The Greatness and Obligation of Derech Eretz

Our sedra opens with a description of the work of the כהנים after bringing a קרבן עולה. A כהן changes into “מכנסי בד,” linen garments, and puts ashes in the flame at the top of the מזבח. Afterwards, he changes into “בגדים אחרים,” other clothing, and removes the burnt ashes from the בית המקדש.

Rashi elaborates on this particular כהן’s extensive wardrobe change:

ופשט את בגדיו – אין זו חובה אלא דרך ארץ, שלא ילכלך בהוצאת הדשן בגדים שהוא משמש בהן תמיד

And he changed his clothing- this isn’t required, but it’s rather a common courtesy, so that [the kohen’s] usual clothing wouldn’t become dirty when bringing out the used ashes… (רש”י על ויקרא ו:ד)

Rashi explains that the passuk is telling us of a nicety that the kohanim would do, in order to keep their best linen clothing clean- they would put on less nice clothing for the “dirty work” of removing the used ashes from the מזבח. It is definitely not a מצוה, but, in the importance of taking care of the holy vestments, most would change before removing the ashes, in order to keep their holiest clothing clean.

Ramban, in his commentary on this passuk, expounds on Rashi’s explanation of these words:

(ד) ופשט את בגדיו – אין זה חובה אלא דרך ארץ… לשון רש”י. והכונה לרבותינו בזה, לומר שהוצאת הדשן צריכה בגדי כהונה, ואין “בגדים אחרים” בגדי חול

And he changed his clothing-… And our Rabbi’s (Rashi) intention here was to say that the taking out of the ashes required a kohen to wear holy garments, and not other, non-sanctified, clothing.

According to Ramban, Rashi’s input to our pasusk was that yes, a כהן should switch out of his “בגדי בד,” but he shouldn’t change into a tracksuit and sweatpants- there were other holy garments that were set aside for the dirty work of removing the ashes, and, according to Rashi, the kohen would typically change into these before doing הוצאת הדשן.

Ramban next takes offense at Rashi’s claim that the דרך ארץ of changing clothing is not an obligation:

אבל לא ידעתי מנין אמר הרב שאינה חובה, כי נראה שמצוה היא על הכהן שהבגדים שיעשה בהם הקרבנות גם הרמת הדשן יהיו בגדים נקיים, לא ישמש באותן אשר הוציא הדשן, והמצוה מדרך מוסר העבד לרבו, ולכך יהיו לכהנים הבגדים החמודות לעבודות והפחותים להוצאת הדשן. וכל זה לפי הסברא הזו שכתבה הרב

But I do not know from where the Rabbi (Rashi) learns that this isn’t an obligation, because it appears that this is a commandment to kohanim that the clothing that they wore for offering korbanot, as well as bringing up the ashes, shouldn’t also be used for removing the [dirty] ashes. This commandment is like a lesson that a servant teaches his master, and therefore, the kohanim wore their nicer clothing for the cleaner work and their not-as-nice clothing for bringing out the ashes. And all of this is in accordance with the conclusion of Rashi here.

Having explained why the changing into lesser priestly garments is in fact a מצוה, Ramban concludes by showing that there was no need for a kohen to wear holy garments at all while removing the ashes:

אבל יש מרבותינו שם במסכת יומא (כג ב) אומר שאין הוצאת הדשן צריכה בגדי כהונה, ויאמר ולבש בגדים אחרים, בגדי חול, ופשוטו של מקרא בכך הוא, שיצוה עליו שלא ילכלך בגדי הבד בגדי הקדש בהוצאת הדשן אבל ילבש בגדי חול:

However, there is a teaching from chazal (Yuma 23b) that says that the bringing of the ashes doesn’t require priestly garments, as the passuk says “and he will wear other garments”- normal clothing. The pshat understanding of the passuk is in accordance with this, that the commandment is not to dirty the holy linen garments, or any holy garments at all, when removing the ashes- rather he shall wear non-sanctified garments.  (רמב”ן שם)

TKO! Ramban’s conclusion is that, in complete opposition to nearly every point in Rashi’s explanation, a kohen is commanded to remove his holier linen garments before removing the used ashes, and, in the spirit of דרך ארץ, he should not wear garments with any קודשה when taking them out of the בית המקדש, because it is not proper to dirty up his beautiful, clean white garments doing the dirtier עבודות in the בית המקדש.

We can learn from here a very important lesson in דרך ארץ. We have many opportunities on a daily basis to go out of our way in the spirit of דרך ארץ, doing anything from holding a door open for a friend to the more basic necessities of changing clothing on a daily basis and showering. In completing these activities, we often feel a jump of pride, as if we had gone beyond the letter of the law to make the world a better place. However, while each and every one of us should take pride in our (hopefully sufficient) personal hygiene and other efforts at דרך ארץ, we cannot forget that it is far from optional.

In his analysis of Rashi’s commentary on our sedra, Ramban makes it quite clear that even the smallest level of דרך ארץ, changing out of white clothing before removing spent ashes, in order to avoid dirtying the garments, is in fact a מצוה. His reasoning is that “והמצוה מדרך מוסר העבד לרבו,” the mitzva is in the form of a lesson from the servant to the master, which is obviously very relevant in the context of the straight out service that is done by the kohanim in the Bet Hamikdash.

I believe that this explanation is just as relevant to דרך ארץ on a broader level as well. We all remember the teaching of Rabbi Akiva, that “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” is one of the most important principles of the Torah. In fulfilling this מצוה properly by exercising דרך ארץ with our fellow Jews and fellow people, we are sending an important מוסר to Hashem, reminding Him why he created us. דרך ארץ can manifest itself in different forms- how we speak to others, taking care of ourselves so that it will be pleasant for people to be around us, doing acts of kindness, and trying to be a positive influence on the world. By being יראי אלקים in every sense of the word, and by especially focusing on how we relate to other people, we fulfill our purpose of creation and help keep peace in the world. We can truly see why Ramban was so adamant that דרך ארץ must be a חובה, an obligation.

As we approach חג הגאולה next week, let us all focus on strengthening our interpersonal relationships and building on our דרך ארץ. In the merit of this, may we all merit to bring the קרבן פסח together on Friday night in the completely rebuilt ירושלים עיר הקודש. Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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