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

Part 4: Derech Eretz Precedes the Torah in All Generations

Having spent the last 3 parts of the series defining the pivotal meaning of the multi-faceted concept of derech eretz (based on Rav Hirsch), then highlighting what happens to a society which inherently lacks derech eretz (our analysis of the Generation of the Flood), and showing how our אבות and אמהות – our founding forefathers and mothers – were the epitome of derech eretz (based on the remarkable words of the Netziv in his introduction to the Book of Bereishit), it is now time to close our series by turning our attention to perhaps the most salient point of our series – what is the eternal significance and relevance of derech eretz for us today?

In order to do this, let us take a final look at the Midrash – a teaching of our sages – which we quoted at the outset of the series and which is the source of the famous dictum of our sages, and indeed which we have entitled the entire series – Derech Eretz Precedes the Torah.

You can find Part 1 here

You can find Part 2 here

You can find Part 3 here

Derech Eretz Precedes the Torah in All Generations

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)

What was it that existed for the 26 generations before the Torah?  The answer is derech eretz – the dual ethics of civility and civic virtue, which are the basic natural laws of a healthy society.  The meaning of ‘the Torah’ in this Midrash is of course the giving of the Torah.  The 26 generations discussed here are the 26 generations from the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and the first human society that they created, until the time of the giving of the Torah, 26 generations later. These 26 generations until the giving of the Torah – the time of Revelation – span a remarkable period of around 2,300 years.  Considering that we are currently in the year 5776 since the creation of Adam and Eve, this period above covers 40% of recorded human life.  In the absence of revealed Divine Law, what system was in place to govern societies both functionally and morally?  The answer our sages give is a system known as derech eretz.  These are the core principles of basic normative human behavior which govern societies.  This is the “way of the world” which existed for all these generations before the giving of Torah.

As we explained in Part 2 of the series, based on Rabbi Hirsch’s definition, the meaning of derech eretz is civility and civic virtue which includes dealing in a respectful and decent manner with fellow human beings, with appropriate etiquette, ethics and manners, living a healthy natural family life in order to perpetuate the human species and our families, ever-mindful of the impact of our actions on the environment around us, earning an honest living thereby proactively contributing to both our wellbeing and to the society at large.

This is the “way of the world”, the way human beings ought to organize themselves in order to create a sustainable society.  Societies which created such laws were able to govern themselves and succeeded to grow.  Societies which did not, failed, as in the greatest generational failure of all – that of the flood – which so gravely compromised its moral way that it not only lost its raison d’etre, but indeed caused the destruction of the entire world.  Without derech eretz the world cannot exist and societies cannot function in a sustainable way.

The more pertinent question, though, that we must now turn our attention to is: what is the moral significance and relevance of this for us today?  Our sages were not historians and researchers of antiquity, but rather were moral and spiritual leaders whose purpose in the teachings of the Midrash is to articulate fundamental ethical and spiritual truths which echo for all generations.

The Sages wished to teach us that the 26 generations preceding the giving of the Torah are significant from a religious perspective, for all generations to come. They are integrally part of the giving of Torah.

These core principles of civility, civic virtue and social responsibility form the basis of Torah acceptance for all future generations. The Torah was not given in a vacuum. The values of Torah are not intended to uproot and nullify the normative societal living that existed before Sinai; they are supposed to uplift and enhance it.

Derech eretz – the way of the world – was a necessary platform and foundation for the giving of the Torah. The unique teaching of the Midrash is that derech eretz and Torah are essentially connected and part of the same value system.

This is why, as we clarified in Article 3 in this series, the entire book of Bereishit is included as part of the Torah, even though it refers to a period long before the giving of the Torah.  This entire book, as the Netziv explained so brilliantly, is indeed all about derech eretz, and that’s why its alternative name is Sefer Hayashar – the Book of the Upright. Our founding fathers and mothers who are the heroes of this book were the epitome of derech eretz.  They were society builders and contributors who lived according to the highest values of civility, civic virtue and social responsibility.  They respected all those around them, always treating them with appropriate dignity for those who were created in the image of G-d.  They believed in people more than people believed in themselves, and contributed to society on so many levels, as we have explained.

Torah and derech eretz are intrinsically connected, critical for each other’s success in forming one holistic system. Torah without derech eretz would lack the appropriate context and a human framework and foundation on which to be built.  The values of the Torah revealed at Sinai cannot be transformative if they are given in a vacuum . Once there is man-a mensch -then and only then, can their be the Jew. The Jew is part of the system of man, and the Jewish People are a part of the family of nations.  The light of the Torah is the light of the essential spiritual values which can uplift the Jewish People and humanity as a whole to fulfill its moral and spiritual destiny on earth.  It is these quintessential teachings of the Torah through Revelation which have the potential to take human society to the next level.  Once there have been 26 generations of derech eretz embedded into the human psyche, can there be space for the Torah to be given to the Jewish People to assume their Divinely inspired mission for the benefit of are all created in the image of G-d.

The opposite is also true – without Torah, derech eretz would be wholly incomplete.  The values of the Torah revealed by the eternal G-d anchor society with a clear moral and spiritual compass.  The natural laws of derech eretz which should be at the core of every society are often not.  The generation of the Flood, Sodom, and the Tower of Babel are examples to varying degrees where humanity lost its course.  Derech eretz alone simply cannot do it.  Derech eretz without Revelation falls short.  Indeed, over the last century the principles of moral relativism have become so rampant that what seems to be common sense and obvious truth gets lost in moral obscurity and spiritual oblivion.  Derech eretz and natural moral laws of society desperately need the values of the Torah to uplift, enhance and direct them no less than the Revelation of Torah requires to be built on a foundation of derech eretz.  Derech eretz and Torah are one holistic system which creates the wholeness and richness of Torah living.

Rav Kook – Contemporary Significance

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the founding Chief Rabbi of pre-State Israel, gives a most relevant and contemporary application to the meaning of derech eretz as follows:

“‘Derech eretz precedes the Torah.’ There must be a chronological precedence in all generations.  Morality in its true nature, in all its grandeur and power, must become implanted in a person’s soul. It must be a platform for the great influences that derive from the power of the Torah… This principal applies both to the individual as well as the community. If there is a need for Torah to appear without the platform of natural morality, this is a temporary occurrence, and life must eventually return to the permanent state Torah with derech eretz. “The fear of Heaven (yirat shamayim) must not override the natural morality of a person, for then it is no longer pure fear of Heaven. A sign of pure fear of Heaven is when natural morality, which is rooted in the upright nature of man, is continuously uplifted by it [i.e., by the Torah] to levels higher than it had reached without it.” (Orot HaKodesh 3;11)

Rav Kook explains the eternal significance of the rabbinic teaching that ‘Derech eretz precedes the Torah’. He shows that it is critical that derech eretz must precede Torah acceptance in every generation.  The contemporary meaning of this is that Torah living must always be preceded and coupled with a deep commitment to derech eretz.  Civility – civic virtue, morality, decency and social responsibility must be integral to our Torah way of life.  If our fear of Heaven does not enhance our sense of derech eretz then this is a clear sign that our spiritual path is inherently flawed.

Rav Kook develops the topic even further regarding the eternal relevance of derech eretz.  He maintains that derech eretz must form a basis to enhance Torah both on an individual level and on a communal level. On both these levels, Torah observance should be rooted in derech eretz and therefore propel the individual to be more moral, decent and socially responsible. It should encourage one to earn an honest living, build normal and healthy relationships with our spouse and family, behave ethically in the market place, seek to judge favorably and work for the benefit of those around us, treating others with respect and dignity according to the highest levels of civility and civic virtue.  Most importantly, being a proactive contributor to the material, moral and spiritual destiny of society.

On an individual level, this point is particularly pertinent with regard to the ba’al teshuva movement.  The incredible phenomenon of so many thousands of people seeking to uplift their lives through the values of Torah needs to always ensure that it is firmly rooted in the principles of derech eretz.  Sometimes people become ‘frum’, change their lifestyles relatively quickly, often divorce themselves totally from their past, rename themselves, and sometimes even feel a need to uproot so much of their previous personalities.  As Rav Soleveichik points out in ‘On Repentance’, it can at times be akin to pulling out pages and sometimes even chapters in the story of our lives. It is certainly necessary to uproot our incorrect previous actions and behavioral patterns, and act fully in accordance with halacha.  It is also necessary at times to extract ourselves from a potentially negative environment in order to consolidate our new way of life.  However, we have to be particularly careful   that meticulous observance does not lead to uprooting ourselves from the positive aspects of our previous lives – healthy, normal, decent and upright living which to different extents are part of all of our lives.  The Torah must be based on the foundation of derech eretz in our life and should continually enhance it.

This of course is also true on a communal level, where Rav Kook’s teaching has major significance for us today. Rav Kook noticed a phenomenon in his day that is also true today in some communities, particularly in Israel . Many in the religious world feel the need to educate their children in a way that divorces them from so much in society to an extent that they can be divorced also from many of the positive principles of derech eretz.  While full-time Torah learning and education are amongst the greatest of Torah values, they ought always to be rooted in derech eretz.  In certain circles, the only option for individuals, regardless of their abilities and passions, is to pursue a career of full-time learning.  Exploring other avenues of contributing to society and making an honest living in the process, perhaps more aligned with the individual’s creativities and talents, is often not an option.

I had the following personal experience at the end of my yeshiva years many years ago, which highlighted this phenomenon to me.  I had a neighbor who became a close friend when we were living in Yerushalayim, while finishing my Smicha studies. He was passionately interested in medicine and whenever I saw him, he always had a textbook on medicine open, either under his Gemara on the bus or in his home.  At every spare moment during his full day of Torah study, he occupied himself with this passion. One day, I asked him why he does not study to become a doctor, as I had no doubt that he would be an excellent one and make a great difference to society.  I will never forget his reply.  He said that such a career path in his particular community is totally unacceptable, and university study, particularly for this profession is forbidden. If he would follow his heart and study medicine formally, he felt that his children would struggle to find an appropriate shidduch since it was unacceptable in his social framework. It was too hard for him, though, to remove is family from his particular social framework, and therefore felt he needed to compromise himself in some way.  The best he felt he could be was an excellent medic and perhaps an informal unqualified medical advisor.  (Subsequently, with the remarkable role that Hatsolah has played in recent years, it gives a beautiful outlet to many to be of great service to society). The same is true with regard to service in the Israeli Defense Force. This of course is an issue of great controversy, and many strides are being made in the Chareidi world, both above and below the radar, with respect to serving in the Israeli army. Unfortunately, in certain circles it is still entirely forbidden regardless of the individuals’ concerned desires, talents and passions regarding Torah learning. This greatly compromises the ability of many in these communities to join the workforce, contribute in the best possible way to society, while of course earning a good living in the process.

Rav Kook noticed a similar phenomenon in his particular context 100 years ago, in the milieu of the Old Yishuv and nascent New Yishuv during the pre-state times of the Mandate.  Rav Kook identified this phenomenon as Torah which has compromised the principle of derech eretz. It is not ‘the way of the world’ to distance oneself from civic virtue and contribution and the principles of normative societal living.  On the other hand, Rav Kook always saw the positive in all areas of life. He did so too regarding the above phenomenon. He explained that many Torah authorities consciously made such decisions to divorce their communities from normal societal living in order to protect them from the powerful and seductive external influences of modern culture. Because of excessive permissiveness and negative cultural trends, many saw a need to take this extreme action. Rav Kook, though, saw the many positive consequences of this decision as well . Amongst other things, it allowed these communities to focus their entire attention and Torah study and halachic scrupulousness.  It facilitated over time the rebirth of the Torah world after the horrific Shoah and created a single-minded focus on Torah study which came with much greatness.   Having said that, Rav Kook explained that such an extreme reaction, even if necessary, can only be temporary in nature, since it goes against the grain of normative societal living. Since the natural law of derech eretz is compromised in the process, this phenomenon cannot be maintained permanently. Ultimately, said Rav Kook, the natural and wholesome state of derech eretz preceding Torah and being part of the package deal of Torah living will eventually prevail.

Perhaps this is the meaning of the opinion of Abaye in the Talmud (Masechet Brachot 35 b) regarding the famous debate between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael.  Rabbi Shimon believed in the single-minded focus on Torah study, and Rabbi Yishmael believed that Torah and derech eretz must go together.  Both have validity.  Ultimately, concluded Abaye in the Talmud, ‘Many tried to act as Rabbi Shimon but did not succeed.  Many tried to act as Rabbi Yishmael and did succeed’.  The natural wholesome state of Torah living for the ages must include an intrinsic connection between Torah and derech eretz.


Derech eretz is a cornerstone of Torah thought. It is so essential that it can be seen as the paradigm or framework within which the entire Torah can be understood. It is, as the Midrash taught, the very pathway and means to acquire Torah. Derech eretz is the way of the world – the natural laws of a healthy and functioning human society, where people live with civility and civic virtue. This is so much more than the micro and individual focus of common courtesy, etiquette and decency. It includes the macro big-picture focus of the foundational core values which must underpin community and society in order to make them sustainable and successful. It implies a basic social contract amongst all citizens who make up a society: active contribution to society, earning an honest living and engaging in normal marital intimacy within the framework of a healthy family unit. It implies also forming a system of justice, complying with its laws and a sense of respect for all ownership and individual rights.

The very pulse beating in the heart of derech eretz is the dignity of life itself. It seeks the best for all members of society and strives always to live in harmony and unity for the sake of the collective and greater good.

This is what human society endeavoured to do for 26 generations from Adam to Moses. Noah’s generation deviated thereby losing “its way in the world” and therefore   ceasing to exist. Noah, like Adam before, began to establish a new society of derech eretz. The lives of our forefathers were the epitome of the derech eretz and therefore preceded the Torah and gave it its moral and ethical foundation. The Book of Bereishit – the book of upright living and derech eretz therefore precedes the Book of Shemot – the book of Torah and revelation.

Just as derech eretz historically and chronologically preceded the giving of the Torah, so too must it be for all future generations. Torah living cannot exist in a vacuum but must enhance and be enhanced by the system of derech eretz.

The principle of “Derech eretz  precedes the Torah” taught by the Sages, expounded by the Netziv, defined by Rabbi Hirsch and interpreted and applied by Rav Kook, form one of the essential pillars of a balanced and holistic approach to Torah Judaism. Both as individuals and as a community, our lives must reflect the values of derech eretz in the deepest sense. Indeed, as Rav Kook taught: the greater our fear of Heaven, the more moral, decent, civil and socially minded we must become.

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