Jewish ethics

From Academic Kids


Jewish ethics stands at the intersection of Judaism and the Western philosophical tradition of ethics. Like other types of religious ethics, the diverse literature of Jewish ethics primarily aims to answer a broad range of moral questions and, hence, may be classified as a normative ethics. For two millenia, Jewish thought has also grappled with the dynamic interplay between law and ethics. The rich tradition of rabbinic religious law (known as Halakha) addresses numerous problems often associated with ethics, including its semi-permeable relation with duties that are usually not punished under law.

Jewish ethics may be said to originate with the Hebrew Bible, its broad legal injunctions, wisdom narratives and prophetic teachings. Most subsequent Jewish ethical claims may be traced back to the texts, themes and teachings of the written Torah.

In early rabbinic Judaism, the oral Tora both interprets the Hebrew Bible and delves afresh into many other ethical topics. The best known rabbinic text associated with ethics is the non-legal Mishnah tractate of Avot (“forefathers”), popularly translated as “Ethics of Our Fathers”. Similar ethical teachings are interspersed throughout the more legally-oriented portions of the Mishnah, Talmud and other rabbinic literature. Generally, ethics is a key aspect of non-legal rabbinic literature, known as aggadah. This early Rabbinic ethics shows signs of cross-fertilization and polemical exchange with both the Greek (Western philosophical) ethical tradition and early Christian ethics.

In the medieval period, direct Jewish responses to Greek ethics may be seen in major rabbinic writings. Notably, Maimonides offers a Jewish interpretation of Aristotle (e.g., Nicomachean Ethics), who enters into Jewish discourse through Islamic writings. Maimonides, in turn, influences Thomas Aquinas, a dominant figure in Catholic ethics and the natural law tradition of moral theology. The relevance of natural law to medieval Jewish philosophy is a matter of dispute among scholars.

Medieval and early modern rabbis also created a pietistic tradition of Jewish ethics (see references, below). This ethical tradition was given expression through the mussar literature. The Hebrew term mussar, while literally derived from a word meaning "tradition," is usually translated as ethics or morals.

In the modern period, Jewish ethics sprouted many offshoots, partly due to developments in modern ethics and partly due to the formation of Jewish denominations. Trends in modern Jewish normative ethics include:

  • The pietistic mussar tradition was revived by the Jewish ethics education movement that developed in the 19th century Orthodox Jewish European (Ashkenazi) community. There is a separate article on the Mussar Movement.
  • Modern Jewish philosophers have pursued a range of ethical approaches, with varying degrees of reliance upon traditional Jewish sources. Notably, Hermann Cohen authored Religion of Reason in the tradition of Kantian ethics. Martin Buber wrote on various ethical and social topics, including the dialogical ethics of his I and Thou. Hans Jonas, a student of Martin Heidegger, draws upon phenomenology in his writings on bioethics, technology and responsibility. Emmanuel Levinas sought to distinguish his philosophical and Jewish writings; nevertheless, some scholars are constructing Jewish ethics around his innovative and deeply-Jewish approach. Inspired by both Maimonides and the success of Catholic social ethics, David Novak has promoted a natural law approach to Jewish social ethics. While Jewish feminists are not prominent in ethics per se, the principles of feminist ethics arguably play a pivotal role in the ebb and flow of Jewish denominational politics and identity-formation.
  • In 20th Century, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, Jewish writers typically tackle contemporary ethical, social and political issues by interpreting rabbinic law (Halakha) in responsa (formal opinions). The Reform movement also employs a rabbinic law approach in its responsa. The dominant topic for such applied ethics has been medical ethics and bioethics (see references, below). (See also Jewish business ethics.)

In terms of descriptive ethics, the study of Jewish moral practices and theory is situated more in the disciplines of history and the social sciences than in ethics proper, with some exceptions (e.g., Newman 1998).


Medieval and early modern ethical literature

Rabbinic Jewish works of ethics and moral instruction include:

  • Hovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart), by Bahya ibn Paquda (11th century). This work discusses ten moral virtues, each the subject of its own chapter.
  • Ma'alot ha-Middot, Yehiel ben Yekutiel Anav of Rome. This work discusses 24 moral virtues,
  • Orhot Zaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous) by an anonymous author. The book was probably written in the late 14th century. Original Title: Sefer ha-Middot (The Book of Character Traits).
  • Kad ha-Kemah, Bahya ben Asher, a Spanish kabbalist.
  • Mesillat Yesharim, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

Jewish family ethics

Great stress is laid on reverence for parents. Central to society is the nuclear family. Its head is the father; yet the mother as his equal is with him entitled to honor and respect at the hands of sons and daughters.

Monogamy is the ideal (Gen. ii. 24). Marriage within certain degrees of consanguinity or in relations arising from previous conjugal unions is forbidden; chastity is regarded as of highest moment (Ex. xx. 14; Lev. xviii. 18-20); and abominations to which the Canaanites were addicted are especially loathed.

Virtue is believed to flow from the recognition of God, therefore idolatry is the progenitor of vice and oppression

The non-Israelite is within the covenant of ethical considerations (Ex. xxii. 20; Lev. xix. 33). "You shall love him as yourself," a law the phraseology of which proves that in the preceding "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. xix. 18) "neighbor" does not connote an Israelite exclusively. There was to be one law for the native and the stranger (Lev. xix. 34; comp. Ex. xii. 49). Non-Israelites were not forced to follow the Israelite faith.

Altruistic virtues

Honesty and truthfulness are absolutely prerequisite. Stealing, flattery, falsehood, perjury and false swearing, oppression, even if only in holding back overnight the hired man's earnings, are forbidden.

The reputation of a fellow man is sacred (Ex. 21:1). Tale-bearing and unkind insinuations are proscribed, as is hatred of one's brother in one's heart (Lev. 19:17). A revengeful, relentless disposition is unethical; reverence for old age is inculcated; justice shall be done; right weight and just measure are demanded; poverty and riches shall not be regarded by the judge (Lev. 19:15, 18, 32, 36; Ex. 23:3).

Even animals have a right to be treated well, (Ex. 23:4), even one that might belong to one's enemy.

Prophetic ethics

The Biblical prophets exhort all people to lead a righteous life. The ritual elements and sacerdotal institutions incidental to Israel's appointment are regarded as secondary by the preexilic prophets, while the intensely human side is emphasized (Isa. 1:11).

The prophets preached that the people of Israel were chosen by God, not on account of any merit, but as having been "alone singled out" by God; in this view, choseness means that its conduct is under more rigid scrutiny (Amos 3:1-2). Israel is seen as the "wife" (Hosea), or the "bride" (Jer. 2:2-3) of God; in this view, the laws of Judaism are a covenant of love (Hosea 6:7). This leads to the corellary that idolatry is an adulterous abandoning of God. From this infidelity proceed all manner of vice, oppression, untruthfulness. Fidelity, on the other hand, leads to "doing justly and loving mercy" (Micah 6:8).

Kindness to the needy, benevolence, justice, pity to the suffering, a peace-loving disposition, a truly humble and contrite spirit, are the virtues which the Prophets hold up for emulation. Civic loyalty, even to a foreign ruler, is urged as a duty (Jer. 29:7). "Learn to do good" is the key-note of the prophetic appeal (Isa. 1:17); thus the end-time will be one of peace and righteousness; war will be no more (Isa. 2:2 et seq.)

Ethics in rabbinic literature

Hillel the elder formulated the Golden rule of Jewish ethics "What is painful to you, do not do unto others". (Talmud, tracate Shabbat 31a; Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan.) His contemporary, Akiva states "Whatever you hate to have done unto you, do not do to your neighbor; wherefore do not hurt him; do not speak ill of him; do not reveal his secrets to others; let his honor and his property be as dear to thee as thine own" (Midrash Avot deRabbi Natan.)

Ben Azzai says: "The Torah, by beginning with the book of the generations of man, laid down the great rule for the application of the Law: Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19:18; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 24)

Rabbi Simlai taught "Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses; then David came and reduced them to eleven in Psalm 15.; Isaiah (33:15), to six; Micah (6:8), to three; Isaiah again (56:1), to two; and Habakkuk (2:4), to one: 'The just lives by his faithfulness'"

Jewish ethics denies self-abasement. "He who subjects himself to needless self-castigations and fasting, or even denies himself the enjoyment of wine, is a sinner" (Taanit 11a, 22b). A person has to give account for every lawful enjoyment he refuses (Talmud Yer. Ḳid. iv. 66d).

Man is in duty bound to preserve his life (Berachot 32b) and his health. Foods dangerous to health are more to be guarded against than those ritually forbidden.

A person should show self-respect in regard to both his body, "honoring it as the image of God" (Hillel: Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 34), and his garments (Talmud Shabbat 113b; Ned. 81a).

One must remove every cause for suspicion in order to appear blameless before men as well as before God (Yoma 38a).

Man is enjoined to take a wife and obtain posterity (Yeb. 63b; Mek., Yitro, 8). "He who lives without a wife lives without joy and blessing, without protection and peace"; he is "not a complete man" (Yeb. 62a, 63a), and for it he has to give reckoning at the great Judgment Day (Shab. 31a).


Social ethics is defined by Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel's words: "The world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace" (Avot 1:18). Justice ("din," corresponding to the Biblical "mishpat") being God's must be vindicated, whether the object be of great or small value (Sanh. 8a). "Let justice pierce the mountain" is the characteristic maxim attributed to Moses (Sanh. 6b). They that ridicule Talmudic Judaism for its hair-splitting minutiae overlook the important ethical principles underlying its judicial code.

The Talmud denounces as fraud every mode of taking advantage of a man's ignorance, whether he be Jew or Gentile; every fraudulent dealing, every gain obtained by betting or gambling or by raising the price of breadstuffs through speculation, is theft (B. B. 90b; Sanh. 25b). The Talmud denounces advantages derived from loans of money or of victuals as usury; every breach of promise in commerce is a sin provoking God's punishment; every act of carelessness which exposes men or things to danger and damage is a culpable transgression.

The Talmud extends far beyond Biblical statutes responsibility for every object given into custody of a person or found by him. A rabbi in the Talmud opines that putting one's fellow man to shame, in the same category as murder (B. M. 58b), and brands as calumny the spreading of evil reports, even when true. Also forbidden is listening to slanderous gossip, or the causing of suspicion, or the provoking of unfavorable remarks about a neighbor.

Truth and Peace

"The first question asked at the Last Judgment is whether one has dealt justly with his neighbor" (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a).

"A good deed brought about by an evil deed is an evil deed" (Suk. 30a).


The Jewish idea of righteousness ("tzedakah") includes benevolence and charity. The owner of property has no right to withhold from the poor their share.

The Rabbis decreed against Essene practise, and against advice given in the New Testament, that one give away much, most or all of their possessions. Since they did not expect a supernatural saviour to come and take of the poor, they held that one must not make themselves poor. Given that nearly all Jews of their day were poor or middle-class (even the rich of that time were only rich relative to the poor), they ruled that one should not give away than the fifth of his possessions to charity (Ket. 50a; 'Ar. 28a).

Peace and hatred

Peace is everywhere recommended, and urged as the highest boon of man (Midrash Numbers Rabbah xi.; Talmud Pesachim i. 1.) Hatred, quarreling and anger are condemned as unethical, and potentially leading to murder

From the thought of a holy God emanated four virtues: (a) Chastity ("tzeniut" = "bashfulness"), which shuts the eye against unseemly sights and the heart against impure thoughts. Hence R. Meïr's maxim (Ber. 17a): "Keep your mouth from sin, your body from wrong, and I {God} will be with thee." (b) Humility. The presence of God rests only upon the humble (Mek., Yitro, 9; Ned. 38), whereas the proud is like one who worships another god and drives God away (Soṭah 4b). (c) Truthfulness. "Liars, mockers, hypocrites, and slanderers can not appear before God's face" (Sotah 42a). (d) Reverence for God. "Fear of God leads to fear of sin" (Ber. 28b), and includes reverence for parents and teachers.

Sanctification of God's name

The idea of God's holiness became in rabbinical ethics one of the most powerful incentives to pure and noble conduct. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God" (Deut. vi. 5) is explained (Sifre, Deut. 32; Yoma 86a) to mean "Act in such a manner that God will be beloved by all His creatures." Consequently a Jew is not only obliged to give his life as witness or martyr for the maintenance of the true faith, but so to conduct himself in every way as to prevent the name of God from being dishonored by non-Israelites.

The greatest sin of fraud, therefore, is that committed against a non-Israelite, because it leads to the reviling of God's name. The desire to sanctify the name of God leads one to treat adherents of other creeds with the utmost fairness and equity.

Respect for one's fellow creatures is of such importance that Biblical prohibitions may be transgressed on its account (Ber. 19b). Especially do unclaimed dead require respectful burial (see Burial in Jew. Encyc. iii. 432b: "met miẓwah"). Gentiles are to have a share in all the benevolent work of a township which appeals to human sympathy and on which the maintenance of peace among men depends, such as supporting the poor, burying the dead, comforting the mourners, and even visiting the sick (Tosef., Giṭ. v. 4-5; Giṭ. 64a).

Friendship is highly prized in the Talmud; the very word for "associate" is "friend" ("chaver"). "Get thyself a companion" (Abot i. 6). "Companionship or death" (Ta'an. 23a).

Animals and the environment

The Biblical commands regarding the treatment of the brute (Ex. xx. 10; Lev. xxii. 28; Deut. xxv. 4; Prov. xii. 10) are amplified in rabbinical ethics, and a special term is coined for Cruelty to Animals ("tza'ar ba'ale hayyim"). Not to sit down to the table before the domestic animals have been fed is a lesson derived from Deut. xi. 15. Compassion for the brute is declared to have been the merit of Moses which made him the shepherd of his people (Ex. R. ii.), while Judah ha-Nasi saw in his own ailment the punishment for having once failed to show compassion for a frightened calf.

Trees and other things of value also come within the scope of rabbinical ethics, as their destruction is prohibited, according to Deut. xx. 19 (Talmud, tracate Shabbat 105b, 129a, 140b, et al.)


Bioethics is a field of study which concerns the relationship between biology, science, medicine and ethics, philosophy and theology. Jewish bioethicists are usually rabbis who have been trained in medical science and philosophy, but may also be Jewish laypeople experts in medicine and ethics who have received training in Jewish texts. The goal of Jewish bioethics is to use Jewish law and tradition and Jewish ethical literature to determine which medical treatments or technological innovations are moral, when treatments may or may not be used, etc.


  • Bleich, J. D. Contemporary Halakhic Problems. 4 vols, New York: Ktav Publishing House Inc. Yeshiva University Press, 1977
  • Contemporary Jewish Ethics: a Bibliographical Survey, S. D. Breslauer (1985)
  • Modern Jewish Morality: a Bibliographical Survey, S. D. Breslauer (1986)
  • Hebrew Ethical Wills, 2 vols., I. Abrahams (ed.) (1948)
  • Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, Ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman. Oxford University Press, 1995
  • The Business Bible: 10 New Commandments for Bringing Spirituality & ethical values into the workplace, Wayne Dosick, Jewish Lights Publishing
  • Past imperatives: studies in the history and theory of Jewish ethics by Louis E. Newman. Albany : State University of New York Press, c1998.
  • The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, Meir Tamari, Jason Aronson Inc., 1995
  • The Book of Jewish Values, Joseph Telushkin, Bell Tower, 2000.
  • Werblowsky, in: Annual of Jewish Studies, 1 (1964), 95-139;


  • Bleich, J. David. 1981. Judaism and Healing. New York: Ktav
  • Dorff, Elliot N. 1998. Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society
  • Feldman DM. Marital relations, birth control, and abortion in Jewish law. New York: Schocken Books; 1974
  • Freedman B. Duty and healing: foundations of a Jewish bioethic. New York: Routledge; 1999
  • Jakobovits I. Jewish medical ethics. New York: Bloch Publishing; 1959
  • Life & Death Responsibilities in Jewish Biomedical Ethics, Ed. Aaron L. Mackler, JTS, 2000
  • Maibaum M. A "progressive" Jewish medical ethics: notes for an agenda. Journal of Reform Judaism 1986;33(3):27-33.
  • Rosner, Fred Modern medicine and Jewish ethics New York: Yeshiva University Press; 1986
  • Conservative Judaism Vol. 54(3), Spring 2002 (Contains a set of six articles on bioethics)
  • Zohar, Noam J. 1997. Alternatives in Jewish Bioethics. Albany: State University of New York Press

External links

de:Jüdische Ethik


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools