The Torah’s Derech Eretz

Kol almanah v’yasom lo s’anun im aneh s’aneh oso ki im tza’ok yitzak eilai shamo’a eshma tzaakaso (Shemos 22:21–22)

The Mishnah in Avos (3:17) teaches that without Torah there cannot be derech eretz, and without derech eretz there can be no Torah. This statement seems to present an enigmatic catch-22 regarding the initial attainment of both Torah and derech eretz.

In his commentary on this Mishnah, Rabbeinu Yonah resolves the apparent contradiction by explaining that the Mishnah is discussing two distinct types of derech eretz. The second derech eretz refers to what is commonly known as essential good manners and interpersonal skills, which one must possess as a prerequisite to Torah study. The first derech eretz refers to an exceptional and heightened sensitivity to others which can only be acquired through learning Torah.

One such example of this sensitivity can be gleaned from our verse, which cautions against causing pain to widows and orphans, who are often among the most helpless and tragic members of society. In doing so, the Torah, which never wastes a word, curiously doubles each of the verbs — three times in one verse! What lesson is the Torah teaching us?

An insight into these seemingly superfluous words may be gleaned from the following story recounted by Harav Mordechai Kamenetzky. A young father and husband suddenly passed away one spring day. As his widow struggled to put the family back together and reassure the orphans, she was determined to make the upcoming Yom Tov of Pesach as beautiful as ever, even as she herself wondered who would sit at the head of the table and conduct the Seder.

As part of the traditional preparations, she took her children to get new shoes in honor of the holiday. The owner of the shoe store, familiar with the tragic plight of the family, attempted to cheer up the children by offering each a shiny balloon. While most of them seemed appreciative and momentarily forgot their troubles, one of the girls walked to the door and released her balloon skyward.

The mother, embarrassed at her daughter’s apparent lack of appreciation for the gift, proceeded to lecture her about the need for respect and gratitude. The innocent girl looked up at her mother, and through a tear-stained face explained her actions: “Daddy didn’t get one.”

Although any humane person would naturally feel compassion for the plight of a poor widow or orphan, the Kotzker Rebbe explains that the Torah is opening our eyes to a finer sensitivity that we are expected to internalize and strive to reach. Our verse uses three double expressions to alert us that the pain of widows and orphans is twofold.

The Kotzker explains that in addition to the natural hurt of the slight or insult which would be felt by any person, the cruel treatment reawakens deep wounds by causing them to think that if only their beloved father or husband were still alive, he could come to their defense. The intense cries which result will immediately arouse Hashem’s compassion, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses the need to treat them with mercy. Such empathy and consideration doesn’t come naturally to even the most sensitive human being, but only through the study of Hashem’s Torah.

Q: A Jewish slave who doesn’t wish to leave his master when the time arrives that he may go has his ear pierced (21:6), and he continues to serve his master until the Yovel (Jubilee year). Rashi explains that the piercing is done specifically to punish the ear which heard at Mount Sinai Hashem’s prohibition against stealing (20:13), and nevertheless proceeded to steal. Rashi writes (20:13) that the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments that were said at Mount Sinai refers to the stealing of people and not to the stealing of possessions. Why is the ear punished for violating a prohibition which it didn’t hear at Mount Sinai?

A: Harav Eliyahu Mizrachi explains that although this verse refers to kidnapping, Rashi writes (24:12) that the Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments) contain within them the roots of all 613 commandments. For example, when Hashem said the prohibition against murdering, He also included publicly embarrassing another person, which is comparable to murder. Similarly, the verse in the Aseres Hadibros that forbids kidnapping also includes all other forms of stealing. The Chiddushei HaRiaf answers that a person is not punished for kidnapping unless he also sells the person that he “stole.” At the end of six years, when the master attempts to free the slave and he expresses his love for his master and desire to remain a slave, he is in essence kidnapping and selling himself. He adds that this explanation also resolves another difficulty: According to Rashi, why is the ear pierced only at this time instead of immediately upon being found guilty of stealing? Rather, he isn’t being punished for stealing the item six years ago, but for stealing himself now. The Chizkuni and Maskil L’Dovid suggest that our text of Rashi contains a typographical error. It shouldn’t quote the verse lo signov from the Ten Commandments, which discusses kidnapping, but rather lo tignovu (Vayikra 19:11), which Rashi explains is a prohibition against stealing money. Although this verse isn’t part of the Aseres Hadibros, it is still appropriate to refer to it as having been heard at Sinai inasmuch as the entire Torah was transmitted there.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email