Teaching Your Children about Derech Eretz

How to raise a family of mensches.

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Hakhnasat Orhim:  Welcoming Guests

Welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable is one of the most basic components of derekh eretz. Teach your children how to be good hosts by greeting guests politely at the door, sharing toys, and offering snacks. Your children will learn the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim, and will also learn how to be a polite guest in other people's homes.

Use the Word Mensch Often

Mensch, from the German, "man," is someone who is modest, honest, dependable, and kind to others. When you see someone (child or adult) behaving like a mensch, comment on it. When your children behave like mensches, tell them you’re proud. Identify what it is that they have done that is mensch-like, and how pleased you are that they are such good kids. They will love it, and aspire to be mensches more often…and they’ll be able, as well, to identify these traits in others and recognize them as worthy. The key is to catch your children being good, and let them know just how good they are.

Remember What is Age Appropriate

Last week, I was mortified when I found my generally well-behaved son lying on the floor of our shul lobby, where he appeared to be making snow angels in the carpet. I was, however, aware that it was at least an hour past his bedtime, he was hungry, and he is two. So after scooping him up and taking him home, I reflected on the need to identify what is age appropriate behavior, and when we expect our kids to be "too good."  If we aspire to teach our children about derekh eretz, and expect them to be model citizens, we have to provide settings where they can succeed. Children who are tired, hungry, and in places where grown-up behavior is expected often act out. If you can minimize those opportunities for misbehavior, you’ll be surprised by how good your children can be.

Make Shabbat the Ideal

When we experiment with new behaviors, we need a safe space in which to practice. Shabbat can be that laboratory for every Jewish family; the day to aspire to be our most polite, most respectful and best selves. If we wear our most beautiful clothing, enjoy the tastiest meals, and sanctify our blessings with the most beautiful of ritual objects on Shabbat, then we can also be our most beautiful selves by using our most respectful and welcoming language and behavior. Invite guests and practice on them!

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we learn from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah:  "If there is no Torah, there is no derekh eretz. And if there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah (3:21)."  Jewish tradition and Jewish practice are intertwined with Jewish behaviors. One does not come before the other, but instead each one complements the other. By aspiring to lives filled with derekh eretz, we can teach our children that there is always room for change and growth, and that love, appreciation and respect are very Jewish words.

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Sara Shapiro-Plevan

Sara Shapiro-Plevan serves as the Coordinator of Congregational Education for New York City for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.