Many people say that a particular behavior is “not Shabbosdig”
or “not ehrlich” or “pas nisht.” How does one define these
(and similar) terms? Are they purely subjective in nature?
Or is there some sort of objective definition?
There is an aspect to Torah that transcends the mere observance of mitzvos as a collection of “dos and don’ts” – and that is fulfilling G-d’s will as reflected by the mitzvos.
Imagine a giant light bulb that is too big and bright to look at directly. Enclose the bulb in a globe and cut 613 small windows in the globe. Through each window one can see one small area of the bulb and by looking through each window consecutively one gets a composite picture of the bulb.
Each mitzvah presents a view of an aspect of G-d’s will encompassing values, standards, lifestyle, total character, etc. Hence, in addition to listening to G-d’s word (lishmo’a l’kol Hashem) and observing the various commandments, there is listening into G-d’s word (lishmo’a b’kol Hashem) – i.e., the all-encompassing message each mitzvah implies. Hence, the question of what is appropriate behavior in regard to each mitzvah as the spirit of the mitzvah is crucial.
How that expresses itself varies from mitzvah to mitzvah. Some aspects are grounded in halacha itself (as uvda d’chol on Shabbos); some in minhag that can vary from place to place; and some in the sensitivities and level of piety of the individual.
— Rabbi Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Matisyahu,
popular lecturer and educator
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The Torah instructs us to do that which is upright and good in the eyes of the Almighty (Devarim 6:18). We must measure our thoughts and deeds in relation to G-d’s command.
Sometimes, individuals are punctilious in ritual observance, but are deficient in courtesy, honesty, or decency. Yet, being a religious Jew demands that we live up to the expectations that the Almighty has set for us. When behavior falls short of this standard, it is unacceptable.
Sephardim of the Judeo-Spanish tradition describe proper human behavior as “benadamlik” – similar in meaning to the Yiddish word menschlichkeit. Benadamlik is a basic ingredient in being a proper religious person. The objective definition is: behavior that is befitting a dignified, courteous, righteous human being.
Obviously, some subjectivity can arise when applying this objective principle. Different individuals and communities may have differing views on what is or isn’t proper behavior.
If someone charges you with not being benadamlik or ehrlich, self-reflect to determine whether the criticism is just. If it is, upgrade your behavior. If the criticism is unjustified, let it go.
The Talmud, Yevamot 86a, provides guidelines: “If someone studies Torah and Mishnah and attends on the disciples of the wise, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to others – what do people say concerning him? Happy the parent who taught him Torah, happy the teacher who taught him Torah; woe unto people who have not studied the Torah. For this man has studied the Torah – look how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds.” Conversely, if a person behaves badly, it reflects negatively on the Torah way of life.
“Ve’asita hayashar ve’hatov.” This is the standard to which we must aspire.
— Rabbi Marc D. Angel, director of the
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals
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Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk was conducting a Friday night tisch on Parsha Bo. In attendance was Reb Moshe Leib Sasover. At one point Reb Elimelech encouraged Reb Moshe Leib to share some words of inspiration. He said the following:
“The festival of Pesach is so-called because the Almighty jumped ‘over’ the houses of the Jewish nation. But if you look carefully at the wording, it says, ‘asher pasach al batei Bnei Yisrael.’ G-d jumped on – ‘al’ – the Jewish homes. How does that figure?”
He went on to explain: “G-d instructed the Jewish nation to take a sheep, which was an Egyptian deity, to be brought as a sacrifice. When G-d came down into Egypt, as it were, with angels and saw the extreme self-sacrifice of the Jewish nation, they proceeded to pasach al batai Bnei Yisrael – to jump and dance on the Jewish homes, singing, ‘Oht doh voint a Yid, oht doh voint a Yid – Here lives a Jew, here lives Jew.”
Just like there are certain things which, though not halachically forbidden, are nevertheless deemed not in the spirit of Shabbos because they detract from the sanctity of Shabbos, there are certain things that are not in the spirit of Jewishness – es pas nisht – because it depreciates the sanctity of the Jew.
While some conduct is obviously inappropriate, other types of behavior may be less so and subject to subjective judgment. The onus is on each individual to be his or her own judge, but the basic guiding criteria is to remember that others will be pointing at him or her, saying, “Oht doh voint a Yid, oht doh gait a Yid – Here lives a Jew, here goes a Jew” and to conduct him or herself accordingly.
— Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, popular Lubavitch lecturer,
rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue
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Orthodox Judaism is often defined as obeying the Shulchan Aruch. By implication, the nature of Orthodoxy is seen in legalistic terms since the very nature of halacha is to objectify and quantify which acts are prohibited and which are permitted.
But there are communal norms that are more subjective in nature which are referred to by such terms as “past nisht” or “not Shabbosdig” or “not ehrlich.” All three terms – when not used arbitrarily – serve to project Judaism as a full way of life rather than mere halachic formalism.
It is clear that behavior that is acceptable in some subcultures of the Orthodox world will be considered inappropriate in others. Where rabbinic leadership is followed unquestioningly, rabbis define the parameters.
The reality is, however, that not all of us listen to rabbis when they can’t point to a halachic basis for their rulings, and individuals make their own determinations. These individuals, however, run the risk of being seen as deviating from the norms of their community.
In terms of how rabbinic leaders determine what’s appropriate: Attitudes toward non-Jewish society often play a major role. Sometimes there is a desire to differentiate us from the non-Jewish environment. Other times, there is a necessity to defend our community against accusations that we have lower standards than others.
— Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani at YU’s
Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
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The Torah is an all-encompassing guide to life and should direct all of our interactions and relationships.
The Shulchan Aruch codifies and legislates all of our interactions – social, business, and communal. Many areas of conduct, however, can’t be formally established because there are far too many variables, the Magid Mishnah explains (Hilchos Shechenim 14). The correct course of conduct depends on the accepted norms of the times, the situation, and the individual. Behavior that at one time might be considered proper and appropriate might in another time be considered rude. So, there can be no formal legislation.
Therefore, the Torah provides general guidelines to govern these situations. Our business dealings are directed by “You shall do that which is straight and proper” (Devarim 6:18). Our moral conduct is guided by “You shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). Our social interactions are directed by “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18).
Not mere suggestions, these are governing principles that should direct our conduct, attitude, and approach. The exact parameters of “how to act” are defined by the accepted practices and customs for that type of individual in his or her time.
In business dealing, the definition wouldn’t be “What can I get away with?” but “What is the right, honest approach? What is ehrlich?” Once that conduct has been defined, it isn’t in the category of a nicety but rather an obligation.
We are governed by Torah law – “You shall do that which is straight and proper.” As with business dealings, so too with our social interactions and general conduct; we are obligated to act in distinct manner guided by these principles. They are not suggestions or polish; these are just like any other mitzvah. We are requird to act in a particular manner guided by “You shall be a holy people.”
— Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier, founder of The Shmuz