Respect for Torah Scholars Background, Laws, Significance and Reward
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Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim
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The Torah portion of Kedoshim contains 50 mitzvot according to the Sefer HaChinuch. One of these is the mitzvah to honor Torah scholars, as the verse (Levit. 19:32)
says, “מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם וְהָֽדַרְתָּ֖ פְּנֵ֣י זָקֵ֑ן וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּֽאֱלֹיךָ אֲנִ֥י ה – You shall rise before a venerable person, and you shall respect the zakein, and you shall fear your G-d. I am the L-rd.”
The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) says that according to Rabbi Yossi Haglili (whose view is accepted in Halacha) the word זָקֵ֑ן/zakein means one who has acquired wisdom, referring to a Torah scholar even if he is young.
Seek the Counsel of Torah Scholars Rather Than Fortune Tellers
The verse prior to this one says, “You shall not turn to [the sorcery of] Ov or Yid’oni; you shall not seek these and thereby defile yourselves through them. I am the L-rd, your G-d.” The Ha’amek Davar says that the juxtaposition of these two verses indicates that one should seek the counsel of a Torah scholar rather than that of a fortune teller.
The sage can daven (pray) for you if you are in trouble, as the Talmud says (Bava Basra 116a), “One who has a sick person in his home should go to a scholar so that he should plead for mercy on his behalf, as it says (Proverbs 16:14), “The wrath of a king is as messengers of death; but a wise man will pacify it [through prayer].”
The prayers of the sages are also effective for rain which is the source of parnassah (sustenance) in this world, as the Mishnah says (Ta’anis 1:7), the Torah scholars would fast (and daven) for extra days in times of drought. (After the community would fast for a series of Mondays and Thursdays the Torah scholars would continue to fast on subsequent Mondays and Thursdays.)
Honoring Torah Scholars Brings Blessing
When people honor Torah scholars, they are blessed by G-d to earn an honorable income (Ha’amek Davar). This can be derived from the beginning of the book of Ruth, where it says, “וַיְהִ֗י בִּימֵי֙ שְׁפֹ֣ט הַשֹּֽׁפְטִ֔ים וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ.” This can be translated to mean, “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges were judged, that there was a famine in the land.” Our sages (see Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez) interpreted this to mean that it was a time when people judged their judges and spurned their rebuke, claiming that the judges (Torah scholars) were far from perfect themselves. The lack of respect for Torah scholars and leaders resulted in G-d’s bringing a famine upon the land, the physical famine being a mirror image of the spiritual famine at that time. We can infer from this that respecting (and accepting the rebuke of) Torah scholars brings G-d’s plentiful blessings to the world.
A Segulah to Fear G-d
The verse says, “You shall respect the sages, and you shall fear your G-d,” from which we infer that if one has respect for Torah scholars, it will result in one’s fearing G-d (Bamidbar Rabba 15:17).
Do Teshuvah When You are Young
The verse מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם can also be translated to mean, “Rise up (and do Teshuvah) before you reach old age (Pardes Yosef), for the Teshuvah one does when one is young is more sincere and meaningful. (When a young person does Teshuvah he is doing it at a time when he still has the capability to sin which he may not have later in life. In addition, he is doing so without the fear that he will soon have to face Divine judgment in the future world.) In addition, no one can be sure that they will reach old age.
Show Respect to Every Person
The verse after the mitzvah to respect the elderly and Torah scholars is “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.” This indicates that in addition to showing respect to the important members of society, one should not show disrespect to any person even those who are not perceived as having a high status (Seforno).
Greater Respect for Torah Scholars
The Talmud (Kiddushin ibid) understands the verse to mean that one should stand up out of respect for an old person and for a Torah scholar. The verse should thus be interpreted as if each of these commands were repeated twice, as follows: “Before an older person you shall rise and show respect; you shall rise and show respect to a Torah scholar.” Nevertheless, the simple reading of the pasuk is that one should show respect for the Torah scholar while one only needs to stand up for an older person. (Showing respect is more inclusive than simply standing up for someone.) This alludes to the fact that one should show extra respect for a Torah scholar (regardless of his age) even beyond the respect shown to an older person (Ohr HaChaim).
Respecting the Elders Is Also Respecting our Patriarch Avraham
According to the Midrash, before the time of Avraham Avinu (our patriarch Abraham), people did not age visibly. So Avraham asked G-d that He change this so that people will be able to show respect to the elderly. G-d fulfilled his request and began with Avraham himself who became the first person to show physical signs of aging, as the verse (Gen. 24:1) says, “And Avraham was old (zakein), advanced in days.” Thus, when we stand and show respect for an older person, we are also showing respect to Avraham who is the one who showed concern for this mitzvah. The verse can thus be read, “You shall rise before a venerable person, and you shall [thus] show respect [for Avraham who is called] the zakein (Ohr HaChaim).
How to Reach an Old Age
The term takum – rise – can mean to strengthen yourself and the word mipnei can mean “for the sake of.” Thus the verse can be read in yet another way as follows, ‘Strengthen yourself in serving G-d for the sake of reaching an old age.” Every person is allocated a certain number of years in their lifetime. But it is possible that some of these years can be removed from one’s life as punishment for one’s sins. The Torah therefore exhorts us to strengthen ourselves in Torah observance so that we merit to live to an old age (Ohr HaChayim).
Honor Your Own Old Age
The verse can also be interpreted to mean, Behave appropriately when you are young (as explained above the verse מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם can mean “Rise up and do teshuvah before you reach old age”) so that you will honor yourself as an old man. One who behaved foolishly when young will be embarrassed about that when he gets older. So by behaving properly when young, he is bringing honor to his old age. In addition, by behaving appropriately when young, we hope to merit that we have an old age that is free of suffering (Ohr HaChayim).
Honor the Old As They Are Near the Next World
The Ibn Ezra says, one should show respect to old people as they are nearly in the next world and their life experience is greater than that of young people. The Torah says to fear Hashem after mentioning this mitzvah as the way one treats elders is the way G-d will treat us when we are old (ibid).
How to Honor a Torah Scholar
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:17) mentions the following ways one should honor a sage. The additional notes on the laws are from Yoreh Deah Siman 244. Most of these laws apply to honoring older people as well.
1) Stand up when he is within 6 feet (4 amot)
Waiting until this point makes it clear that one is standing to honor him rather than for another reason.
- For a Blind Scholar
The Talmud (Yoma 53a) indicates that Rava would walk backwards when leaving his teacher Rav Yosef in order to show him respect. He did this even though Rav Yosef was blind. Some say that, similarly, one must stand up for a Torah scholar even if the scholar is blind. Others say that this is only necessary for one’s father or main teacher (Pit’chei Teshuvah on Y.D. 240:7)
- Don’t Pretend
One may not get out of standing up for Torah scholars by pretending not to notice them as they approach. This is the meaning of the verse, “ You shall stand up for… a sage, You shall fear G-d” because G-d will know if one noticed the Torah scholar or not.
- Not in a Bathhouse
One need not stand up for a Torah scholar in the inner room of a bathouse (or mikvah).
- Not for a Loss
One need not stand up for a Torah scholar if this will cause the person standing up to incur a financial loss.
- To Go Around or Not
It is praiseworthy for a Torah scholar to avoid an area where many people are gathered so that he not bother them to stand up for him. Some say (Pele Yo’etz entry Kimah) that this is only true if he can tell that they are not happy to stand up for him or if he knows (from past experience) that they will not stand up for him at all. But if he knows that they are happy to fulfill this mitzvah, he should not avoid them. He should walk through that area so that they can fulfill this important mitzvah. (This doesn’t mean that he should go out of his way to walk there. But that he shouldn’t avoid it.)
The Midrash (ibid) relates that Rabbi Abba bar Pappa, the Kohen, said, “When I would see a group of people, I would walk around them so as not to be a bother to them, lest they see me and stand up for me. When I told this to Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Zevida, he said to me, ‘You must pass before them, so that they will see you and stand in your presence. In this merit they will achieve fear of Heaven, as it says (in Lev. 19:32), “You shall rise… in the presence of a sage, and you shall fear your G-d.’”
2) One should greet the Torah scholar when standing up for him.
3) One may not sit or stand in his place.
4) One may not contradict him.
5) One should always speak to him with respect.
6) One should not answer a question that is posed in his presence. Rather, one should always allow him to answer.
7) One may not interrupt him.
8) One should honor him to be first in all important matters.
9) One should have the Torah scholar enter and exit first.
Don’t Be a Rasha
The Midrash (ibid) says that one who doesn’t show respect to a Torah scholar is considered a rasha (wicked person), as the verse says (Kohelet 8:13), “But it will not be well with the wicked, and he will not prolong [his] days, like a shadow, because he does not [honor the sages which brings to] fear G-d.”
One of 13 Things
The Midrash says that there are 13 things which G-d considers to be “His.”
Gold and silver
The Jewish people
The Mizbe’ach (altar)
Terumah (the tithe for the Kohanim)
Ohel Moed (Tabernacle)
Shemen HaMish’cha (anointing oil)
Malchut Bais David (the Davidic Dynasty)
The Korbanot (sacrfices)
Eretz Yisroel (the Holy land)
May we merit to respect Torah scholars and achieve fear of Heaven!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!