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What Is Derech Eretz?

What Is Derech Eretz?

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derech eretz noun. 1. literally, “the way of the land” 2. being a respectful mentch 3. an ethical and responsible way to live 4. the common way to behave or speak 5. earning a living 6. intimacy between a husband and wife

The Hebrew term derech eretz translates literally as, “the way of the land.” Meaning either what people tend to do or what people ought to do.

In common speech, derech eretz means acting decorously and with respect, particularly towards parents, elders and teachers. This is an ancient Jewish principle, but it does not appear to be the traditional meaning of the term.

Let’s look at some specific usages of the term derech eretz in the writings of the sages.

Be Humble Like G‑d

Before G‑d created Adam, the first man, He said to the angels, “Let us create man.” Why didn't G‑d say, “I will create man,” since clearly He didn’t need assistance? Rashi, the great biblical commentator, says that He did so “to teach derech eretz and the trait of humility, that a great person should consult with and receive permission from a smaller one.”1

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

When the rabbis of the Talmud would glean financial or domestic advice from the Torah, they would often say that “the Torah is teaching us derech eretz.

For example, when Jacob was going to meet his brother Esau after years of conflict, he was very frightened, and so he prepared his family and property for war. He divided the people with him and his flocks into two camps, saying, “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape.”2

The Midrash learns a lesson: “The Torah is teaching us derech eretz—that a person should not put all his money in one corner.”3

Working for a Living

Working for a living is often referred to as derech eretz. An example from the Mishna: “Rabbi Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince would say, ‘Beautiful is the study of Torah with derech eretz, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten.’”4

Intimacy

Physical intimacy between a husband and wife is sometimes euphemistically called derech eretz. A classic example is found in the Passover Haggadah, where it refers to the separation between the Israelite men and women in Egypt as “the separation of derech eretz.”

Human Nature

Derech eretz can also be used to refer to something that is simply human nature. The Torah says that Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death when he married Rebecca. Rashi explains, “It is derech eretz that as long as a person’s mother is alive, he is attached to her; as soon as she dies, he finds comfort in his wife.”5

Common Parlance

We read in the Torah that Jacob told his brother Esau, “I have acquired an ox and a donkey.” It is odd that he uses the singular form when he actually had many oxen and donkeys. Rashi explains that “it is derech eretz to call many oxen ‘ox.’ Similarly, a person says to his companion at night, ‘The rooster has crowed.’ Not, ‘The roosters have crowed.’”6

A Tractate in the Talmud

Under the general rubric of derech eretz, the sages caution us against overeating,7 eating too quickly,8 or staring at someone else who is eating.9 Also, one should not talk too loudly10 or too much,11 and should greet people pleasantly.12 Likewise, a person with derech eretz is careful to spend only what they can afford.13 In order to raise children with derech eretz, it’s important not to spoil them by accustoming them to having delicacies.14 In general, to have derech eretz usually means to live ethically, responsibly and with dignity, and to be considerate of others.

Derech eretz is so important that there is a minor tractate of the Talmud titled “Derech Eretz,” which is dedicated to the topic. Tractate Derech Eretz is divided into two sections. The first section, called “Large Derech Eretz,” discusses marriage, modesty, hospitality, etiquette and ethics. The second section, “Small Derech Eretz,” is a more spiritual guide and contains instruction intended primarily for Torah scholars.

A Prerequisite

The Talmud states that derech eretz is a prerequisite to Torah.15 In order to fully absorb and understand Torah one must be grounded. Having the habits of derech eretz are key to maintaining good relationships and living a stable life as a Jew.

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous October 28, 2016

Dear Susan,

Rashi is saying that a man finds comfort on the loss of his mother in his wife. A son is attached to his mother and when she dies his wife is his comfort for that loss. As long as his mother is alive there's no need for such a form of comfort. Reply

Shiloh SC October 28, 2016

I was wondering the same thing Susan! What if the man marries young and his mother doesn't pass away until her 90's? Wouldn't that make for an awkward marriage? Reply

Susan Birmingham, AL October 27, 2016

Human Nature Dear Yecheskel Posner,

I have a question. What if a man gets married while his mother is still alive? Should he not find comfort with his wife, rather than his mother?

Thank you!

Respectfully,

Susan Reply

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