Query: "Derekh Eretz" as "Secular/non-Torah Studies"

Zvi Zohar's picture

Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad explains the Mishna (Avot 2:2) Yaffe Talmud Torah 'im Derekh Eretz as advocating the study of Torah and of other topics such as languages, arithmetic, geography, astronomy and natural science in parallel, from an early age. However, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the conventional 'classic' interpretations of the term Derekh Eretz in this mishna explain it either as engaging in making a living, or, as qualities of a person's character and behavior towards others. Famously, it is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who explains Derekh Eretz as secular/non-Torah studies. My questions are:

1. Can anyone point me to persons who explained Derekh Eretz in this manner PRIOR to Rabbi Hirsch?

2. Can anyone point me to persons who explained Derekh Eretz in this manner INDEPENDENTLY of Rabbi Hirsch (i.e., without knowing of his interpretation)?

Many thanks!


Zvi Shalom,
Undoubtedly, one of the interpretations of the term Derekh Eretz in the Tannaitic sources is: work for living (in any secular circle of life). It is already known that Rabbi Yishmael in Sifrei Deuteronomy (piska 42) states: "VeAsaftah Deganekha — Hanheg bahem minhag Derekh Eretz”.

It is also known that any father, according to the Talmud, is obliged to teach his son a professional secular work (BT Kiddushin 29a; although Safrai, Tarbitz 60, p. 148-149, does not support Maimonides who sees it in direct connection to the Mishnah Avot 2:2 - in any case Melakha, work for living, is certainly also called Derekh Eretz in other sources, see Michael Higer, Introduction to his edition of Maskhtot Zeirot, p 2, and indeed it is already mentioned in the statement of Rabbi Yishmael).

How does then a father teach his son a profession that provides his living if he does not offer him the foundations of secular studies? In the ancient times it might be true that he could teach his son to be a shoemaker — but even in this ancient period there were doctors and architects and so on (Eyali collected them to his "Otzar Kinuyei Ovdim").

Avi Sagi in his book "Etgar HaShiva el haMasoret" presented three typological rabbinical approaches which he had found in the Responsa toward secular studies — and at least one of them — Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi of Turkey (15th century) clearly puts in direct connection secular studies with the study of professional work as equals (Sagi, p. 232 ff.).

We should remember also that Rashar Hirsch in Europe in the 19th century was already living at a time when it was clear to every father in Germany that in order to teach his son any professional work he must provide him basic secular studies.
This is therefore, in my eyes, a simple — and very reasonable explanation of the words of the Tannaim - at least when we apply them to the modern era.

Admiel Kosman
Potsdam University