Derekh Eretz: Pursuing Connections

Vayikra: A Path to Follow quotes a Talmud passage linking this week’s Torah portion to rules of etiquette and ethics. Specifically, the first verse is linked to “Don’t speak until you’ve first called to the person with which you’re trying to communicate” and to “Don’t repeat what anyone says without express permission.”

Either or both of these rules are fine fodder for study and discussion and/or for a congregational dvar torah [“word” of Torah]. For those interested in becoming more comfortable with finding such connections to share with others, here, for what it’s worth, is how I found the quote shared in the previous post.

Basic Resources

Teaching Torah: A Treasury of Insights* mentions the “extra ‘saying’ in the verse” and its Talmudic connection to concept of “derech eretz — the proper way to behave” (“Insights from the Tradition” for Vayikra, p.165). The authors go on to raise questions for discussion and for an “introspective” bar/bat mitzvah project focused on repeating stories. They don’t give the actual citation, however.

An engaging dvar torah could be offered on the basis of this suggestion from Teaching Torah — a highly recommended resource, by the way — without any detailed research; discussion could focus on manners/ethics questions and compare human relationships with that between God and Moses.

The Original Source?

For the purpose of discussion, though, I wanted to look at the original source but had no idea off-hand where in the Talmud to find this link. I employed two approaches, both of which are accessible without any special knowledge:

1a) I plopped “derekh eretz,” “Vayikra 1:1” and “Talmud” into a web-search engine, then scrolled through hits until I saw one that had citations in it.

1b) I followed the citation found above — Yoma 4b — to the source using internet-accessible translation of the Talmud.*

2) I stood up and took a print tome, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah,* off the shelf; I searched the biblical verse index for Leviticus 1:1 and found two references: one to the “call first” rule and one to the “don’t repeat” rule, both citing Yoma 4b as the bottom source. (Note: The Google Books preview does not include the index, so a full text is needed for this unless you’re really clever in your search abilities.)

In this case, what I found at Yoma 4b was a coherent, intelligible section of text that could be easily quoted. Often, however, the result is not so simple: it could take pages of reading to discover the connection the rabbis of the Talmud saw between the bible verse and the topic ostensibly being researched. And sometimes untrained eyes — at least these two — just don’t get it all at…or it’s so tangential to the Torah portion overall as to make it a distraction rather than a help for discussion or creating a dvar torah.

I find it’s a good practice, given time and resources, to track down the bottom source or the Book of Legends version; the latter can differ in presentation from older midrashic sources but tries to stay true to the originals — and this is only one book to purchase or borrow from the library instead of an entire copy of the Talmud. It’s important to know, from a due diligence kind of perspective, that a vague reference to “the Talmud,” “our Sages,” etc. has a basis in fact. But it’s not always that helpful in preparing for a dvar torah, in my opinion.

If Not There, Where?

So, where do you go, if not to the original sources?

One valuable place to start is your own experience: If any of these ideas about speech behavior, which are raised in connection with verse 1:1, interest you, consider real-life or fictional examples that illustrate these principles and how they are or are not followed in the home, workplace or general community. For some communities, this would suffice for a dvar torah; others might expect a little more reference to Jewish text…in which case, you can head back to the sources mentioned above, Sefer Ha-Aggadah and/or the internet or consider other Torah mentions of similar matters.

Previously, in these Opening the Book posts, you might have read about the bells on the high priest’s clothes. This was also read as a question of manners.

Looking in the index of Sefer Ha-Aggadah under “Manners,” yields several pages of additional material on the subject. Another passage might catch your attention, but this one caught mine:

R. Simeon ben Gamaliel warned that “He who gives a piece of bread to a young child should inform the mother.”

My first thought was, I confess, was surprise that R. Gamaliel was considering the possibility of ruining a child’s appetite or was perhaps concerned with allergies. But this happens to be an occasion in which looking up the reference taught me that I was missing the original point by about a mile:

Raba b. Mehasia also said in the name of R. Hama b. Goria in Rab’s name: If one makes a gift to his neighbour, he must inform him [beforehand], as it is written, that ye may know that I the Lord sanctify you [Exod. 31:13]: It was taught likewise: That ye may know that I the Lord sanctify you: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, I have a precious gift in My treasure house, called the Sabbath, and desire to give it to Israel; go and inform them. Hence R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: If one gives a loaf to a child, he must inform his mother….
[There follows a discussion of painting the child’s eyes with kohl — Footnote: “His mother, seeing this will enquire who did it, and so the child will tell the mother about the loaf too” — but that might cause the mother to fear witchcraft….]
–Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 10b

All of this seems to show that the rabbis were very concerned, for theological as well as basic manners reasons, about announcing oneself and one’s intentions in a variety of settings….which suggests a more theoretical direction for a dvar torah, if one was so inclined….or the additional text could be used along with more real-life anecdotes to consider how this concept works, or doesn’t, in daily life.

* Please see Source Materials for citations and more details.

(c) V. Spatz, 2010
This post is offered in conjunction with the Jewish Study Center’s course on “Giving a Dvar Torah” and in gratitude to Fabrangen Havurah, which encourages every participant to share and develop their Torah thoughts.

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Virginia blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day. Manages is on hiatus.

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