Rabbi Daniel Sperber has written a short but lovely book about the relationship between the commandments that are directed between ‘Man and his Neighbors’ (meaning commandments that connect one person to another) and between ‘Man and his Maker’ or ritual commandments. This is a familiar dichotomy within Jewish Law and Rabbi Sperber argues that when there is a tension between the two and it becomes impossible to follow both commandments, there is a requirement to favor and prioritize the interpersonal commandment.
In the first part of the book, Sperber offers 21 examples of this prioritization. The second part relates famous stories of great Rabbis who integrated this concept into their lives. In one moving example, the author tells us about Rabbi Salanter (1810-1883) who ritually washed his hands with what his contemporaries thought to be too little water. When asked why he wasn’t using the proper amount of water, Salanter said that he saw how difficult it was for the maid who was tasked with drawing the water from afar and carrying the heavy load to the house. Rabbi Salanter felt that it was “forbidden for a person to be overly religious at the expense of others.” A similar story is told of a Rabbi who would cut short his long prayers when there were working men present waiting for him to finish so as to avoid negatively impacting their earning potential.
This review originally appears in the AJL Newsletter