Position Paper: Man Himself Before Others

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Uriel Ganzel, and Rabbi Shaul Bruchi

The Torah determines that when faced with between man’s rights and responsibilities to himself and his obligations to others, the approach is “man himself comes before others, no matter what”. What is the moral and philosophic idea behind this fundamental principle?

1. Introduction

What is the hierarchy between man’s rights and responsibilities to himself and his obligations towards others – whether his friends, his family, his society, his nation, or towards all of humanity? This fundamental question follows us at all times and in all places. Many mitzvot from the Torah deal with the interpersonal space and teach us to care for our fellow man, pay attention to his struggles and act graciously towards him. It is understood that alongside this, man must care for himself, become financially stable, fulfill the mitzvot he is obligated in, and develop his own character. Which of these obligations must be prioritized? Does man need to worry first about himself and only afterwards his environment, or perhaps his responsibility towards others comes first?

The Talmud discusses this issue and establishes the principles: “Your life is prioritized over your friend’s” and “yours comes first”, or as the Rambam phrases it: “Man himself comes before others, no matter what”1.  We will venture to discuss the moral-philosophic idea behind the principle of prioritizing one’s own obligations to their friends; It seems, even if this position appears to be egotistical at first glance, that there is a deep moral basis. We will also explore the vast array of halachic fields that bring this principle into practice.

2. Sources

2.1 Life-Threatening Situations: “Your Life is Prioritized Over Your Friend’s”

The discourse of ‘your life is prioritized over your friend’s’ deals with a situation where two people are walking in the desert, one of which has water sufficient for only one person. The Tanaim disagree there regarding how one is obligated to act, and according to Rabbi Akiva – of who the halacha follows – the person with the water must drink it even if his friend will die as a result, since “your life is prioritized over your friend’s” (Bava Metzia 62a)2. This opinion represents the halachic basis of many rulings in the field of life-saving procedures and organ transplantation, among others. The accepted halachic position amongst current halachic authorities is that there is no obligation for a person to put themselves in threat of danger in order to save their friend3.

2.2 Returning a Lost Object: “Yours Comes First”

The fundamental principle for preferential treatment is determined by the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 2:11) which deals with returning a lost object: “[If one found both] his lost item and his father’s lost item, his father’s lost item takes precedence. His lost item and his rabbi’s lost item, his takes precedence…”. The Gemara there (33a) teaches that the source for this halacha is expounded from the Torah: “There shall be no needy among you” (Devarim 15:4) – what is yours comes before others”. In other words, the Torah uses the section dealing with the mitzvah of tzedakah to teach that the primary obligation of a person is not to become poor himself. However, the Gemara continues and qualifies this ruling. The same Amora that teaches this expounding of the aforementioned verse adds that “anyone who lives by this – will meet their end by this”; in other words, even though fundamentally “yours comes first”, it is not proper to live one’s life by this principle alone.  Man is commanded to perform acts of kindness and assist their fellow man and must find the balance between caring for himself and fulfilling his obligations towards others. Thus, regarding returning a lost object, the halacha is that “yours comes first” only applies when there is a significant loss4. One should also note that this principle is established as stipulated regarding returning a lost object5, as well as regarding the mitzvah of tzedakah, which is the source for this principle in the Torah6.

3.  The Moral-Philosophic Principle: Man’s Status as an Independent Entity

Before we look at the practical significance of this principle, we will engage in its theoretical aspects. The determination that “man himself comes before others” at first glance seems like an egotistical statement, but it has deep moral ties. Rabbi Shimon Shkop, in the introduction to his sefer ‘Shaarei Yosher’7,  expands on this principle and provides a basis for it; he learns that even if a person is obligated to sacrifice themselves for the public and sees this as their life’s mission, one may not do so without fulfilling their personal needs first. Love of the self engrained within man’s soul requires first and foremost accounting for man’s own needs. Building up the individual self, maintaining one’s personal property, worrying about the individual’s basic needs, and developing one’s unique place in the world are all required prerequisites that enable one to develop in the future with others and to give of their self to the public, even through mesirut nefesh. The way to do this is through expansiveness: by understanding that the self lies in the middle, one may expand the self from their personal boundaries to become the family “self”, the community “self”, the national “self”, etc.8.

It is worthwhile to note that the principle “yours comes first” is not an all-encompassing principle. If one uses this principle without limitations, one could justify any sort of atrocity. This reservation is explicitly stated in the aforementioned discussion: the same Amoraim that said “yours comes first” qualify this and say “anyone who lives by this – will meet their end by this”. Man is not able to hide behind the determination that “yours comes first” and is obligated to find a way to assist others, as Rashi states there: “even though the pasuk obligates him, man should go beyond the letter of the law and not analyze how to put himself first, if it is not apparent that it would cause some sort of loss…”.

4. Expanding This Principle to Other Domains

The Talmudic discussion brought here deals with saving a life and returning a lost object, however the principle “man himself before others” has been expanded by poskim throughout the generations to other domains as well.

4.1 Testimony

One who knows testimony of significance to his friend – is obligated to come and testify9.  Despite this, Rabbi Yosef Karo rules10 that one is permitted to withhold their testimony due to a concern of financial loss, “and we do not say, lose your money in order for your friend to gain money, for man is only obligated to testify as a matter of kindness… and it is not an act of kindness for man to lose money for him, for he is more obligated to conserve his own assets than his friend’s assets, as we see regarding returning a lost object”11.

4.2 Loan

When there is an opportunity to give a loan to either a rich person or a poor person, one fundamentally should give a loan to the poor person. It is also a mitzvah to prioritize loaning to a Jew over a gentile, even when the latter pays interest12. However, the Chafetz Chaim qualifies this halacha with two factors: 1) when the rich person offers the lender to enter into a business where he will receive a portion of the profits, he is not obligated to prioritize the poor person13;2) when the main stream of income of the Jew is from interest payments from gentiles, his livelihood comes first14. The rationale for the Chafetz Chaim’s two limitations is that a person’s livelihood is prioritized over care for a poor person.

4.3 Unemployment for Judges

A judge is technically prohibited from receiving income for his work, as the Mishnah states: “One who takes wages for judging, his rulings are nullified”15, yet he is permitted to accept wages for his inability to work elsewhere16. The ‘Prisha’ explains that a judge may receive a full salary for his “unemployment”, unlike the standard unemployed worker, due to ‘yours comes first’17.

4.4 Recusal of a Judge from a Case due to Threat of Violence from One of the Parties

According to halacha, a judge who is not appointed to serve the public is permitted to recuse himself from a certain case before it begins due to fear that a violent party may cause him damage; however, once the trial begins – the judge is not permitted to abstain from ruling18. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron explains that the prohibition “fear neither party” is a commandment between man and God, and therefore one may not withhold oneself from judging due to a financial loss, but this prohibition only applies after the case begins. To contrast, the mitzvah “with righteousness you shall judge your colleague” is between man and his friend, and the judge is not obligated to lose money or incur damage in order to assist his friend19.

4.5 Honoring and Fearing One’s Parents

Elsewhere we have expanded on the topic of “yours comes first” and how it relates to honoring and fearing one’s parents. The Sages emphasized the importance of these mitzvot and relate the honoring of one’s parents to honoring God. Even so, this obligation is limited: the child is obligated in honoring their parents but are not required to commit their money to this. They are obligated to listen to their parents, however the obligation to obey is limited and does not trump the personal needs of the child and their wishes20.

4.6 Priority in Learning Torah: To Learn or to Teach Others?

Even though man is commanded to teach his son Torah, when only one is able to learn, the father is required to prioritize himself over his son21. This halacha is both complementary and a mirror image of sorts for the previous halacha. The obligations of man to himself are prioritized over his obligations towards his parents and towards his children. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein learns from this halacha and from the principle of ‘yours comes first’ that man is obligated to prioritize his personal growth in Torah learning over his responsibility to teach others22.  Rav Feinstein also learns from this discourse that there is a balance between the aspirations of the talmid chacham to move forward in learning Torah and their obligation to teach others. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that a talmid chacham should fundamentally focus on their personal development in Limud Torah, but he is obligated to give of himself as well to others and therefore it is proper to devote a ‘maaser’ of his time to teach others.

4.7 The Mitzvah of Rebuking Others and Informing the Authorities of Illegal Activity

There is a biblical commandment to rebuke one who violates a transgression, and the Amoraim disagree regarding how far the obligation of rebuke goes: until they become physical or until they curse you23.  Despite the importance of the mitzvah of rebuke, and the severity that the sages associated with one who can intervene and does not24, the Rema writes that we are accustomed to be lenient regarding this issue when there is a concern of injury from the transgressor, even financial, since “one is not obligated to spend money on this”25.  It seems that one can expand this and say that for all mitzvot between man and his friend that are based in kindness, there is no obligation to spend money – due to ‘yours comes first’26.

5. Limitations   

As stated, the discussion in Mesechet Bava Batra already qualifies the principle “yours comes first” and teaches that “anyone who lives by this, will meet their end by this”. Similarly, one can qualify the expansions brought here, as explained in some of the aforementioned sources. For example, even if a talmid chacham is permitted – or required – to prioritize their personal growth in Limud Torah, they must dedicate time for the general public as well. Similarly, one can withhold from testifying due to a concern for a loss, however one should consider these matters carefully27. One’s income comes before the mitzvah of tzedakah28, however even one who is living paycheck to paycheck must find a way to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. Even in the realm of life-threatening endeavors should one weigh carefully the risk to oneself compared to the risk to their friend29.

6. Conclusion

“Man himself before others” is a principle stated in the Talmud regarding risking one’s life both for the mitzvah of returning a lost object and for the mitzvah of tzedakah. This principle has been expanded to other domains in halacha, and to all mitzvot between man and his friend that are based on kindness: rebuke, talmud torah, etc30. One can conclude from all of this that the Torah determines that when there is a clash between the needs of a person, their responsibilities towards themselves and their obligations to others or to the general public, their own responsibilities should generally be prioritized. Man is obligated to ensure a solid physical foundation in this world and develop their individual character in all aspects. Working on oneself allows man to expand his circle of influence to the public. Alongside this, man should not ignore the needs of his fellow or the public by utilizing the claim that his needs come first, and he should find a balance between developing the personal sphere and giving of oneself to others.

הערת שוליים

  1. Commentary on the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 2:11.
  2. Regarding determining the halacha in accordance with Rabbi Akiva see: HaEmek She’elah, Parshat Re’eh, article 147; Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 296. See also the Mishpat Kohen Responsa, article 144:16-17. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook deliberates this issue there yet proves from the Rif that the halacha is like Rabbi Akiva.
  3. See Radbaz’s Responsa, volume 3, article 627. The Radbaz discusses the issue of whether man must risk bodily harm in order to save his friend from death. His conclusion is that aside from the fact that cases of bodily harm involve a risk of life as well, it cannot be that the Torah commands man to harm himself, “for it is written ‘its ways are ways of pleasantry’ and our Torah’s edicts must make intellectual and logical sense, and how could we think that [the Torah] would let one lose his eye, or amputate his arm or leg in order for his friend not to die?”. Regarding the issue of organ transplantation see: Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, The Medical Halachic Encyclopedia, volume 5, entry ‘self-risk’; Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, ‘Actions on the Homefront: Halachic Aspects’, Assia, 81-82 (5768), pages 5-39.
  4. Rashi, Bava Metzia 33a; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 265:1. Additionally, when there is significant loss, “yours comes first” even if his loss is a dinar and his friends is one hundred maneh (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Metziah VePikadon, article 34).
  5. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 264:1; ibid., 265:1. This is also the ruling regarding redeeming captives (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 252:9) according to the Baraita brought in Horayot 13a.
  6. The Rema (Yoreh Deah 251:3) rules: “One’s income comes before all others, and one is not obligated to give tzedakah until they have income”. The restriction on giving tzedakah up to a fifth of one’s assets (Ketubot 50a) was also stated in order to prevent the giver from reaching a state of poverty, see the opinion of the Rambam regarding one who sanctifies more than a fifth of their property: “and this is not piety but foolishness, for he is losing all his money and will be dependent on others, and we do not have mercy on him, and this as well as in similar cases our sages say ‘a man of foolish piety is among those who destroy the world’” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Arachin VeCharamin, chapter 8, halacha 13). The general principle regarding tzedakah “your city’s poor come first” is an expansion of this principle: not only does man come before others, but also the circles closest to him come before those who are more distant. Those prioritized in the mitzvah of tzedakah are the closest people to the person, his parents and afterwards his children, then the more distant relatives, and afterwards the people of his house, his city, and his country. See: Bava Metzia 71a; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah, 251:3. An additional discussion in Nedarim 80b determines that the needs of one’s city come before the needs of another city.
  7. Rabbi Shimon Shkop, Rosh Yeshiva of Shaar HaTorah in Grodno, Lithuania, passed away in 1939. His sefer, Shaarei Yosher, includes logical and legal analysis of fundamental principles in halacha.
  8. A similar approach can be found in Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on the verse “you must raise it together” (Devarim 22:4). This verse obligates man in helping his friend load his donkey but allows for him to accept pay for this. Rav Hirsch explains that the Torah does not require man to perform favors ad infinitum, losing oneself in the process. This type of demand is not practical and leads to egotism. In his words: “The Jewish social principle that binds all people, gives complete moral power to the concept of self-preservation and independence, yet alongside the man’s concern for himself is concern for others”. Furthermore: man’s aspiration to care for himself is not egotism but part of fulfilling God’s will. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes similar, Igrot HaRa’ayah, volume 1, responsum 140 (pages 174-175); ibid., responsum 110 (page 134). We deal with this a number of times in the ‘Tzohar Ethics’ framework. See for example position paper ‘Is the State Obligated in Assisting Refugees’ and in Rav Cherlow’s paper, ‘Violating Obligations and the Heinz Dilemma’.
  9. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 28:1.
  10. Avkat Rachel Responsa, article 195.
  11. The source that Rabbi Yosef Karo brings for the fact that testimony is an act of kindness is the Nimukei Yosef to Bava Kama (24a on the Rif) in the name of the Ra’ah. This is written as well by the Ramban in the Kuntrus Dina DeGarmei. This comparison relies on the discussion in Shevuot 30b. Granted one can say that ‘yours comes first’ is a principle belonging exclusively to the realm of acts of kindness, but in the following paragraphs we see that it has been implemented in other domains as well.
  12. See Bava Metzia 71a.
  13. Ahavat Chessed, volume 1, chapter 6, article 9.
  14. Ibid., chapter 5, article 3.
  15. Bechorot 4:6, and this is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 9:5.
  16. Ibid
  17. Prisha, Choshen Mishpat, article 9:10 and the Sma, ibid. subarticle 14.
  18. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 12:1.
  19. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, ‘Do Not Fear Man: Recusal from Court’, Shaarei Tzedek, 16 (5776), pages 287-294.
  20. Position paper – The Mitzvah of Honoring One’s Parents vs. Man’s Obligations to Himself.
  21. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 245:2.
  22. Igrot Moshe Responsa, Even HaEzer, volume 4, article 26:4; ibid., Yoreh Deah, volume 5, article 32; Igrot Moshe: Hashkafic Responsa, article 3. In Rav Feinstein’s responsum in Even HaEzer he disagrees with the Chatam Sofer, who, in his commentary on the Torah, Torat Moshe (Vayikra 19:18), writes that specifically in physical matters do we say “your life is prioritized over your friend’s”, however in spiritual matters such as Limud Torah one is obligated to teach others even when it takes away from their learning. According to the opinion of Rav Feinstein, the obligation to care for oneself in Limud Torah is greater than monetary mitzvot. Regarding the mitzvah of tzedakah, if one has bread, the bread of one’s friend is more important than finding meat for oneself. However, regarding Talmud Torah, if one has learned one mesechet, the obligation for him to learn another is prioritized over the obligation to teach his friend the mesechet he learned. A similar question arises regarding fulfilling mitzvot: does man need to prioritize fulfilling his own mitzvot over his friend’s? See: Shaarei Teshuva, Orach Chayim, article 382:1 (regarding two people who only have a kezayit of matzah for Pesach); Michtam LeDavid Responsa, Orach Chayim, article 6 (regarding if a community that has only one etrog is obligated to give it on chol hamoed to a distant community without one).
  23. Arachin 16b. The Rema (Orach Chayim, 608:2) rules that “[one is] obligated to rebuke an individual until he strikes him or curses him”. In the Biur Halacha on site it is explained that the intention is that he is close to striking him.
  24. See: Shabbat 54b; Avodah Zara 18a.
  25. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 334:48; ibid., Choshen Mishpat 12:1.
  26. Thus writes Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, ‘Patient-Doctor Confidentiality vs. Public Interest’, Emek Halacha: Assia (1), pages 151-153. Rav Zilberstein discusses the obligation of a doctor to convey medical information to the authorities regarding lack of competency of a patient to drive when there is a concern for harm to the physician. In his essay he differentiates between different cases and halachic qualifications: when there is a certain danger in driving, the physician is obligated to disclose this information due to “do not stand idly by your friend’s blood” even when he is concerned of financial loss; when the concern of risk is not imminent, the physician is obligated to disclose the information due to ‘acts of kindness’ with the public, and it is possible then to withhold from disclosure when there is a reasonable concern for harm to the doctor. This division seems problematic as the author himself writes there. The public has the authority to establish more stringent definitions for “do not stand idly by your friend’s blood”, and a public servant must follow these directives. Compare this to the essay of Rabbi Yonah Pudor, ‘“Informing” and Reporting Traffic Violations’, Tchumin, 21 (5761), page 193-197.
  27. See Rabbi Eliezer Goldshmidt, ‘The Obligation to Testify When There is Financial Loss’, Moriyah, Editions 307-310 (Elul 5764), page 125: “A person does not need to be overly precise and act incredibly cautiously conserving his own [property] in order to exempt himself from doing his friend a kindness. For calculations and worries like this have no end, and if one is too calculating a person can reach total abstinence and rebellion against acts of kindness and charity”.
  28. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi rules in the Shulchan Aruch HaRav that one’s own loss of a dinar comes before a hundred maneh of his friend (see earlier endnote 5), yet on the other hand he writes in Sefer HaTanya (Igrot HaKodesh, Letter 16): “It is proper for each man not to be precise and try to fulfill only the halacha, but to push themselves and go beyond the letter of the law, and be concerned about that which the sages said that anyone who is precise about this will meet their end by this chas ve’chalilah. And further, everyone needs the mercy of the heavens”.
  29. See Pitchei Teshuva, Choshen Mishpat, article 422, subarticle 2 on the Radbaz’s opinion (earlier endnote 3): “however one should consider the matter well as to whether there is a suspected risk and not be overly precise, as we have mentioned… that anyone who is precise about himself will meet his end by this”. See also the opinions of the poskim brought in the aforementioned endnote.
  30. Yet compare this to the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda Zerachiya Segel (Tzemach Yehuda Responsa, volume 3, article 189) who is perplexed by the opinion of the questioning rabbi, who holds that even regarding spending money for the mitzvah of “do not stand idly by your friend’s blood” the principle of ‘yours comes first’ applies, and his opinion is that the Torah innovated this only regarding the mitzvah of returning a lost object and not in other prohibitions: “it is great logical reasoning that here one is obligated to save man even from his own [assets] at least from the doctrine of tzedakah, or at the very least he could request to return the money afterwards due to the same rationale, but could we really think to make him exempt and cause the death of his friend chas veshalom? Do we live in Sodom chas veshalom?!”

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