Shiur #10: Honoring Others and Dignified Giving

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Shiur #10: Honoring Others and Dignified Giving



The Dual Nature of Kavod


In last week's lesson we began discussing the principle of kevod ha-beriyot, the dignity with which we must treat all human beings. Although certain individuals, such as one's parents or teachers, are to be accorded extra honor, every individual deserves tremendous respect. This is based on the concept of tzelem Elokim, the image of God, in which every human is created, entitling everyone to near-godly treatment. Indeed, this leads us to the principle of the greatness of man, fleshed out in the teachings of the Slabodka school of musar.


The Basic Halakhic Parameters


As we saw in the previous lesson, the Talmud (Berakhot 19a) states, “Great is human dignity (kevod ha-beriyot), as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah,” but the exact parameters are unclear. A simple reading of the passage seems to indicate that human dignity may allow one to violate a rabbinical prohibition or to disregard a biblical obligation that is monetary in nature or requires a certain action. What about an active violation of a biblical prohibition? Some see this as a dispute between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi; indeed, there are some sources that argue that even the Bavli would suspend biblical prohibitions for the sake of kevod ha-beriyot. (See Encyclopedia Talmudit’s entry on this topic, particularly footnotes 103-107). However, there are others who seem to view kevod ha-beriyot as an unavoidable consideration which might compel one to violate certain laws, but one would still have to atone for such a violation (Chavot Yair 236).


A second difficulty involves the definition of the term kavod, honor, especially when many of the examples brought in the Talmud are uncommon occurrences of great affronts to one's personal dignity rather than mundane situations.


Furthermore, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 3:1) refers to kevod ha-beriyot as kevod ha-rabbim, the honor of the masses or of the public, a concept that is mentioned in the Talmud Bavli a number of times as well. Does this affect its application?


The Talmud itself mentions an important caveat: if maintaining one's dignity will cause an affront to the honor of God, then the latter takes precedence. Thus, one must strike a balance between these two considerations; sometimes, it is necessary to forgo one's own dignity in this world and merit closeness to God in the next.


It is beyond the scope of this series to deal with the halakhic ramifications of this principle. As the Rivash (Responsa, # 226) states:


One cannot compare the various examples of kevod ha-beriyot to each other, for if they allowed a kohen to defile himself for the honor due to an unattended corpse or [allowed violations] for the honor of the mourner or the king or the elder… one cannot compare the various cases.


Indeed, HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, in “Kevod Ha-beriyot: Human Dignity in Halakha” (available at:, notes that kevod ha-beriyot is often intentionally omitted as the justification for halakhic rulings because of the potential for abuse; one might start to apply it on a wholesale level, without any limitation. Still, the Talmudic invocation of greatness cannot be ignored, and it should inform all manners of personal conduct, from one’s hygiene to interactions with others to the idea of human rights.


It is this message on which we will focus, from the statements of our Sages to the expositions of contemporary thinkers.


Maintaining Others' Dignity in Trying Situations


Halakha's willingness to suspend commandments for the sake of kevod ha-beriyot may be especially relevant for those in positions of authority: a boss must not view his or her position as an indication of superiority. Sometimes, unfortunately, a promotion may change the way one relates to others. The principle of kevod ha-beriyot requires that even when one feels the weight of responsibility in a managerial position — even when one must do something unpleasant, like correcting workers, reprimanding them or even letting them go — the human dignity of the others must be respected.


The Torah does not mandate going out of one’s way to avoid embarrassing another only; it specifically requires showing proactive appreciation and concern. The Chinnukh notes that the mitzva of providing a bonus at the completion of a term of service is not limited to the Jewish servant. Devarim 15:14 states:


You shall supply him liberally out of your flock and out of your threshing floor and out of your wine press; with what Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give him.


The Chinukh (Mitzva 482) seems to view this as a general directive:


At the root of the precept lies the purpose that we should acquire in ourselves noble, precious, cherished traits of character; and with a precious, noble spirit we will merit to attain good reward, as the beneficent God desires to do good for His people. It is our splendor and glory that we should have compassion on a person who has served us and that we should give him of what we own as an act of loving-kindness, apart from what we have stipulated with him to give him as wages. It is something understandable by intelligence, and there is no need to continue at length about it.


Thus, according to the Chinnukh, an employer must recognize and reward the workers in all they do. This is merely a small part of kevod ha-beriyot.


The Dignity of Honoring Others


Disrespecting others has many terrible consequences, but the Mishna (Avot 4:1) takes the affirmative view: one's concern for the honor of others is the defining element of honorableness, as Ben Zoma succinctly puts it:


Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is said: “For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who scorn Me shall be degraded” (I Shemuel 2:30).


The Tiferet Yisrael explains simply:


When one honors his fellow man because he is created in God's image, one is in essence honoring God. Therefore, God will bestow honor upon this individual, as his own godliness will shine, causing others to honor him.


Rabbeinu Yona adds that honoring others does not provide them with anything, as they are either worthy of the honor or not. However, honoring another allows the one showing the honor to express honorable behavior; thus, one imitates God, Who created the whole world for His glory yet provides honor to all of mankind.


Rashi explains that the Mishna is essentially teaching one how to be honored by Heaven, as one’s sensitivity to human dignity causes God to provide the same concern for one’s own dignity.


The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 8:1) explains that this practice of God, providing honor to others, is the origin of a famous title:


Why is the Holy One, Blessed be He, referred to as: "the King of Honor" (Tehillim 24:7)? He dispenses honor to those who fear him.


“Great is human dignity” is not a mere aphorism; it is meant to influence our actions. The most significant of mitzvot may be temporarily pushed aside in order to preserve one’s dignity.


The Endless Pursuit of Honor


As important as human dignity is, one must never pursue personal honor. The Mishna (ibid. 21) states:


Envy, desire and honor remove a man from the world.


While possessions are relatively easy to amass, respect is elusive. Many people are driven by a bottomless appetite for honor, and they are never satiated. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz states (Reb Chaim's Discourses, p. 145):


The explanation for man's insatiable conquest of honor lies in understanding the difference between the desire for honor as opposed to physical desires. Someone who craves any of the physical pleasures desires something that is real and exists. Therefore, when he has enjoyed it, his hunger and desire are satiated, at least to the degree he enjoys it, even if he obtains only a portion of it… Not so one who hungers for honor. Honor itself is non-existent; it is only a figment of the imagination. There is no tangible pleasure in honor. Its essence lies in the fact that by being accorded it, one's fantasies and desires have been fulfilled. Therefore, if anything is lacking in the fulfillment of one's dreams, then his hunger for honor is not satiated at all, for he has essentially received nothing.


However, Rav Chaim (Sichot Musar, ch. 82) also offers an interesting suggestion regarding how one's feelings of entitlement can be channeled to better suit one's self and others. The more one feels the desire to be honored, the more one may recognize how others may feel the same way. If honoring others is the ticket to becoming an honorable individual, the more one recognizes his or her personal need for honor, the more one may focus on that need in others. Showing them honor actually allows one to be an honorable individual, rather than being lost in the constant hunt for honor. However, he adds an additional element to honoring others: one truly fulfills the obligation only after finding a trait in another worth honoring — whether the other is a parent, rebbe or any individual. This approach allows one to accord honor to others in a real and meaningful manner.


One should also find within oneself a trait worthy of honor. The Rambam (Hilkhot De'ot 3:1) cautions against living an undignified existence:


A person might say, "Since envy, desire, honor, and the like support a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall separate from them to a very great degree and move away from them to the opposite extreme." For example, one might not eat meat; nor drink wine; nor live in a pleasant home; nor wear fine clothing, just sackcloth, coarse wool and the like, as the pagan priests do. This, too, is a bad path and it is forbidden to walk upon it. Whoever follows this path is called a sinner…


Although one should not be driven by honor, one should recognize that an honorable attitude and feeling of self-worth are essential in order to act honorably. Although it would seem to be a difficult balancing act, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichot Musar, ch. 28) explains how this attitude is an essential aspect of the religious personality and the mission of fulfilling God’s word. Understanding one's worth allows one to stand up to those doubting the significance of spiritual pursuits and to embrace one’s tzelem Elokim.


The Jewish Calling to Find the Divine in the Other


In The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (p. 208), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains how finding dignity in others is a religious imperative:


The question is: To what extent will we see our present interconnectedness as a threat or a challenge? As the work of man, or as a call from God to a greater humanity, as well as to a greater self-restraint? As for me, I believe that we are being summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the divine Other. The test — so lamentably failed by the great powers of the twentieth century — is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger; to heed the cry of those who are disempowered in this age of unprecedented powers; who are hungry and poor and ignorant and uneducated, whose human potential is being denied the chance to be expressed. That is the faith of Abraham and Sarah, from whom the great faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, trace their spiritual or actual ancestry. That is the faith of one who, though he called himself but dust and ashes, asked of God himself, 'Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?' We are not gods, but we are summoned by God — to do His work of love and justice and compassion and peace


This is not only a duty; it is the basis of the concept of human rights. Rav Ahron Soloveichik (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, p. 62) argues:


This key concept of k’vod habriyos, the dignity of all human beings, constitutes the basis of human rights. The maxim of "Man was endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights" was not an innovation of the founders of the American republic. These men were impressed with the doctrine of human rights which flows naturally from the concept of "the dignity of man" and the "image of God in which He created Man," as they knew from their Biblical background.


Rav Ahron Soloveichik adds (op. cit. p. 64). that there is still a distinction between the secular doctrine of human rights and the religious teaching. Judaism concerns itself not only with the rights of man, but with man's duties to espouse the doctrine of tzedek u-mishpat (see Psalms 89:15): "In modern society, assaulting a person is a crime but failure to save a human life is not. Civil law finds it inconceivable that a person should have the right to demand help and generosity from another. The Torah's concept of Tzedek, however, gives the person the right to demand aid."


The Kedusha Element:


Rav Aharon Lichtenstein notes that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik would always emphasize that while the Western tradition customarily speaks of "the dignity of man," we speak of "the sanctity of man."  Rav Lichtenstein adds:


The dimension of sanctity is the basis and foundation of our conception, and the "dignity" is integrally connected to it. By that token, our concern for kevod ha-beriyot is not just an obligation towards others or ourselves, but also an obligation towards the Almighty.  When man is viewed as a divine creature, then our perception of reality changes.


This brings us back to the directive of “Kedoshim tihyu,” “You shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24:9) states:


“You shall be holy” — I might think that this means holy as God Himself is holy; therefore it says: "For I am holy" — My holiness is superior to yours.


Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz questions the supposition here: isn't the comparison unfathomable? He explains that only the Sages, who appreciate the vastness of the human ability, could raise the possibility of comparing oneself to God, requiring an explanatory clause in the verse. Nevertheless, the distinction is not due to man's lowly status, but rather God’s exaltedness. He concludes (Reb Chaim's Discourses, p. 243):


This then is the true stature of a human being, created in the image of God, with the ability to scale heights beyond our conception. It is this loftiness which obligates us to the extreme of kevod ha-beriyot.


The Mitzvot of Kedoshim Tihyu


With this understanding of the importance of Judaism's perspective regarding the sanctity of human dignity, let's take a look back at Vayikra 19. The chapter delineates a number of mitzvot, starting with revering one's parents (as discussed in previous lessons). After continuing with a number of mitzvot related to serving God and no other, the Torah then lists a number of interpersonal mitzvot, primarily prohibitions. Many mitzvot in the list are very familiar to us, including the prohibitions of robbery, cheating a worker and the like. However, before these laws, in vv. 9-10, the Torah requires that we set aside a portion of the harvest for the poor. This indicates that the poor should never be deprived of their dignity. A person should not have to solicit funds, as a place in every landowner's field should be set aside for the needy. The first of these agricultural mitzvot is that of leaving the corner of the field unharvested; this allows easy access and reduces the discomfort of entering another's field to get food.


The Torah recognizes that pauper has not only physical and economic needs, but emotional ones as well. The indignity of being dependent on others, the loss of pride when asking others for one’s basic needs, is the psychological dimension which this mitzva seeks to ameliorate.


Does the Torah endorse a welfare state? It clearly recognizes that the poor will always be with us (Devarim 15:11), but it still argues that their dignity must be preserved in every way possible.


The formulation in Kedoshim, “When you reap your land’s harvest,” in the plural, makes everyone a co-owner of the property. Mutuality is the key to the Torah’s attitude to charity.


It is not for naught that Rut, the mother of royalty and ancestor of King David, who accompanies her mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel after the death of her husband and the rest of Naomi's family, enters into the fields of the wealthy scholar Boaz, her eventual mate, via these mitzvot. The Davidic dynasty is the result of this relationship. The most unfortunate member of society, the poor girl lacking a family, is able not only to partake of the bounty of the field of the wealthy through these gifts, but even to be noticed and appreciated. This is the call of holiness in providing for others.


In our next lesson, we will see how these mitzvot provide a roadmap for charitable giving and, ultimately, a sanctified life.