Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yiqra 5767/ March 24, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Noblesse Oblige and Humility


Rabbi Dr. Neriah Gutel


School of Education


Quite a number of commentators, [1] early as well as late, related to the “small aleph” at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, focusing their interpretations on the trait of modesty characteristic of Moses.  For example, Ba’al ha-Turim:  “Moses wished to write va-yiqer [without the aleph], as appears in connection with Balaam, as if to say that the Lord appeared to him only by chance [from the root q-r-h, to happen—ed.] but the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed him to write the letter aleph [making this a form of the root q-r-a, to call, summon] as well; so he wrote a small one.” 

Indeed, who do we have the likes of Moses, who on the one hand was said to have attained the summit of forty-nine levels of wisdom, while on the other hand was also described by the Creator as “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3); [2] and of whom Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yose of Galilee said (Hullin 89a): “The Almighty said, ‘I gave greatness to Moses and Aaron, and what did they say to me? “And who are we?” (Ex. 16:7); and of whom it was said in Yalkut Shimoni (Parashat Va-Yiqra, par. 427):

Moses ran away from wielding authority…   The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  Upon your life!   You have greater work to do than all that you have done until now – to teach My children the laws of purity and impurity and to educate them as to how they shall offer sacrifices to me.   This is as the verse says, “A humble man will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23). This refers to Moses, as it is written, “You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty” (Ps. 8:6).  Therefore it is written, The Lord called to Moses.

Indeed, the trait of humility cannot be overly praised.  In the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbat (1.3 [3c]), it is stated concisely:   “Just as wisdom is a crown to the head, so too humility is a sole to the feet.”  Maimonides taught (Hilkhot De’ot 2.3) that although with most traits a person should choose the golden mean, regarding the trait of humility one should try to be as far as possible from pride:   “One should be humble and very lowly.   Therefore it was said of Moses that he was a very humble man, not simply a humble man; hence the Sages commanded (Avot 4.4) that one should be extremely humble.”  Maimonides said further (preface to his Commentary on the Mishnah, Kafih edition, p.8), that Judah ha-Nasi was the one privileged to compile the six orders of the Mishnah, the foundation of the Oral Law, precisely because he was “the soul of modesty, humility, and abstention from desire, as it has been said (Sotah 49b), ‘When Rabbi died, humility passed from the world.’” [3]   The Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael, ch. 23) explained:  “When you look to see why Moses was thus associated with the Torah, you find that Moses’ excellence lay in that he said, ‘who am I that the Torah, which is pure reason, should be given through me?’  Since he belittled himself, he was found worthy of [giving] the Torah.”   Many more sources speak in a similar vein in praise of humility. [4]

These ideas are so self-evident that they need no proof, and we shall not dwell on them further.  However, there is a contrary saying, less well-known, that actually warns against exaggerated humility.  This notion deserves to be examined in detail since ignorance of this point can prove to be a stumbling block.

Three principal faults are likely to ensue from unduly great humility.  1) Exaggerated humility is likely to thwart creativity and innovation.  Such people may feel that they are unworthy of making remarks that contradict, criticize or differ with, or that add to what has been said, or not said, by venerated earlier authorities.  2) Responsibility and obligations which should be performed from a sense of noblesse oblige are likely to be left undone on account of exaggerated humility.  3)   One whose sense of self-worth is extremely low because of his humbleness is likely to have similar feelings with regard to others:  just as I am nothing much, so too my fellow person.

Jewish thinkers, especially those associated with the Musar and Hasidic movements,  warned against its dangers; they actually rooted their criticism of exaggerated humility in a biblical passage said in praise of Jehoshaphat, King of Israel:   “His mind was elevated [literally: his heart was raised up, vayyigbah libbo] in the ways of the Lord” (II Chron. 17:6).  Rabbi Jacob Emdin interpreted the verse as follows: [5]

There is another sort of pride which is spiritual and is very good…  in fact the reason a person gets tripped up by the evil inclination is because he forgets his awesome and wonderful status, that he is a prince among men…   Hence, we give the following good advice of great importance:  “Whoever is for the Lord, come here! (Ex.32:26).”  Let Israel know that the Lord takes pride in him…  And this is why Scriptures praise Jehoshaphat, saying ‘his mind was elevated in the ways of the Lord.’ [6]

Bahya ibn Pekudah in his book Duties of the Heart (ch. 9, Humility), distinguished between desirable and undesirable pride.   “Pride which stems from physical objects is the sort that distances submission from the heart” and is certainly undesirable.  The same holds for spiritual pride, “when a person boasts of his wisdom, and a righteous person of his deeds.”  However, there is pride which is praiseworthy:

It is praiseworthy when a wise man takes pride in his wisdom and a righteous person in his deeds, acknowledging the great beneficence of the Creator and rejoicing in them, so that they endeavor to succeed further in these areas … thanking the Lord for the virtue He has bestowed upon him, and praising Him for enabling him to achieve desirable ends.  This sort of pride is not harmful to submissiveness and does not distance it – as Scripture said, “his mind was elevated in the ways of the Lord” – rather, it is helpful and adds to one’s humility.

This notion of noblesse oblige recurs in a variety of styles.  As Rabbenu Jonah Gerondi wrote in Sha’arei ha-Avodah: [7]

First a person must know his own worth, acknowledging his virtues and the virtues of his ancestors, knowing their greatness, importance, and how they were beloved of the Creator, blessed be He.   One should constantly strive to excel in that virtue and always follow it … acting in such a way that his ancestors not be ashamed of him and what he accomplishes, all according to his capabilities.  Thus, when he might crave and be moved by hubris to do that which is not proper, he will have the ability to feel ashamed of himself and ashamed in the face of his ancestors, and he will be able to answer back to his soul, saying:   How could a great and important person such as I am today –having several lofty and elevated virtues, and being a descendant of great people, from ancient royal stock – how could I do such an evil thing, sinning to G-d and to my ancestors forever?   If, heaven forefend, he not recognize his own virtues and those of his ancestors, it might be easier for him to follow the path of the wayward, acting despicably to satisfy his urges…   May he have the wisdom to understand and know that he is capable of achieving the virtue, important stature and appreciation [of his ancestors], if he works as they did, striving every moment of his life, according to his own strength and ability, … for the Lord, blessed be He, only expects of human beings according to their capabilities.

Also Rabbi Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh, was told by the Maggid [8] that his awareness of his nobility and unique qualities of excellence provided motivation:  “The evil inclination will not get the better of you.  And if it should try to, you will reprove it, saying:  Could someone such as I, destined to have all virtues, give myself over to sinful thoughts?”  The same can be found in Sefer Kedushat Levi (Parashat Ekev, s.v. ve-ata Yisrael), [9] in which Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev wrote:

The general rule is that a person should be humble in all his ways and deeds.  But lest you think that in worshipping the Lord he should also be humble – heaven forefend that you should think so.  Quite the contrary, a person should take the attitude that his deeds, performing the commandments of the Lord, are important to the Creator, blessed be He, as if the Holy One, blessed be He, derives pleasure from the commandments that he performs; for if, heaven forbid, a person were to be humble in performing the commandments of the Lord, saying, “of what importance are my actions to the Lord?” that would be heresy.

Similarly, the Maggid, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye wrote: [10]

Even with humility, sometimes a moderate measure is called for; and this is very much needed, as I heard from my mentor (the Baal Shem Tov), that the humility of most people causes them to distance themselves from worshipping the Lord, for in holding themselves so lowly they do not believe that human beings, through their prayers and study of Torah, bring abundant good to all worlds, and that even the angels are sustained by their Torah study and prayer. [11]   For if they were to believe this, consider how they would worship the Lord in awesome joy, from such a sense of fullness, and they would take care with every letter and sound and word, saying it precisely as it ought to be said, … Thus a person ought to pay attention and say that he is like a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching to the sky. [12]

The attitude that humility which is not in place should be rejected also has practical, didactic implications.   For example, Sefer Hassidim makes the following recommendation: [13]

There is a sort of humility leads down the road to perdition...  How so?   Someone who sees his children, or his relatives or pupils going to the bad and has it within his power to protest, reproving and beating them, but decides to hold his peace with them and not reprove or strike them – such a person leads them down the road to perdition.

Regarding the third fault – the danger of a person projecting his attitude towards himself onto others – the Admor Rabbi Shalom of Belz is reported to have said: [14]

In every trait there is the way of truth and of falsehood.  For example, pride:  “His mind was elevated in the ways of the Lord” – this refers to pride which is sacrosanct … and likewise with the trait of humility.  There is humility which is sacrosanct and there is humility which is false.   The touchstone is as follows:   whoever thinks himself worth naught and also holds others to be nothing, is falsely humble.


Hence we must say that these great Jewish leaders saw fit to say on more than one occasion that alongside repeated emphasis on the importance of humility as a fundamental element in worshipping the Lord, a person must not turn a blind eye to his own virtues, value, and family origins, nor to the obligations that follow from these conditions.   It cannot be denied, but must be said honestly and frankly that this message criticizing excessive humility must be taken in proportion, for it in no way equals the emphasis on the need for humility in worshipping the Lord. Nevertheless, quantity is not all; the message that a modicum of pride is to be extolled [15] in the right time and place and in appropriate measure is of no less value and importance.  “Sometimes one should not be afraid of greatness, for it inspires a person to do great things” (Rabbi A. Y. Kook, Middot ha-Re’aya, Anva, 8, p.141).

This emphasis not only illustrates the general case – the virtues of the Jews as a whole – but also applies to the specific case, to individual persons upon whom the Creator bestowed special talents and abilities, excelling greatly.  The lesson to be learned from all this is that persons who excel in a given area must not ignore their talent, but must recognize and realize their potential.


[1] See the collections of commentary such as Rabbi M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, 25, Leviticus 1.6.

[2] Nevertheless, it has been said that Abraham was even more humble than Moses.  See R. Y. Patsanovsky, Pardess Yosef, Gen. 18:27-45, which ostensibly is not consonant with Hullin 89a; also cf. Ruah Hayyim by Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner, beginning of Tractate Avot.

[3] Regarding Rabbi Joseph’s remark (Sotah 49b), “Don’t teach that humility has passed from the world, as I am still around,” see Ba’er Heitev, Orah Hayyim 494.1, and Pardess Yosef, ibid., Ex. 19:17 (p. 153).

[4] On the educational foundations relating to this, see M. Arendt, “Al ha-Hinukh le-Middot ve-al Middat ha-Anavah,” Hinukh Yehudi be-Hevra Petuhah, I, Tel Aviv 2001, ch. 4.

[5] Rabbi Y. Emdin, Hakdamat Siddur Beit Ya’akov – Sulam Beit El, Lemberg 1894, p. 9.

[6] At one time it was published in the name of Rabbi H. D. Ha-Levi (former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv) that there is reason, particularly among Sephardic Jews, to refrain from wearing tzitzit outside of one’s clothes, among other things also for fear of presumptuousness.  (This directive was publicized time and again in Resp. Asseh le-kha Rav, although eventually the ruling was toned down.  Cf. Part II, par. 20; Part III, par. 2; Part V, p. 325; Part VI, p. 317; Part VIII, pp. 338-339.)  I recall when discussing the matter before my teacher, Rabbi Abraham Shapira, that his immediate reaction was to say:  His mind was elevated in the ways of the Lord – this teaches us that, to the contrary, we should call attention to our performance of the commandments, and even take pride in them.”

[7] Sefer Sha’arei ha-Avodah by Rabbenu Jonah Gerondi, from manuscripts, Benjamin Joshua Zilber edition, Bnai Brak 1967, pp. 1-2.

[8] Hakdahmah, Azharot ve-Syagim [Preface, words of caution, and reservations]” at the beginning of Maggid Meisharim.

[9] Kedushat ha-Levi ha-Shalem, Part I, Jerusalem 1958, p. 256.

[10] Toledot Ya’akov Yosef, Warsaw 1881, Parashat Ekev, pp. 361-362.

[11] Cf. Iggeret ha-Teshuvah, Tanya, Ch. 6:   “It is written that Jacob is His own allotment [Heb. hevel nahalato; by way of simile, like a rope [Heb. hevel], one end being up and the other down.   If a person pulls at the other end, it will move and pull after it the higher end, pulling it as far as it will go.”   (Exactly the same comparison, based on the same scriptural passage, can be found in Siddur Beit Ya’akov, cited above, p. 6.)  For a discussion at greater length, cf. Rabbi Hayyim Volozhin, Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Part I, chapters 4-7.

[12] Cf. the discourse of Rabbi Avigdor ha-Levi Nebenzahl on Parashat Korah, 2004, Korach 5764.doc:  It is important to know when we should act with humility.  There is humility like that of Moses and Aaron, who were self-deprecating in deference to the Lord, saying, “what is our part?” (Ex. 16:7-8), to indicate that they had no independent existence.   This is a good sort of humility.   But there is also humility that comes from one’s evil inclination, saying:  You will never be a great Jewish scholar, so why bother studying so much?   This sort of humility is to be rejected.”

[13] Sefer Hassidim, Wistinetzky edition, Berlin 1901, par. 1524.

[14] Rabbi Bromberg, Mi-Gedolei ha-Hassidut, Book 10 – the Belzer Rebbes, Jerusalem 1955, pp. 82-83.

[15] Sotah 5a:  “A Jewish scholar ought to have in him one part in eight of this trait.”  Also see Rashi on this text.  Also cf. Pardes Yosef, loc. sit., Gen. 32:11 (p. 239), s.v. ve-ha-Gra.