World of the Sages: After you, sir

What is the connection between according honor and the mezuza?

Our sages teach us that in three scenarios we need not accord honor by inviting a greater person to proceed first (B. Berachot 46a-47b): Honor is not accorded when traveling on roads nor when crossing bridges nor when washing dirty hands after eating. Why is honor not accorded in these cases? With regards to soiled hands - it is hardly an honor to proffer a basin of water and a towel and thus to intimate that the recipient really needs a wash. With regard to traveling and passing over bridges two possible explanations can be offered. Elsewhere, our sages state that all roads should be considered dangerous (J. Berachot 8b). In talmudic times bandits lay in wait at every turn, any lapse in concentration or restful respite could be fatal (see for instance M. Berachot 1:3). In our times too, driving on the road is fraught with danger: unsafe roads, careless drivers, faulty cars. With hazards lurking at every juncture, it is hardly safe to stop and consider who is the most worthy person at any given intersection; it is far more advisable to focus on road safety than on honoring the worthy. One commentator offers a different reason, suggesting that the public good overrides the protocol of according honor (Meiri, Provence, 13th century). If each meeting of two travelers was accompanied by an "after you" ritual, traffic would come to a standstill. Travel time would increase manifold and few would reach their destinations. Can you imagine a latecomer offering the excuse: "I'm sorry I'm late, but I met a few worthy people on the road and was forced to pull over and let them pass." When codifying the law, Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) adds a further qualification: Inviting a worthy person to proceed first is relevant only when entering; honor need not be accorded when exiting. The Talmud illustrates the principle of according honor when entering by recounting a tale of two sages - Abbaye who served as the head of the talmudic academy at Pumbedita during the fourth century and Ravin who had arrived in Babylon from the Land of Israel. As the two scholars were traveling, Ravin's donkey overtook Abbaye's. Seeing the junior scholar overtake him without inviting him to go first, Abbaye muttered to himself: "Since this scholar has come from the west [meaning from the Land of Israel], he has become haughty." When the two travelers reached the entrance to the synagogue, Ravin stopped and turned to Abbaye: "Let the master enter first." Abbaye was surprised and questioned this sudden show of respect: "And until now, was I not the master?" Why had Ravin only invited Abbaye to proceed when they reached their destination? Ravin replied, explaining why he had not accorded honor to Abbaye along the journey by quoting a teaching he brought from Rabbi Yohanan, the head of the talmudic academy in the Land of Israel: "Thus said Rabbi Yohanan: 'We accord honor only at an entrance that has a mezuza.'" Thus Ravin did not hesitate while on the road, only inviting Abbaye to enter first when they reached the doorway. The Talmud is a bit surprised by Ravin's justification, since strictly speaking, a house of prayer that is used for no purpose other than prayer need not have a mezuza since it does not serve as living quarters (Shulhan Aruch YD 286:3). Thus according to Rabbi Yohanan's statement, Ravin need not have accorded Abbaye the honor of entering first, even once they reached the synagogue. In explanation, the Talmud qualifies Rabbi Yohanan's statement by explaining that honor should be accorded at a place that could have a mezuza - namely, a doorway - even if for some reason that particular entrance does not require a mezuza. Thus the doorway to a synagogue, though it may not have a mezuza, is nevertheless an appropriate place to accord honor. Traveling along the road or entering through a breach in a wall, however, do not necessitate according honor. What is the connection between according honor and the mezuza? Rabbi Yohanan could have said that the right of first entry is granted in doorways, why did he mention mezuza? The Talmud relates that Onkelos the convert once explained: A human ruler sits inside and has his subjects stand outside guarding the entrance to his chambers. Not so the Almighty, for God's name is placed outside each Jewish house on the doorpost and provides protection for each person, allowing us to tranquilly rest (B. Avoda Zara 11a). Indeed, the Hebrew word "mezuza" has the same numerical value as Adonai, the name of the Almighty. Thus the mezuza is a sign that God honors us with divine protection at the entrance to our homes, and we attempt to imitate the Almighty by according respect at these same places. Upon examining this talmudic interchange, one commentator felt that the core of the passage is not directed at where honor must be accorded, rather the focus is on where honor is an unnecessary superfluity (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). We are instructed that there is no need to accord honor while traveling: On the highways of life, as we cross the bridges we chance upon during our journeys, focusing on who deserves honor is a soiling of our souls. It is certainly appropriate to accord honor to those deserving this distinction, yet we should not become preoccupied with such matters. Indeed we spend more times in rooms than entering them, and we would be mistaken to disproportionately devote energy to matters whose significance is primarily at the moment of entry. A person once complained that no one accorded him the honor he deserved. A wise confidant advised that honor only conferred itself on those who fled from it. Some time later the person returned: "I have been running from honor for some time now, yet it has not caught up with me." The wise person explained: "Though you may have run from honor, you keep looking over your shoulder to see if it is following you." The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.