Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Social Conduct

East European Jewish civilization generated constantly evolving concepts of social conduct formed in relation to class, regional character, ideology, gender, and Jews’ relationships to non-Jews and non-Jewish culture. There was a continual tension between behavior that might be considered dictated by Jewish law and conduct beyond the strict scope of the law, and between that which was regarded as ethics and what was merely etiquette.

The theoretical foundation of what constituted proper behavior for Jews in Eastern Europe was halakhah or Jewish law, including the rules found in the minor Talmudic tractate Derekh erets (lit., “way of the land,” and referring to proper conduct in society); the latter term itself came to define the semantic touchstone, continuing into the modern period, for proper conduct among Jews. A body of “conduct literature,” published and reissued in the Yiddish vernacular beginning in the seventeenth century, treated subjects as varied as how to greet someone on the street (“When one shakes someone’s hand, . . . extend the right hand in order to show a friendly and cordial attitude”) and proper conduct in the bathhouse.

Though the authors of vernacular conduct books (Yid., mineg-sforim) address both male and female readers in their prefaces, women are isolated as particular objects of social discipline. Elḥanan Henle ben Binyamin Volf Kirkhhan, the author of Sefer simḥat ha-nefesh (1727) for instance, disapproves of “unmarried girls [who] go everywhere without chaperones,” and of women who “drink a great deal of nonkosher wine at weddings and circumcisions,” who do not keep the laws of family purity properly, or who raise their voices “like prostitutes” and do not tolerate reprimand. Often, authors identify what they consider poor social conduct as behavior that is also in violation of Jewish law, even when the infraction is not obvious: “[Women] ought not to eat quickly, nor drink like wild animals that convulse and gorge. . . . It is a sin to disgust others” (Baumgarten, 2005, p. 231). The castigating tone reserved for female readers clearly attests to the community’s general anxieties and its suspicion of women. Drunkenness “is a very serious, shameful sin for men, and thus even more so for women. For she will talk a lot and reveal many secrets” (ibid.). The books do reflect an understanding of social conduct as something separate from the law, though the authors nonetheless invoke God and Torah learning as the underlying motivations for heeding their message.

East European Jewish society cultivated an idea of social status that reflected the particular socioeconomic life of Jews and the privileged place of Torah learning in their culture. In addition to wealth, yikhes (prestigious ancestry) and Torah learning were the most important measures of a family’s status. Also idiosyncratic to this culture was the widely used term eydl (lit., “refined”), denoting positive traits ranging from aristocratic (aristokratish was also a commonly heard compliment), in the sense of having a noble bearing, to generous and well-mannered. Traditionally, the word was used favorably to describe an eligible bachelor devoted to Torah learning, an image of the Jewish male that arguably repudiates the non-Jewish ideal image of a man as strong and aggressive.

Education and literacy, in particular, were important indicators of social order and ideals. There was a politics of literacy that maintained a clear social distinction between scholars of traditional Jewish erudition and the less educated masses while insulating Jewish society from the influences of European culture. The measure of a man or woman’s social status typically found concrete expression when the person became a bride or groom, by way of his or her match; other indicators of status were where a person sat in the synagogue, with which ‘aliyah (calling to the Torah) the rabbi honored a man in the synagogue, and who was considered the representative of the community in the eyes of non-Jews and visitors.

East European Jewish approaches to social conduct indicate a number of internal subcultures, among which the “Litvak” (designating Jews of Lithuanian origin) was distinguished by discipline in learning and conduct; an exemplary Litvak, the Gaon of Vilna, for instance, emphasized restraining desire and appetites. The Gaon’s stress on conduct of an ascetic nature was later transformed, supplemented, and more widely propagated by Yisra’el Salanter, founder of the Musar movement, and his disciples. Salanter called for all behavior to be considered in light of ethical consequences, thereby eliminating the distinction between social conduct and ethical behavior.

In Hasidism’s teachings and its lived example, the movement expressed competing ideas about social status. On the one hand, Hasidic leaders sought to diminish the significance of Torah learning, which they thought generated snobbery toward the unlearned; all, they argued, must be treated with kindness and respect. At the same time, some Hasidic rebbes modeled their behavior after that of Polish noblemen: in the large courts they cultivated, in the strict gatekeeping that controlled access to them on the part of their supplicants, and in the entourages with which they traveled. An elaborate set of norms governing proper conduct in the presence of the rebbe evolved in such courts.

Maskilim (Jewish followers of the Enlightenment) divided the realm of social conduct into secular and sacred spheres. With respect to the first, they argued that Jews needed to assimilate aspects of social conduct identified as European or secular. The maskil Naftali Herts Wessely maintained that certain aspects of civility that Jews should imbibe constituted torat ha-adam—the teachings of man, in contradistinction to torat ha-Elohim, the teachings of God. Maskilim also believed that proper behavior on the part of Jews would follow from sartorial changes—a shorter jacket, shaved sidelocks—that would erase exterior distinctions between themselves and gentiles and would become part and parcel of more enlightened comportment and social behavior. Aspects of Jews’ behavior and appearance, argued maskilim, were but adventitious customs that needlessly prolonged barriers between Jews and non-Jews.

The influence of ideology on social conduct could extend to the areas of profession, language, and clothing. Simḥah Zalkind Eliashev, who was exposed to the Haskalah as a youth (before he turned to the Musar movement), “learned how to read German, became an accomplished Hebrew stylist, and also learned bookkeeping,” embodying the ideal Jew as envisioned by the reformers. The writer Yekhezkl Kotik, a young Hasid who traveled to a large city eager to satisfy his curiosity about Haskalah, untucked his pants from his boots in order to appear more modern and to mix with local maskilim. According to him, his parents were devastated to discover even this slight alteration in his appearance. A memoirist, Chaim Aronson, observed one family of modest income that strained to project a “German” lifestyle at great financial cost: “A woman came to the house daily to teach the eldest daughter to play the piano,” and the daughter also attended the local non-Jewish school to learn language and literature. Moreover, “the house was kept tidy and clean, in the usual German manner” (Aronson, 1983, p. 163). Aronson also encountered more than one man who pretended to know German.

Economics, on the other hand, drove Jews’ social conduct to evolve in ways that lacked ideological purity. Because Jews had to face the exigencies of earning a living, for example, the nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in knowledge of foreign languages on the part of women in communities in which men had little or no knowledge of them. Some women assumed important roles in their family businesses and attained a level of worldliness that their husbands had no aspiration to achieve. Journalist Aleksander Zederbaum observed how the embourgeoisement of a Hasidic community in 1871 led Jews to dress in the manner of non-Jews to the extent that Jewish law allowed, including the wearing of wigs (shaytls) when that practice was still regarded as contested behavior in the eyes of many rabbis.

Suggested Reading

Chaim Aronson, A Jewish Life under the Tsars: The Autobiography of Chaim Aronson, 1825–1888, trans. and ed. Norman Marsden (Totowa, N.J., 1983); Jean Baumgarten, Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature, ed. and trans. Jerold Frakes (Oxford and New York, 2005); Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley, 1997); Dat yehudit ke-hilkhatah (Jerusalem, 1972/73); Immanuel Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia, 1993); Judah A. Joffe and Yudel Mark, eds., “Eydl,” in Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh, vol. 2j, pp. 1067–1068 (New York, 1966); Yekhezkel Kotik, Mah she-ra’iti: Zikhronotav shel Yeḥezkel Kotik, ed. David Assaf, vol. 2, Na‘ va-nad (Tel Aviv, 2005); Iris Parush and Anna Brenner, “The Politics of Literacy: Women and Foreign Languages in Jewish Society of 19th-Century Eastern Europe,” Modern Judaism 15.2 (1995): 183–206; Adam Teller, “Hasidism and the Challenge of Geography: The Polish Background to the Spread of the Hasidic Movement,” AJS Review 30.1 (March 2006): 1–29.