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The Wisdom of the Talmud, by Ben Zion Bokser, [1951], at

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Personal Morality in the Talmud

The Talmud is concerned with man himself, and not only with the social consequences of his actions. Scattered throughout Talmudic literature, we have therefore a description of the ideal in human character. It is inspired by the religious and moral values which are taught in Talmudic Judaism.


The basic attitude which the Talmudists prized in people is a disposition of confidence in life. Such confidence flows directly from faith in God. For if God's providence extends to all His creatures, then we may be certain that whatever transpires is for the best—at least for the best of creation. A well-known Talmudic maxim reads: "Whatever the Lord does is for the best."

There are occasions when events transpire that we judge injurious to ourselves. In many instances, however, they are really to our advantage, though we may not be aware of it at the time. The Talmud cites an anecdote from the career of Rabbi Akiba which illustrates this truth. While on a journey he sought hospitality in a certain town, but he was turned down, and he had to spend the night in the field. That very night robbers came and plundered the entire town. "He thereupon said to the inhabitants, 'Did I not tell you that whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, does is for the best!'"1

The rabbis urged a man to labor diligently in order to provide for himself and his family. "One must not depend on miracles," is a familiar maxim in the Talmud.2 But once

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a person assumes his obligations and acts on them he need not be unduly anxious about his livelihood. "A person who has today's bread in his basket and is worried, 'What will I eat tomorrow?'—is a man of little faith," declared Rabbi Eliezer.3 The Lord stands behind our own endeavors, and as He provides for the raven in the field, He provides for man also. In the words of the rabbis: "He who created each day provides for the needs thereof."4

The portions allotted to us in life will of course differ. Some attain riches and some struggle for subsistence. But ultimately there is no objective standard for affluence. Affluence is only in one's art of being content with what one has. As the ethical tractate Abot declared it: "Who is rich? He who is content with his lot."5


The rabbis decried envy and jealousy, in which a person, out of discontent with his portion, begrudges the good fortune that has come to others. Envy and hatred of one's fellow-man were cited by the rabbis as vices that "take a man from the world."6 One of the rabbis was accustomed to offer a daily prayer: "May it be acceptable before Thee O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that no hatred against us may enter the heart of any man, that no hatred of any man enter our heart, that no envy of us enter the heart of any man, nor the envy of any man enter our heart …"7

The rabbis were equally emphatic in denouncing pride. "Humility," one of the rabbis said, "is the greatest of all virtues."8 A person who is puffed up with an arrogant spirit is as though "he had worshipped idols, denied the basic principles of religion, and committed every kind of immorality …"9 Arrogance is not only an evil trait because it hurts other people. It is equally injurious to its own possessor for it sends him on a road that will inevitably lead to

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frustration. The rabbis generalized thus: "Whoever runs after greatness, greatness will elude him; whoever flees from greatness, greatness will pursue him."10


The proper disposition of man toward his neighbor is an unreserved good will. The ethical tractate Abot reiterates this demand repeatedly. Matthew ben Heresh taught: "Be the first to offer cordial greetings to every man." Shammai was the author of a similar maxim: "Receive every person with a glad disposition." Ben Zoma was wont to say: "Who is deserving of honor? He who honors other people." Rabbi Eliezer urged: "Let the honor of your friend be as dear to thee as thine own." Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa declared: "He who pleases the spirit of man, will also please the spirit of God; and he who does not please the spirit of his fellowman, will not please the spirit of God either."11

The Talmud tells many anecdotes to illustrate the need of being ever vigilant to maintain one's good will toward others. One of these is the case of Rabbi Elazar ben Simeon who had become corrupted with pride because of his great learning and then came to look with disdain on other people. He once rode leisurely on his donkey at the edge of the river and felt especially pleased with himself, when he noticed a very ugly-looking person coming his way. The latter greeted him but he did not reply. Instead he asked whether all his townsmen were as ugly as he. The stranger's comeback was: "I don't know, but I suggest you go to my Maker and tell him: 'How ugly is this vessel you have made!'" At once the rabbi was aware that he had sinned. He descended from his donkey and bowed before the stranger and asked his forgiveness. The latter refused and he followed him with his entreaties to the entrance of the town. The people turned out in large numbers to welcome Rabbi Elazar and the stranger reported to them the incident. They joined in the entreaties,

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and the latter then agreed to accept the apology, on the understanding "that he shall never again act thus."12

Even if one have a genuine grievance toward his neighbor, he ought not to respond with hatred. The Talmud cited the case of a man cutting with one hand and inadvertently hurting the other hand. "Shall he in retaliation cut the hand that wielded the knife?" We are all part of one another and the hurts we inflict on others really strike at ourselves, since our lives are interdependent.13 There are other ways of coping with grievances—to speak with candor and through honest voicing of our grievances to bring about a reconciliation. Indeed, a lasting friendship depends on the regular rebukes that one administers to the other. "A love without rebuke is no real love."14 It takes much in self-control to act with such magnanimity toward those who have wronged us. But it is in such self-control that true character reveals itself. The true hero, teaches the Talmud, is "one who converts an enemy into a friend."15

One's good will should be extended without limits. Even the sinner is entitled to it. A Talmudic anecdote illustrates this. "There were some lawless men living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir and they used to vex him sorely. Once Rabbi Meir prayed for their death. His wife, Beruriah, thereupon exclaimed: 'What do you take as the sanction for your prayer? Is it because it is written, Let sinners cease out of the earth? (Ps. 104:35) But the verse may also be rendered to mean, Let sin cease out of the earth. Consider, moreover, the conclusion of the verse: And let the wicked be no more. When sins shall cease, the wicked will be no more. Rather should you pray that they repent and be no more wicked.' Rabbi Meir offered prayer on their behalf and they repented."16

The Talmud includes many anecdotes to illustrate the extent to which one ought to be patient with people. The hero in one such anecdote is Hillel. "Our masters have taught: A

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person should always be patient like Hillel and not quick-tempered like Shammai. Two men once made a wager that whoever would succeed in getting Hillel to lose his temper would win four hundred zuz. That day happened to be the eve of the Sabbath and Hillel was then washing his head. One of the men came to the door of the house and shouted, 'Is Hillel here? Is Hillel here?' Hillel wrapped himself, came out and asked him, 'What do you want, my son?' 'I have a question to put to you.' 'Ask it, my son.' 'Why are the Babylonians round-headed?' 'You have put an important question to me,' Hillel answered. 'The reason is that they have no skilled midwives.'

"The man left and after a short while returned, shouting, 'Is Hillel here? Is Hillel here?' The Rabbi wrapped himself, came out to him and asked, 'What do you want, my son?' 'I have a question to put to you.' 'Ask it, my son.' 'Why are the inhabitants of Palmyra bleary-eyed?' 'You asked an important question,' Hillel again replied. 'The reason is that they live in sandy districts.'

"The man went away, waited a brief while and again returned, shouting, 'Is Hillel here? Is Hillel here?' The Rabbi wrapped himself, came out to him and inquired, 'What is it, my son?' 'I have a question to put to you.' 'Ask it, my son.' 'Why are the Africans broad-footed?' 'You have asked an important question,' Hillel once more responded. 'The reason is that they live in marshy districts.'

"The man said, 'I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid of provoking your anger.' Hillel folded the wrap about himself, sat down and said, 'Ask all that you desire.' 'Are you Hillel whom people call Prince in Israel?' 'I am.' 'If so, may there not be many like you in Israel.' 'Why, my son?' 'Because through you I have lost four hundred zuz.' The Rabbi then told him, 'Be careful, Hillel is worthy that you should lose through him four hundred zuz and still another four hundred zuz. But Hillel will not lose his temper.'"17

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A good man is a peace-loving man. It was Hillel who extolled the virtue of peace in these words: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, one who loves mankind and draws them nearer to the Torah." According to Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, peace is one of the three pillars that sustain civilization, the other two being justice and truth.18 Peace is the condition for the enjoyment of all other blessings. There may be food, there may be drink, but "if there is no peace there is nothing." Thus the rabbis advised people to shun quarreling. One who can exercise such restraint "will escape a hundred evils." The quarrelsome person who readily gives vent to his anger "will destroy his home."19

The strife between people arises often through misunderstandings. If we only knew all the circumstances under which our neighbor acted, we might understand and readily forgive that which caused our resentment. The rabbis accordingly recommend that we be cautious in judgment and that we accord each person the full benefit of our doubt. Hillel said: "Do not judge your neighbor unless you have been put in his place." Joshua ben Perahyah generalized: "Judge every man by the scale of merit."

As a helpful attitude to the maintenance of good relations with people, the rabbis suggested: "If you have done your neighbor a little wrong, let it be in your eyes great; if you have done him much good, let it be in your eyes little; if he has done you a little good, let it be in your eyes great; if he has done you a great wrong, let it be in your eyes little."20

The admiration of the rabbis for the peacemaker is clearly revealed in the following story: "A rabbi was standing in the marketplace when Elijah appeared to him. The rabbi asked him, 'Is there anybody in this marketplace who will have a share in the life of the world to come?' Elijah answered that there was not. Then two men appeared, and Elijah said, 'These two will have a share in the world to

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come.' The Rabbi asked them what they had done to earn such distinction. They answered, 'We are merrymakers; when we see people troubled in mind we cheer them, and when we see two men quarreling we make peace between them.'"21


A person should actively pursue the welfare of his neighbor. The rabbis rooted this demand in man's duty to imitate God's providence. Thus the Talmud expounds: "What is the meaning of the verse, 'Ye shall walk after the Lord your God' (Deut. 13:4)? It is to follow the attributes of the Holy One blessed be He: As He clothed the naked (Gen. 3:21), so do you clothe the naked; as He visited the sick (Gen. 18:1), so do you visit the sick; as He comforted mourners (Gen. 25:11), so do you comfort those who mourn; as He buried the dead (Deut. 34:6), so do you bury the dead." The same thought is expressed in the Midrash: "As the All-present is called compassionate and gracious so be you also compassionate and gracious and offering thy gifts freely to all. As the Holy One, blessed be He, is called righteous (Ps. 145: 17) be you also righteous; and as He is called loving (ibid), be you also loving."22


The active concern for another person's welfare finds many expressions, but none is prized as much as gemilut hasadim, acts of loving-kindness or benevolence. Among the typical acts of loving-kindness mentioned in the Talmud are visiting the sick, hospitality to strangers, providing a proper outfit and dowry for a poor bride, caring for the orphaned. Highest of all is what we do for the departed such as attending a funeral and comforting the mourners.23

Talmudic literature abounds in the request to relieve the

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poor in their distress. But acts of benevolence are greater than almsgiving. The rabbis contrasted benevolence from almsgiving: "Greater is the benevolence than alms in three respects—almsgiving is performed with money and benevolence with personal service or money; almsgiving is restricted to the poor and benevolence applies to the poor as well as to the affluent; almsgiving applies only to the living and benevolence applies both to the living and the dead."24

The obligation to help the poor was an axiomatic element in Jewish morality. To the Romans it seemed strange, however. They treated the destitute with contempt, holding them in some ways responsible for their own distress. Occasionally Romans challenged the Jewish emphasis on the duty of helping the poor. The Talmud quotes one such discussion between Rabbi Akiba and Tineius Rufus, the Roman governor of Palestine: "Tineius Rufus asked, 'If your God loves the poor, why does He not provide for them? To cite a parable: Suppose a human king was angry with his slave, imprisoned him and ordered that he was not to be provided with food and drink; and then a person goes and feeds him and offers him to drink. When the king hears of it, will he not be angry with him?' Akiba replied, 'I will offer you a more appropriate parable: Suppose a human king was angry with his son, imprisoned him and ordered that he was not to be provided with food or drink; and then a person goes and feeds him and offers him to drink. When the king hears of it, will he not reward him?' We are called God's children, as it is said, 'You are the children of the Lord your God' (Deut. 14:1). Behold it was He who declared, 'Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?'" (Is. 58:7)25

Rabbi Akiba is the hero in another story which likewise extols our responsibility for the poor. "It was said of Rabbi Tarphon that he was exceedingly rich but did not give to the poor. Once Rabbi Akiba met him and asked, 'Would

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you like me to buy a town or two for you?' He agreed and offered him four thousand golden denarii. Akiba took them and distributed them to the poor. After a while, Rabbi Tarfon met him and asked, 'Where are the towns you bought for me?' Akiba took him by the hand and led him to the House of Study; he then brought a copy of the Psalms, placed it before the two of them, and they continued to read till they reached the verse, 'He hath dispersed, he bath given to the needy; his righteousness endureth forever' (Ps. 112: 9). Akiba exclaimed, 'This is the City I bought for you!' Tarphon arose, kissed him, and said, 'My master and guide, my master in wisdom, and my guide in right conduct.' He handed him an additional sum to distribute in charity."26


Another great virtue extolled by the rabbis is truthfulness. "Truth," taught Rabbi Hanina, "is the seal of God Himself." Those who simulate in their speech were looked upon by the rabbis as idolators. Not merely fraud itself, but misleading a person in his opinions is condemned by the rabbis. The rule of the Talmud is: "It is forbidden to mislead a fellow-creature, including a non-Jew." "The Holy One, blessed be He," a Talmudic statement generalizes, "hates a person who says one thing with his mouth and is of another opinion in his heart." According to Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, truth is one of the three pillars on which the world rests; the other two are justice and peace.27

The rabbis condemned even the innocent lies which parents tell their children. These lies set an example in untruthfulness which children will in due time imitate. As one rabbi put it: "A person should not promise his child that he will give him something without giving it to him, for thus he teaches him to lie."28

The Talmud recounted with much admiration the exemplary honesty of some of its heroes. Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair

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and Rabbi Simeon ben Shetah figure in some of these stories. "It happened that Phineas ben Yair was living in one of the cities of the South, and some men who came there on business left two measures of barley in his possession and departed, forgetting all about the barley. He sowed the barley and each year stored the produce. After seven years had elapsed the same men returned to the town, and asked for their barley. He recognized them and asked them to take the entire produce." Another incident is related concerning Simeon ben Shetah. He had purchased a donkey from an Arab. His disciples noticed a gem hung from its neck, and they said, 'O, master, in you has been fulfilled, The blessing of the Lord maketh rich' (Prov. 10:22). He replied to them: 'I bought the donkey and not the gem.' He then proceeded to return it to its owner. The Arab, on getting it back, exclaimed, 'Blessed be the God of Simeon ben Shetah.'"29


The man idealized by the rabbis is not the ascetic who shuns the world and its pleasures. It is rather the one who knows how to live within it in moderation. The world in all its fulness is a divine creation. Enjoying it is therefore a person's privilege, nay, his duty. The rabbis declared that a person is destined to give account to his Maker for all the good things his eyes beheld that he did not partake of. The rabbis commended the person who possessed "a beautiful home, a beautiful wife, fine furnishings." These put a person into "a happy frame of mind."30

The rabbis decried the ascetic's assumption of voluntary fasts as evil. According to the Babylonian teacher Samuel, he who indulges in fasting "is called a sinner." Another teacher, Resh Lakish, forbade fasting because it weakens one's body and thus lessens his services to God's kingdom. As a mark of disapproval, another teacher suggested giving

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the food shunned by the ascetics, to the dogs. The nazirite whose vow to reject wine is recognized as binding in the Bible (Nu. 6:1–4), the rabbis held to be a sinner, and they added: "If a person who withholds himself from wine is called a sinner, how much more so is one a sinner who withdraws from all of life's enjoyments."31

The rabbis were not unmindful of the dangers in indulgence to excess. Wine especially may be taken to excess and then it is injurious. Thus they warned: "Do not become intoxicated and you will not sin"; "when wine enters, sense leaves, when wine enters, the secret blurts out"; "one cup of wine is good for a woman, two are degrading, three make her act like a lewd woman and four cause her to lose all self-respect and shame."32

A rabbinic story portrays vividly the steps in degradation which a man walks when he gives himself to excessive drinking: "When Noah came to plant a vineyard (Gen. 9:20), Satan appeared before him and asked, 'What are you planting?' 'A vineyard,' Noah replied. 'What is its nature?' Satan continued. 'Its fruits are sweet whether fresh or dry, and wine is made of them, which gladdens the heart,' Noah answered. 'Come now, let us two form a partnership in this vineyard,' Satan proposed. 'Very well,' said Noah. What did Satan do? He brought a sheep and slew it under the vine; then he brought in turn a lion, a pig and a monkey, slew each of them and let their blood drip into the vineyard and drench the soil. Thus he hinted that before a person drinks wine he is simple like a sheep and quiet like a lamb before his shearers. When he has drunk in moderation, he is strong like a lion and feels as though there is none to equal him in the world. When he has drunk more than enough, he becomes like a pig, wallowing in filth. When he is intoxicated he becomes like a monkey, dancing about, uttering obscenities before all, and unaware of what he is doing."33

The study of Torah was regarded by the rabbis as the

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supreme good of life, and yet they cautioned that even our preoccupation with Torah must not displace our concern with our worldly obligations. "Torah is good," said the rabbis, "when combined with a worldly occupation."

The Talmud tells of Rabbi Simeon ben Yahai who had hidden in a cave for twelve years in order to elude the Romans who sought to arrest him. When he finally emerged from his hiding place, he noticed that people about him were going on with their usual affairs, plowing and sowing, and exclaimed: "They forsake the life of eternity and busy themselves with the life that is transitory!" A heavenly voice finally rebuked him: "Have you left your cave to destroy my world? Go back to it!"34


The Talmud urged the proper care of the body as an obligation which one owes toward himself. Cleanliness they held a basic prerequisite to good health. "Rinse the cup before and after drinking," recommended the rabbis. Similarly they cautioned, "A person should not drink from a cup and hand it to another, for it is dangerous to health." The Talmudists lived among people who were especially troubled with eye disease, still a common affliction in oriental countries. But the Talmudists blamed it principally on the lack of sanitary habits among the people. "Better a drop of cold water in the morning, and the washing of hands and feet in the evening than all the eye salves in the world."35

The rabbis looked upon the maintenance of bodily health as a religious obligation. This is made clear in the following anecdote, in which Hillel is once more the hero. When Hillel had finished a session of study with his pupils, "he accompanied them part of the way. They said to him, 'Master, where are you going?' 'To perform a religious duty,' he replied. 'Which religious duty?' they asked. 'To

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bathe in the bath-house.' 'Is that a religious duty?' they wondered. He answered them: 'One who is designated to scrape and clean the statues of the king which are set up in theatres and circuses is paid for the work and he associates with nobility. Surely must I who am created in the divine image and likeness, take care of my body!"36

The Talmud abounds in rules of health, some of which will continue to interest the modern reader. The rabbis cautioned against overeating: "Restrain yourself from the meal you especially enjoy, and do not delay answering nature's call." They urged sufficient sleep, which will do its best however only at night; late morning sleep was regarded as injurious. Above all they urged general moderation in living: "In eight things excess is harmful and moderation beneficial: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, work, wine, sleep, hot water (for drinking and bathing) and blood-letting." It is interesting that the rabbis recognized that bodily illness often derives from psychic causes. Thus they listed fear and sin among the things which "weaken a man's strength." In the event of illness the rabbis urged that a physician be consulted, and they forbade people making their homes in communities that were without the services of a competent physician: "It is forbidden to live in a city that is without a physician."37

Next: The Jurisprudence of the Talmud