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Ethical Behavior vs. Etiquette

On the Yahrzeit of my beloved father, Irvin Kaplan, יצחק בן מרדכי

After the flood, Noach, his family and all the animals that were with him on the Ark were told to leave it and resume their existence on the earth. The Torah records that Noach first offers sacrifices to Hashem in gratitude for saving him and his family. However in the next recorded activity, we see Noach planting vineyards.

People drink as an expression of joy and happiness. Wine, then and now is considered a beverage of distinction and importance. It is so unique that the Mishnah in chapter 6 of Talmud Berachot ordains a special blessing before drinking any. The Talmud there aptly quotes Psalms, “Wine gladdens man’s heart.” We enhance and dignify the Kiddush every Friday and Yom Tov night by reciting it over a cup of wine. Wine is consumed during our wedding ceremony, at the circumcision of our male children, and at our Purim meal. The first Mishnah of the 10th chapter in Talmud Pesachim states the legal requirement , “even the poorest of the poor must be given wine or money from charity to have four cups at the Seder. If not, the person must work or sell some object they own to purchase enough wine for four cups.” What is the reason for this law? No Jew, no matter his or her financial situation, can be excluded from expressing their joy and gratitude for the liberation by God from our slavery in Egypt. In all of these cases wine is used to enhance the mitzvah and to express our feelings of joy.

However, in the case of Noach, his drinking was for a different reason. He was depressed. He witnessed the complete and utter devastation of the world. In his attempt to escape the reality he now found himself in, he became intoxicated. Not only is that a disgraceful state in which to be, but as a result of his stupor, he was debased by his son, Cham.

It is to the reaction of Noach’s other two sons to their father’s humiliation that we now turn. The Torah says, “And Shem and Yaphet took a garment, laid it upon their shoulders, they walked in backwards and covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned away and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” (Bereishit 9: 23) However, if you are sensitive to the Hebrew in this verse the Torah says, “And he took” in the singular. Only Shem took the garment. Then he was joined by Yaphet.

Rabbi Soloveitchik of blessed memory drew an important distinction between Shem and Yaphet. It is the difference between ethical behavior and etiquette. Ethical behavior is objective and obligatory upon a person whether in public or in private, whether others see what is being done or no one sees what you are doing. It is simply a moral imperative. You must take the appropriate action. Failure to take the appropriate action is a failure of a person’s humanness, being created “in the image of God.”

Etiquette on the other hand is subjective and can vary from place to place or country to country. Whether or not to have a smorgasbord before the wedding ceremony or not varies on the city where the wedding is held. In New York it is a requirement but outside of New York not only is it not a requirement but maybe viewed as extravagant and showy. In little league baseball it is considered poor sportsmanship, poor etiquette, to boo opposing players; but in the big leagues intimidation of the other team’s players is part of what the fans try to do. At times there is even a certain etiquette to Jewish law. At a meal not provided by any particular person, the law states that the most scholarly or knowledgeable person should make the blessing over the bread to initiate the meal. If this practice is not followed, a lack of respect or appropriateness was displayed by the participants. 

Shem was motivated in his actions by his sense of ethical behavior. As a reward for this conduct, Noach blesses Shem. His descendants, Avraham and the Jewish people will merit the Holy Temple where Hashem’s divine presence dwells. The Ari of blessed memory wrote that the idea of a “tallit katan”, the small tallit, is that it is a garment specifically designed to be worn underneath our shirt, out of sight. Yet, it bears the “tzitzit” that represent all 613 mitzvot. They are our moral imperative regardless who sees or knows we are doing these mitzvot. Yaphet, however, was motivated by the proper etiquette. Only after he observed Shem did he know how to act in this situation. 

Yaphet too was blessed by Noach. “Hashem will extend Yaphet, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem.” Because Yaphet did the correct actions protecting his father’s dignity, his descents will merit proper burial after his descendants Gog and Magog are defeated by Israel. Also, Yaphet “will dwell in the tents of Shem.” This language teaches us that Yaphet’s etiquette is only meaningful when it is used to enhance the mitzvot performed by Shem’s descendants, the Jewish people. To know how, where and when Yaphet’s etiquette is appropriate, Yaphet’s children will have to attend “the tents,” the yeshivot, Jewish day schools, and learn from their Torah scholars.

In the merit of living ethically and observing properly instituted etiquette, may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan