from Sinai,and passed it on to Joshua;
and Joshua to the elders,
and the elders to the prophets;
and the prophets passed it on to
men of the Great Assembly.
The opening sentence of Avot is not a principle of conduct, but a story. It has at least two messages. The first
is that tradition is a vitally important source of wisdom. This book itself represents fifteen hundred years—fifty
generations—of continuous reflection on the good life. Each generation made decisions about what was worthy to
preserve from the previous generations.
The second message is a bold claim for divine authority of the ‘Oral Torah’—the record of the sages’ discussions and decisions
beginning from the time of Ezra, when the ‘Great Assembly’ first met. Acceptance of divine authority for the Oral Torah
defined the Jewish religion for the next fifteen hundred years after Avot, and still defines Orthodox Judaism today.
However, Jews today are divided over what divine authority to assign even to the Scriptures, and over the status of
traditional Jewish law, halacha. As a book of ethical principles, rather than specific legal rulings, Avot continues
to be revered by all branches of Judaism.