Derech Eretz Precedes the Torah

A 4-part series by World Mizrachi Director-General, Rabbi Doron Perez

On the meaning and relevance of Derech Eretz today

The term derech eretz is one of the most complex, multifaceted and fundamental ideas in all of Jewish life. It is also one of the most misunderstood.

The book of Bereishit – Genesis – in general and the opening Parashiyot in particular are pivotal in any attempt to understanding this powerful and transformational idea.

Part 1: Could the Real “Derech Eretz” Please Stand Up!

Many people associate the term derech eretz with good manners, proper etiquette, common decency and correct moral behaviour; to put it simply – to be a mensch. In fact, a most often quoted dictum of the Sages is: “Derech eretz precedes (kadmah) the Torah.” With this, people wish to convey that it is not enough to observe religious practices meticulously, but first and foremost one must be a mensch, behaving with respect and decency towards others.

The purpose of this series of articles is threefold:

Firstly, to show that the above interpretation of derech eretz is only partially true, at best, and misses the mark of its accurate meaning. In essence, derech eretz has a far broader and more comprehensive meaning, according to our Sages. We will see the novel, multifaceted interpretation and definition of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.

Secondly, to analyse the source of the above dictum – derech eretz precedes the Torah – in its original form in the Midrash. The Sages see in this teaching a most fundamental principal of the nature of Torah, and how it applies to our everyday living.

Thirdly, to show that, based on Rav Kook’s interpretation of this principle of derech eretz preceding the Torah, it is of specific relevance and importance to our day and age

The Source – Finding A Way to the Tree of Life

Rabbi Yishma’el, son of Rabbi Nachmani, said, “Derech eretz preceded the Torah by twenty-six generations, as it is written: ‘To guard the way to the Tree of Life’ (Genesis 3;24) – ‘the way’ refers to derech eretz, followed by ‘the Tree of Life’, which is the Torah.” (Vayikra Raba 9;3) The verse quoted in the Midrash refers to the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after the sin. The verse states that the cherubs, who guarded the path to the Tree of Life, guarded the Garden of Eden. Our Midrash interprets the Tree of Life to be the Torah and the path to the Torah as derech eretz.

According to the Midrash, therefore, derech eretz is fundamentally important. It is the pathway to Torah. It is the very means through which Torah living is acquired. It is an absolute essential of Torah living.

A few points in our Midrash need to be clarified.

a. What does the term derech eretz mean? Literally translated, it means “the way of the land”. What is the way of the world to which the Midrash refers?

b. What does the fact that derech eretz preceded the world for 26 generations mean?

c. What relevance does this have for us today? The Sages were not historians or researchers of antiquity. What occurred before the giving of the Torah would not bother the Sages, unless it has religious and moral significance for us living today.

Six Different Meanings of Derech Eretz

The term derech eretz appears many hundreds of times in Talmudic and Midrashic literature.

What makes this term so difficult to understand and therefore to define is that when we analyse these many contexts, we find that derech eretz has multiple meanings.

Taken literally, as mentioned above, it means “the way of the land”.

This literal English translation is as enigmatic as the Hebrew. After all, what does “the way of the land” mean: what “way” and what way are we talking about, and which land are we referring to? Having analysed the many texts, I have identified at least six different meanings and categories of what derech eretz could mean. Let me briefly highlight each one of these six meanings and then attempt to piece them together and to form a comprehensive, accurate and transformative definition of what derech eretz is all about.

Amazingly, there are two small tractates in the Babylonian Talmud (part of what is known as “the smaller tractates”), which are both entitled: Derech Eretz. The first is: Derech Eretz Rabba, the large one, and the second Derech Eretz Zuta, the small one. These are two independent masechtot, with the former dealing with many rules of social conduct told through stories of the private lives of many of our Sages. The latter is a collection of ethical teachings, including sections on appropriate ethical conduct. These two masechtot predominantly highlight the first of the two categories of derech eretz as follows:

1. Social etiquette and good manners

There are many examples throughout Masechtot Derech Eretz which deal with correct etiquette. One such example can be found in masechet Derech Eretz Rabba (Chapter 7) regarding two people who are sitting at the table. It is only proper that the younger of the two should not begin eating until the older one has done so. This is a common courtesy. A second example of correct social etiquette is brought in the Midrash Bamidbar Rabba (14, 21) regarding the opening verse of the Book of Leviticus, which states, “And Hashem called out to Moshe and spoke to him.” The Midrash questions why it is that Hashem needed to call out to Moshe before speaking to him. It answers that the Torah is teaching us derech eretz, namely that one should not start speaking to anyone until you first call out to them. This means a person should not startle somebody else by speaking to them before they have acknowledged their presence and called out to them to engage in a conversation. There are many such examples of the term derech eretz which all clearly come to teach us the appropriate protocols, social etiquette and good manners when it comes to interacting with others.

2. A refined ethical character and being sensitive to others

There are many sources, especially in Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, which highlight the many ethical teachings of our Sages with respect to character refinement, personal morality and sensitivity in dealing with others. These focus on dealing with other people in a gentle, patient and empathetic way, a readiness to forgive and desire to make peace among people. A further clear example of this is in the above quoted Vayikra Raba (9, 3) where the story is told of Rabbi Yanai, who encountered a particular man who declared the following to the Sage: “Never in my life have I, after hearing negative reports about someone else, ever repeated this to the person, nor have I ever seen two people arguing without proactively making peace between them.”

Rabbi Yanai then said, “…you possess great derech eretz”. These sources highlight the ethical focus in life in dealing with all others in a compassionate, gentle and kind way. Rabbi Yanai identified this display of sensitivity to others and especially in avoiding disputes and creating peace and harmony between people as a clear display of derech eretz.

The great Ba’alei HaMussar, the Jewish ethicists, who led the Mussar movement over the last 150 years, greatly emphasised these two particular aspects of derech eretz: social etiquette and good manners, as well as moral decency and ethical behaviour in our dealing with others. One of many such examples are the many teachings of Rav Natan Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, who emphasised continually throughout his writings the principal of Gadlus Ha’ Adam, the greatness of man. He emphasised how a person has to live with ethical greatness and personal dignity as a human being both in terms of how the individual carries him or herself with regards to all human interactions. He states (Or Hatzafun volume 1, page 173–175) that the derech eretz being spoken about in the dictum of “derech eretz precedes Torah” is referring first and foremost to character traits and ethical attributes as mentioned above.

However, when we analyse the plethora of texts on derech eretz, we find at least four additional categories of what derech eretz means, which are far broader and more encompassing than the above definitions.

They are as follows:
– Earning a living
– Contribution to society
– Intimacy and appropriate family life
– Environmental consciousness

3. Earning a living

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda the prince, said, “Torah study is good together with derech eretz, for the exertion of them both will cause sin to be forgotten. And any Torah that is not accompanied by work will cease in the end and lead to sin.” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2;2)

How can it be that learning Torah exclusively will lead to sin? Rashi explains that when one is involved in Torah learning and earns an honest living as well, one will neither covet nor steal the possessions of others.

Here, derech eretz means having an occupation where one is working to earn a living. Thus, derech eretz also refers to earning an honest living and supporting oneself and one’s family financially.

4. Contribution to society

Our rabbis taught: “‘And you shall gather in your grain.’ (Deuteronomy 11;14) – What is to be learnt from these words? Since it says, ‘This book of the Torah will not depart from your mouth’ (Joshua 1;8), perhaps this is to be interpreted literally? Therefore, the verse says, ‘And you shall gather in your grain’ – treat them (the words of Torah) in the manner of derech eretz.” (Masechet Berachot 35b)

This source teaches us that combining Torah learning with derech eretz is the normative successful path in spiritual life. In this case, derech eretz is referring to farming, working the land. In Biblical time, particularly, agriculture played a pivotal role in society as both the driver of the economy as well as a means to provide sustenance to the members of society. Derech eretz therefore is referring to “making an active contribution to society. No man is an island. What man builds his own house, makes his own clothes, and grows his own crops?

Thousands upon thousands of people are involved in the production process necessary to satisfy our common human needs.” Here we see that learning Torah should exist alongside our own individual efforts to further this production process, and that we should be positive contributors to perpetuating society, both learning Torah and gathering in our grain.

This is the opinion of Rabbi Yishma’el. The continuation of the Gemara mentions the view of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that one should avoid worldly activity and focus entirely upon Torah. The Gemara concludes, “Many tried to act as Rabbi Shimon but did not succeed; many tried to act as Rabbi Yishma’el and did succeed.”

5. Intimate family life

Rabbi Yochanan said, “Were the Torah not given we would have learnt modesty from the cat, [the prohibition against] theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and derech eretz from the chicken – who first appeases [its mate] and then cohabits’ (Masechet Eiruvin 100b).

In contrast to the previous two sources, derech eretz here refers to correct sexual conduct, certain sensitivity in the intimacy between husband and wife. In a similar vein, we read in the Pesach Haggadah, “’And [G-d] saw our affliction’ – This refers to the interruption of derech eretz.” The Gemarah relates that Pharaoh destroyed the morale of the Jewish people by working them so hard, to the extent that husband and wife had neither time nor energy for intimacy. Pharaoh tried to disrupt the normal family life of Jewish couples.

6. Avoiding wastefulness – environment consciousness

The Midrash [(Shemot Rabba 35;2)] quotes the verse in the Torah which states that the Ark of the Covenant in the desert was made out of shittim – acacia wood. The Midrash enquires as to why the Holy Ark was made specifically of this type of wood. The Midrash answers that Hashem was teaching us derech eretz for generations, that if anyone would want to build a home of wood from fruit trees, we should say to them, “Just as the King of Kings, to whom everything in the world belongs, commanded us to build a Mishkan of shittim wood, which is a non-fruit-bearing tree, so should we do the same.”

The Midrash is clearly teaching us to avoid unnecessary wastefulness of the material bounty in Hashem’s world. In order to construct the Ark, there is no need to use the wood of a fruit tree, thereby wasting the fruit which can be consumed by humans and animals alike, for the purpose of building the Ark. Even though building the Ark is a most holy endeavour, we have to be mindful not to waste anything unnecessarily.

According to the above categories, derech eretz can mean six different things:
(i) Social etiquette/good manners
(ii) Ethical character/sensitivity to others
(iii) Earning a living
(iv) Contribution to society
(v) Intimate family life
(vi) Environmental consciousness

In next week’s article we shall attempt to weave these six multi-faceted elements of Derech Eretz into one beautiful tapestry of a potentially life-changing concept- one which forms one of Judaism’s great foundational ideas. This will be based on the brilliant comprehensive definition of Derech Eretz according to Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch.

To be continued…

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