DEREKH EREẒ (Heb. דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ; "way of the world"), desirable behavior of a man toward his fellows, in keeping with natural practice and accepted social and moral standards, including the rules of etiquette and polite behavior. This has become the common and accepted connotation of a term having several meanings in rabbinic literature:
Natural and normal human behavior – "It is natural (derekh ereẓ) for the young to speak poetry; the middle-aged, proverbs; the old, despair at vanity" (Song R. 1:10).
Worldly occupation – "It is appropriate to combine study of Torah with a trade" (derekh ereẓ) (Avot 2:2).
A euphemism for sexual cohabitation – "'He saw our plight' (Deut 26:7) which means being cut off from sexual intercourse" (derekh ereẓ) (Haggadah of Passover; cf. Yoma 74b).
Correct conduct and proper behavior – derekh ereẓ in this wide and general sense is much praised by the rabbis, and is the subject of a post-talmudic treatise, derekh ereẓ (see next entry). While its value is often equated to that of Torah itself, R. Ishmael b. Naḥman held that derekh ereẓ
preceded the Torah by 26 generations (i.e., the period between the creation of the world and the giving of the Torah; Lev. R. 9:3) – in other words, derekh ereẓ is part of the natural order of things.
Basic to derekh ereẓ are maintenance of family harmony and sensitive consideration for wife and family (Shab. 10b; MK 17a; et al.). The laws of derekh ereẓ demand that a man make it a rule to bear himself courteously toward his fellow (e.g., Avot 4:15; Ber. 6b; BM 87a), to exercise care in his words and claims, and especially to use "clean" speech (Pes. 3a). A man should eat less than his means allow (Ḥul. 84b). He should dress decently (Shab. 113a–114b, 145b). The rabbis stated "In whom mankind finds pleasure, God finds pleasure" (Avot 3:10). In agreement with this general principle, many specific instructions are found concerning proper behavior. Special stress is laid on putting the concerns of others before one's own (cf. Hag. 8a; et al.). Laws of derekh ereẓ also deal with definitions of modesty, particularly in relations between men and women, proper etiquette between teacher and pupil, table manners, reception of guests, etc. Scholars are to be particularly careful as regards derekh ereẓ since they serve as an example, and a fault in their behavior shames both them and the Torah. Maimonides' description based on halakhic and aggadic sources of the behavior befitting a scholar is in fact a summary of derekh ereẓ; it includes polite manners as well as the demand, "… he shall never in his lifetime trouble his fellow…." It culminates in the counsel to prefer to be among the persecuted rather than the persecutors, among the humiliated rather than those who humiliate (cf. BK 93a). Such is the man described in the verse "And He said to me, 'You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified'" (Maim., Yad, De'ot 5).
Although the rabbis often found scriptural warrant for practices of derekh ereẓ, these were not generally included as formal laws in the great codes, since they were held to be recommendations rather than commandments, and often varied with time and place.
For "Torah with derekh ereẓ," see
[Simon S. Schlesinger]