Walking the Walk
"The Torah scholar should not walk with erect stature and head held
(lit., 'throat thrust out') as it states '[...for the daughters of Zion
are haughty,] and they walk with outstretched throats and gazing (or
winking) eyes' (Isaiah 3:16). He should not walk [in small, delicate
steps, placing his] heel beside [his other foot's] big toe, casually, as
do women and the arrogant, as it states, '...walking and floating do they
go, and with their legs they entice' (ibid., end of verse).
"[The Torah scholar] should not run in public and act crazily.
"He should also not bend his stature [in exaggerated fashion] as a
hunchback. Rather, he should look downwards [slightly] as one standing in
prayer. And he should walk even-paced as one busy with his matters.
"Even from a person's gait it is discernible if he is a scholar possessing
wisdom or a madman and fool. So too did Solomon say in his wisdom, 'Even
along the way, as the fool walks, his heart is lacking and he proclaims to
all he is a fool' (Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 10:3). He informs all regarding
himself that he is a fool."
This week the Rambam continues the theme of this chapter, discussing the
behavior appropriate for the Torah scholar. Here he discusses the
scholar's gait, and more generally his body language.
It's interesting to note how much information people convey through body
language -- how much it tells about themselves and about their attitude
towards whomever they're dealing with. The Rambam likewise takes body
language quite seriously, devoting a law of his work to the subject. He
even takes the trouble to quote King Solomon as Scriptural backing for
this phenomenon. How one carries himself makes a great difference. The
true scholar must not only improve his mind and character; he must perfect
I believe we also see a clear progression in the Rambam's writings.
Earlier in the chapter the Rambam discussed the behavior appropriate for
the wise, in Law 7 he discussed the scholar's speech, and here he moves on
to the scholar's body language. (The next law will begin discussing
matters more peripheral to the scholar himself, beginning with his dress.)
We are thus clearly progressing from less to more internal aspects of the
The Rambam began by describing the behavior of the wise. This is of course
the most visible and salient aspect of the scholar's composition, yet it
is also the easiest part to fake. It's not all that hard to basically
disdain the unlearned, yet to force oneself to act decently in their
presence. Speech, as we know, is much harder to control. We've all blurted
out things we've regretted after, yet far less often do we stuff into our
mouths food we know isn't kosher. I believe it was R. Yisrael Salanter,
(1810-83, great Lithuanian scholar and ethicist, founder of the Mussar
Movement), who bemoaned that people are far more scrupulous about what
goes into their mouths than about what comes out.
Finally the Rambam moves on to the scholar's gait and body motions. And
this one is hardest of all to control. Clearly, a person can act a certain
way and speak a certain way, but everyone around will know through his
motions and facial expressions that he doesn't really mean it. The most
subtle aspects of our behavior often say the most about whom we actually
For that matter, graphology, the study of a person's character and
personality via his handwriting, is predicated on the belief that aspects
of a person's psyche surface in very slight variations in how he pens his
letters. I'm certainly not writing this to offer my own uninformed opinion
regarding the validity of this field. I personally tend to be very
skeptical of what's considered fringe science. Yet the underlying premise -
- that our slightest, least perceptible motions speak worlds about our
true selves -- is certainly quite plausible.
While I'm at it, I do have one telling anecdote of my own to offer. My
teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) once mentioned that he and a
friend once brought a copy of the Rambam's own handwriting to a world-
renowned graphologist. (There are actually several existent samples of the
Rambam's personal writing, as Egypt's dry climate allowed for the
preservation of many medieval documents. That combined with the Rambam's
prolificness as a writer and Israel's custom not to discard virtually any
Jewish writings, sacred or not, has provided us with a wealth of ancient
Egyptian material, medieval and beyond. See any writeup on the Cairo
geniza for more information about this phenomenon.)
Anyway, returning to my anecdote, the graphologist, who couldn't even read
Hebrew, made two observations regarding the Rambam, based on his
handwriting: (1) He suffered from stomach ailments (which was true). (2)
He was an extraordinarily organized person. That too was certainly
on the money. Anyone who could take the entire gamut of Jewish law from
all its varied sources and arrange it into an organized, readable body is
virtually without match in Jewish history.
Genesis 27 describes the incident of Jacob posing as Esau in order to
receive Isaac's blessings in place of his undeserving brother. In doing
so, say the Sages, Jacob nearly blew his cover. How? In part, in speaking
nicely to his father, unlike the rough, brutish Esau. When Jacob
first came before his father, he said "please sit up" (v. 19). By
contrast, when the true Esau came in, he said "my father should get up"
(v. 31). (See Rashi to v. 22.)
There are many significant issues here. The most important is, why didn't
Jacob, already physically disguised as Esau, also adopt his brother's
inconsiderate manner to complete the subterfuge? This actually provides an
important key for truly understanding the episode. Jacob was not simply
trying to "fake out" his father. He wanted to present himself as a
composite personality, possessing both the brawn of Esau plus the good
manners of Jacob. And such a person (whoever it was) was the true one
worthy of Isaac's blessings. A rough outline of some of R. Yochanan
Zweig's (www.talmudicu.edu) very important thoughts here, but for better
or worse not relevant to today.
I would, however, like to raise another issue, more germane to our current
discussion. Esau, for all his faults, distinguished himself in one way.
He exhibited enormous respect for his parents, especially for his father
who favored him so. The Midrash praises Esau for serving his father only
when attired in "royal clothes," as a sign of respect (Bereishis Rabbah
65:16). (This even though Isaac was blind and couldn't possibly have known
the difference. It wasn't for show. Esau really felt that way towards his
If so, however, why didn't Esau speak nicely to his father as well?
We saw above that Isaac almost saw through Jacob's cover because he failed
to speak as coarsely as Esau. But if Esau really did treat his father so
well, why did he not simply speak to him nicely too?
I once read or heard the following answer, though I can't remember in
whose name. A person's speech is very internal to whom he actually is. It
is very difficult to speak in a refined manner if that's just not who you
are. So too Esau was easily able to dress a certain way when
tending to his father. But to change his manner of speech was far less
under his control.
This too is the basis for the recent laws in the Rambam. He first told the
scholar how to act. He then moved on to the scholar's speech and finally
to the most internal expression of a person's being: his body language.
The more internal, the more difficult to consciously control.
And obviously, the Rambam is not writing to instruct the scholar to become
a really well-trained actor. The earlier laws regarding actions the sage-
wannabe might have been able to fake. But now we are discussing the real
essence of the scholar's psyche. His Torah study must penetrate his core.
He must actually be humble and caring, not carrying himself about
as greater than the rest of us. Training himself will only go so far. At a
point, the scholar must really believe it and must truly become a
wonderful human being.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org