The day after this coming Shabbat is the holiday of Shavuot. That means that this coming Shabbat is the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Shavuot.  I know that’s a no-brainer, but bear with me here…

The Shabbat preceding each major holiday has a special attribute connected to it. The Shabbat before Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol.  It is not known for sure why that Shabbat received this title, but one explanation is that the haftorah which is read on the Shabbat preceding Passover contains the passage from Malachi 3:23 – Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. 

During the Passover Seder we pour a cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet in expectation that he is arriving to bring us the final redemption and usher in the messianic era. We equate this first redemption of the Jewish people with the final redemption and so this is Shabbat Hagadol.

The Shabbat before Rosh Hashana itself doesn’t have a special designation, instead, it’s the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and that Shabbat is called Shabbat Shuvah – the Shabbat of repentance.

But the Seven Shabbats leading up to Rosh Hashana are called the Shabbats of comforting, beginning with the Shabbat after Tisha b’av which is called Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of comfort.

And the Shabbat before Shavuot, is known as Shabbat Derech Eretz.  Its not an official name, but we have a story that once a chasid asked his Rebbe, “what should we call the Sabbath before Shavuot?”  The Rebbe answered, that while there is no official name for the Shabbat before Shavuot, if there were one, it would be Shabbat Derech Eretz. Derech Eretz means, basically, good manners or decency.  Why would we call it that?  Because there is a phrase from the Gemara that says “derech eretz kadma l’torah” good manners precede the torah. (see Vayikra Rabba Chapter 9).

Since on Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, it makes sense that the Shabbat preceding it would be called Shabbat Derech Eretz.

What does derech eretz kadma l’torah actually mean? It means that all the Torah learning in the world does you no good if you are not first and foremost a good, kind and caring person.  As we say in Yiddish – a mensch.

So this week as we prepare to receive the torah on the day after shabbat, its a really appropriate time to focus on how we can acquire more derech eretz.

Every Shavuot I like to think about one character quality that needs improvement in my life. Of course, just because I worked on a particular character quality one year doesn’t mean I’ve permanently fixed it and never need to address it again.  Unfortunately there are several character qualities I’ve had to revisit several times over the years.

Is there something in your life that needs work?

Maybe its patience, or trust in G-d, or trust in others, or faith, or enthusiasm, or joy, or not speaking lashon hara, or celebrating a particular holiday with joy.  That one’s big for me.

You might think I’m going to mention Passover, because that’s a hard one for many Jewish women, but for me, its not Passover that’s the hardest holiday to celebrate with joy.  For me the hardest holiday to celebrate with joy is Yom Kippur.

Yup, yom kippur.  And yes, we are supposed to celebrate it with joy.  I used to think that Yom kippur was the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, but its not.  The saddest day on the Jewish calender is Tisha b’av, because it’s a day that has seen repeated calamity for the Jewish people again and again and again in so many millenia.

So what about Yom Kippur? Its supposed to be one of the most joyful days because it’s the day that we commune with God and think about nothing else.  It’s the day that we know at its close, we have been forgiven by God and repaired our relationship with Him.  We know that at the end of Yom Kippur we start the year anew with a clean slate.  Wow, that’s something to be joyful about, right?

But it’s a hard day for me. I won’t get into all the reasons why, but its really a day of torture for me, so that’s something I have to work on regularly.  Celebrating Yom Kippur with joy.

But there are other things that I need to work on too – always answering with a soft answer, trying never to embarrass another person, considering other’s feelings, being thoughtful.  You name it.

Just out of curiosity, did any of these speak to you?  Is there a character quality, that as you read it, you thought, “hey, yeah, I could use some improvement in that area”?

If so, then maybe now would be a good time, as you begin to prepare for Shabbat Derech Eretz and entering the holiday of S

havuot, to spend some time thinking about one area that you might focus on improving this year. Because derech eretz kadma l’torah.


Click here to see Penina’s d’var Torah on Parshat Bamidbar and Shabbat Derech Eretz –