Derech Eretz Kadma La'Torah "menschlichkeit" 23 May 2018

Is it better to have derech eretz and to be a Mensch or to only learn Torah?


A mensch is a someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being "a real mensch" is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous. (Rosten, Leo. 1968. The Joys of Yiddish. New York: Pocket Books. 237)

(ט) רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן דּוֹסָא אוֹמֵר, כָּל שֶׁיִּרְאַת חֶטְאוֹ קוֹדֶמֶת לְחָכְמָתוֹ, חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת. וְכָל שֶׁחָכְמָתוֹ קוֹדֶמֶת לְיִרְאַת חֶטְאוֹ, אֵין חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, כָּל שֶׁמַּעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ, חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת. וְכָל שֶׁחָכְמָתוֹ מְרֻבָּה מִמַּעֲשָׂיו, אֵין חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת:

(9) Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa says: Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom endures. And anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure. He would [also] say: Anyone whose actions are more plentiful than his wisdom, his wisdom endures. And anyone whose wisdom is more plentiful than his actions, his wisdom does not endure.

(יז) רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין חָכְמָה, אֵין יִרְאָה. אִם אֵין יִרְאָה, אֵין חָכְמָה. אִם אֵין בִּינָה, אֵין דַּעַת. אִם אֵין דַּעַת, אֵין בִּינָה. אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, כָּל שֶׁחָכְמָתוֹ מְרֻבָּה מִמַּעֲשָׂיו, לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לְאִילָן שֶׁעֲנָפָיו מְרֻבִּין וְשָׁרָשָׁיו מֻעָטִין, וְהָרוּחַ בָּאָה וְעוֹקַרְתּוֹ וְהוֹפַכְתּוֹ עַל פָּנָיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ירמיה יז) וְהָיָה כְּעַרְעָר בָּעֲרָבָה וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבוֹא טוֹב וְשָׁכַן חֲרֵרִים בַּמִּדְבָּר אֶרֶץ מְלֵחָה וְלֹא תֵשֵׁב. אֲבָל כָּל שֶׁמַּעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ, לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לְאִילָן שֶׁעֲנָפָיו מֻעָטִין וְשָׁרָשָׁיו מְרֻבִּין, שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ כָל הָרוּחוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם בָּאוֹת וְנוֹשְׁבוֹת בּוֹ אֵין מְזִיזִין אוֹתוֹ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שם) וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל מַיִם וְעַל יוּבַל יְשַׁלַּח שָׁרָשָׁיו וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבֹא חֹם, וְהָיָה עָלֵהוּ רַעֲנָן, וּבִשְׁנַת בַּצֹּרֶת לֹא יִדְאָג, וְלֹא יָמִישׁ מֵעֲשׂוֹת פֶּרִי:

(17) Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear; if there is no fear, there is no wisdom. If there is no understanding, there is no knowledge; if there is no knowledge, there is no understanding. If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. He would say: Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down; as it is said; "And he shall be like a lonely juniper tree in the wasteland and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places of the wilderness, a salty land that is uninhabitable." (Jeremiah 17:6). But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom, what is he like? Like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many; since even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they do not move it from its place, as it is said; "He shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not perceive when heat comes, but its leaf shall remain fresh; and it will not be troubled in the year of drought, nor will it cease to bear fruit." (Jeremiah 17:8).

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.

Personification of virtue - one aspect of Derech im Eretz.

In the Talmud and Midrash, there are approximately 200 teachings concerning derech eretz as decent, polite, respectful, thoughtful, and civilized behavior.[3] One representative teaching is that "Derech eretz comes before Torah" (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:3) – one cannot personify Torah until he demonstrates derech eretz in everything that he does. There are many more such teachings in the rishonim and acharonim (post-Talmudic authorities). The mussar literature, in fact, presents an entire body of thought devoted to the subject of middot (character traits) and "behaving like a mentsh" (refined human being). Here, the way that one behaves is regarded as an external manifestation of one's middot.

Under the general rubric of derech eretz, the sages caution us against overeating, eating too quickly, or staring at someone else who is eating. Also, one should not talk too loudly or too much, and should greet people pleasantly. Likewise, a person with derech eretz is careful to spend only what they can afford. In order to raise children with derech eretz, it’s important not to spoil them by accustoming them to having delicacies. In general, to have derech eretz usually means to live ethically, responsibly and with dignity, and to be considerate of others.


(3) Rabbi Yannai was once walking along the road, and saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai said to him: Would you like to come over to my house? The man replied: Yes. Rabbi Yannai brought him into his home, and gave him food and drink. As they were eating and drinking together, he examined him in his knowledge of Bible, and found out that he had none; examined his knowledge of Mishnah, and realized that he had none; his knowledge of legends, and saw that he had none; his knowledge of Talmud and saw he had none. Rabbi Yannai then told him: Wash and recite grace. Said the guest: Let Yannai recite grace in his own home. Seeing that he could not even recite a blessing, Yannai told him: Can you at least repeat what I say? Said he: Yes. Said Rabbi Yannai: repeat the following: 'A dog has eaten Yannai's bread.' Offended, the man stood up, and grabbed Rabbi Yannai by the coat! He then said: My inheritance is with you, and you are withholding it from me! Said Rabbi Yannai with puzzlement: What legacy of yours is there with me? He replied: Once I passed by a school, and I heard the voices of the little children saying: 'Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.' They did not say 'the inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,' but the 'congregation of Jacob.' Rabbi Yannai asked, “How then are you worthy to eat at my table?” The guest replied, “Never have I heard an evil word spoken against me and returned to argue with the person who spoke it. Never have I seen two people arguing without making peace between them.” Rabbi Yannai then said, “you have so much Derech Eretz and I called you a dog.” ... Rabbi Ishmael son of rav Nachman said: Derech eretz precedes Torah by 26 generations, since it is written “and to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3). “Way” is the derech eretz, and only after that comes “Tree of Life” which is Torah.

Sources and ideas were inspired by Harav Amital's essay "derekh eretz -Being a Mensch" and The Legacy by Rabbi Berel Wein and Rabbi Goldstien.