Derekh Eretz - Being a Mensch

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




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 Derekh Eretz):


Derekh eretz 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 life.


            The importance of derekh eretz also follows from the Gemara in Yoma (86a):


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 perspective:


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.




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 3:14).


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?


Rambam answered:


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."


Mishna Berura 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 offense.


            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 Strauss)