a biblical verse previously cited as proof text or to enlarge upon what may have been no more than casual allusion or to round out discussion of a topic or person mentioned in connection with the primary subject. To be sure, some of the discursiveness is due to interpolation, for the compiler or compilers of ARN apparently drew on numerous sources in which comments were made on PA passages. Nevertheless, the apparent ease with which the additions have been assimilated points to an initial elasticity of structure. As a result, we get in ARN what we get in the Midrash too: not a systematic theological or ethical treatise devoted to abstract argumentation, but homilies and comments revolving around the sayings and concepts interpreted, and reinforcing what rabbinic literature as a whole assumes: "God as a reality, Revelation as a fact, the Torah as a way of life, and the hope of Redemption as a most vivid expectation."
Goldin (1955:xx-xxi) discussed the authorship of 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN):
Nothing can be said with certainty about the identity of the "Nathan" in the title of ARN or about the exact nature of his relation to this work. The fact that a Rabbi Nathan is one of the authorities quoted in the opening paragraphs is in no way instructive, for the authority almost certainly intended at that point is Rabbi Jonathan; moreover, in another version of our work, to which we shall refer shortly, the name Nathan does not appear until the thirty-fourth chapter. The most plausible suggestion remains that ARN is based on a rescension of PA by the Babylonian Rabbi Nathan who was an older contemporary of Judah the Prince. There is still the possibility, however, that our Rabbi Nathan is an otherwise unknown sage who is responsible for ARN itself rather than for the alternative PA on which it is based.
Saldarini (1975:7) wrote the following about authorship:
Modern scholars have generally doubted Rabbi Nathan's authorship and have recognized that ARN is composed of several discrete parts with many more additions made at different stages. Consequently, the concept of one author of a unified whole has been rejected, though Rabbi Nathan may have a place in some stage of the formation of ARN.
Goldin (1955:xxi) discussed the date of composition of 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN) which he interprets as between the 1st and 3rd century CE.
It has been frequently suggested that in its present form ARN was probably compiled some time between the seventh and ninth centuries, when the other Minor Tractates seem to have been redacted. But date of compilation must not be confused with date of composition. Since no authority quoted in ARN is later than the Tannaite period, that is, later than the early part of the third century, and since, furthermore, the language and the teachings and the idiom are typical of what we find in Tannaite sources, the composition of the contents of ARN cannot be much later than the third or following century, or at the utmost shortly thereafter. According to one scholar who has meticulously analyzed all the variant readings and the pattern of ARN different parts of our treatise were composed at different times, and the earliest part he would assign to a date as early as the first century.
Saldarini (1975:11-14) suggests that Avot de-Rabbi Nathan underwent a complicated and unknown history making it difficult to date as a whole but suggests that the bulk of it may have been composed in the 2nd century CE during the Tannaitic period and could be no younger than the mid 8th century CE. Some comments from his discussion on date of composition are shown below:
ARN probably developed orally toward its written form over a significant period of time. Parts of ARN probably joined the main text at different times, and so if any individual comment is to be dated, it must be studied in itself, in relation to ARN and in comparison to parallels in other rabbinic literature. Even then, absolute dates are few and evidence for relative dating unsure.


Since ARN precedes the minor, non-canonical tractates in the Talmud, it has often been classified with them and also dated with them roughly to the seventh through ninth centuries. However, such a classification does not do justice to ARN and does not prove its date.

ARNB, Ch. 19, contains three stories, two of which also occur in the Sheiltot of Rab Ahai Gaon who flourished in the middle of the eight century. The Sheiltot has the stories as recounted in ARNB, and not as recounted in Shab 127b where variants of the three stories occur in the same order as in ARNB. From this we can conclude that the Sheiltot probably quotes ARNB. This provides us with an upper limit for the existence of ARNB.


the data culled do not allow us to attribute ARN, as a whole, to a specific period.


Keeping these warnings in mind, I would like to argue that ARN, in an early form, existed as a commentary to PA before the formation of the Mishnah in C.E. 200. Both versions of ARN, as we have them, have as a core a form of PA (Pirke Abot) different from that adopted by Rabbi Judah the Prince in C.E. 200 when he promulgated his one, official Mishnah. If a commentary to PA had been begun after Rabbi Judah the Prince had promulgated his official Mishnah, then surely the commentary would have been built around this authoritative tractate. But we can see clearly that ARN, in both its versions, is a commentary on an earlier and less extensive form of PA. And further, this early form of PA survived alongside the official, later version of PA, something which happened with no other Mishnaic tractate. The commentary already had its overall structure, based on the earlier form of PA, and so could not be changed. And it in turn protected its version of PA from suppression in the face of the official form of PA.36 These arguments only pertain to ARN as probably existing with approximately the same structure as it has now. It may have been in a much earlier and less extensive form. The argument does not automatically allow us to prove that any individual passage of ARN is from the Tannaitic period.
Goldin (1955:xxi-xxii) noted that there are two versions of 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN) designated as version A (ARNA - the traditional version) and Version B (ARNB).
A particularly significant fact about ARN is that it has come down to us in two versions, the one regularly printed in our editions of the Talmud and the other, consisting of forty-eight chapters, published in full for the first time by Solomon Schechter: he designated the two versions as A and B respectively. In the main, what has been said about ARN applies to Version B no less than to Version A. But a comparative study of the two versions reveals a number of differences between them — in readings, in substance, in arrangement, and in the extent of PA materia1.


Schechter believed that originally there was only one text of ARN, from which the different versions developed in the course of time and transmission; ARNA he regarded as the older of the two, but he felt that ARNB remained closer to the original. Other scholars, however, maintain that the two versions are independent not only of each other but of "any written proto-ARN".
Saldarini (1975:11) noted the following about the language
The Hebrew of ARN, both A and B, reads like standard Mishnaic Hebrew of the Tannaitic period. It contains a few Aramaic sentences and is studded with Greek terms, common to Tannaitic midrashim.
Goldin (1955:xxii n.12) also noted that the language of ARNA and ARNB is predominantly in Hebrew
[The language is Hebrew]. Some sayings of Hillel and another half dozen or so words are in Aramaic; but occasional Aramaic clauses or expressions occur also in Tannaite sources. So too, the few Greek and Latin loan words are in no way unusual.
Various manuscripts are discussed by Saldarini (1975) on pages 2-3 and, apparently in depth by Finkelstein (1950) with a stemma on page 211.

Saldarini (1975:16) suggests that both versions of 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan were written in Palestine.
Since both versions of ARN cite only Tannaim and Tannaitic stories (with few exceptions), the setting for these stories and incidents is necessarily the land of Israel. If ARN, as was argued in the previous section, was begun during the Tannaitic period, then it must almost certainly have originated in Palestine. Even if it came into existence later, it contains so little about Babylon that we must suspect Palestine as its source.

As we look at the sayings, stories and interpretations more closely, we find that much of the material is incorporated into either the Babylonian Talmud or the Palestinian Talmud or both. That is to say, ARN does not contain a fund of material unique to either Palestine or Babylonia. On the other hand, the parables and some stories reflect a Hellenistic-Roman setting, rather than a Parthian-Persian one. This argues for Palestine.