Derekh Ereẓ

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DEREKH EREẒ (Heb. דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ; lit. "way of the world"; "proper deportment"), one of the minor tractates of the Talmud, published in current editions of the Talmud at the conclusion of the fourth order, Nezikin. Derekh Ereẓ, as its name suggests, deals primarily with morals and customs. In its current printed edition, this treatise is divided into three sections: Derekh Ereẓ Rabbah; Derekh Ereẓ Zuta; and Perek ha-Shalom, which are basically independent units and were probably collated during the late Geonic period. It belongs to a genre of literature which represents the transition between earlier wisdom literature (Ben Sira, tractate Avot) and the mediaeval moralistic works (e.g., Ma'alot ha-Middot by Yeḥiel ben R. Yekutiel ha-Rofeh, 13th cent.; Menorat ha-Maor, by Israel Al-Nakawa, 14th cent., etc.). Related to this body of literature is also Pseudo-Seder Eliyahu Zuta, ed. M. Friedman, Jerusalem 1960, and Masekhet Kallah, ed. M. Higger, New York 1936.

Derekh Ereẓ Rabbah contains eleven chapters. It begins with a halakhic section on forbidden marriages, to which are appended some ethical maxims. The second chapter contains two entirely different sections, the first discussing 24 classes of people, 12 bad and 12 good; the second details the sins that cause eclipses of the sun and moon, concluding with mystical remarks about God and the 390 heavens. The third chapter contains moral reflections on the origins and destiny of man. Chapters 4 and 5 list rules of conduct for the sages and their disciples. Chapters 6 and 7 detail the proper mode of conduct in society and at the table; chapters 8 and 9 deal exclusively with rules of conduct while eating and drinking; and chapter 10 covers proper behavior in the bathhouse. The final chapter enumerates practices which are dangerous to life, concluding with blessings that are recited on various occasions. This short summary of the tractate's contents indicates that the first section, laws of forbidden marriages, is quite different from the rest of the work, which treats solely of ethical behavior and customs. *Elijah b. Solomon, the Vilna Gaon, was of the opinion that this first chapter is actually the last portion of the tractate *Kallah, which precedes it in the printed editions and whose subject is marriage, and that it was wrongly taken from there and appended to Derekh Ereẓ.

There are ten chapters in Derekh Ereẓ Zuta. The name is misleading in one respect since the word zuta (lit. "small") could indicate that it is a shorter version of Derekh Ereẓ Rabbah. In reality, the two treatises have little in common, and the appellation Zuta is probably of later origin. The first nine chapters all possess a certain unity, in that they consist almost exclusively of exhortations to self-examination and modesty. Temperance, resignation, gentleness, patience, respect for age, and an attitude of forgiveness are urged. The moral and social duties of the scholars are stressed throughout. The first half of the tenth chapter is devoted to eschatology while the second half reverts to moral and ethical themes. Many of this tractate's statements are cogent and concise, such as, "if you have done much good let it seem insignificant in your eyes … but let a small kindness done for you appear great" (ch. 2). Appended to these tractates is the Perek ha-Shalom which extols the virtue of peace, and is a totally independent work, probably compiled during the Geonic period.

It may be that portions of these tractates were already redacted during the talmudic period. R. Judah's disciples requested that he teach them a section of the laws of Derekh Ereẓ (Ber. 22a). It also related that Simeon b. Ba waited on his master, R. Johanan, in accordance with the etiquette outlined in Derekh Ereẓ (tj, Shab. 6:2, 8a). Nevertheless the present text of these treatises dates from the post-talmudic period, and more than one editor aided in its final redaction. These tractates are also known by other names in geonic and rabbinic literature. The first chapters of Derekh Ereẓ Zuta were also called the tractate on "Fear of Sin"; the third chapter of Derekh Ereẓ Rabbah was referred to as the "Chapter of Ben Azzai"; chapters 5–8 were called Derekh Ereẓ Zeira, and the first chapter of Derekh Ereẓ Rabbah was also known as the chapter of "Forbidden Relations." These treatises were widely read, and the fact that the tractate passed through so many hands partially accounts for the chaotic state of the texts. Eighteenth-century scholars did much, by means of glosses and commentaries, toward making the texts intelligible. A critical edition and English translation of these tractates was published by Michael Higger in 1935. Another English translation was issued in 1965.


M. Higger (ed.), Massekhtot Ze'irot (1929); idem, Massekhtot Derekh Ereẓ (1935); D. Sperber (ed.), Massekhet Derekh Ereẓ Zuta u-Perek ha-Shalom (1994); idem, A Commentary on Derekh Ereẓ Zuta, Chapters 5–8, (1990); M. von Loopik, The Ways of the Sages and the Way of the World (1991).

[Daniel Sperber 2nd ed.]