Rabbinic Ethics: Sources

Source 1:

Ben Zoma, Pirkey Avot, 4:1:Who is respected? He who respects the creations.

Comment: This maxim gets codified in Jewish law. There is a rabbinic dictum: “Great is respect for creations (human dignity) for it pushes aside a negative precept of the Torah”.  What is meant, is that a) in certain cases if one must choose between violating a negative commandment and violating human dignity, it is human dignity that wins the day – at least from a Jewish legal perspective. For example, a Nazarite, generally forbidden to come into contact with a corpse, may do so in order to buried an unclaimed body, because it is considered disrespectful to the corpse to leave it unburied. Dr. Louis Jacobs sums up the mainstream legal opinion as follows: “An indirect offense, even if it is Biblical, and a Rabbinic offense, even if it is direct, may be set aside in order to safeguard human dignity.” (119 “The Talmudic Argument” by Louis Jacobs, chapter 12 ‘Gadol Kavod Habriot: the law and regard for human dignity”, pgs. 115-121, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

The concepts of “human dignity” and “Its ways are good and pleasing”, a phrase used to describe the Torah, are both used in Jewish legal jurisprudence, to legislate in ways that both increase human dignity and are good and pleasing to those who follow them. This concept has been documented extensively by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, who has brought both of those Jewish legal concepts to bear on the current debates on the roles of women and Jewish law.

Source 2: Pirkey Avot, 1: 12 and 14: 12: Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them close to the Torah.

Source 3: Maimonides Laws of the Murderer and Protecting Life, 1:14*

Whenever a person can save another person’s life but fails to do so, he transgresses a negative commandment, as [Lev.19:16] states: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Similarly, [this commandment applies] when a person sees a colleague drowning at sea or being attacked by robbers or a wild animal, and he can save him himself or can hire others to save him.  Similarly, [it applies] when he hears others] conspiring to harm a colleague or planning a snare for him, and he does not inform him and notify him [of the danger].

Comment: Note how the Biblical source of a previous lesson – Leviticus 19:16 – now gets recycled, finding its way into rabbinic law. There is an expression in Leviticu Rabbah, cited by Rabbi Walter Wurtzberger: “The commandments were given only to ennoble creatures”. In keeping with this maxim, Judaism does not see something like visiting the sick or giving charity as merely “a nice thing to do” or an ethical imperative – realizing that humans often find it difficult to translate their general moral feelings into specific, concrete actions, it codified interpersonal relationships as well: Not to give charity is not merely a violation of Jewish ethics, but of Jewish law as well.


Thus, Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, has an entire section devoted to the laws of charity. The laws of charity were also codified in a later compendium of Jewish Law, the Shulkhan Aruch, which based much of its content on Maimonides:


Shulhan Aruch Yoreh Deah 249:1

The amount for giving charity is: if one can afford, he should give what the poor needs. If he cannot afford, he should give up to 1/5 of his possessions as an ideal amount. 1/10 is considered a middle approach, less than that is a “bad eye.” And this 1/5 means 1/5 from the total net worth one year, and 1/5 from all subsequent income. Ramo: You don’t

give more than 1/5 such that you should not become dependant on others yourself. This only applies to as long as you’re alive, but as one dies, one may give as much as he wants. And one does not give from his ma’aser for any other commandment such as candles to the synagogue or other commandments, rather it should only be given to poor people.


(This source was first introduced to me by a lesson by Rabbi Joshua Yuter, on Jewish law and taxes. The full lesson is available here: http://joshyuter.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Economics-and-Social-Justice-in-Jewish-Law-Part-5.pdf


Here is a link to Rabbi Yuter’s homepage: http://joshyuter.com/)


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