Let My People Know

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “The etiquette and customs of the talmudic era.”

The etiquette and customs of the talmudic era were collected in a small tractate entitled Derekh Eretz, which is a treasury of information on the morals and conduct of that era.

The halakhah on derekh eretz encompasses diverse spheres of life.

Many laws, for example, are devoted to rules of etiquette at formal meals.

This was important in an age when it was the custom to hold protracted feasts (where the guests reclined on sofas) involving considerable ceremony and formality.

These rules included such pearls of common sense as, “It is forbidden to talk during the meal lest the food be swallowed the wrong way,” as well as instructions on how to eat various dishes.

The tractate also relates, with humorous intent, how R. Akiva invited two disciples to his home in order to test their knowledge of manners and etiquette.

He set before them meat that had not been cooked sufficiently; one of the two, who was well mannered, tasted the meat, found it inedible, and left it on his plate, while the other tried to tear his portion apart by force.

Said R. Akiva mockingly to the latter: “Not thus, my son. Put your foot on the dish and pull.”

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz