Towards a Definition of Humility

  • by: Sol Roth
  • Submitted on May 15, 2007

This article originally appeared in TRADITION, Volume 13, 1973

Judaism requires humility on both religious and human grounds. It is a necessary ingredient in the religious perspective and is indispensable in social relations. The importance assigned to this character trait is considerable. In the Torah – the written and the oral – humility is associated prominently with Judaism’s most outstanding representatives. No one was ever as humble as Moses.1 One shall strive to be as humble as Hillel.2 Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, was so proficient in this virtue that, by comparison, none of his survivors were to be regarded as humble. As the Talmud put it, “When Rebbe died, humility disappeared.”3

The idea of humility is rich in content and inextricably bound to other principles and precepts included in the complex system of Jewish ethics. In this essay, its wealth of meaning will be explored and its centrality in that system will be exhibited. This essay is offered as a proposal for the characterization of the Jewish conception of humility.


A careful analysis reveals two independent conceptions of humility expounded in Talmudic literature: (1) The religious conception – the humble person is one who believes that his achievements and acquisitions are the result of Divine benevolence rather than personal power or merit. (2) The moral conception – the humble person is one who believes that his personal achievements and acquisitions, whatever they may be, provide no grounds for the judgment that he is superior to his fellow men.

The first conception is formulated in the Semag. He explains the verse “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God”4 as a warning that “the children of Israel shall not feel pride when the Holy One, blessed be He, brings them blessing and they shall not say that they accumulated these blessings through their own effort and thus fail to acknowledge the good which they received from the Holy One, blessed be He, because of their pride.”5 Rabbeinu Yonah, on the other hand, on the verse which commands the king that “his heart be not lifted up above his brethren”6 declares “We are warned in this command to remove from our souls the quality of pride and that the big man shall not behave with arrogance towards the small man but that he shall always be of humble spirit.”7 This statement is an expression of the moral conception. Both conceptions are formulated as prohibitions against pride but humility admits of degrees and, at its lowest, it is simply the negation of pride.

The claim that these formulations represent two conceptions rather than one is based, first, on the fact that they are factually and logically independent. One may, in behavior, exhibit the religious attitude without the moral and vice versa. One may recognize his attainments and possessions as the products of Divine grace and display humility in relation to God and yet treat men with contempt if, in his judgment, their successes fall short of his. On the other hand, it is possible that a person does not believe his attainments to be in any way superior and yet, meager though they are, to identify himself as their sole and exclusive cause – in which case he is religiously arrogant and morally humble. Both types are numerous and abundantly available to human experience.

But, secondly, it should be noted that humility is a relational conception, that is to say, it does not denote a quality that may be affirmed or denied of an individual but a relation into which an individual enters merely as a term. For, it is evident that, from the philosophic point of view, the declaration of the humble, namely “I am unimportant,” does not assert that he possesses a certain quality as is the case, for example, with the statement “I am white.” Rather does it assert a relation in the same way as the declaration: “I am tall!” Tallness is not an intrinsic property of an individual. It designates a relation that obtains between the individual and some standard or some other individual. Analogously, unimportance denotes a relation to some standard or to some entity. The humble person may therefore assert unimportance either in relation to God or in comparison with man. But in the two cases the meaning of unimportance differs. In one it means dependence on God; in the other it signifies that success is no basis for the judgment of superiority. These two conceptions are independent. It should also be noted, in passing, that this relational aspect of humility makes it logically possible for a person to experience simultaneously the polar sentiments of importance and unimportance. But more of this later.

By way of further clarification, it should be added that the claim that there are two conceptions of humility should not be construed as the suggestion that there are differences of opinion among the interpreters of Torah as to which of these two is an imperative of Halakhah. The dispute among the sages focuses exclusively on the question as to which of the two should be assigned primacy. Some include the prohibition on one form of arrogance among the 613 commandments and some include the other in that list;8 none removes from his conception of the humble personality the element stressed by the other. Thus, Ramban, whose emphasis coincides with that of Rabbeinu Yonah and who maintains that the Biblical root of the prohibition on arrogance deals with human relations, writes, “I will therefore explain how you shall conduct yourself as a humble man…. Every man shall be greater than you in your eyes . . . In all your speaking, acting and thinking regard yourself as though you were in the presence of God.”9 A full characterization of the humble personality must therefore, according to Ramban, take into account man’s relation to God as well.

Further, arrogance and humility, at their lowest level, are correlative notions. A person is arrogant if he regards himself as the cause of his achievements or if he believes them to be the ground of his superiority. One who avoids these attitudes is humble.

The arrogant person is intellectually in error. One who exemplifies the religious conception of arrogance may declare either “My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth”10or “For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me to possess this land,”11 that is, he asserts that his achievements are due to his own power or personal merit. In the first case he errs in that he fails to recognize the Almighty as at least a part cause of his success – one may plant the seeds but he cannot produce the rain – and even as the ultimate source of all the powers he is able to activate. In the second case, he errs in that he overemphasizes the good of which he is the source and underestimates the evil of which he is also the origin.

The morally arrogant person contends that he is better than others. This claim presupposes a standard by which he may be compared with others. It may be a standard of physical strength, material accumulation, intellectual achievement, social status, etc. But whatever may be the standard that impresses him as most important, the arrogant individual believes that he ranks higher on the scale than those by whom he is surrounded and that consequently he is the better man. His error, in this case, may be rooted in any of three misconceptions. He may be mistaken in his value system. If, for example, he regards material accumulation to be of highest value, he errs in the standard he selects. He may also stray from the truth in his judgment. If piety and morality should be his choice of the ultimate standard, his estimate of his own attainments in relation to those of others may not be accurate. Finally, if human life is of unlimited value, one may, if his standard is good and his judgment right, maintain “My deeds are better than his” but he is not generally justified in declaring “I am better than he.” He simply has no way of estimating the value of his life in comparison with the life of another in order to make the invidious comparison.

Two important conclusions which contribute to the understanding of the idea of humility follow from this discussion. First, humility is a function of two things: attainments and attitudes. If one who has lived a life filled with failures refrains from attributing whatever meager success he has accumulated to his own competence or avoids the sentiment that he is to his own competence or avoids the sentiment that he is superior to others, his attitude, while praiseworthy, cannot be identified as one of great humility – no matter how small the value he assigns to himself. To be outstanding in humility, one must first be outstanding in achievements. “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all men that were upon the face of the earth.”12 To match the humility of Moses, one must first reach his greatness.

Second, the sense of humility is not the same as the psychological sense of inferiority. If a person suffers from the latter sentiment, he feels incapable and incompetent. His very feeling may interfere with his performance. The humble person believes himself to be – not incompetent – but unimportant. He recognizes the successes he has achieved; he is even aware of their value; he simply avoids attaching great importance to himself because of these successes. When Moses declared, “Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt,”13 he was expressing humility; when he insisted, “For I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue”14 he was declaring incompetence. The humble person, notwithstanding his humility, is capable of great achievement.


The beliefs described above however, do not exhaust the meaning of humility. Humility is exhibited in feeling as well. It is clear that the sentiment that should be experienced by the personality who exemplifies the religious conception of humility is gratitude. If I must credit God with my success, if I am obligated to acknowledge Him as the ultimate source of all powers I am able to activate, then I should be grateful for all the blessings that He has seen fit to bestow upon me. On the other hand, the individual who exemplifies the moral conception of humility should experience what we may call the sentiment of equality. If no matter what his attainments may be, he is not to judge himself superior – and, according to the definition offered in the preceding section, there is no requirement to assign to himself a value that will reduce him to a level that is inferior – he should experience himself to be the equal of others.

These two attitudes, namely, gratitude to God and equality in relation to man are in fact mandatory. Rambam declares that, as part of prayer, we are obligated “to give praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty for the good that he bestowed upon us.”15 The demand that we cultivate a sense of equality was put in the Talmud in the form of a suggestion. “A favorite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was: I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say that I do much and he does little? We have learned: One may do much or one may do little, it is all one provided he directs his heart to heaven.”16

But, an examination of Biblical and rabbinic declarations reveals that more is required than the sentiments that are the concomitants of the beliefs here described. Thus the Semag, in elaborating upon the religious conception of humility applauds the attitude exhibited by King David who declared, “But I am a worm and no man”17 and adds “I am obligated to view myself as a worm who hides beneath the dust in shame.”18 We may also recall the patriarch’s expression when he was appealing to God in behalf of the people of Sodom, “But I am dust and ashes.”19 It is characteristic of the religious personality when contemplating or addressing Deity to regard himself as of an infinitesimal quantity, as a speck of dust in a vast ocean of unlimited space, as a thoroughly insignificant entity. A philosopher expressed this well. “Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in a remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is man in the Infinite?”20 Now this attitude seems to be the counterpart of another belief altogether, not that God is the source of all my blessings but that in relation to God I am an infinitesimal and wholly meaningless entity.

Under the heading of the moral conception of humility, it appears that more is required than the feeling of equality. Ramban, for example, demands of the humble personality that he direct attention to his own failings and that he stress the achievements of others. “Every man should be great in your eyes. If he is wise or wealthy, it is your duty to honor him. If he is poor and you are richer or wiser than he, consider that you are more guilty than he and he more innocent than you.”21 This posture seems to involve, not so much an objective belief as the deliberate adoption of an attitude. The humble personality does not prepare a balance sheet of assets and liabilities which are evaluated and weighted in order to arrive at a total which may be compared with that of somebody else. He deliberately under scores his own weaknesses while emphasizing the strengths of others. He adopts an attitude which is both subjective and selfless.

We must conclude that each of the two conceptions – the religious and the moral – may be exemplified in the humble personality in various degrees. Humility is a quantitative conception. In the preceding section attention was directed to the lowest levels at which the concept of humility may be exemplified. We are now concerned with the ultimate in humble behavior. Under the heading of the religious conception, the individual who has attained to the first level believes that God is, at least, a partial cause of his achievements, while the one who has reached the highest level declares that he is totally insignificant in comparison with God. In the category of the moral, the humble personality, on the lower level, believes that his successes do not justify the judgment of superiority, while on the higher level, he is determined to demonstrate that he is inferior. Each of these beliefs is accompanied by the appropriate feelings – the feelings of gratitude and insignificance in relation to God, and the sentiments of equality and inferiority in relation to man.

It seems appropriate, in each of the two conceptions, to distinguish between the anav and the shefal ruach. The anav is grateful and accepts the idea of equality. The shefal ruach goes beyond theanav by insisting on his own insignificance and on his weaknesses in relation to others. Rambam directed attention to these extremes in humble behavior in the following passage: “It is not good that a man shall be humble (anav) alone, but that he shall be meek (shefal ruach) and that his spirit shall be very low.22


The concept of humility requires further clarification. It has been said that the humble person entertains certain beliefs and experiences certain feelings. But these, in the genuinely humble personality, must be translated into actions. How then shall we define humility behaviorally? To what kind of actions do these beliefs and feelings give rise?

It is not possible within the limited scope of this essay to give an exhaustive account of all the behavioral patterns that should be associated with the posture of humility. A few illustrations, however, will suffice for the purpose of elucidation.

One who is humble (anav) in the religious sense would, among other things, be satisfied with his portion in the world (sameach bechalko). If to God belongs the credit of human achievement, man may not claim or demand anything he does not possess as a matter of right. Humility then sets the boundary to human ambition in the material domain. Thus Baachya declares that one who is humble “should be contented with whatever means of livelihood present themselves and with whatever he finds.”23 The shefal ruach, however, in addition to behavior of the type just described must also be prepared to act in a manner that would express his sense of personal insignificance when relating to the Almighty. Thus Baachya cites, in order to illustrate, the act of Aaron the High Priest who performed the menial task of collecting the ashes of the burnt offering which the fire had consumed, and the leaping and dancing of King David, behavior unbecoming to a man of his stature, when he was expressing gratitude to God.24

One who is an anav in a moral sense, i.e., he does not believe that his achievements justify the judgment that he is superior, does not wish to exercise authority over others. Thus, Shmaya urged us to “hate lordship.”25 But the shfal ruach who emphasizes his own weakness and the strengths of others, is one who is patient with human failings. He accepts their foibles and their insults. The Talmud recommends that we shall be as humble as Hillel. The essence of the entire tale which follows the precept and which is intended to illustrate the humility of Hillel is that he refused to respond with anger to deliberate provocation.”26 He was patient. The Talmud also praises those “who are put to shame and do no put others to shame, hear themselves reviled and do not retort; do everything out of love and rejoice in their own suffering.”27 The patience of the humble leads to forgiveness.

In sum, the humble person entertains certain beliefs, experiences certain feelings and performs certain actions. In the characterization of humility in this essay, all three – beliefs, feelings, and actions – have been taken into account.


The feeling of self importance which is, under certain conditions, a manifestation of pride is not entirely proscribed. According to one view in a Talmudic debate, a minimal quantity of pride is required for a specified group of people. In a passage of the Mishnah, a variety of the sense of self-importance is declared to be mandatory for all.

In a well known passage of the Talmud we are told. “R. Hiyya b. Ashi said in the name of Rab: A disciple of the sages should possess an eighth (of pride) R. Huna the son of R. Joshua said: (This small amount of pride) crowns him like the awn of the grain. Raba said: (a disciple of the sages) who possesses (haughtiness of spirit) deserves excommunication, and if he does not possess it he deserves excommunication. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He should not possess it or part of it.”28

Setting aside the question as to how this debate fares in the Halakhah, the following observations are relevant. First, it is the Talmid Chacham who is permitted to display the minimum amount of pride even according to those sages cited in the a passage who condone it. Second, Rashi views the grounds of justification for such pride as entirely practical. He declares in his commentary that thetalmid chacham must have a little arrogance in order that the simple minded will accept his authority. It would be appropriate to suggest that, under the circumstances, it is only the act of pride that should be deemed necessary, not the corresponding feeling or belief.

This last point is stressed by the Meiri who discussed at great length the suggestion that certain individuals must exhibit pride on practical grounds. In addition to the class of talmidei chachamimhe recognizes the importance of pride for that smaller group of people who carry on their shoulders the burden of political authority. They too must arouse, even to a greater degree than the talmidchacham, reverence and respect. In support of this contention he cites the advice given by Rabbi Judah the Prince (himself outstanding in humility) to his son who was to be his successor, “conduct your patriarchate with pride”29 and the Meiri explains that this quality was not to be become part of his nature; he was merely urged to act in a manner required by his position.30

Another form of proud behavior was urged by the Meiri, and also for practical reasons, for the average person. It is the type of pride that prompts an individual to dissociate himself from those in society whose behavior is deficient by moral and religious standards. To verify the legitimacy of this category of practical pride, he cites the Talmudic passage, “The fair minded of the people in Jerusalem used to act thus: They would not sign a deed without knowing who would sign with them; they would not sit in judgment unless they knew who was to sit with them; and they would not sit at a table without knowing their fellow diners.”31

By way of further clarification of the permissible forms of pride, the following observations are in order. First, these forms describe exceptions to the requirements of the moral variety of humility, not the religious variety. They describe circumstances in which one may act with pride in relation to his fellow man, not in relation to God.

Second, the sanction for these exceptions to humble behavior derives from the necessity to enforce moral and religious values upon society and to preserve such values in one’s personal behavior. The Talmid Chacham and the Nasi are obligated to inspire and enforce obedience to laws that express the values of Torah. The individual must refrain from exposing himself to environmental conditions, e.g., the company of scoundrels, that would weaken his inclination to moral and religious behavior. Proud actions that are approved are therefore motivated by commitment rather than by the sense of self-importance.

It follows that if proud behavior is irrelevant to the enforcement or preservation of value it cannot be countenanced. This will perhaps explain Maimonides’ endorsement of an extreme instance of humility in which a man of deep piety traveling on a ship responded with joy in a situation in which he experienced great humiliation.32

The Mishnah, however, in another well-known passage, declares that the feeling of self importance is a necessity for all. “Therefore, every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake.”33 And Rashi explains this declaration to mean “I am as important as the entire world. I will not therefore banish myself from the world even with a single transgression.”

It should be noted, in the first place, that this feeling of self-importance is required universally, for all. Further, it is not a minimal quantity of self-importance that is urged but a maximum amount. According to Rashi, each man shall regard himself as equal in value to the entire natural world. Finally it is not merely the act which expresses self-importance that is demanded but the correlative feeling and belief as well.

It is also noteworthy that the words which mean pride or arrogance do not occur at all in the Mishnah’s formulation of precept. The Mishnah then does not appear to regard this judgment as at all relevant to the question of pride. On the contrary, the very same circumstance which is cited by the Mishnah in justification of the demand that everyone experience a sense of self-importance is also described as the basis for a sentiment which belongs among the experiences of humility. The circumstance is that man was created alone. This is taken by the Mishnah to imply many things – among them that “one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than thine’ (i.e., he shall be humble about his ancestry) and that each person shall believe himself to be of highest value (an experience which apparently belongs to the category of pride).

This merely apparent inconsistency may be easily resolved. Its resolution turns on the fact that humility is a relational conception. The humble individual experiences himself as unimportant in relation to God (the religious conception) and to man (the moral conception). But there is no objection to a feeling of self-importance, even to a maximum degree, by any standard and in relation to any object, which is consistent with the experience of unimportance in relation to God and man. In one relation it is even required.

Consider a standard according to which the animate is assigned greater value than the inanimate, the rational is considered superior to the merely animate, etc. This criterion would clearly assign to man, a being created in the image of God, a very high rank on the scale of value. An individual cannot, in virtue of the possession of this quality, regard himself as important in relation to God who is its ultimate source, or to his fellow man who is endowed with the identical quality. On the contrary, it is possible – it is even required that – he deem himself unworthy in these relations because man is nothing in the infinite and because he should always seek excellence in others while diverting attention to his own weaknesses. Nevertheless, by the standard here described, he is obligated to experience a profound sense of self-importance in virtue of his location in the scheme of creation. Thus King David who, in addressing God, compared himself to a worm groveling in the dust, in comparison to the rest of creation, judged himself (and others) to be but a little less than angels.34

This sense of self-importance is required. Rashi, in his comment in the Mishnah cited above, stated that a man’s sense of self-esteem will help him to avoid sin. We may generalize this view. Man’s behavior will depend, to a large extent, on the image he projects of himself. It makes a great deal of difference in terms of human action — if we may use some ancient distinctions — whether man regards himself as a rational animal or as a two-legged animal without feathers. There is a vast difference in the individual and social behavior patterns of those who believe themselves to be the bearers of the Tzelem E-lo-kim (the image of God) and those who regard themselves as structured bits of matter, complex though they may be, or as brothers to the apes.

The human being logically and psychologically can and morally must view himself as of unlimited value in one relation though he believes himself unworthy and insignificant in relation to the Divine source of all being.


In Rabbinic literature, humility is not counted as merely one of a number of virtues — each with equal status. Rather is it judged to be a central virtue35 — and for several reasons. First, its centrality is due to its moral status. Again, we turn to a discussion on arrogance to shed light on its correlative, humility. The Talmud declares36 that, on one view, arrogance is the moral equivalent of adultery and incest. According to another opinion, it is equivalent to idolatry or atheism. As the Talmud puts it, the arrogant person is to be viewed “as though” (K’ilu) he enjoyed illicit relations with those who are forbidden to him; “as though” he served the gods of the heathens, “as though” he denied the existence of God. On these conceptions, a true estimate of the character of arrogance compels the conclusion that it belongs in the same category as adultery, incest, idolatry and atheism. If we take into account the moral standard formulated in the literature of the Talmud, we arrive at the result that arrogance is among the most serious violations of the precepts of Torah. It belongs in the category of those precepts which we are not permitted to violate even when threatened with death.

If humility is as much a virtue as arrogance is vice, we may infer that, by the same moral standard, humility ranks among those virtues that are highest on the scale. This is what Ramban intended when he wrote that “humility is the best of all the virtues.”37 Baachya echoed the same sentiments when he wrote, “It follows that all virtues are secondary to humility which is the head and front of them all.”38

But, secondly, humility is judged to be central in the Jewish system of ethics because of its practical consequences. Ramban regards the virtue of humility as sufficient for the exemplification of the attitude of reverence which in turn leads to fear of God and avoidance of sin. “Through humility there will emerge in your heart the virtue of reverence for you will consider always from whence you came and where you are going… and when you will think of all this, you will fear your Maker and you will avoid sin.” 39

The Talmud, furthermore, cites the view that arrogance leads to adultery. “Anyone who is arrogant will ultimately stumble with another man’s wife.”40 The attitude of arrogance is thus declared to be psychologically adequate to the commission of a serious crime. Another major consequence of arrogance is cited in the Torah. “Your heart will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God,”41 a circumstance which, in turn, may lead to a denial of His existence. All qualities of character involve behavioral consequences but arrogance leads to results which, by the Jewish standard of morality, are the most serious of all, namely, atheism and adultery.

These two grounds of the centrality of humility are, however, not independent of each other. A distinction that is relevant to this discussion will serve to clarify their relationship. We must separate virtues (or traits of character) from the actions that illustrate the virtues. A person may be said to possess a certain moral quality if the habit to act in accordance with the related moral rule has become part of his psychological anatomy. Such a person is expected to exhibit the quality in question, in most instances, when the occasion arises. A just man acts justly out of habit, out of an acquired inclination. An action, on the other hand, need not be motivated by a corresponding moral habit, i.e., by a quality of character. It may reflect a passing impulse. An unjust individual does, on occasion, act justly.

Now a moral theory may include the formulation of a standard by which both actions and habits may be evaluated. Or, the moral theory may concern itself exclusively with action. While the primary interest of Halakhah is the specification of rules for action, habits which give rise to behavior in conformity with these rules are endorsed and those that result in violations of the precepts are rejected. In the case of arrogance, that rejection may take the form of assigning to the habit the identical moral status that belongs to the actions to which it gives rise. This is the view of those who declare that the person with whom arrogance is a habit is to be viewed “as though” he had committed the cardinal crimes of adultery, idolatry, etc.42 Or, the rejection may take the form of pointing out the consequences of this trait and encouraging its avoidance. Thus, according to another interpretation, arrogance leads to adultery. Analogously, humility may be assigned the moral status identical to that possessed by the actions to which it gives rise; or it may be encouraged on the grounds that it leads to these actions.

In one sense, therefore, humility is central because it results in actions to which Judaism has assigned the highest moral status, and, on one view, because it also belongs to the same oral category. Baachya, however, suggested another ground for its centrality.

Baachya identifies humility as a necessary condition for the possession of any of the other virtues, that is to say, a person cannot exemplify in his behavior any other virtue if he does not possess humility. “It also follows that no virtue can exist in anyone whose heart is devoid of humility before God.”43 According to Baachya, therefore, though, for example, not every humble person is penitent, no one can be penitent if, he is not humble.

Baachya’s claim, however, is not clear. Two questions are relevant. First, did Baachya insist on “humility before God” as a necessary condition, for the exercise of all virtues including those that are characteristic of human relations or did he have in mind only those that belong under the heading of piety. The virtue that he used to illustrate his point is penitence which surely belongs to the category of piety. But of even greater significance is the second question which incidentally is not unrelated to the first. When Baachya demands humility as a necessary ingredient of all virtues, is he making a factual claim or proposing a definition? Is he declaring that, on the Jewish view, humility enters into the definition of each virtue? – in which case, no quality of character that is not accompanied by humility could be a virtue by definition. Or, are the various virtues sufficiently defined without the inclusion of’ the element of humility? – in which case the statement that humility is a necessary condition of all virtues, i.e., that wherever one finds virtue, there one finds humility, is a factual generalization in regard to human nature.

It would appear, from factual considerations, that Baachya’s claim can be defended only if it formulates a generalization about the definition of the virtues in the context of Jewish ethical theory. Consider the illustration that Baachya employed viz. repentance. Suppose repentance meant no more than regret for past transgressions accompanied by a resolution to avoid similar violations in the future. Experience provides illustrations of those who are not endowed with the virtue of humility before God (atheists, for example), but who recognize and acknowledge the sanction of certain moral rules, are guilt stricken when they violate them, experience a sense of regret on those occasions, and affirm the appropriate resolutions. If Baachya’s claim is correct, however, this sequence would not be a genuine example of repentance. This conclusion could be maintained, only, if Judaism were held to define the virtues in such a way that nothing can be a virtue if it does not include the sense of “humility before God.”44

On this interpretation, it is probable that Baachya regards “humility before God” as an ingredient, not merely of the virtues in the category of piety, but of all virtues. For Baachya is not engaged in the task of psychological analysis of moral conceptions but in their religious definitions. Accordingly, by way of illustration, one may on the basis of purely social considerations extend the hand of generosity to the poor. But it would not be tzedakah unless the act was also motivated or, at least, accompanied by “humility before God.”


This essay is not offered as a detailed account of the entire domain of human behavior to which the qualities of pride and humility are relevant, but as a brief survey of its landmarks and major approaches. It is a preface to humility.


1Numbers 12:3.

2 Shabbat, 306.

3 Sotah, 49a.

3a. In Sefer Hamaspik (Jerusalem, Alpha, 1965), P. 53 Avraham ben Ha Rambam distinguishes between what I have designated the religious and moral conceptions of humility.

4Deuteronomy 8:11.

5 Sefer Mitzvot Gadol – negative commandment 64.

6Deuteronomy 17:20.

7 Sharei Teshuva — Gate 3, letter 34.

8Some, Rambam, for example, exclude both conceptions from list of 613 commandments.

9 Kitvei Rambam — (Jerusalem, Mosed Harav Kook, 1963) Book I, P. 374.

While the concept of humility formulated here belongs under a heading that will be characterized in the next section of this essay, it is clear that Ramban regards the humble personality as exemplifying both the religious and themoral conceptions.

10Deuteronomy 8:17.

11 Ibid., 19:4.

12Numbers 12:3.

13Exodus 3:11.

14 Ibid., 4:10.

15 Yad, Hilkhot Tefillah I, 2.

16 Berakhot, 17a.

17Psalms, 22:7.

18 Op. Cit., Negative commandment 64.

19Genesis 18:27.

20Pascal, Pensees, par. 72.

21Ramban, op. cit.

22 Yad., Hilkhot Deot. II, 3.

23 Chovet Halevovot, Sixth Treatise, ch. VI.

24 Ibid.

25 Avot I, 11.

26 Shabbat, 31a.

27 Pesachim, 88b.

28 Sotah, 5a.

29 Ketuvot, 103b.

30 Chibur Hateshuvah (Talpiot, Yeshiva U. 1963), p. 121 ff

31 Sanhedrin, 23a.

32Maimonides’ Comments on Ethics of the Fathers, Ch. IV, par. 4.

33 Sanhedrin, 37a.

34Psalms 8:6.

35There is a Talmudic debate (Avodah Zorah 20b) as to whether chasidut or anavah is the greatest of all virtues. Even if one chooses in favor of chasidut, humility may still be regarded as central.

Note too that the distinction drawn in the body of this essay between two conceptions of humility will not be applied in this section. In the sources that will be quoted that distinction is not explicitly made (with the exception of the passage taken from the ChovotHolevovot). Further, the Talmudic passages to which reference will be made speak — not of the concepts of arrogance and humility — but of the arrogant and humble personalities. It may be assumed that the typical arrogant or humble personality exemplifies both conceptions.

36 Sotah 4b ff.

37Ramban, op. cit.

38Baachya, op. cit., Ch. VIII.

39Ramban, op. cit.

40 Sotah 4b.

41Deuteronomy 8:14.

42The Talmudic passage in question speaks of mi she-yesh lo gassie haruach. Two interpretations of this phrase, as it is employed here, are, in fact, possible.

(1) It refers to a person who is actually experiencing the feeling of arrogance.

(2) It refers to a person who has cultivated the habit of arrogance, though he may not at the moment be experiencing the relevant sentiments. The severity of the pronouncements, however, lend support to interpretation that it is the habit rather than an individual act is the subject of the judgment.

43Baachya, op. cit.

44This conclusion seems to be suggested by the passage in Baachya as well. After making the point that “no moral quality can possibly exist in any one whose heart is devoid of humility before God,” he writes, “Thus also the beginning of repentance is loneliness, submissiveness and humility, as Scripture saith ‘If my people which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face’ (II Chronicles 7:14). Further it is said, ‘They have humbled themselves; I will not destroy them’ (ibid., 12:7).”

In this passage, as Baachya apparently interpreted it, Divine forgiveness which is a response to repentance is described as following on humility. Humility is then at the core of the act of repentance; it is not something that stands at the periphery of penitence and with which it is merely invariably connected.

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