Fear of God, Fear of Man

The year is 90 CE. Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakai, the most important tanna (Talmudic sage) alive during and after the destruction of the Second Temple and the “founder” of post-Temple Judaism as we know it, is lying on his deathbed in the town of Berur Hayil in southern Israel. His students come to visit him and ask for a last blessing. He blesses them: “May your fear of God be as great as your fear of your fellow man” (יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם). The students are puzzled; surely it should be the opposite – they should fear God more than they fear man? Riba”z explains: “Don’t you know that when a man commits a sin, he is worried some other person might see him?”. (The story is found in Berachot 28:)

Every person understands, deep inside, this blessing of R. Yokhanan ben Zakai. Who can truly say his fear of God is the same (or deeper) than his fear of fellow man? We all recite מורא שמיים as our duty, but it is difficult for us to fear a transcendental power.

This last shabbat I witnessed a vivid example of the wisdom of this blessing by R. Yokhanan ben Zakai.

On Friday evening I attended services at the Joachimstalerstrasse synagogue in Berlin. During the first part of the service (mincha and kabbalat shabbat), most of the congregation was engaged in animated conversation. Two men next to me were discussing business issues; a group behind me was trading jokes; even the chazan occasionally stopped to answer a comment from a passerby.

Then came the pause in the service for the rabbi’s traditional dvar Torah (sermon). The rabbi took the podium and spoke for about 15 minutes. During this entire time, the congregation was completely silent. Nobody talked, nobody joked, nobody even walked around. You could hear a siddur drop (if one were to be dropped, but it wasn’t). Everybody listened with full respect to what the rabbi had to say.

As my German is virtually non-existent, I could not understand what the rabbi was saying. So I had ample time to contemplate this situation. It suddenly dawned on me that this is exactly what R. Yokhanan ben Zakai meant. If only we would be as respectful towards God during our prayers to Him as we are towards the rabbi when he delivers his sermon.

!יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם


3 thoughts on “Fear of God, Fear of Man

  1. Agreed, that’s precisely what I meant, it’s a question of faith. You have to believe that there will be a consequence, in one form or another. If the consequence was obvious, well then, you wouldn’t need faith would you? Everyone would be Jewish if lightning were to start striking Jews who ate cheeseburgers. And we’d all be properly humble and reverant as described in the prayers. Even more so than to the rabbi, because it’s not the rabbi who is going to cause lightning to strike.

    However, there are so many mitzvahs that are done for God, but they have an effect on the person, the family, the lifestyle, the values, etc, so if you fail to perform them, or perform them properly, they do have a consequence. But the consequence is a direct result of the action or inaction, as the case may be. Not external intervention (that we know of).

    So back to your example of the prayer, and people talking rather than praying. What are the consequences of that? Well, that would depend on what the person gets out of the prayer. So if they aren’t doing it, they’re depriving themselves of a closer connection to God, or maybe a time for reflection and bettering themselves, or an understanding of just how small and insignificant they are, prayer is very personal, and can be very powerful. If someone isn’t making a sincere effort, they’re missing out. So what’s the consequence of that? It’s pretty vague, and those that are disrespectful might not even be aware of those consequences.

  2. Natalie: But is there anything we do with regards to God (not just disrespect) that has an immediately apparent consequence to us? Isn’t that the essence of faith in a transcendental entity?

  3. The consequence for disrespect of a person is going to be felt immediately by both parties. Moreover, it’s a question of ethics which believers, non-believers, semi-believers and everyone in between can identify with.
    And in this world, there is no consequence for disrespect of Hashem. At least, none that are immediately apparent to us.

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