Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fake Rabbinic Aphorism

It was a sunny morning (actually a bad thing during a drought in Israel) and I was minding my own business quietly writing a blog post at my computer. I realized that the idea that I was talking about (Rambam’s Sefer Madda) is connected to the concept of :דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה. (Derech Eretz comes before Torah. Always best to leave “Derech Eretz” untranslated.) I decided to be a little scholarly and quote the reference for this famous Rabbinic aphorism. (And I mean FAMOUS! A Googlesearch returns a gizbillion Jewish hits, more on this later.)

First I scanned Pirkei Avot, because I was sure that I had remembered seeing it there. No luck, just a little bit of, “No Torah, no Derech Eretz and vice versa.” (I paraphrase.) Then I groan as I am forced to start up the Bar Ilan CD-ROM to do a search across Shas. No luck. Not even a single hit. At this point I am a little surprised, and I try a bunch of other searches with slight variations to the wording. No luck. (A quick tangent - I am actually using the online Bar Ilan CD-ROM which is VASTLY inferior to the actual CD. I am still annoyed at Spertus College for switching over.)

At this point I am genuinely perplexed (and annoyed at the online Bar Ilan CD-ROM’s inferior search engine), and I do a Googlesearch on this famous aphorism. I get many hits from all corners of the Jewish universe. Here is a sample of how this aphorism is described:

  • Rabbinic dictum
  • Words of the sages
  • Famous quote from Pirkei Avot
  • Something the Rabbis said

But none of these websites actually quoted a concrete source. Finally in desperation I did a Bar Ilan search on all of the seforim on the CD-ROM to get to the bottom of this issue. Barch HaShem, I received twelve hits. But then I looked at the search results and saw that more than half of them were from R. Tzaddok and the Sefas Emes. All of the references to this aphorism were after the 17th century! So much for the “words of the Sages.” Chazal had nothing to do with this saying. It is a Rabbinic saying, but a late one at best!

I was shocked. I felt like my whole life has been a lie. How can this forgery have been allowed to go on for so long? I wanted to demand that Professor Shneur Lyman immediately go on a lecture tour explaining the etymology of this aphorism. (Good name for an article. Feel free to use it.) There should have been investigative reporting by YU; the CJF (does anyone actually know what this acronym means?); Bar Ilan University; Hirhurim and the Tradition Seforim Blog. Every Modern Orthodox Torah u’Madda institution must be held accountable for this counterfeit Rabbinic saying.

Well, the truth is that the handy Avodah Index did already discuss the issue, but how could I let that stop a good rant. You can see some of the discussion here. At the end of the day, Derech Eretz Kadmah l’Torah is clearly a powerful Jewish idea. It just might be that it is a modern concept and not one that originated with Chazal.


  1. Reb Yaakov - I am happy to dispell your fears that you have been the victim of rabbinic forgery. Derekh Eretz Kadma L'Torah is indeed a rabbinic aphorism, albeit with a very slight variation in the Midrash. See the very charming story in Vayiqra Rabba 9:3 concerning R. Yannai and a distinguished looking gentleman who happened to be an ignoramous despite his appearance. When asked by R. Yanani why he merited to be deservant of eating at R. Yannai's table, the man responded by illustrating his refined and ethical demeanor. R. Yannai then remarked that this explains the teaching of R. Yishmael bar Rav Nahman that 26 generations of Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah - קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה.

    See http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/Tanach/raba3/9.htm

    I hope I that I have not now hurt R. Prof. Sid Leiman's parnasa as this is not a myth in need of busting...:-)

  2. Here is the Soncino translation of the Midrash that David quoted:

    There is a story that R. Jannai when once walking in the road, saw a man of exceeding effusiveness who said to him: ‘Would you, Rabbi, care to accept my hospitality?’ R. Jannai answered: ‘Yes,’ whereupon he brought him to his house and entertained him with food and drink. He tested him in [the knowledge of] Talmud, and found [that he possessed] none, in Haggadah, and found none, in Mishnah, and found none, in Scripture, and found none. Then he said to him: ' Take up [the wine cup of benediction] and recite Grace.’ The man answered: ' Let Jannai recite Grace in his own house! ‘’ Said the Rabbi to him: ' Are you able to repeat what I say to you? ' ' Yes,’ answered the man. Said R. Jannai: ' Say: A dog has eaten of Jannai's bread.’ The man rose and caught hold of him, saying: ' You have my inheritance, which you are withholding from me!’ Said R. Jannai to him: ‘And what is this inheritance of yours which I have? ' The man answered: ‘Once I passed a school, and I heard the voice of the youngsters saying: The Law which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deut. XXXIII, 4); it is written not ‘The inheritance of the congregation of Jannai’, but ’ The inheritance of the congregation of Jacob’. Said R. Jannai to the man: ‘How have you merited to eat at table with me? ' The man answered: ‘Never in my life have I, after hearing evil talk, repeated it to the person spoken of, nor have I ever seen two persons quarrelling without making peace between them.’ Said R. Jannai: ' That I should have called you dog, when you possess such good breeding (derek-erez)! ' He applied to him the passage: ’And as for him who sham the way, him will I show great prosperity’ [meaning]: ‘He who calculates his way, will prosper greatly.’ For R. Samuel b. Nahman said: [The duty of] derek-erez preceded the Torah by twenty-six generations. This is [implied in] what is written, To keep the way to the tree of life (Gen. III, 24). [First Scripture mentions] the way (derek) which means derek-erez, and afterwards [does it mention] ’ The tree of life’, which means the Torah.

  3. It is true that this midrash does soothe some of my ire, yet I still have some contentions:

    1) The phrase is slightly different and I believe that that is significant.

    2) VaYikra Rabba is an obscure source of Rabbinic Wisdom. Most people treat this aphorism like it was world famous and from Pirkei Avot.

    3) I am not sure that the way we use this aphorism today is how it is being used in the Midrash. For example, is R. Yannai treating this man with Derech Eretz? Does the midrash imply that Derech Eretz (loosely translated as proper manners) are a pre-requisite for the Torah?

    Thus, although it is most likely the original source for this popular aphorism - I still feel justified in feeling deceived.

  4. cjf Center for the Jewish Future - sorry I can't offer anything more erudite! Stacey