Greeting the Other



The Torah – the light-giving Divine Teaching – helps us to truly see the other. For example, the Torah teaches that we are to see the Divine image within the other, and we discussed this concept in the previous letter. This concept can help us to understand why our spiritual tradition stresses the importance of greeting the other. As Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, a leading sage of the 20th century, taught his disciples:


“If a person appreciates the fact that the human being is created in the Divine image, he will deem it a privilege to greet his fellows.” (Cited in “Love Your Neighbor” by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)


In this letter, I will cite teachings and stories about the importance of greeting the other. This letter is dedicated to the memory of my father, and teacher, Shlomo ben Avraham Hakohen. His yahrtzeit – the anniversary of his passing – is on the second day of Teves, which in most years, including this year, falls on the Eighth Day of Chanukah.  


Dear Friends,


My father, of blessed memory, had a love for humanity, and his love included the individual human being. He expressed this love not only through his many acts of loving-kindness, but also in the warm and happy way he greeted each person. After I became committed to the path of Torah, I discovered the following teachings from Pirkei Avos which reminded me of my father:

 “Receive every human being with a pleasant countenance.” (1:15 – Teaching of Shammai)
“Receive every human being with gladness” (3:16 – Teaching of Rabbi Yishmael)


We not only should greet each person in a pleasant and cheerful manner; we should also try to initiate the greeting, as Pirkei Avos states in the name of the Sage, Rabbi Masya ben Charash:


“Initiate a greeting to every human being.” (4:20)


Rabbi Irving Bunim, a noted Torah educator and community activist of the 20th century, wrote a commentary on Pirkei Avos. In his discussion on the teaching, “Initiate a greeting to every human being,” he writes:
“There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his ‘dignity.’ Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the ‘emotional risk,’ while they ‘play it safe.’ Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another’s feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire of his welfare.” (Ethics from Sinai – A Wide-Ranging Commentary on Pirkei Avos by Irving Bunim)


Rabbi Bunim also teaches that this rule is especially important if the person you meet bears you enmity or is simply not on the best of terms with you. By all means, take the initiative and greet this person, says Rabbi Bunim, for a warm greeting can help to break down the barriers of misunderstanding or bitterness which may exist (ibid).


In his book, “Love Your Neighbor,” Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes:


“My teacher, the late Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chayim Mordechai Katz, constantly stressed the importance of greeting others. He would point out that very often a cheery ‘Good morning’ can brighten up the entire day for someone who feels a bit dejected. Show people that you care about them by greeting them in a friendly manner.”


As we discussed, the Torah teaches that we are to see the Divine image within the other, and this Torah concept inspires us to greet the other. The following is another Torah concept which can inspire us to greet the other.


Each human being has a unique mission on earth; thus, each human being is to serve as a messenger of the Creator.


Each person’s mission is part of the Divine plan for creation. The Talmud therefore teaches:


“Each human being is obligated to say, ‘For my sake, the world was created’ ” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).


In the following related teaching, Reb Zusia of Annapoli, a leading Chassidic sage of the 18th century, explains that each person has a unique mission on earth:
“Each person is sent down to this world in order to fulfill a specific Divine task, to carry out on earth a lofty, heavenly purpose. This is the mission of human beings on earth; moreover, for as many people as Hashem sends down to earth, He has just as many different tasks and purposes. The work of one person is totally independent of the task of any other person, and each one must carry through and complete his given purpose.” (Cited in Hamodia, Cheshvan 10, 5759)


It is therefore proper to greet each person, for each person is “to carry out on earth a lofty, heavenly purpose.”


Have a Good Month and a Happy Chanukah,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Teachings and Insights:
1. The Torah states, “Love Your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). One of the many ways to fulfill this mitzvah is to greet others with a friendly countenance.


(The above teaching is from the commentary, Haksav V’Hakabalah, and it is cited in the following book: “Love Your Neighbor” by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.)


2. The Talmud teaches that if someone greets you, you are obligated to return the greeting, as failure to do is tantamount to stealing. This is because you “owe” him a greeting, and when you do not give someone what you owe him, you are stealing from him. (Brochos 6b)  


3. The term “mussar” can refer to Torah teachings regarding ethics and character development. I once came across the following teaching of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a leading 19th century sage who was the founder of the Mussar movement which stressed the importance of organized and formal study of mussar within yeshivos and synagogues. Rabbi Salanter taught that the expression on our face can affect the mood of those around us; thus, our face is considered to be within the “public domain,” and it is not within the “private domain.” One Yom Kippur eve, Rabbi Salanter greeted someone, but this person did not return the greeting. In fact, he had a gloomy expression on his face, as he contemplated the seriousness of the Divine judgment. Rabbi Salanter then remarked to his disciple, Rabbi Itzele of Petersburg, “Why must I need to suffer because of his preoccupation with the Divine judgment?”


Rabbi Salanter was teaching his disciple that regardless of our mood, we have a responsibility to greet everyone with a pleasant and cheerful countenance.

4. We should use our common sense with regard to the beautiful custom of greeting people on the street. For example, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, a leading sage of the early 20th century, once said:


“When I lived in a small town before I came to live in Vilna (a big city in Lithuania), I was very scrupulous to cheerfully greet every person I met on the street. But since I came to Vilna I stopped this practice, because in such a big city, it's impossible to greet everyone.” (Cited in “The Tzedakah Treasury” by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feur – ArtScroll: )


Another example where common sense is needed can be those societies where a woman greeting a strange man on the street would be misunderstood. In these societies, a woman’s friendly greeting to a man on the street is often interpreted as a sexual invitation. One therefore needs to be aware of the cultural attitudes of the societies that we live in or visit.


5. Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, a great teacher of the Mussar movement, said: “When someone is dressed in a manner that shows he is wealthy, people will usually greet him with much respect. If someone else comes along who is dressed in rags, many people just ignore him. Even if someone does greet him, it will usually be in a perfunctory manner, done out of a feeling of obligation. But this is based on falsehood. Who are you greeting – a human being or his style of clothing?” (Cited in “Consulting the Wise” by Rabbi Pliskin) 


6. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who lived in Jerusalem, was a great teacher of mussar. I once heard him tell a story about his discussion with a young man who had abandoned the secular lifestyle and entered a yeshiva in order to study Torah. Rabbi Wolbe asked the young man to reveal what inspired him to begin studying Torah. The young man replied that he had grown up in a secular neighborhood in Israel, and whenever he went to school each morning, the only person on the street who daily greeted him was an elderly Chareidi man. Years later, he began to search for the meaning of life, and the memory of this elderly and religious man who warmly greeted him each morning inspired him to begin studying Torah at the yeshiva.

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