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Virtues in Judaism: Humility

HUMILITY (Heb. עֲנָוָה), a humble estimate of one's qualities; decency of thought, speech, and conduct. The presence of many biblical synonyms testifies to its importance as a religious principle. Rabbinic literature ascribes the quality to God Himself, with the implication that man should imitate Him in this respect (Meg. 31a).

Humility is commended as an outstanding personal virtue, and is a mandatory qualification for those in positions of leadership. Biblical figures who tempered an awareness of their prestige with a sense of personal modesty achieved renown, while those who were arrogant suffered defeat (Gen. 18:27; Ezek. 28:2; Ned. 38a; DEZ 1). Humility was the crowning virtue of the greatest of Jewish leaders, Moses: "… and the man Moses was very humble" (Num. 12:3; cf. Deut. R. 2:2; Shab. 89a; ARN1 23, 75).

The prophets condemn excessive pride, while they affirm the value of humility (Isa. 10:13, 57:15; Jer. 9:22; Ezek. 28:2; Ps. 51:18–19). Micah includes humility among the three fundamental principles of the Jewish religion: "… to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:8). In relation to God, man's humility stems from his existential helplessness in the shadow of divine omnipotence (Ps. 22:7; Avot 4:4). In human relationships humility calls for a giving nature and is incompatible with self-love.

Humility is not merely the absence of pride, but a positive force which expresses itself in constructive action. Thus, even extremism in its pursuit is not a vice (Maim., Yad, De'ot 2:3). This positive aspect is manifest in the tradition of anonymity of authorship in Jewish letters as well as anonymity in charitable acts.

Unlike philosophies which emphasize man's insignificance and preach self-effacing submissiveness, Judaism conceives of humility in the general context of the dignity of man. It requires the transfer of emphasis away from the self rather than destructive self-abnegation. Egotistical preoccupation with one's own humility, however, breeds a pietistic pride denounced by the rabbis. Similarly, false modesty and abdication of responsibility under the guise of humility have no place in Jewish life (Git. 56a; M.Ḥ. Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, ed. by M. Kaplan (1936), 104–5). The midrashic portrayal of man as a being created in the image of God, on the one hand, and as an insignificant mortal, on the other, clarifies this Jewish concept of modesty (Sanh. 38a). Humility represents the peak of moral perfection, and in the "ladder of virtues" is superior even to saintliness (Luzzatto, op. cit., 106, see also chs. 22–23; Prov. 11:2, 15:33, 16:5). Humility is not an isolated trait, but rather a life-style, which encompasses and structures every aspect of human thought and behavior.


Sources: Baḥya ibn Paquda, Ḥovot ha-Levavot, ch. 6; Kitvei Rabbenu Moses ben Naḥman, 1 (1963), 372–7; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (eds.), A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), index.

[Zvi H. Szubin]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.