JEWISH VALUES IN A CHANGING WORLD
By Harav Yehuda Amital zt"l
LECTURE #11: DEREKH ERETZ – BEING A MENSCH
DEREKH ERETZ PRECEDED THE TORAH
Yiddish has a unique term, used by speakers of other languages as well, that is
very difficult to translate - "menschlichkeit." The Hebrew term derekh
eretz is only roughly equivalent.
Paraphrasing the expression in the Siddur, "One should always be a
man who fears God in private as well as in public" ("Le-olam yehe adam..."),
Jews in eastern Europe used to say: "One should always be a man (mensch)."
That is, first one must be a mensch; afterwards, one can fear God. The
Torah reinforces and deepens the idea of menschlichkeit, but this quality
is demanded of man even before he acquires Torah, as stated by Chazal (Yalkut
Shimoni, Bereshit 34):
"To guard the derekh (way) [to the tree of life]" (Bereshit 3:24)
- this refers to derekh eretz. This teaches that derekh eretz
preceded the tree of life, and there is no tree but Torah, as it says: "She is a
tree of life" (Mishlei 3:18).
The Mishna in tractate
Avot (3:17) makes the relationship reciprocal:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Azarya says: When there is no Torah, there is no derekh
eretz; when there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah.
Maharal defines the idea of derekh eretz (Netivot Olam, netiv
is comprised of all the ethical teachings in tractate Avot, as
well as the ethical teachings mentioned in the Talmud, and all other ethical
teachings. It consists of conduct that is proper and that is pleasing to people.
It includes teachings which, if one does not follow them, he thereby commits a
great sin and transgression, so that one must be mindful of them. This is why
they are called "divrei mussar" ("chastising words"), for they chastise a
person that he should not walk in the path of evil.
Maharal continues with a discussion regarding the significance of placing
derekh eretz prior to Torah:
For the patriarchs of the world, whom the Blessed One accompanied wherever they
went, so that one might have imagined that the normal way of the world, i.e.,
the way of man as man, did not apply to them whatsoever - this is certainly not
true, for they lived according to the normal way of the world. If the Blessed
One performed miracles on their behalf outside the way of the world, this was
only temporary and when necessary. Otherwise, they lived according to the way of
the world, for derekh eretz is the way of this world. He who does not
conduct himself in accordance with the ways of the world is not considered part
of the world at all. Hence, a person should not make light of things that are
the way of the world, for derekh eretz preceded the world... The world
cannot exist without derekh eretz, as [the Sages] said: When there is no
derekh eretz, there is no Torah. And from here we learn that derekh
eretz is a fundamental part of the Torah, which is the way of the tree of
The importance of derekh eretz also follows from the Gemara in
What constitutes the profanation of the name [of God]? Rav said: For example, if
I were to buy meat from a butcher without immediately paying for it.
In other words, Rav
would act stringently and pay the butcher at once, even though there was no
halakhic obligation to do so, for he thought that if he failed to follow this
stringency, he would cause a desecration of God's name. One who engages in Torah
study is expected to be meticulous not only about explicit halakhot, but also
about conducting himself in a manner of derekh eretz in his relations
with other people.
The Mishna in Avot (3:12) states:
Rabbi Yishmael said: Be submissive to a superior and kindly to the young; and
receive all men cheerfully.
Rambam's remarks, in
his commentary to the Mishna (ad loc.), are very significant from a human
It is fitting to receive every man, lowly and grand, free-man and slave, every
member of the human race, with joy and happiness. This goes beyond what Shammai
says (Avot 1:15): "[Receive all men] with a kindly countenance."
This is a unique
expression of derekh eretz - the duty to receive all men not only with a
kindly countenance, but with joy and happiness. According to Rabbi Naftali Zvi
Berlin (the Netziv), in the introduction to his commentary to the Torah,
Ha'amek Davar, the virtue of the patriarchs lay in the way they behaved with
derekh eretz even towards idolaters:
This was the praise of the patriarchs, that in addition to being righteous,
saintly, and lovers of God in the best possible manner, they were also straight
and honest, that is, they conducted themselves with the nations of the world,
even the ugliest idolaters, with love, and they sought their welfare, that being
the fulfillment of the purpose of creation.
PRACTICAL EXPRESSIONS OF DEREKH ERETZ
The importance attached to derekh eretz by Chazal sharply
contrasts with the widespread phenomenon, in which people are meticulous in
observing the minutiae of Halakha and even supererogatory stringencies, but
careless when it comes to menschlichkeit. Moreover, their very insistence
on excessive halakhic stringency often leads to violations of the rules of
derekh eretz. Our Rabbis teach us that derekh eretz is a value of
great weight, one that can set aside various stringencies. For example, the
Mishna in Berakhot states (2:1):
In the breaks [between sections of Shema], one may give greetings out of
respect and return greetings; in the middle [of a section], one may give
greetings out of fear and return greetings; these are the words of Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Yehuda says: In the middle [of a section], one may give greetings out of
fear and return them out of respect; in the breaks, one may give greetings out
of respect and return greetings to anyone.
Rambam rules in
accordance with Rabbi Yehuda (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 2:15):
If a person was reading [Shema], and he met other people or was accosted
by them - if he was between sections, he pauses and greets anyone to whom he is
dutibound to show honor, e.g., if he met his father, or his teacher, or his
superior in learning. And he returns the greeting of any man who greeted him.
This law is astonishing: how did Chazal allow us to greet people
while we are in the middle of reciting Shema (between sections)? The
Gemara in Berakhot (6b) explains:
Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: If one knows that his friend is
accustomed to greeting him, let him greet him first. For it is said: "Seek peace
and pursue it" (Tehilim 34:15). And if his friend greets him and he does
not return the greeting, he is called a thief. For it is said: "It is you that
have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses" (Yeshayahu
In other words,
greeting one's fellow is included among the basic elements of derekh eretz,
or menschlichkeit. Chazal ruled that for the sake of this value, a
person may even interrupt his reading of the Shema and its blessings.
Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his Kesef Mishneh commentary on the Rambam (ad
loc.), cites a controversy among the Rishonim regarding whether or
not one may interrupt his reading of Shema for other things as well,
e.g., for Kaddish or Kedusha. He writes that according to most
Rishonim, the Shema may be interrupted, for these things are
no worse than greeting one's fellow. Rambam himself was asked about a related
matter (Responsa Rambam, 180):
Is it permissible to interrupt the blessings that precede or follow the
recitation of Shema with one of the new piyyutim, or with one of
the blessings that happens to fall upon him, e.g., for tzitzit or
tefillin, or for things, the seeing, hearing, or smelling of which obligate
a blessing, and this is considered like giving or returning a greeting? Or do we
say about something like this that what was stated was stated, and what was not
stated was not stated?
Interrupting [between blessings] for one of the piyyutim is an absolute
mistake and error, there being no grounds to allow it. And there are no grounds
for interrupting between [blessings] in order to recite of one of the [other]
blessings. For he is engaged in [the performance of] a mitzva; why then
should he interrupt the fulfillment of the mitzva he is engaged in and
accept upon himself a different mitzva?
Rambam maintains that
one may not interrupt the blessings of Shema for another mitzva,
for "One who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot"
(Sukka 25a). The allowance to interrupt the reading of Shema
applies only extending and returning greetings, the importance of which stems
from the most basic obligation concerning the observance of mitzvot -
that of derekh eretz preceding the Torah.
Ramban, in the beginning of his novellae to tractate Berakhot,
questioned the custom of saying "E-l Melekh ne'eman" between the "Ahavat
Olam" blessing and Shema: "For it is well known that Ahavat Olam
is regarded as the blessing on the mitzva of reciting Shema, for
all mitzvot require a blessing prior to their performance." According to
Ramban, then, why is it permissible to greet one's fellow between Ahavat Olam
and Shema? We see again that derekh eretz is the more basic value,
and for its sake we may even interrupt between the blessing on the mitzva
of reading Shema, Ahavat Olam, and the Shema itself.
There were, however, those who had difficulty with this issue. Rabbi
Avraham Gombiner writes in his Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 66:1):
Maharam Tiktin wrote in a marginal note on Alfasi in the name of Nimukei
Ha-Rosh, that only in the case of a new face may one greet or return a
greeting, for if he fails to offer a greeting, it will lead to hatred. And in a
synagogue where we do not offer greetings, it is certainly forbidden to greet or
return greetings, even words of Torah, neither between the sections of Shema
nor in Pesukei de-Zimra.
And Sefer Chinnukh writes: For someone whom we have not seen to get angry
at another person at all, one should not interrupt even between sections."
issued a similar ruling. It should, however, be noted that this restriction is
not mentioned in the words of the Rishonim, Rambam, or Shulchan Arukh.
Even those who were stringent, were stringent only because we are dealing here
with Keri'at Shema. Nevertheless, we see here the value of
menschlichkeit, which, fundamentally speaking, would have been reason to
allow an interruption even during the reading of Shema.
Elsewhere, we once again come across a similar principle. The Mishna in
tractate Demai (4:1) discusses a person who has obligated another person
to eat with him, by taking a vow forbidding that other person to derive any
benefit from him should he not eat with him. But that other person cannot simply
eat with him, because he doesn't trust his tithing of produce. What should he
do? The Mishna states:
If a man imposed a vow upon his friend to eat with him, and that friend does not
trust him in respect to tithes, he may eat with him the first week, even though
he does not trust him in respect to tithes, provided that the man had declared
to him that the food had been tithed. But the second week, even though the man
had bound himself by a vow not to enjoy any benefit from him, he may not eat
with the man unless he had first tithed [the food].
Rambam, in his
commentary to the Mishna (ad loc.) explains:
That which it says, "even though the man had bound himself by a vow not to enjoy
any benefit from him," means: Even though he mentioned to him in his oath that
he would derive no benefit from him if he does not eat with him, so that he must
do so [=eat with him] in order to strengthen the friendship and remove the
animosity that will develop between them if he does not eat with him.
Nevertheless, he may not eat with him until he tithes [the produce].
In other words, the
basis of the allowance to eat uncertainly tithed food is "to strengthen the
friendship and remove the animosity," though the Mishna limits this allowance to
the first week. Here too, derekh eretz preceded the Torah.
It goes without saying that if the law has already been decided in a
certain way, it is not set aside because of the consideration of derekh eretz.
But when it comes to extra measures of stringency which fall into the category
of "acts of piety," the matter must be carefully examined. Rabbi Moshe Chayyim
Luzzatto writes in his Mesilat Yesharim (chap. 20):
Indeed, a person is obligated to keep all the commandments, with every minute
detail, without fear or shame... But there are supererogatory deeds of piety
which, if one performs them before the common masses, will cause them to laugh
at him and ridicule him... It is certainly more correct for a pious person to
forsake such practices rather than perform them. This is what the Prophet meant
when he said: "And walk humbly with your God" (Mikha 6:8). Many men of great piety abandoned
their pious practices when they were among the common masses so as not to appear
boastful... You may derive from this that one who aspires to true piety must
weigh all of his actions in relation to the consequences that follow from them
and the circumstances that accompany them, considering the time, social
environment, occasion, and place.
Pious behavior that is likely to come at the cost of menschlichkeit
should be avoided, and all the more so when such behavior is liable to cause
It is related about Rabbi Israel Salanter that he once saw a student
washing his hands in a most meticulous manner and with an enormous amount of
water. He chastised him for his behavior, for the water had been carried from
the well by a poor maidservant, and the student's meticulous performance of the
mitzva had come at her expense. Here too, the underlying assumption is
that stringent and meticulous observance of the mitzvot does not set
aside the obligation to behave with derekh eretz.
(Translated by David