The Moral Maxims of the Sages of Israel is a study of the moral maxims of the sages of Israel, who thrived from 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., that are contained in the work known as Pirkei Avot, probably the oldest anthology of its kind in literary history. Although the work has been translated from the original Hebrew numerous times, much of it remains inaccessible because of the epigrammatic rather than discursive style of the original, which employs idiomatic expressions, unusual turns of phrase, grammatically awkward constructions, euphemisms, and plays on words that confound even those who are able to read it in the original language.
An ancient work like Pirkei Avot can be read from a variety of perspectives. It may be read it from the standpoint of what it says that resonates with the contemporary concerns of the reader or commentator, often attaching meaning to a maxim that its author could not reasonably be expected to have intended. It may also be read from the perspective of attempting to understand what the redactor of the work had in mind when making his editorial decisions about what to include or exclude, and why he made such choices from the large volume of materials available to him. Finally, the work can be read as representing the concerns of the individual authors in the context of the times in which they lived.
In essence, then, one must choose between reading meaning into the text and reading meaning out of it. The approach in this book is to do the latter, that is, to understand the maxims and teachings of the sages that appear in Pirkei Avot primarily from the standpoint of the originators, and secondarily from the standpoint of the redactor, some of whose own thoughts are included in the work. In so doing, it will suggest, wherever possible and plausible, the unstated problems and questions to which the sages' teachings and assertions probably were deemed appropriate responses.