Limiting One's Involvement in Worldly Concerns - Middah Miyut Derech Eretz

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Miyut Derech Eretz translates as "limiting one's involvement in worldly concerns." The word miyut comes from the Hebrew root mem-ayin-tet and means "a little" or "a minimum." The phrase derech eretz has several translations; in this week's middah it means "secular occupation" or "trade."

"The former generations made the study of Torah their regular concern and their daily work their occasional concern, and they succeeded in the one and in the other. The recent generations have made their daily work their regular concern and their study of Torah their occasional concern, and they have succeeded neither in the one nor in the other." (Babylonian Talmud 35b)

This text summarizes the essential issue of miyut derech eretz—minimizing involvement in worldly concerns so that one is able to devote more attention to the study of Torah.

The medieval commentator Rashi explained that "involvement in social, communal and civic affairs can become an almost full-time preoccupation, allowing little time for growth in Torah." The commentary Lechem Shamayim denotes that miyut derech eretz refers to the sciences. The commentary teaches that one must have some knowledge of math, geometry, biology, earth sciences and the like, but one should understand that they are only tools to understand certain areas of Torah, but secondary to the Divine Torah." (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, ArtScroll p.415)

A student approached Rabbi Ishmael and asked, "May one like myself, who has studied the entire Torah, study Greek wisdom? Rabbi Ishmael cited a biblical verse as a response, 'This book of Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate upon them day and night.'" (Joshua 1:8). As further explanation Rabbi Ishmael said, "Go and find an hour that is neither day nor night, and study Greek wisdom then." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 407:45)

Not all rabbis saw this as a black and white issue, either Torah or worldly concerns. In fact, Rabbi Judah ben Ilai spoke in favor of both study of Torah and secular involvement. He said,

"Anyone who makes words of Torah his or her primary concern and worldly matters secondary will be made primary in the world-to-come. But anyone who makes worldly matters primary and words of Torah secondary will be made secondary in the world-to-come." But he also taught, "Anyone who does not teach his or her child a trade it is as though the child has been taught to be a thief." Additionally, Rabbi Judah ben Ilai said, "Work is primary in importance, honoring the one who engages in it." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 408:56)

On first reading it seems that Rabbi Judah cannot make up his mind, on the one hand he stresses that Torah study should be one's primary concern, yet he then teaches that work is primary in importance, honoring the one who engages in it. The midrash does not end with this contradiction, but continues, explaining that Rabbi Judah was actually counseling a middle course. A parable is cited as explanation,

"A highway runs between two paths, one of fire and the other of snow. If a person walks too close to the fire, that person will be scorched by the flames, if too close to the snow, the individual will be bitten by the cold. What is the person to do? The individual is to walk in the middle, taking care not to be scorched by the heat nor bitten by the cold." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 408:56)

To Talk About

  1. Refer back to the Text. Do you agree or disagree with this Talmudic statement? Do you feel successful in both your daily work and in your study of Torah. If you are successful in both daily work and study of Torah, what is the basis for that success?
  2. There is a story in the Talmud about a group of sages who were posed the following question: "Is study or practice greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered 'practice is greater.' Rabbi Akiba answered 'study is greater for it leads to practice.' Then all the sages answered 'study is greater for it leads to action.'" (Kiddushin 40b) Does this teaching reinforce or contradict the spirit of miyut derech eretz?
  3. Create a collage which represents your feelings and values about the world, worldly concerns—what Rashi describes as involvement in social, communal and civic affairs, and the study of Torah and Judaism. Clip words and pictures from newspapers, magazines and other print materials. Add original art if desired. In looking at the collage, determine if certain topics are given more coverage than others. Why might this be?
  4. Refer back to the Commentary section. How do you understand the parable of the highway? Retell it in your own words. How did Rabbi Judah ben Ilai suggest having balance in ones life? Are you getting scorched by the fire or bitten by the cold in your life?

To Do
Keep an account of your activities and the time that you spend on each. Reflect on the following: are your activities in balance, are you spending enough time or too much time in work or school, leisure, Jewish study, hobbies, television watching, computer using, eating, sleeping? Is your life in balance? If yes, how do you maintain it? If no, how can you bring balance into your life? When things are out of balance how does it affect the quality of our lives? What about when we are in balance?