A lesson in etiquette from the Talmud (Daf Yomi Shabbos 114)

“The Torah taught you etiquette.”

Today’s Daf Yomi addresses among other matters what constitutes a Torah scholar and how should he (dare I say she) present himself (herself) to the world. We are provided with a lesson in grooming along the way and as the quote that introduces this blog says, some guidance in etiquette.

We are told that the clothes that one prepares food in if he is a servant or perhaps a waiter, should not be the same that are used to pour his master’s (or customer’s) wine. Every decent restaurant (and how I miss dining out) has a clear demarcation between the kitchen staff which might be wearing remnants of the night’s menu on their white coats and the sommeliers who are out front suggesting wine to customers. But a servant in a household who is rushing around doing double-duty cooking and serving, may forget to change his jacket. He may want to watch an episode or two of the Downton Abbey series on public television (but skip the movie) in order to pick up any hints in etiquette that he might not have gleaned from the Torah.

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said that a Torah scholar may not go out into the marketplace with patched shoes or stained clothes. The penalty for such lack of grooming is quite out of proportion with the crime: the death penalty. The punishment is so severe since it indicates a lack of respect for the Torah. This is further explained: “Those who cause people to hate the Torah by creating the impression that those who study Torah are unclean deserve the death penalty.”  Fat stains on one’s coat are criminal enough, but the greater disgrace is to walk around town with bloodstains on one’s undergarments. 

The discussion jumps from a sullied garment belonging to a builder, to a more profound question: Who is the builder?  Rabbi Yoḥanan answers that the builder is a Torah scholar who is “engaged in building the world all of their days.”  The Torah scholar is expected to uphold the highest standards of grooming and cleanliness. And the exceptional Torah scholar who can provide an answer to any question posed to him, is fit to lead his community. (And if only we applied such standards today when we select our leaders.)

We all know intellectuals – perhaps professors from our college years – who live so much in their heads that they neglect their appearance. A certain Senator comes to mind who appears to have not combed his hair in the last decade. The Talmud sets a much higher standard for the Torah scholars who are leaders and by modern extension, those who we look to for direction during difficult times. They should wear clean clothes and shoes without patches and comb their hair once in a while. But more importantly, they are expected to make the hard decisions and do what is best for the community They are expected be a role model and to set an example by their behavior, such as wearing a facial mask to demonstrate how we care for each other’s well-being, because we are all connected to each other.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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