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Derech Eretz

This phrase, which literally means "the way of the world," refers to acts of decency that are commendable if not formally mandated.

Some behavior must be legislated in order for society to function. We need to have tax regulations, traffic rules, bankruptcy laws, and trial procedures. But then there are things that should not need to be the subject of bylaws, statutes, or house rules:  chewing gum is not to be disposed of on furniture or a floor; answering a telephone requires a pleasant demeanor; in a crowded parking lot one should park within the lines. In Hebrew, such basic, obvious consideration for others is called derech eretz, which might be translated literally as “the way of the world.”

A Slippery Concept

The concept of derech eretz is slippery, because it is often used to describe ideas one could have expected to remain unspoken. The term can mean “common decency,” as when the Rabbis inform us that the Torah is teaching us derech eretz when it instructs us to greet others even before they greet us (Mishna Avot 4:15) or when it instructs us not to enter another person’s home (or even one’s own) abruptly (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Pesahim 112a). In this usage, derech eretz is reminiscent of a rhetorical ploy adults often use on children–the first-person plural as a veiled instruction, inculcating a sensitivity for social expectations: “We don’t do that,” “We do such-and-such this way,”  implying that one is aberrant or, at least, impolite if one does otherwise.

However, the phrase can also have a sense closer to its literal meaning, something like “the way things work,” or “the way it is.” It is this sense of derech eretz that the Rabbis have in mind when they teach us to invite or allow our elders or teachers with whom we dine to take food first (BT Derech Eretz 7), or when they instruct us that we are judged in our home towns by our reputation but elsewhere by our clothing (BT Shabbat 145b). That’s the way life works, they seem to be saying, and if you’re wise, you’ll recognize it and act accordingly.

One realm in which one needs to learn how things are done (but about which society is sometimes squeamish) is the matter of “the birds and the bees.” As such, the phrase derech eretz, is sometimes found as a euphemism for sexuality–in the admonition, for example, to use words to set the right mood before attempting to cohabit with one’s wife, a practice described as derech eretz that one can learn from the rooster (BT Eruvin 100b).

All Psychology and Anthropology, No Theology

As a behavioral principle, derech eretz stands out in rabbinic literature for several reasons. First among these is its lack of explicit theological grounding. At least on the surface, it is entirely about how we relate to other individuals and to our society at large, without explicit reference to our relationship with God. When the midrash Exodus Rabbah (35:2) instructs us that a person should refrain from using wood from a fruit-bearing tree to build his house and calls that rule a lesson in derech eretz, its primary concern seems to be ecological and economic. Or when the late Talmudic tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah (one of two short tractates on the subject appended to the Babylonian Talmud) advises us neither to rejoice among people who are weeping nor weep among people who are rejoicing, it is apparently teaching us to be sensitive to the feelings of others and to care for our own reputations as well.

Both of those rules could have been presented in terms of theological concepts–creation as a divine trust in human hands, human beings as reflections of the divine image–but our sources do not feel the need to do so. Some things just ought to be self-evident, the Rabbis seem to be saying, with no need to trace them back to first principles.

Another anomalous feature of derech eretz in classical rabbinic sources is that it describes practices that are commendable but not formally mandatory. In a culture that values laws and does not shy away from enforcing them, it is striking to hear a practice described as “simply how it ought to be,” without assigning a punishment to its violation. Calling something derech eretz is rabbinic culture’s way of shrugging in exasperated resignation and saying about someone’s discourteous, impertinent, slovenly, or gluttonous behavior, “Of course he should know better, but what are we supposed to do?!” Even though Talmudic literature knows of a category called hilchot derech eretz (“laws of derech eretz”), there are few offenses in that category whose violation carries a penalty.

You Have to Make a Living

One of the earliest senses of derech eretz is one’s livelihood. In the Mishna’s tractate of wise aphorisms, Avot, we read that Torah is good ‘im derech eretz, “along with a worldly occupation,” because engaging in both pursuits keep a person away from sin (Avot 2:2). Derech eretz refers here to how one sustains oneself in the material world. That sense, especially as it appears in the dictum that “derech eretz precedes the Torah” (Leviticus Rabbah 9 and elsewhere), underlies its most famous modern usage of the term. The 19th-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who espoused a theology that has become associated with Modern Orthodoxy, called his religious approach “Torah with derech eretz,” using a traditional term to promote the idea that one’s learning should engage both traditional Judaism and the secular world.

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