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Kevod Ha-beriyot — More than Human Dignity

Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman



Shiur #09: Kevod Ha-beriyot — More than Human Dignity



The Greatness of Kavod for All


Since the beginning of the year, we have dealt with the special regard one must show for one’s parent and rebbe, as well as the elderly and learned in general; but what about other individuals? While many have the misconception that the Torah does not require us to be overly concerned about others, this outlook misses the mark completely. It is completely antithetical to the Jewish concept of interpersonal holiness.


In previous years, we have seen the centrality of “You shall love your fellow as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18), but there is another concept of even greater universality: the special treatment of all mankind known as kevod ha-beriyot (literally, the honor of the creations).


The Talmud (Berakhot 19a) states:


Great is kevod ha-beriyot, as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.


Although the language of this statement would seem to indicate that kevod ha-beriyot may override any biblical prohibition, the Talmud goes on to explain that the reference is specifically to Lo tasur, which forbids deviating from the rulings of the rabbis:


According to the law they teach you and the ruling they hand down to you, you shall do; you shall not deviate (lo tasur) to the left or the right from that which they tell you. (Devarim 17:11)


The Talmud thus indicates that out of concern for human dignity, the Sages permit the suspension of rabbinic laws in cases where the two collide. Nevertheless, the Talmud does go on to raise some examples of biblical obligations which are set aside (at least passively) for the sake of kevod ha-beriyot.


The phraseology of the Talmud indicates two things: firstly, that kevod ha-beriyot is gadol (great); secondly, that it has the power to override rabbinic commandments (and, at least passively, biblical ones as well). These two aspects are not necessarily identical. Supersession is a complex mechanism, and one must have great halakhic knowledge in order to employ it properly. However, the message that kevod ha-beriyot is great may be appreciated even by one who isn't well-versed in the mechanics of halakhic supersession.


The Me’iri (ad loc.) defines kevod ha-beriyot as “an extremely precious quality; indeed, no quality is more precious than it.”


He continues, however, by saying that:


Even though kevod ha-beriyot is so precious, the honor due to the Torah is not overridden by it, and one does not push aside biblical commandment through active violation for the sake of kevod ha-beriyot.


This allows the Me’iri to explain the Talmud’s ruling that one may ignore the mitzva to return a lost object if the item in question is embarrassing to be seen publicly with “for the Torah does not say that one should give honor to others while embarrassing himself.”


The Torah's care and concern for one's dignity is so powerful that it can override even interpersonal mitzvot.


The Scope


The obvious question in this context is one of scope. Whose kavod does the Torah take into account?


Identifying the source of this mitzva may help. The Talmud notes that if one encounters an unattended corpse, one must bury it, even though this will prevent one from partaking of the paschal sacrifice. This reflects the importance of burial in the Torah:


But you shall not leave his body on the pole overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that day, for one left hanging is a blasphemy of God, and you shall not defile your land, which Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance. (Devarim 21:23)


Why is this blasphemous? Rashi (ad loc.) comments:


This is a degradation of the King Who created man in His image, and the Jews are God's children. This is comparable to identical twin brothers. One becomes king, while the other is arrested for robbery and hung. In order that those who pass by the gallows not say the king is hanging, the king orders that his body be quickly removed.


This mitzva of burying the dead is thus rooted in the Godly image in which man is created, which according to many sources would seem to indicate that its scope should include all individuals created in the divine image, “for in the image of God He created man" (Bereishit 9:6). This would seem to be the source for kevod ha-beriyot as well.


Indeed, the Korban Ha-eda explains that Ben Azzai views the verse “This is the book of the generations of man” (Bereishit 5:1) as an even greater principle than Vayikra 19:18, as it applies to all of humanity, not only Jews. (See Year 1, Lesson 30.)


HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein notes, in “Kevod Ha-beriyot: Human Dignity in Halakha” (available at:


In terms of scope, kevod ha-beriyot covers a very wide range.  "Beriyot" ("creatures") refers here not only to Jews, but rather to all people.  Indeed, this all-encompassing scope emerges from the Rambam's comments (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 24:9-10):


"Similarly, [a judge] has the right to bind one's hands and feet, imprison him in jail, push and drag on the ground… With regard to everything, his actions must be for the sake of Heaven.  He may not take human dignity [kevod ha-beriyot] lightly, for it overrides rabbinic prohibitions, and certainly the dignity of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov who bear the true Torah…"


The Rambam begins with the general value of kevod ha-beriyot, and only thereafter addresses the specific issue regarding "the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov."  Clearly, then, "beriyot" includes all human beings.


The Rambam begins with the general value of kevod ha-beriyot, and only thereafter addresses the specific issue regarding "the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov." Clearly, then, beriyot includes all human beings.


To a certain degree, kevod ha-beriyot is an offshoot of the extreme care we show to the dignified individuals we have discussed in the previous lessons. Elders and parents must be treated specially, but every Jew, and every human, has inherent and inviolable dignity.


The Talmudic principle of "All Jews are the sons of kings” (Shabbat 128a) grants nobility to those who recognize their heritage from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who set out to teach the world about the oneness of God and to allow people to appreciate the divine within them. As “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6), all Jews deserve this level of respect. However, all of mankind is endowed with Godly characteristics and is to be treated accordingly.


Rav S. R. Hirsch (Shemot 4:22-23) explains the unique terminology which God tells Moshe to use when first presenting himself to Pharaoh: “My son, My firstborn, Yisrael.” What does this status mean?


The firstborn is not the one who is free and unfettered. On the contrary, his duty is to be the first servant. Moreover, even among animals and plants, we find the firstborn. The form of the word is active, not passive… The forces of the womb which have been restricted and closed are released and unfolded by him, as he is the one who opens the womb. He is firstborn not for himself, but for those who come after him. With him, his mother enters her new calling as a mother. He leads the way. His holiness lies in that, through him, the home is first blessed with children; through him, the womb becomes holy. Everything that subsequently passes through this portal will be holy unto God…


Hence, when God says, “My son, My firstborn, Israel,” this means: with Israel, the womb of humanity will be opened; with Israel, the dance will begin; all the peoples are obligated to join him as My sons. I come to you in your own name and in the name of all of humanity. Israel is My first, but not My only, child; Israel is only the first people that I have won as Mine…


Rabbi Akiva states (Avot 3:18): "Beloved is Man, who was created in the image of God; it is by special distinction that he was created in the image of God.” This is a reference to all humans, who are endowed with a divine dignity.


More importantly, kevod ha-beriyot applies to oneself. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 34) describes how Hillel the Elder cared for his own needs due to this recognition of being created in the image of God.


This is what is meant by the verse, “A kindly man benefits himself” (Mishlei 11:17); this refers to Hillel the Elder. When he took leave of his students ... [they] said to him, “Rabbi, where are you going?” He said to them, “To perform a mitzva.” They said to him, “Which mitzva is it?” He said to them, “To wash in the bathhouse.” They said to him, “Is this a mitzva?” He said to them, “Yes. The person in charge of the statues of kings positioned in the theaters and circuses scrubs them and rinses them, and he receives payment. Indeed, he is promoted among the royal dignitaries! I, created in the image and form [of God], as it says, ‘For in the image of God He created man,’ all the more so!”


A different approach: “A kindly man benefits himself” - this refers to Hillel the Elder. When he took leave of his students... [they] said to him, “Rabbi, where are you going?” He said to them, “To perform kindness with this guest in my home.” They said to him, “Every day you have a guest?” He said to them, “Is this pitiful soul not a guest inside the body? Today it is here, tomorrow it is not here.”


Tonally, there is a different between these two analogies, the statue of the king versus the lowly houseguest, but they both underscore the importance of kevod ha-beriyot.


To a certain degree, it is this recognition of our connection to God, as well as our dependence upon Him, that reaffirms the sacred element of kevod ha-beriyot. It is not mere humanism, but a religious perspective thereof: the worth of man is determined by the way in which God creates humanity.


Therefore, as Rav Lichtenstein there states, one should not confuse kevod ha-beriyot with the pervasive discussion of human dignity, as there is a profound religious outlook which gives importance to this ideal. One recognizes man's unique stature as a beriya, a creature cognizant of being fashioned by the Almighty. Man is created by God and “in the image of God" for a purpose. With all of its greatness, humanity is limited; recognition of that fact only serves to maximize the human race’s potential.


How Far Does This Principle Go?


The verse (Shemot 20:23) states:


And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it.


Rashi cites the explanation of the Mekhilta (Ba-chodesh 11). A priest who would widen his stride while ascending the altar would not actually reveal his nakedness to the altar, as the priests wore pants under their robes, but nevertheless it would be viewed as behaving towards the stones in a humiliating manner.


A fortiori, if the Torah forbids disrespecting these stones, which have no intelligence in order to be able to object to their humiliation, all the more so your friend, who is created in the likeness of your Creator and who certainly would object to being humiliated, deserves to be respected and never embarrassed.


The Torah required that even inanimate objects be treated with respect so that people may recognize the essentiality of maintaining human dignity.


Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichot Musar, Devarim) notes that this idea of human dignity is broader than it appears at first glance. He cites Rashi’s approach to Devarim 1:1, which takes all of the places named there as allusions to sites of national sin. Although these events are well-known, Moshe does not “call the people out,” as it were; he feels it unnecessary to embarrass the Jewish people in order to rebuke them.


This requirement of maintaining human dignity even applies to the meanest of people.


Rabbi Elazar said: “Note the seriousness of putting a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamtza, destroying His House and incinerating His Temple.” (Gittin 57a)


Although Bar Kamtza was a lowly miscreant, willing to destroy the Temple for his own petty quarrel, God still views his basic dignity as important enough to allow his humiliation to be avenged.


Furthermore, even Bilam, the man who tried to curse the Jewish people, was spared humiliation! Rashi relates (Bamidbar 22:33) that the angel killed his donkey so that he not be humiliated by people who would say: "This is the donkey that rebuked Bilam and left him speechless!"


The Talmud (Bava Kamma 79b) extends this even to thieves, explaining the Torah’s distinction (Shemot 21:37) between the fines paid by those who steal and then slaughter or sell oxen and sheep respectively:


Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “Note how great is the importance attached to the dignity of man, for in the case of an ox which walks away on its own feet the payment is five-fold, while in the case of a sheep which is usually carried on the thief's shoulder only four-fold has to be paid.”


Similarly, Torat Kohanim (Kedoshim 10) notes that idolatrous sites must be destroyed because “they recall human disgrace.” The Midrash goes on to state: “If the Holy One, Blessed be He, is so concerned with the dignity of the wicked, all the more so He is concerned with dignity of the righteous!”


This idea is also expressed in the Mishna (Avot 2:10):


The honor of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own honor.


The Greatness of Man


What does it mean to view others with dignity? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that one must not only refrain from degrading and insulting others; one must magnify and enhance the prestige and honor of one's fellows. This is walking in the footsteps of God who wants to enhance the prestige of others; as the Talmud (Chullin 6b) says, God left room for individual accomplishments.


If we are astonished by the overwhelming importance of kevod ha-beriyot, this is only because we don't truly comprehend the towering stature of the human being. If we could see the potential of the mortal, we would not doubt the importance of this mitzva.


In next week's lesson we will continue our discussion of kevod ha-beriyot, but we will end this lesson with an anecdote. The story is told that a well-known rabbinical figure in Jerusalem thought he saw the Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, coming towards his building. He quickly set up the table and asked his wife to put together the most dignified meal she quickly could as he ran out to greet the elderly sage. As he was running toward the elderly man, this individual was looking less and less like the Brisker Rav. Already a few feet away, it was clear to him that his vision had gotten the best of him, and this in fact was not the Brisker Rav, but another elderly individual who resembled the Brisker Rav from a distance.


The rabbi questioned his next move. He could stop and make believe he had been running for some other reason, and no one would know his mistake. However, the rabbi decided that if a nice meal had been prepared for the Brisker Rav, it was also a meal fitting for any other Jew. The level of care every Jew deserves is very great, and therefore, he invited the old man in to his home and shared with him the wonderful meal.


Ultimately, we may say that all of humanity is, essentially, part of the royal family of the King of Kings. The Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, founded his school of musar (ethics) on this principle, arguing that many halakhic rules are based on this idea. Man's greatness and the obligations that outlook places upon each individual are part and parcel of the message of human holiness which the Torah espouses.


In summation, the Talmud (Berakhot 17a) cites the Rabbis of Yavneh:


I am a creature of God, and my neighbor is also His creature. My work is in the city and his is in the field. I rise early to my work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work so I cannot excel in his work. But perhaps you say: "I do great things and he small things." We have learned that it matters not whether he does much or little if he only directs his heart to Heaven.


This is the secret of the dignity due to all mankind.

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