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I'm having a lot of trouble understanding how we should interpret the pseudo-midrash "דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה", ~~ "Derech eretz should come before Torah."

The actual text of the midrashic source is:

דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן: עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה, הדא הוא דכתיב (בראשית ג): לשמור את דרך עץ החיים. דרך זו דרך ארץ ואח"כ עץ החיים, זו תורה.

Rabbi Ishmael son of rav Nachman said: Derech eretz precedes Torah by 26 generations, since it is written “and to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3). “Way” is the derech eretz, and only after that comes “Tree of Life” which is Torah.

(Vayikra Rabba 9:3)

My questions:

  • What is the origin of "דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה" as such? Is it a folk saying based on a (possibly misguided) reduction of the midrash, or does it come from some respected source?

  • If it is from a real source: How seriously are we to take this pronouncement? Does it have operative force as far as determining how we live? What are the practical implications -- for example, in a case in which derech eretz seems to be at odds with Torah? (Please tell me what major poskim and/or scholars have said about this.) ... Or is it possible that there is some irony in it?

  • To put a fine point on an obvious grievance, how is this saying not contradicted by the general concept that the teachings of Pirkei Avos, etc., are considered secondary in force to halacha itself? (That is, I had always learned that Pirkei Avos described "ideals to which we should aspire" rather than absolutely mandatory laws. Thus, from a strictly practical standpoint, halacha takes precedence.) Consider that "derekh eretz" is defined by the Maharal as Pirkei Avos.

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    Check out R Lichtenstein's "does judaism recognize an ethic independent of Halakha?" in his Leaves of Faith, vol 2. – Double AA Aug 14 '18 at 3:54
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    In much of Mishnah, BTW, esp. in Pirkei Avot in a few places, דרך ארץ means "occupation" or "work". There may be a MY question that explains when this term meant "character traits" as in your example, here. – DanF Aug 14 '18 at 14:23
  • Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/77375/… – SAH Aug 14 '18 at 18:22
  • I'd love to see the deleted comments return. – SAH Aug 16 '18 at 20:33
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R. Yaakov Kamenetzky explains this Midrash in his commentary to Parshat Lech Lecha, and he cites it as "derech eretz kadma laTorah". He discusses there why Avraham had to go rescue Lot. He writes that according to the laws of the Torah, Avraham would have been exempt because the Torah does not demand that someone put himself in potential danger in order to save someone else. Avraham went to save Lot anyway because the Patriarchs, living before the giving of the Torah, led their lives according to the "seichel hayashar". (It's hard to give a precise English equivalent for this term.) R. Kamenetzky explains that this is what the Midrash means when it says that derech eretz preceded the Torah. It is referring to the fact that there is an independent system of proper action that can be derived without the laws of the Torah, and this system was practiced by the Patriarchs before the Torah was given.

Once the Torah was given, Torah Law is binding. If this "derech eretz" contradicted the Torah then one would presumably have to follow the Torah. Perhaps if the derech eretz was more lofty than the Torah then one could follow the "derech eretz". The main point is though, that according to R. Kamenetzky the Midrash is not giving a value ranking (wherein derech eretz is greater than the Torah); it is telling us that chronologically derech eretz existed before the Torah, and therefore even without the Torah laws there is still some sort of "ethical life" (again, hard to find good English terms) that is expected of people – even non-Jews.

Emet L'Yaakov Genesis 14:14

הנה אילו היה אברהם שואל שאלה אי חייב לילך להציל את לוט בודאי היה נענה שהוא פטור דהא אין אדם מחויב להכניס את עצמו בספק סכנה בכדי להציל את חבירו [עמש"כ בענין זה להלן סוף פרשת מסעי] אלא מה שעשה כן אברהם הוא משום שהאבות נקראו "ישרים" [עבודה זרה דף כ"ה ע"א] והיינו שכל הנהגתם היתה לא על פי דיני התורה אלא על פי השכל הישר כי האלקים עשה את האדם ישר ועל פי היושר היה מוטל על אברהם להשתדל להציל את לוט וכדביארתי לעיל [י"ג פ"ט] כי אברהם הרגיש את עצמו כאחראי לשלומו של לוט מכיון שהרן אביו מת בכבשן אביו משום שאמר שהוא מאמין באלקי אברהם ולכן ע"פ היושר "מענטשליך קייט" הוכרח אברהם להריק את חניכיו ולרדוף אחר המלכים ובאמת כל חיי האבות שחיו קודם זמן תורה היו מונהגים על פי היושר וזהו ביאור מאמר חז"ל [ויק"ר פ"ט א"ג] דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה והיינו שהאבות התנהגו על פי דרך ארץ והיושר עוד קודם שניתנה תורה

ונראה שזהו פשוטו של מקרא להלן סוף פרשת משפטים [כ"ד פי"ב] ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן התורה והמצוה דבשלמא מצוה היינו מצוות שנצטוו בהן אבל מה זה התורה ונראה שהכוונה היא לסיפורי התורה של האבות שנכתבו בתורה קודם המצוות והיינו שהרי לשון תורה הוא מלשון הוראה כלומר מורה דרך כי סיפורים אלו מורים לאדם איך לחיות אפילו בלי ציווי השי"ת וכמו שאמר דוד בקינתו על שאול הלא היא כתובה על ספר הישר והיינו ספר בראשית וכדאיתא בגמרא [ע"ז שם

והנה רש"י ריש בראשית הקשה מדוע התחילה התורה מבראשית ברא אלקים היה לו להתחיל מהחדש הזה לכם ותירץ משום כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים כו' הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו וכו' ולכאורה זה רק מיישב מדוע הביאה התורה את סיפורי מעשי בראשית וכו' אבל כל הפרשיות מלך לך עד פרשת בא עדיין אינו מובן מדוע הוצרכה התורה להאריך בכל זה ועל זה לכאורה לא תירץ רש"י כלום אבל לפמש"כ נראה שבאמת על פרשיות אלו לא קשה כלל דמהסיפורים האלו אנו למדים מה צריכה להיות הנהגת האדם על פי היושר והדרך ארץ ודבר זה אפשר לתבוע אפילו מהגויים כי אע"פ שמצוות לא ניתנו להם אבל אעפ"כ לחיות על פי יושר זה יכול כל אחד אם הוא רק רוצה בזה ודו"ק

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    Thank you and that's fascinating. I am wondering to what degree Avraham Avinu's behavior is condoned here -- especially as I think it's not only not required, but discouraged by Torah to endanger yourself to save someone else. (Is that correct?) - Are they saying we should emulate AA's approach, or do differently because we are in a different time? – SAH Aug 14 '18 at 3:35
  • especially as I think it's not only not required, but discouraged by Torah to endanger yourself to save someone else. (Is that correct?) This is probably worthy of a separate question. In short, it's kind of a dispute. – Alex Aug 14 '18 at 3:56
  • Oh, no! No more energy for separate questions tonight. – SAH Aug 14 '18 at 4:07
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    @SAH Well there's always tomorrow.... if you're comfortable with Hebrew you can get a good start by seeing the Sefer Meiras Einayim in Choshen Mishpat 426:2. – Alex Aug 14 '18 at 4:12
  • I wish and I wish! – SAH Aug 14 '18 at 4:17
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1) You have found the correct source. "דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה", ~~ "Derech eretz should come before Torah." is actually a paraphrase of the line of Medrash you quoted "...קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה..." ("...Derech eretz precedes Torah...")

The Alter from Slobodka (R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel; 1849 - 1927) explains that this Medrash is in fact the source that the concept of good character traits preceded the Torah.

"This is the intent of the Rabbis:

Derech eretz preceded Torah by twenty six generations; for all of the good character traits and attributes are included in derech eretz; they were ingrained in human nature and for them there is no need for the giving of the Torah."

(Or HaTzafun Vol. 1 pg. 175) (its good to read from 173 - 176)

A further proof that the Medrash means to promote good character as preceding the Torah, is to be found in the story that is written right before this passage about the 26 generations. :

paraphrase/summaraize: (Rabbi Yannai asked his guest if he knew any Torah, Mishnah, Gemara, or Aggadah, and found that he did not. R' Yannai then decided to call the man a "dog". The guest retorted that R' Yannai was out of line for saying so. So R' Yannai asked him about his merits? The guest replied that he never responded to an insult with another insult (or never repeated gossip) and that if he ever saw two people fighting, he would make peace between them. R' Yannai then expressed sincere regret for calling him a dog. R' Yannai then proceeded to expound our verse about the path to the tree of life.

(same passage of Vayikra Rabbah 9)

The point is that while it took 26 generations from Adam until Moshe Rabeinu to receive the Torah, Derech Eretz (good character) was taught as the path to the tree of life during Adam's lifetime.

2) Lets's look at examples in the Torah and what scholars have said.

Obviously, a full treatment of exactly when "Derech Eretz" outranks a law in Shulchan Aruch, or vice versa (should they conflict) ; or vs. a D'oraisa or D'rabbanan etc. is beyond the scope of a "MY" post. Still, we can answer the OP's 2nd question by illustrating examples that can promote clarity when accompanied by further study, and a case by case inquiry, directed to one's Rav.

a) "So Moshe went and returned to Yisro, his father-in-law, and said to him, “Let me now go back to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see if they are still alive.” And Yisro said to Moshe, “Go in peace.” (Ex. 4:18)

We see that although Moshe Rabeinu was commanded by Hashem to go back to Egypt and redeem Israel, he had to first stop in by his father-in-law and ask his permission to leave.

Millions of Jews are waiting for Moshiach to redeem them from bondage and suffering. But, what kind of redeemer would Moshe be if he couldn't care less about his father-in-law's feelings?

We see something similar when Eliyahu picked Elisha to follow him as his student. Kings I 19:20 "And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said: "Let me, please, kiss my father and my mother, and I will go after you," and he said to him, "Go, return, for what have I done to you?"

So, before listening to the summons of Elijah, go kiss your parents and pay your respects to family (as the next verse shows, he made a "going away" party, before leaving.)

b) Yaakov Avinu married two sisters. The famous question asked in Yeshivah is: "How did Yaakov marry two sisters if the Avos kept the entire Torah before it was given?"

The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers that before Matan Torah, the whole world kept the "Derech Eretz" ideal that one must keep their word. Yaakov Avinu had promised Rachel to marry her. Now, Laban tricked Yaakov, causing him to marry Leah first. That may have made Rachel the second sister forbidden in marriage by the Torah, but Yaakov had an obligation to keep his word and be a mentch. Since the Torah had not really been given yet, keeping it would be described as "chassidus" or above the letter of the law. But, being true to your word and promise was the law. So, he had to marry her too.

But, we see that had a man promised to marry someone after marrying her sister, the Torah's command (not to marry the second sister) would in fact stop him from marrying her nowadays (after the Torah was given) and make it impossible to fulfill his word.

c.) A Rabbi who was once needed to be the 10th man in a minyan for Minchah, asked the Chazon Ish if he should stay for the communal Minchah prayer and help complete the needed ten men, or should he honor his business appointment? He could not be on time for both.

The Chazon Ish replied that it would be much better to allow the minyan and prayer to dissolve than to be late for his agreed appointment, in which he gave his word to be there at a certain time.

3) The OP's third question is even more complicated than it seems.

"Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world." (Bereishis Rabbah 1:1)

If so, how does VaYikra Rabbah say that Derech Eretz (a path to the tree of life) came before the Torah? In order for that tree and path to exist, it needed to be created. Yet, that creation needed the Torah to precede it as a blueprint!

Pirkei Avos itself seems unclear on the subject of which comes first:

"R' Elazar ben Azariah says: If there is no Torah, there is no Derech Eretz; If there is no Derech eretz, there is no Torah." (Pirkei Avos 3:17)

If we understand the above, we can answer the Op's 3d question.

The meaning is that there are two types of Derech Eretz. 1) The fine character traits that were invested into the world and Adam for all people to keep as basic law by their internal moral compass. Then The Torah was Given (In which all previous obligations of Derech Eretz were included AND new levels of Divine Law and new levels of Derech Eretz were made obligatory) 2) Once the Torah was given, we are offered higher insight into even greater and greater levels of Derech Eretz.

So first, is Hashem's will. This is the Torah. It of course contains every idea of Derech Eretz as well. Then Hashem gave the simple obligatory Derech Eretz to Adam. Then the Torah was given to the Jews. Then the Torah inspires us to even higher states of Derech Eretz.

Now if there is no recognition of Torah, man would be without belief in G-d. If so, then even his own moral compass will be misdirected and ignored without basic belief in Hashem and His Torah. BUT, if there is no basic Derech Eretz in a person that makes him act like a decent human being, then one cannot reach the higher level of living by Torah Law; because Torah was not given to animals.

(That last paragraph explains R' Elazar ben Azariah's cryptic saying above.")

Some proof for all this can be found here:

"R' Yochanan Said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned to be modest from cats, to avoid theft from ants, to avoid promiscuity from doves, and proper marital relations from roosters."

(Talmud, Eiruvin 100b)

"For all precepts that are dependent on logic and intuition of the heart are already binding upon all [humanity] from the day that G-d created man on the earth, upon man and his offspring for all future generations."

(Rabeinu Nissim Gaon's introduction to the Talmud)

"However, upon reflection we will see that character traits and attributes are an introduction to the Torah and the primary foundation of the essence of a person, without which a person is not worthy at all of Torah … This is the intent of the Rabbis: Derech eretz preceded Torah by twenty six generations, for all of the good character traits and attributes are included in derech eretz; they were ingrained in human nature and for them there is no need for the giving of the Torah. The giving of the Torah came to build on these [traits and attributes] and to command him (man) to continue to rise heavenward to ever higher levels transcending those which are in the realm of derech eretz.

(The Alter from Slobodka (Or HaTzafun Vol. 1 pg. 173 - 176))

"One must first improve one’s own character traits and with that, the Torah can endure with him because it cannot endure with a person that doesn’t have good character traits. One cannot learn Torah first and then acquire good character traits because this is impossible.

Without Torah there is no derech eretz-Meaning that one who doesn’t know Torah is incomplete in character traits of derech eretz because a majority of the good character traits about the ways of the world are in the Torah. For example, extending loans, severance pay, honest weights and measures and many others like this. If so, without Torah, one’s character traits cannot be complete with Derech Eretz."

(Rabeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos 3:17)

So now the answer to the OP's #3 is obvious. Yes, certain elements of "Derech Eretz" are higher than the basic elements of Derech Eretz (which are certainly obligatory), yet are still very worthy pursuits even if at first they are not taught as fully obligatory. The Torah's full Pirkei Avos, contains much encouragement to increase our Derech eretz, even beyond the letter of the Law.

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