The first mishna in Pirkei Avos starts with an introduction that outlines the Torah’s transmission chain from generation to generation until the Anshei Kennesses Hagedola. Since the mishna’s main purpose is to relay ideas that the Anshei Kennesses Hagedola implemented and preached, this chronological listing seems somewhat extraneous. The question is: why should the mishna find it significant to provide us with such details? We are familiar with the Anshei Kennesses Hagedola from the Mishna and Gemara and we do not seem to need this added introduction. What is it here that makes it essential for us to have this historical context?
One could speculate that Pirkei Avos was originally the first of all mishnayos. In other words, the Shisha Sidrei Mishna originally did not start with tractate berachos but rather with tractate Avos. It would then make sense that as an opening to the mishnayos we would be provided with minimal background as to the authors of the mishnayos. Namely, that the teachings of the Shisha sidrei mishna were taught by the Rabbis who belonged to the Anshei Kennesses Hagedola and those that came after them. Likewise, it would make sense to explain to us that they were an important link in the handing down of the oral tradition which was originally received By Moshe Rabeinu at Sinai. Then the Mishna would simply be giving a relevant piece of history.
There is, however, no basis for such speculation and perhaps there is a different, more solid sort of answer.
Putting this aside for now let us look at the lessons taught by the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Kennesses Hagedola). They told us three teachings: 1) to be prudent in judgment (when adjudicating a suit) and halacha 2) To have many disciples and 3) to enact auxiliary safeguard rules (‘siag’) to the Torah laws. If we compare this mishna to most of the other mishnayos in Pirkei Avos we will find it seemingly incongruent with them. Most of the mishnayos deal with subject matter that is equally relevant to all of Am-Yisroel. This mishna seems to be a teaching only our leaders what is important for them to focus on. It does not seem to be saying something relevant to everyone.
Until the era of mishnayos there were two elements of Torah study. There was the written Law also known as Tanach, and there was Torah Shebaal Peh – the oral tradition. These two elements were inseparable one from another very much in the same way as they are inseparable today. The synergy between the two never changed – only the modus operandi of how the oral tradition was given over changed. From Moshe Rabeinu until the Kennesses Hagedola the oral tradition was passed from generation to generation orally. It was passed from teacher to disciple in form of lecture and discourse alone. The Shisha Sidrei Mishna is the first written recording of the Halachos and ideas that were till then viva voce only. Aside from its meaning as unwritten Torah, Torah Shebaal Peh also implies that it is a tradition. When one makes a change to tradition it is no longer a tradition. Tradition by definition needs to be conserved authentically in its entirety.
To play around with such an essential element of Torah Judaism in is in essence toying with one of Judaism’s most basic ethos. This change was not made by the general public but was effected by the greatest Torah personalities of the Second Temple period.
The Anshei Kennesses Hagedola were the Torah leaders who rebuilt the Second Temple and they in essence rebuilt vibrant Torah Judaism in the Promised Land post restoration. They were faced by tremendous challenges. Klal-Yisroel went from a pre-exile state of being led by Neviyim – prophets who led via the divine revelation to a post-exile state of being led by Torah giants. Such a devolution could have a devastating impact on Torah study and observance. The Anshei Kennesses Hagedola faced an unprecedented situation. Without some sort of revolutionary tactic, Torah could be lost forever Chalila. It was precisely this situation that the Men of the Great Assembly wished to remedy.
They made a revolution. They wrote down the Torah Shebaal Peh in the form of the Mishnayos. Writing it down wasn’t sufficient. How were the Anshei Kennesses Hagedola going to ensure that the Mishnayos would continue to act as a lifeline for the Torah Shebaal Peh?
It is precisely this question that our Mishna is answering. Our mishna is telling us their method of ensuring the continuity of the oral tradition. The Anshei Kennesses Hagedola are telling us the three secrets to keeping the oral tradition alive: 1) to be prudent in matters of judgement and halacha so as to keep the authenticity of Torah pure. 2) To have many Torah students so as to ensure that it will be passed on through ample means. And 3) to make safeguards to the Torah laws so as to ensure that the Torah is preserved in its entirety.
This Mishna is thus the perfect introduction to Pirkei Avos, the tractate that teaches us Torah ethics. Torah ethics, however, aren’t supposed to be transmitted in written form. They are meant to be passed on by observing them in our Torah leaders. It is for this reason that Pirkei Avos must start by justifying this bold revolution to one of the most basic ethos of authentic Torah Judaism. This mishna is validating turning tradition into a text book, but at the same time it is giving us the tools for keeping it alive as a vibrant and invigorating heritage.