by Rabbi Lehrfield
One of the most famous and at the same time contentious topics in Judaism is “Derech Eretz” and its role in our lives. While translated literally, the phrase Derech Eretz means “the way of the world,” Chazal, our Rabbis have suggested multiple meanings in its interpretation. For example, perhaps the most commonly used meaning of Derech Eretz refers to being a mentch, of living a life filled with decency, respect, and common courtesy. I remember hearing that a lot growing up, “Nu, show some Derech Eretz!” And for many, that is probably the definition of Derech Eretz that resonates most. That being said, Chazal teach an alternative meaning of Derech Eretz as referring to earning a livelihood and a Parnasa.
Unsurprisingly, both of these approaches—that Derech Eretz refers to proper behavior and that Derech Eretz refers to earning a livelihood—have strong backing in classic Jewish texts. For example, the Gemara in tractate Brachot (22a) describes proper behavior as “the laws of Derech Eretz.” Alternatively, we find later on in Pirkei Avot (3:6) that Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKana taught “One who takes on himself the yoke of Torah will be spared…from the yoke of Derech Eretz.” In this context, it is clear that Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKana is teaching about the balance of studying Torah and one’s worldly responsibilities vis-à-vis earning a living or Derech Eretz.
Rabbeinu Yona as well as other commentaries to Pirkei Avot suggest that Derech Eretz in fact can mean different things in different contexts. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the great leader of German Neo-Orthodoxy in the 19th century writes that both of our suggested notions of Derech Eretz are reflected and shared in the expression ‘Derech Eretz.’ Rav Hirsch writes in his commentary to Pirkei Avot (2:2):
“Derech Eretz includes everything that flows from the human being’s necessity to perfect his destiny and life, together with his society, through the medium of the earth’s bounty. Hence, the term is used in reference to earning a livelihood and establishing civic order, and in reference to the paths of discipline with manners and refinement that social life require, and to everything that touches upon the development of humankind and civility.” (translation by Rabbi Elchanan Adler)
Derech Eretz as explained by Rav Hirsch represents the essence and the foundation of what it means to live as a Jew in this world. It therefore is no surprise that Rav Hirsch co-opted the words found in Mishna 2 of “Torah Im Derech Eretz” as the banner of his view of Jewish life in the modern world.
The first time that we encounter in Pirkei Avot the idea of Derech Eretz is in Chapter 2 Mishna 2. Rabban Gamliel teaches “Yafe Talmud Torah Im Derech Eretz” “It is good to combine Torah study with Derech Eretz.” While some would like to suggest that Derech Eretz in this Mishna refers to one’s behavior, from the context of the rest of the Mishna it seems clear that Derech Eretz refers to earning a living, and working. In fact, this Mishna has a similar structure that we have seen, and will continue to see, throughout Pirkei Avot of a Rabbi sharing three different ideas. The first question one asks when encountering this structure is the nature of the relationship between the different ideas. In some Mishnayot that share this structure the relationship between each idea can be difficult to uncover, and as such, leads us to suggest that the given Rabbi was making individual and unrelated statements. However, when at least two of the three teachings of a Mishna share a common theme, it is usually safe to assume that the third shares that theme as well.
A close reading of Mishna 2 follows this structure as we find three different ideas: A teaching about Torah and Derech Eretz, a teaching about Torah and one’s occupation, and a teaching about those who work for the community. The Mishna’s second and third statement that focus on one’s livelihood and occupation, help us understand the Mishna’s first statement about Torah and Derech Eretz. From this context, Derech Eretz most probably follows the theme of the second and third statements of the Mishna referring specifically to one’s occupation and profession and not to one’s general behavior.
Using that assumption, this Mishna has historically served as a very contentious debate as to the very nature and balance of living life and studying Torah. How are we to interpret Rabban Gamliel’s words? Is Rabban Gamliel teaching us that one must find a job and therefore we can assume that it is forbidden to study Torah all day? Which of these two ideas, Torah or Derech Eretz (earning a livelihood) take precedence and or importance? How much should one invest in the outside world relative to one’s investment in studying Torah? At the core of the ambiguity of this Mishna, is the word “Im” ; “with” as it relates to Torah and Derech Eretz. What does it mean Torah with Derech Eretz?
Interestingly, in Tractate Brachot (35b) we find a congruent debate amongst the Rabbis of the Talmud in explaining the verse of the Shema prayer taken from Deuteronomy 11:14 of “ViAsafta Diganecha” ; “Gather your grain.” On the one hand, Rabbi Yishmael teaches that “Gather your grain” means that one should combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation. In other words, the Torah is suggesting that we earn a livelihood that would allow for limited time for Torah study. On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai argues that, “If a man ploughs in the ploughing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah?” In other words, we must give our entire attention to the study of Torah and have faith that G-d should provide. The meaning of “Gather your grain” is therefore to be read as a promise that if the Jewish people follow G-d’s will, their work in the fields will be carried out by others.
This issue of the primacy of studying Torah relative to Derech Eretz, and working in this world, is actually taken up by two-famous Tosafists—Rabbeinu Tam and Rabbeinu Elchanan. Using Rabban Gamliel’s ambiguity of the word “Im” ; “with,” in Chapter 2 Mishna 2 of Pirkei Avot each Rabbi teaches a different explanation. Rabbeinu Tam explains that Derech Eretz must be primary relative to Torah based on a number of similar phrases in the Talmud that list two factors delineated with the word “Im” ; “with”, where we find the second term as always being primary. Rabbeinu Elchanan disagrees and argues that Rabban Gamliel’s statement of “Torah Im Derech Eretz” in Mishna 2 can be read to highlight the primary obligation to study Torah. From this perspective, the word “Im” was merely inserted by Rabban Gamliel to emphasize that one cannot engage in anything at the cost of a complete neglect of Torah study.
This debate, similar to the debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, presents two divergent paths of Jewish living. For some, this debate can be seen as one of the differences between the Modern Orthodox movement and the Charedi movement in Traditional Orthodox Judaism. This question is certainly fascinating to think about in regards to our community and our place in history. For the vast majority, this debate may seem inconsequential. We have jobs, are engaged with the outside world. The opinion of Rabbi Yishmael of spending our lives working at the cost of studying Torah all day certainly resonates with many of us.
In fact, the aforementioned Gemara in tractate Brachot (35b) continues and records the comments of the great Sages Abaye and Rava. Abaye teaches that great success was found for the many that followed in the footsteps of Rabbi Yishmael by combining Torah study with earning a livelihood. On the other hand, Abaye teaches that those that did as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and devoted themselves exclusively to Torah study were not successful. It would seem that Abaye affectively settles the debate as to optimal Jewish living—working in the world, is a necessity to being succesful. In fact, Rabbi Yosef Karo in his code of laws, the Shulchan Aruch, at the end of the laws of the Beit Kenesset (the synagogue) writes that following prayers in Synagogue one should go to the study hall to learn Torah and then go out and work in the world. It is through one’s occupation that one can help forget sin. (Orach Chayim 156:1) However, the Biur Halacha written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (most commonly referred to as the Chafetz Chaim) adds a qualification to the statement of the Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch’s law that one must engage in outside work (i.e. a rejection of the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) is meant only for the masses. Individuals, however, of outstanding ability and or potential should absolutely study Torah all day at the cost of earning a livelihood. For such individuals, the Biur Halacha writes that G-d will help take care of their parnasa and earnings. In other words, the Biur Halacha cracks open the airtight ruling in accordance with Rabbi Yishmael, allowing those select few to study Torah all day at the cost of working. Who meets these qualifications, and more importantly who decides who may be eligible, is certainly up for debate. One thing is certain, the role of earning a livelihood relative to studying Torah is certainly challenging. To which camp can we attribute Rabban Gamliel? What was his true intention in teaching about living a Jewish life?
Perhaps we can suggest that Rabban Gamliel purposefully left his teaching ambiguous to allow communities and individuals throughout history the flexibility to live in the most meaningful way given their unique circumstances. As we will see throughout Pirkei Avot there certainly seems to be a strong relationship between Derech Eretz and Torah study. For example in Chapter 3 Mishna 21, “Im Ein Torah Ein Derech Eretz, Im Ein Derech Eretz Ein Torah” ; “If there is no Torah than there is no Derech Eretz, and if there is no Derech Eretz there can be no Torah.” While achieving a balance and identifying the primacy of these two ideas are certainly up for debate, everyone agrees that Torah study must be a vital part of the equation. Living a Jewish life means including Torah study in it. How seriously do we emphasize learning Torah each and every day? Do we put as much effort and interest in Torah study as we do in earning a livelihood? How can we become more balanced?
The Gemara in tractate Brachot (32b) writes that “Four things require constant work: Torah learning, good deeds, prayer, and Derech Eretz.” No matter your own personal opinion about these ideas, it is clear that both Torah study and Derech Eretz require lots of hard work. May we each find the strength to toil in these different areas while living a meaningful Jewish life.