Rabbi Josh Zweiback
Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be a blessing. It was at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. Security was tight and we were all waiting inside the hotel lobby for him to arrive with his entourage. We saw the motorcade pull up outside and, a few moments later, he entered the room. It seemed as if the lights had suddenly been turned up a notch—the energy level of the room heightened noticeably. There was a long line of people waiting to shake his hand, waiting to exchange a few words with the leader of the State of Israel, arguably the greatest military hero of the Jewish people since King David. As the line progressed and as I moved closer and closer to him, it felt like I was coming nearer and nearer to a powerful energy source radiating from Prime Minister Rabin’s being. Shaking hands with him, exchanging a few words in Hebrew—it was an experience that I will long remember. Prime Minister Rabin—by virtue of his deeds, his position, his power, his life-experiences—did indeed radiate a palpable energy. That energy has a name in Hebrew—kavod. In the Prime Minister’s presence, I felt that energy, that kavod, on the human-plane.
Some years before that, while hiking high in the Colorado Rockies, I encountered a different kind of energy. Alone above tree-line on a glorious, sunny, summer day, I followed a trail to the top of Mt. Evans, one of the state’s 50 peaks over 14,000 feet. I set my pack down a few feet from the edge of a cliff. I inched my way closer to the precipice and peered down hundreds and hundreds of feet to an ice-blue lake carved out by a glacier millennia ago. A bird was floating on the thermal currents below me, winging round and round in great circles. The silence was tremendous. The beauty of it all was overwhelmingly. It was awesome—I felt like I was witnessing creation itself. There was an energy there in that moment on that mountain that I’ve felt only a few times before or since. That energy has a name in Hebrew—kavod. On Mt. Evans, high in the Colorado Rockies, I encountered that energy, that kavod, on the Divine-plane.
The Biblical Meanings of “Kavod”
We must descend from mountain top meetings with God as we first encounter our term in the Bible for the earliest form of the root of our word refers to the liver (“kaved”—see Lev. 3:4,10,15). Throughout the Ancient Near East, the liver was thought to be the seat of the emotions. Because of its central location in the body and its role in the emotional life, it was therefore considered to be an organ of utmost importance.
As an adjective, “kaved” means heavy. In Proverbs 27:3 we read: “A stone is heavy, and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier (kaved) than both of them.” As a noun, our word “kavod” is used in parallel with riches (osher) in Proverbs 11:16: “A woman of grace attains honor (kavod) and men of power attain wealth (osher).” Joseph tells his brothers to tell their father about the kavod he has attained in Egypt (Gen. 45:13). Here, kavod seems to mean both riches and honor.
Ultimately, kavod as a concept becomes closely linked to God. If human-beings like Joseph can attain kavod (riches and honor that elevate them vis-à-vis other human-beings), then God must have infinitely more kavod. In fact, we are asked to give kavod toAdonai (Psalm 115:1; 96:7; 29). Here, it seems to mean praise and honor. The earth is filled with God’s kavod (Isaiah 6:3). Moses sees God’s kavod (Exodus 33:18) as does all of Israel (Numbers 14:10). Though it is not described in detail, it is clear here that God’skavod is a physical thing that can be seen and even felt which at first seems rather surprising given God’s transcendent nature as described throughout the Bible. It is the name given for the energy that is encountered in moments of awe like the revelation on Mt. Sinai, like Isaiah’s visions, and even in my own, less sensational experience hiking in the mountains. In trying to describe the experience of standing in the presence of God, the Biblical writers and the rabbis after them, use the phrase kevod Adonai, to describe the energy and drama of that moment, of that encounter. Kevod Adonai, “God’s glory,” seems to describe a type of “heaviness,” a type of energy that is “heavy” to the extent that one can separate out the kavod from that which has the kavod. So kevod Adonai is almost a thing in and of itself that can be seen.
Kavod in the Talmud
How does kavod function in the Talmud? What is it and how does it affect behavior and relationships? How is kavod acquired and lost? Ultimately, what is God’s role in this process and what do we learn about God by understanding kavod?
Kavod’s Practical Implications in Daily Life
Kavod’s Authority in Relation to Other Mitsvot: Kavod has authority that can supersede certain types of mitsvot. For the rabbis, kevod habriyot, the kavod that every human-being has (alive or dead), is so great that it can supersede a negative commandment in the Torah—no small thing. How this plays out in daily life, the rabbis help us understand by presenting us with a “what if…” situation involving two differentmitsvot (commandments). Both mitsvot require immediate attention but we only have enough time to fulfill one of them. Which do we choose? The rabbis clarify by describing a situation in which we might come across such a dilemma: it is Purim, time for the public reading of megilat Esther, the scroll of Esther. On the way to synagogue, you come across a corpse lying in the road. You are obligated to bury the body properly, even if it is a non-Jew or a stranger or a criminal. But burying a body takes time and if you stop to fulfill this mitsvah, you will miss the opportunity to fulfill the mitsvah of reading themegilah. What do you do? How do you choose? Do you bury the body, out of kevod habriyot, or continue on to the synagogue? The answer given by the Talmud: you bury the body because kevod habriyot, the kavod that every human-being innately possesses, is so great, that it suspends even a negative precept in the Torah. (Meg. 3b) Here this notion of kevod habriyot obviously extends even to the corpse—it is not just for the living.
If human beings in general have an inherent kavod that can affect the performance of mitsvot, then people of power and authority have even greater influence. In Ber. 19b, we learn that it is permitted to leap over graves (and risk becoming ritually impure by coming in contact with the dead), in order to greet a king, Israelite or non-Israelite. The rabbis are ordinarily very concerned that one not become ritually impure without a compelling reason, such as the death of a near relative. However, because of the kavodthat kings have, we are required to risk impurity and leap over graves in order to see the king.
Kavod and Your Parents: The requirement to give kavod to one’s parents is discussed extensively in the Talmud and honoring father and mother is, of course, one of the ten commandments. But what if honoring a parent prevents us from fulfilling anothermitsvah? Similar to the situation above involving the corpse, we are forced to choose. The situation: you are about to begin the performance of a certain mitsvah. Suddenly, your father asks you to fetch him a glass of water. The requirement to give kavod to your father involves tending to his needs—providing him with food and drink, clothing and covering him (Kid. 31b). However, if you go to fetch him water (in the rabbis’ world, getting a glass of water was not always as simple as turning on a faucet) you might not be able to fulfill the other mitsvah. What do you do? There is a disagreement. R. Elazar ben Matya teaches that we suspend the kavod to our father momentarily in order to fulfill the other mitsvah. R. Isi ben Yehudah teaches that if the other mitsvah involved can be done by others, one should let others do it so that the son or daughter can attend to the needs of the father. However, if it cannot be done by others, we are permitted to act according to the teaching of R. Elazar. (Kid. 32a)
In that same section of the Talmud, we learn various teachings related to our parent’s kavod. In a baraita, an early rabbinic dictum not found in the Mishnah, we learn that our reverence for our father and mother should be on the same level as our reverence for God. Why? Because there are three partners in the creation of a person: “The Holy One of Blessing, the father, and the mother. When a person gives kavod to his father and mother, the Holy One of Blessing says, ‘I consider it as if I had lived among them and they had given kavod to Me.” (Kid. 30b)
The relationship between God’s kavod and our parent’s kavod is discussed in another teaching relating to the ten commandments. Ulla the older taught that when God revealed the first two commandments (“I am Adonai, your God;” and “You shall have no other gods…”—Ex. 20: 2-3), the nations of the world said: “God is saying this only forkevod atsmo—for God’s own honor.” However, when God commanded us to honor father and mother, the nations of the world retracted their earlier position and acknowledged the first two commandments. (Kid. 31a) In this teaching, the truth of God’s existence and primacy is proven by God’s command that we honor our parents. God becomes real, an authentic God, when God commands us to give kavod to father and mother.
What does it mean to give kavod to one’s parents’ in practical terms? How do we honor our parents? The Talmud brings several beautiful examples of children honoring parents in Kid. 31b-32a. I have chosen a few of my favorites.
“Whenever R. Tarfon’s mother wanted to climb into bed, he would bend down and she would climb [on him to get] into bed. And whenever she got out [of bed], she would descend on him [in order to reach the floor]. R. Tarfon came and praised himself [on account of the honor he showed his mother] at the house of study. They said to him: ‘You have not yet reached half of the honor [that one can show his parents]…..’
“Whenever R. Yosef would hear the footsteps of his mother, he would say: ‘I shall stand before the Shechina [the Divine Presence], which is approaching.’….
“They asked R. Eliezer: ‘How much should one honor father and mother?’ He answered them: ‘To the point that if [a parent] takes a money purse and throws it into the sea in [the child’s] presence, [the child] does not embarrass him….”
The Rewards of Kavod: To encourage good behavior and the observance ofmitsvot, the rabbis sometimes inform us of the rewards of kavod. Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is worthy of kavod? The one who treats other human-beings with kavod. As it I said: ‘For those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who scorn Me, I will scorn.’ (1 Sam. 2:30)” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1) By honoring God’s creatures, he teaches, we honor God and God, therefore, will give us honor. The reverse is also implied: if we scorn others, it is as if we have scorned God and will therefore be scorned by God.
R. Chelbo teaches that a man should always be careful of his wife’s kavod (i.e. he should make sure to treat her with kavod). Why? Because one’s house is filled with blessing only on account of one’s wife. Rava teaches: “Honor your wives so that you will attain riches.” (B. Met. 59a) Here we see a play, perhaps, on the different meanings of our root outlined above—when we give kavod (honor) to our wives, we get kavod (riches) in return.
But we are rewarded not only for showing kavod to people. R. Yosei teaches: “The one who honors the Torah, will be honored by others.” (Pirkei Avot, 4:6) The centrality of Torah in the kavod system will be discussed in greater detail below.
Social Construction of the Kavod “System”: Although all human-beings havekavod, some have more than others. We see these levels of kavod outlined in a discussion the rabbis have regarding the suspension of one’s own kavod. Can a person suspend his/her kavod so that others are not required to treat that person in accord with the kavodthat he/she has. For example, we are ordinarily required not to contradict our parents in public. This is part of what it means to give kavod to our parents. But what if Dad says to us, “Don’t worry about my kavod—tell me what you really think.” And say we, in fact, disagree with our parent and would like nothing more than to explain why with all who would listen. Are we permitted to do as he asks, to suspend the kavod that we would ordinarily give him? R. Chisda teaches that a father can suspend his own kavod. But, he argues, a rabbi cannot.
A discussion then ensues about this issue of the rabbi suspending his kavod. Can a rabbi, for instance, serve food or drink to an inferior or, in contemporary terms, ask a congregant to call her by her first name? R. Yosef teaches that a rabbi can suspend thekavod due him. What is his proof text? R. Yosef reminds us that, during the exodus from Egypt, God walked in front of the Jewish people. (Ex. 13:21) Ordinarily, however, a king or ruler would walk or ride in the rear of the party. This shows us, according to R. Yosef, that God was willing to suspend God’s own kavod and, therefore, all the more so can a rabbi (whose kavod is so much smaller) do the same. Rava responds: “How can you compare [God to the rabbi]? There [in the example with God], it’s God’s world and God’s Torah—[in which case] God can suspend God’s own kavod. Here [in the example of the rabbi], is the Torah his [that he can do as he pleases]?. Later Rava said, ‘The Torah is his [the rabbi’s], as it is written: “And in his Torah will he rejoice, day and night.” (Ps. 1:2)’” (Kid. 32a, b)
R. Ashi teaches that, while Rava might be correct regarding the kavod of a rabbi, anasi, the president of the rabbinical court, certainly cannot suspend his kavod. But R. Ashi is disputed. A story is told about Rabban Gamliel, a nasi. At a party in honor of his son’s wedding, Rabban Gamliel himself served drinks to the guests—thereby suspending his own kavod by serving those with less power, authority, and kavod. Rabban Gamliel offered a drink to R. Eliezer who declined—not allowing Rabban Gamliel to suspend his honor. He then offered a drink to R. Joshua, who raised his glass to be served. R. Eliezer, the one who had declined to be served, said, “What is this Joshua? We should sit while Rabban Gamliel the great stands and serves us?” R. Joshua said to him, “We find one greater [than Rabban Gamliel] who served–Abraham was greater and he served [others]. Abraham was the greatest of his generation and it is written about him: ‘He stood over them [serving the three men who happened upon him in the desert] …’ (Gen. 18:8) Perhaps you will say that these men appeared to him to be ministering angels [and that is why he served them and thus, did not really suspend his kavod since they were greater than he]? No! They looked only like Arabs to him! And [you argue that] the great Rabban Gamliel cannot stand and serve drinks to us?” Suddenly, R. Tsadok cried out:
“How long are you all going to suspend the kavod of God while busying yourself with kevod habriyot? [i.e. Here you are bringing Abraham in as an example of one who suspends his honor by serving an inferior when you could have used God as proof!] If the Holy One of Blessing causes the winds to blow and the clouds to form and brings forth rain and causes the earth to bloom and arranges a table before each and every person [i.e. serves humanity] cannot the great Rabban Gamliel stand and serve drinks to us?”
R. Tsadok then attempts to defend R. Ashi and solve the apparent contradiction between R. Ashi’s teaching and the story told regarding Rabban Gamliel. R. Tsadok claims that R. Ashi was not quoted properly. “If he said anything, he said as follows: Said R. Ashi, ‘Even the one who argues that a nasi who suspends his kavod, his kavod is suspended, [would agree that] a king who suspends his kavod, his kavod is not suspended.’” (Kid. 32b)
So what do we learn from this wonderful text? Clearly the rabbis are describing a hierarchy of kavod. Despite the disagreements, the hierarchy works like this: parent à rabbi à nasi à king à God and is based on the relative authority of these players. God is the ultimate authority and power. And, although honoring our parents is clearly quite important, our parents ultimately have the least amount of relative authority among the authorities in the mitsvah spirituality system. The passage helps us to understand the sociological implications of kavod. Different groups of people have different levels of societal kavod. Protocol demands that we behave a certain way in the presence of certain ranks of people on the kavod ladder. When we see a king, for instance, kavod demands that we greet him—even if it requires our leaping over graves. If a parent has not suspended his kavod, we are not permitted to disagree with him in public. We are to rise in the presence of a rabbi. Kavod has real impact on our behavior in our interactions with others.
The passage also helps us understand the practical origins of kavod.
Kavod and Its Origins—How do you get it? How long will it last? Is it ever permanent?
As we have seen, all human beings have an innate measure of kavod. How, though, can we move up the kavod ladder? In the section on the rewards of kavod, we saw that giving honor to others can bring honor to ourselves. Husbands can attain extrakavod (and even wealth) by honoring their wives. By having children, and thus becoming a parent, we can move up the ladder relative to those children—we are worthy of greater honor because we are now “mother” or “father.”
The next rung up on the kavod ladder is “rabbi.” Where does the rabbi’s kavodcome from? In the last text discussed in the previous section, several sages were debating whether or not a rabbi can suspend his own honor. Rava comments on the teaching of R. Yosef who had made an analogy to God’s suspension of kavod. Rava asks if the situations are truly analogous. This is God’s world, so God can do whatever God wants. But, Rava asks, does the Torah belong to the rabbi that he can suspend his kavod? The implication is that the rabbi’s kavod comes from the Torah. The rabbi attains kavod by studying Torah. But, we learn in another text, our motives count as well. Torah, studied out of love, will bring us kavod.
It is taught in a baraita: “One should not say: ‘I will study [Torah] so that they will call me a scholar. I will learn Mishna so that they will call me a rabbi. I will teach so that I will become an elder and sit in a yeshivah. Rather, learn out of love and in the end, kavod will come.” (Ned. 62a)
We can also attain kavod through living Torah and following its teachings. In a typical rabbinic encouragement of good behavior, R. Yosei teaches: “The one who honors the Torah, will be honored by others.” (Pirkei Avot, 4:6) Even if we do not attain the status of a rabbi, Torah can still give us kavod if we attempt to live its teachings.
We are taught, hyperbolically it seems, that the Torah is so filled with kavod that we are worthy of honor from others by teaching as little as a single letter of Torah! “The one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single saying, or even one letter—must treat [the teacher] with kavod.” (Pirkei Avot, 6:3) In fact, in this same mishnaic statement, we learn with similar exaggeration that kavodcomes only from the Torah. A proof text is brought in from Proverbs 3:35: “The wise shall inherit kavod.” It is clear here that the wise are those who study Torah.
This teacher-student kavod relationship goes both ways, however. Not only are students required to honor teachers, but teachers are required to honor students. “R. Elazar ben Shamua says: ‘Let the kavod of your student be as dear to you as your own, and the kavod of your colleague as the reverence for your rabbi, and the reverence for your rabbi as the reverence for Heaven.’” (Pirkei Avot, 4:15) Here too we see a kavodladder within the Torah-study world: student’s honor = your own honor à colleague’s honor = rabbi’s honor = God’s honor. Since Torah itself is filled with kavod, it is no wonder that those who devote their lives to learning and teaching Torah should be treated with kavod. It is worth emphasizing, however, that it is also clear that the extra kavod that the rabbi has comes solely from Torah itself and not from wealth or station or title.
Kavod Can Be Set Aside Temporarily and Lost Altogether: We’ve already seen how a father or a rabbi can suspend his own kavod voluntarily. However, there are certain situations in which one’s kavod is automatically suspended. For instance, whenever a choice must be made between desecrating God’s name (by transgressing a direct commandment in the Torah) or disrespecting a teacher or rabbi, the choice is clear—God’s law is upheld and the kavod of the rabbi is suspended. R. Yehudah brings a story that illustrates this concept. He teaches: “The one who finds shatnez in his clothing, must take off his clothes [immediately], even if he is in the market.” Translation: you are walking through a mall with your rabbi. Suddenly, you notice that he or she is wearingshatnez. This text teaches that you are required to pull off his/her clothing immediately in order to fulfill God’s commandment regarding shatnez. (Ber. 19b)
We have seen that kavod can be automatically suspended temporarily. A story is related regarding the family of Avitinas that describes a situation in which kavod was lostpermanently. This family was entrusted with the secret for mixing a certain type of incense that was used in the Temple sacrificial service. Once, they went on strike and agreed to return only when the sages doubled their pay. Later, after the Temple had been destroyed, R. Yishmael came upon one of the descendants of this once great family, now badly impoverished. He said to them: “Your ancestors wanted to magnify their kavodand reduce the kavod of God. Now, God’s kavod is in its [proper] place and yours has been reduced.” (Yoma 38a) Because of their transgression, they “lost” their kavod. Here,kavod seems to refer to both their personal honor and stature and their riches and wealth.
But not only can a family lose its honor, those on the kavod ladder who are inherently deserving of kavod, can also lose their honor. The family of a father who blatantly transgresses Jewish law, for example, is not required to treat him with kavod. (Bav. Met. 62a)
Eternal kavod: There are certain things and groups of people whose kavod is unconditional and eternal. Kevod hatsibur, the honor of the public, is one of those. Kevod hatsibur refers to the honor that a congregation has. We are taught not to roll a Torah during services (to find the reading of the day) out of respect for the congregation—their kavod demands that we prepare the scroll in advance so they will not have to wait. (Yoma, 70a) In a sexist text that nonetheless illustrates the point, we learn: “Anyone can come up as one of the seven prescribed [Torah readers]—even a minor and even a woman. But the sages said: ‘A woman should not read the Torah [at a service] because ofkevod hatsibur.” (Meg., 23a) Anyone who has recently been to a bar/bat mitsvahcelebration will appreciate the next teaching: “Ulla son of Rav asked Abaye: ‘Is a scantily clad minor allowed to read from the Torah [during services]?’ He replied: ‘You might as well ask about a naked one. Why is one without any clothes not allowed? Out of kavod for the congregation. So here, [in the case of the scantily clad minor, he is not allowed] out ofkavod for the congregation.’” (Meg. 24b)
Nowhere do the sages specify that the kavod for the congregation depends on the congregants’ overall righteousness or scholarship. The body itself is worthy of kavod—period.
As we have seen above, the corpse also has an inherent kavod. Shabbat and holidays have kavod as well. Out of respect for the Shabbat, for example, we are not permitted to light foul smelling oils in our Shabbat lamps. (Shab. 24b)
The Torah is not only an agent of kavod, it must itself be treated with kavod. The sages ask why the one who reads the haftarah in synagogue is first required to read the final lines of the Torah portion before beginning the public reading of the haftarah. The answer: “Because of the kavod of the Torah.” It would be disrespectful, according to this text, to read the haftarah without first honoring the Torah by reading it. (Meg. 23a) There is also an interesting principle of the honor due to the Torah of an individual. “Torah deyichid” refers to all of the Torah that an individual has studied and mastered. The question arises: if a great Torah scholar dies in the middle of a holiday, are we permitted to mourn for that scholar during this time when public mourning is usually forbidden? Again, we have a case of conflicting religious duties—honoring the holiday vs. honoring the Torah of this individual scholar. The ruling: “There is no Chol Hamoed before a great scholar.” Translation: If a great scholar dies on Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot), we are permitted to grieve publicly. Why? “The kavod [which must be given to the] Torah of an individual is a serious matter.” (Meg. 3b) It is clear here, once again, that the kavod with which we treat this sage derives entirely from the Torah that the sage has learned. It is out of respect for the “Torah” that has left this world, that public mourning is permitted.
Kavod and God
God is the ultimate source of kavod. We human-beings alone, amongst all the creatures God created, have kavod because we are God’s crowning act of creation. Parents are honored because they are partners with God in creation. Rabbis are honored because they have studied God’s Torah. Honor comes through fulfilling God’s mitsvot. Kings, since they are ultimately in some way appointed by God, are worthy of honor.
God, of course, is not just the source of all kavod, God must be given kavod as well. It d could scarcely be worded more strongly: “Whoever takes no thought for thekavod of the creator, it would be fitting if that person had not entered the world.” R. Yosef explains what this means: One who commits a transgression in secret takes no thought for the kavod of the creator. (Hag. 16a)
The word kavod appears in connection with God repeatedly when the rabbis discuss prayer. Much of this has survived in today’s liturgy. God is addressed as the “King of kavod” (Melech hakavod) and as the “God of kavod” (El hakavod). One prayer, no longer in use, was recited before entering the bathroom. The prayer addresses the angels who were thought to accompany us everywhere: “May you be given greatkavod, holy ministering angels from on high! Give kavod to the God of Israel! Leave me while I enter and take care of my needs. Then I will come [back] to you.” (Ber. 60b) Out of respect for God and God’s angels, we excuse ourselves from them before attending to our excretory needs, lest they enter the bathroom with us.
We have already seen (in the story about the Avitinas family who made incense for the Temple) what can happen when we place our own honor above God’s. There is a prayer formula, invoked in times of distress, which illustrates this hierarchy of kavod. The prayer formula appears in the oft quoted story of R. Eliezer’s excommunication. He was excommunicated for refusing to accept the rulings of the majority of the sages of his generation. Heaven (i.e. God) was greatly displeased about his excommunication since R. Eliezer was a very great scholar. Rabban Gamliel, the nasi, was traveling on a ship sometime later and a huge wave rose over him, threatening to drown him. He, as nasi, was ultimately responsible for the edict of excommunication and he knew that the storm was due to Divine wrath regarding it. He rose to his feet and said: “Master of the world! You know full well that I did not [excommunicate him] for my kavod, nor for the kavod of my father’s house. Rather, for your kavod [did I do it] so that arguments would not multiply in Israel [because of R. Eliezer’s refusal to accept the ruling of the majority].” At that the sea calmed. (Bav. Met. 59b)
God is not only the source of all kavod and worthy of being treated with ultimatekavod, God acts, at times, in the interest of God’s own kavod. The sages teach: “All that the Holy One of Blessing created, for God’s kavod did God create it.” (Yom. 38a) It is an extraordinary theological statement. God created the world out of some “need” forkavod. God wants us to appreciate the splendor of creation and show honor and respect to the One responsible. God, though wholly other, is, in this rabbinic teaching, not so unlike us in some ways—God too wants to be appreciated.
One of the most famous uses of the word kavod in prayer appears in the Amidah. It is taken from one of the prophet Isaiah’s visions. Isaiah sees God sitting upon a throne. Above God are the seraphim, six winged creatures. One of the seraphim cries out to the other saying: “Holy, holy, holy is Adonai tsevaot! The whole world is filled with God’skavod!” (Is. 6:3) It is a powerful moment in most synagogues. The worshipers lift themselves up, higher and higher with each repetition of the word kadosh, holy. But what does it mean to say that the world is filled with God’s kavod? R. Joshua ben Levi teaches: “A person is forbidden to walk four cubits with an erect posture because it is said: ‘The whole world is filled with God’s kavod !’ Rav Huna son of Rav Joshua did not go four cubits with his head uncovered. He said, ‘The shechina is above my head.’” (Kid. 31a)
Later interpreters of the Talmud struggled to understand the implications of these teachings. The great Talmudic exegete, Rashi, explains that the verse from Isaiah indicates that God’s glory, God’s kavod, extends downwards to this world. One who stands fully erect, appears to be pressing against the divine presence. The Maharsha, a 16th century commentator, explains that the place that a person occupies is considered to reach four cubits in each direction. The person who walks four cubits in an erect posture, acting as if the place belongs to him, gives the impression that he thinks that God is not there. We give kavod to God when we acknowledge that the world is not ours to do with as we please.
Kavod in Our Time
The implications for kavod in our time are many. As Americans, the kavod with which we treat authority has declined sharply since the 1960s. This extends to the interpersonal relationships of every day life. Kavod for rabbis and teachers is not what it once was. In these same 40 years or so, secularism has grown in strength and today pervades virtually every sector of American life. It is likely that these trends are connected. Without a sense of some absolute, awesome power in the universe, all things gradually become equally meaningless and ultimately, nothing is worthy of much realkavod. Certainly, once Torah becomes mere “literature,” the eternal kavod in which that world is steeped is called into question.
The rabbis began with an unshakable belief in God’s kavod and all human dignity and honor was then, somehow, derived from God. In this age of secularism, I still believe that this route is possible for some. Indeed, if we truly believe that we are all created in God’s image, then clearly, all would be worthy of honor. But what about those who do not believe? Can kavod have any meaning to them?
It might be possible, and necessary for some, to turn the kavod ladder upside down. That is, some of us might need to start with kevod habriyot in order, eventually, to acknowledge and encounter kevod Adonai Kavod, as a very real force in our lives, can help bring us closer to God. By honoring all creatures, our colleagues, our parents, our teachers and students, perhaps we can climb up the kavod ladder to God.
And then, as we lift ourselves up in prayer chanting, “Holy, Holy, Holy….the whole world if filled with your kavod,” we will let God in to share the space with us. And then we will acknowledge God’s presence. And then we will know that this world is notours to do with as we please and then, then God’s kavod will be in its proper place.
Suggestions for Teaching
What follows is a lesson plan that could be used with high-school students or adults in conjunction with this paper on kavod.
- to help students understand the theological implications of kavod for the rabbis
- to provide an opportunity for the students to examine God’s role in the ethics of interpersonal relations—to examine what God has to do with honoring our parents, for instance
- to charge students to make kavod a part of their lives as Jews
- to give students a chance to experience chevruta study
- to teach a process of defining terms through careful analysis of multiple texts
Objectives: (At the end of the lesson, the student should be able to….)
- describe some of the meanings of kavod in the Bible
- describe at least two implications of the requirement to treat parents with kavod
- explain why rabbis and torah scholars deserve kavod (according to the Talmud)
- explain how God is the ultimate origin of kavod and what it means, according to the rabbis, to give kavod to God
Set Induction: (an activity designed to prepare the students for learning)
Show a clip from the movie “Taps” in which the protagonist describes “honor.” Alternatively, share with students the following quotations:
“My honor is my loyalty.”
Heinrich Himmler, (yemach shemo), (1900–1945), German Nazi leader. Formulated as the watchword of the S.S.
“There is no question what the roll of honor in America is. The roll of honor consists of the names of men who have squared their conduct by ideals of duty.”
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
“Without money honor is merely a disease.”
Jean Racine (1639–99), French dramatist. Petit Jean, in Les Plaideurs, act 1, sc. 1 (1669).
“Honor has not to be won; it must only not be lost.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), German philosopher. Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. 1, “Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life,” ch. 4 (1851). 
Ask the students how they might define the word. What are some examples of “honorable people” today? What makes a person honorable? Do we give them the honor? Do they earn it? Do things have honor? (You might want to bring in an article or opinion piece relating to the oft proposed constitutional amendment regarding the American flag.) Now tell them that we will be examining the concept of honor as understood by the sages of the Talmud.
- Prepare kavod texts for the class (some translated texts follow this lesson plan—of course, feel free to add to the list).
- Ask the class to form chavrutaya groups. Explain the importance of struggling through a text with a partner. Give each group the packet of kavod texts. (Depending on their level of comfort with text study, you might wish to go through several of the texts together as a class before asking them to work on them in chavrutaya.) Ask them to read the texts together with the following questions in mind:
- How do you get kavod?
- Is there a hierarchy of kavod?
- How does kavod “work”—that is, how does kavod affect daily life?
- Ultimately, where does kavod come from?
- How would you define the word, as used in the Bible and by the rabbis?
- Come back together as a class and ask the various groups to share their answers to the questions. Put all the questions and their answers on the board to help aid visual learners
- Conclude by asking the students to try to explain how the rabbis understanding ofkavod might work in a contemporary setting. How can we live these teachings today? How might this concept of kavod affect our theology?
- Pass out the chapter on kavod for anyone who might like to do further reading.
- Beyond the Classroom—living Torah
- As a class, create a mitsvah project based on the principles and values of kavod
“Kavod—Honor” Primary Texts
Biblical Meanings of “Kavod”
- [From the ten commandments] “’Give kavod to your father and your mother; that your days may be long upon the land which Adonai your God gives you.’” (Ex. 20:12)
- “A woman of grace obtains kavod ; and men of power obtain riches.” (Proverbs 11:16)
- [Joseph instructing his brothers…] “’You shall tell my father of all my kavod in Egypt and of all that you have seen. Now hurry and bring my father down here.’” (Gen. 45:13)
- [Moses to Israelites] “’Now in the morning you will see kevod Adonai….’” (Ex. 16:7)
- “Kevod Adonai abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. On the seventh day [God] called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.” (Ex. 24:16)
- [God to Solomon] “’Behold, I have done according to your words. I have given you a wise and understanding heart; so that there was none like you before nor shall any like you arise after. But I have also given you that which you have not asked—both riches, and kavod so that there shall not be any among the kings like you all your days.’” (1 Kings 3:12-13)
- “Holy, holy, holy is Adonai Tsevaot! The whole earth is filled with God’s kavod!” (Isaiah 6:3)
Kavod in the Talmud
- “Kevod habriyot [the kavod—honor—due to every human-being] is so great that it suspends a negative precept in the Torah.” (Meg. 3b)
- “There are three partners in creation: the Holy One of Blessing, the father, and the mother. When a person gives kavod to his father and mother, the Holy One of Blessing says, ‘I consider it as if I had lived among them and they had given kavod to Me.” (Kid. 30b)
- “[Ulla the older taught that when God revealed the first two commandments (“I amAdonai, your God” and “You shall have no other gods…”—Ex. 20:2-3)] the nations of the world said: “God is saying this only for kevod atsmo [for God’s own honor].” But when God said: “Honor your father and your mother,” they retracted [their position] and acknowledged the first [two commandments].” (Kid. 31a)
- “Whenever R. Tarfon’s mother wanted to climb into bed, he would bend down and she would climb [on him to get] into bed. And whenever she got out [of bed], she would descend on him [in order to reach the floor]. R. Tarfon came and praised himself [on account of the honor he showed his mother] at the house of study. They said to him: ‘You have not yet reached half of the honor [that one can show his parents]’” (Kid. 31a)
- “Whenever R. Yosef would hear the footsteps of his mother, he would say: ‘I shall stand before the shechina (the divine presence), which is approaching.’” (Kid. 31a)
- “They asked R. Eliezer: ‘How much should one honor father and mother?’ He answered them: ‘To the point that if [a parent] takes a money purse and throws it into the sea in [the child’s] presence, [the child] does not embarrass him….” (Kid. 31b)
- “Ben Zoma teaches: ‘Who is worthy of kavod? The one who treats other human-beings with kavod. As it I said: ‘For those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who scorn Me, I will scorn.’ (1 Sam. 2:30)” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1)
- Chelbo said: ‘Always a man should be careful [regarding] the kavod of his wife, because blessing is found in his house only because of his wife.’…..[Rava said]…: ‘Honor your wives so that you will attain riches.’” (B. Met. 59a)
- Yosei teaches: ‘The one who honors the Torah, will be honored by others.’” (Pirkei Avot, 4:6)
- “The one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single saying, or even one letter—must treat [the teacher] with kavod.” (Pirkei Avot, 6:3)
- “R. Elazar ben Shamua says: ‘Let the kavod of your student be as dear to you as your own, and the kavod of your colleague as the reverence for your rabbi, and the reverence for your rabbi as the reverence for Heaven.’” (Pirkei Avot, 4:15)
- [The situation: You are studying Torah and come across the section of the Torah which contains the shema (Deut. 6:4). While you are studying this section, you realize that it is time to pray the shema. You refocus yourself and now begin praying these words in order to fulfill the requirement of reciting shema in the morning. At that moment, your teacher walks in. Ordinarily, if a teacher enters a room while you are studying, you are required to rise and greet the rabbi—give kavod to the teacher. In this case, however, you are in the middle of praying, not studying. This passage tells you what to do in such a situation….] “During the breaks [in between sections of theshema], one may give greeting and return greeting out of kavod. In the middle [of a section], one may give greeting and return greeting out of fear [lest one be punished for insolence].” (Berachot 13a)
- “Eleazar b. Mathia said: ‘If my father orders me, “Give me a drink of water,” while I have a mitsvah to perform, I disregard my father’s kavod and perform the mitsvah, since both my father and I are bound to fulfill the mitsvot.’ Issi b. Judah maintained: ‘If the mitsvah can be performed by others, it should be performed by others, while he goes [and concerns himself] with his [father’s] kavod.’ Said R. Mattena: ‘The halachahagrees with Issi b. Judah.’” (Kid. 32a)
- [This rather long excerpt illustrates the complexity of the hierarchy of the kavodsystem] Isaac b. Shila said in R. Mattena’s name in the name of R. Hisda: ‘If a father renounces his kavod, it is renounced; but if a rabbi renounces his kavod, it is not renounced.’ R. Joseph ruled: ‘Even if a rabbi renounces his kavod, it is renounced, for it is said: “Adonai went before them by day.” [Ex. 13:21—God serves as the guide for the Israelites, thus renouncing God’s own kavod by leading the way] “How can you compare [God to the rabbi]? There [in the example with God], it’s God’s world and God’s Torah–[in which case] God can suspend His kavod. Here [in the example of the rabbi], is the Torah his [that he can do as he pleases]?” Later Rava said, ‘The Torah is his, as it is written: “And in his Torah will he rejoice, day and night.”’ [Ps. 1:2]But that is not so. For Rava was serving drink at his son’s wedding, and when he offered a cup to R. Papa and R. Huna son of R. Joshua, they stood up before him [and let him serve them, thereby allowing him to renounce his kavod and wait on them] But [when he offered] R. Mari and R. Phineas son of R. Hisda, they did not stand up before him [and thereby did not allow him to renounce his kavod]. Thereupon he was offended and exclaimed: ‘Are these rabbis and the others not!’ [That is, why do these rabbis allow him to suspend his kavod while the others do not?]……Ashi said: Even on the view that if a rabbi renounces his kavod it is renounced, yet if anasi [president of the sanhedrin] renounces his kavod, his renunciation is invalid. An objection is raised: It once happened that R. Eliezar, R. Joshua and R. Zadok were reclining at a banquet of Rabban Gamaliel’s son, while Rabban Gamaliel was standing over them and serving drink. When he offered a cup to R. Eliezer, he did not accept it but when he offered it to R. Joshua, he did. Said R. Eliezer to him, “What is this Joshua? We should sit while Rabban Gamliel the great stands and serves us?” R. Joshua said to him, “We find one greater [than Rabban Gamliel] who served–Abraham was greater and he served [others]. Abraham was the greatest of his generation and it is written about him: ‘And he stood over them [serving the three men who happened upon him in the desert] …’ (Gen. 18:8) Perhaps you will say that these men appeared to him to be ministering angels [and that is why he served them and thus, did not really suspend his kavod since they were greater than he]? No! They looked only like Arabs to him! And [you argue that] the great Rabban Gamliel cannot stand and serve drinks to us?”Tsadok said to them: “How long are you all going to renounce the kavod of God while busying yourself with kevod habriyot? [i.e. Here you are bringing Abraham in as an example of one who suspends his honor by serving an inferior when you could have used God for proof!] If the Holy One of Blessing causes the winds to blow and the clouds to form and brings forth rain and causes the earth to bloom and arranges a table before each and every person, cannot the great Rabban Gamliel stand and serve drinks to us?
“Now, if he [R. Ashi] said anything, he said as follows: Said R. Ashi, ‘Even the one who argues that a nasi who suspends his kavod, his kavod is suspended, [would agree that] a king who suspends his kavod, his kavod is not suspended.’ (Kid. 32a,b)
- “One should not say: ‘I will study [Torah] so that they will call me a scholar. I will learn Mishna so that they will call me a rabbi. I will teach so that I will become an elder and sit in a yeshivah. Rather, learn out of love and in the end, kavod will come.” (Ned. 62a)
- “Anyone can come up as one of the seven prescribed [Torah readers]—even a minor and even a woman. But the sages said: ‘A woman should not read the Torah [at a service] because of the kavod of the congregation.” (Meg., 23a)
- “Ulla son of Rav asked Abaye: ‘Is a scantily clad minor allowed to read from the Torah [during services]?’ He replied: ‘You might as well ask about a naked one. Why is one without any clothes not allowed? Out of kavod for the congregation. So here, [in the case of the scantily clad minor, he is not allowed] out of kavod for the congregation.’” (Meg. 24b)
- “Whoever takes no though for the kavod of the Creator, it would be fitting if that person had not entered the world.” (Hag. 16a)
- “All that the Holy One of Blessing created, for God’s kavod did God create it.” (Yoma 38a)
- R. Joshua ben Levi teaches: “A person is forbidden to walk four cubits with an erect posture because it is said: ‘The whole world is filled with God’s kavod !’ Rav Huna son of Rav Joshua did not go four cubits with his head uncovered. He said, ‘Theshechina is above my head.’” (Kid. 31a)
- “R. Judah—others state, R. Nehemiah—said: ‘One must not cause himself to vomit in the street, out of kavod.’Our Rabbis taught: ‘If one searches his garments for lice [on the Sabbath] he may press [the vermin] and throw it away, providing that he does not kill it [since killing animals is forbidden on Shabbat].’Abba Saul said: ‘He must take and throw it away, providing that be does not press it.’ R. Huna said, ‘The halachah is, he may press and throw it away, and that is hiskavod, even on weekdays.’Rabbah killed them, and R. Shesheth killed them. Rava threw them into a basin of water. R. Nahman said to his daughters, ‘Kill them and let me hear the sound of the hated ones.’” (Shabbat 12a)
Babylonian Talmud, Soncino Press, London, 1938
The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, 1993, Columbia University Press, NY
The Babylonian Talmud. With commentary by Adin Steinsaltz, The Israelite Institute for Talmudic Publications. Jerusalem, Israel. 1989
The Holy Scriptures. JPS, Philadelphia
Talmud Bavli, Schottenstein Edition, Mesorah Publications, NY, 1991
Bar-Ilan and Socino Cd-rom versions of the Talmud
 It should be noted, however, that this ruling is interpreted to apply only to a particular negative precept in the Torah: Deut. 17:11—the negative precept which, according to them, gives them authority to legislate. Therefore, kevod habriyot can suspend any rabbinic ruling, but not necessarily a Torahitic commandment.
 There is a whole category of kavod for the corpse, known as kevod hamet. The corpse of any human—Jew, non-Jew, sinner, or tsadik—has kavod and must be treated with kavod.
 As with the mitsvah of reciting the morning Shema which must be fulfilled by a certain hour. Getting water for one’s father might make fulfilling this other mitsvah impossible.
 All translations are mine. I was helped greatly, however, by the Soncino and Schottenstein translations of the Talmud into English as well as the Steinsaltz commentary in Hebrew.
 Habriyot—the root of the word is bara, as in Bereishit bara Elohim…”In the beginning, God created…” (Gen. 1:1)
 “Shatnez” refers to the Biblical commandment forbidding the wearing of clothing in which linen and wool fibers are mixed. (Lev. 19:19)
 The phrase “Melech hakavod” appears in the Torah service on page 442 of the Gates of Prayer.
 There is a blessing which is still traditionally recited after having successfully taken care of one’s needs: “Asher yatsar…” (p. 284 of the GOP) Note: God’s presence in this prayer is referred to as “kisei kevodkha”—“the throne of Your kavod.”
The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, 1993, Columbia University Press, NY
 That is, a father can ask a child to treat him without the kavod that is normally due to him but a rabbi cannot ask a congregant to do the same (i.e. a father can tell his son not to rise whenever the father enters a room but a rabbi cannot tell a congregant to call him by his first name)
 According to Rashi, one does not do this out of kavod for passersby in the street.