The quality of being humble.—Biblical Data:
Judaism, in its conception of humility as in its conception of many other things, stands between the two extremes of self-deification and self-effacement. Jeremiah, in urging the quality of humility and in denouncing boastfulness, qualifies his statement by saying, "Let not the wise man glorify himself in his wisdom, neither let the strong man glorify himself in his might, let not the rich glorify himself in his riches: but let him that glorifieth himself glorify in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am God who exercises love, justice, and righteousness" (Jer. ix. 22-23).
The prophet does not consider it sinful for man to rejoice in his achievements so long as he recognizes that all blessings flow from God, that they are all gifts of God. Riches, strength, and wisdom are nothing without God. "The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord" (Hag. ii. 9). God hath no pleasure "in the strength of the horse," nor in "the legs of a man" (Ps. cxlvii. 11 [A. V. 10]). "There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord" (Prov. xxi. 30). Micah reduced the duties of man to three: justice, love, and humility. Abraham was humble: he spoke of himself as "but dust and ashes" (Gen. xviii. 27). Moses' greatest virtue was humility (Num. xii. 3). That this quality of the greatest prophet is particularly mentioned is sufficient proof of its importance in Jewish theology. But the humility of Moses shows best what this term means. While Moses at first does not wish to accept his great mission to redeem his enslaved people, because he mistrusts his ability to do so, after he has accepted it he is full of courage, energy, and decision. Yet he listens to the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law, and acts on it. When Joshua asked Moses to prohibit Eldad and Medad from prophesying in the camp, Moses answered: "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets" (ib. xi. 29).
Heathendom, with its belief in fate which ordains man's destiny irrespective of merit, did not encourage humility and meekness, but gave rise to man's overbearing and arrogance. Not so Judaism.
"Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it"
"Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God. . . . And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied, then thine heart be lifted up and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. . . . And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand have gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth"
"Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if a rod should shake them that lift it up, or as if a staff should lift up him that is not wood"
The same prophet pours out the vials of his righteous indignation against the proud in Israel:
"Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures. . . . Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands. . . . And the mean man is bowed down, and the great man is brought low. . . . Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust. . . . The lofty looks of man shall be brought low, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For there shall be a day of the Lord of hosts upon all that is proud and haughty and upon all that is lifted up; and it shall be brought low"
In the touching penitential psalm ascribed to David after his terrible arraignment by the prophet Nathan on account of his crime against Uriah and his wife Bath-sheba, humility is pointed out as the only true sacrifice acceptable to God: "For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Ps. li. 18-19). The second Isaiah lays more stress on humility than on grand temples, churches, and mosques. "The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you can build me? Where is the place for my rest? For all these things has my hand made. But upon such a one will I look, upon the humble and him who is of a contrite spirit" (Isa. lxvi. 1-2).
It may thus be seen that the Jewish conception of humility is based on a proper estimate of the world and of the worth of man. Abraham, Moses, Gideon (who refused a crown), Saul, and David are set up as types of humility and meekness.—In Rabbinical Literature:
The Talmud has even a higher view of humility than the Bible, and the teachers of Jewish ethics urge upon man not to rely too much on his own merits, as this might lead to self-conceit or self-deification. Our greatest merits are the result of God's aid. This is expressed in the daily morning prayer:
"Lord of all worlds, we can not plead the merit of our deeds before Thee. What are we? What is our virtue, what is our righteousness, our power, our strength? Truly, our mighty men are as naught before Thee, and the men of fame as though they had never been: the learned appear void of knowledge, and the wise like men without understanding."
But Judaism is likewise remote from the self-effacement of Buddhism and from the contempt of life preached by Christianity. It does not look upon earth as upon a "valley of tears" nor upon man as upon a worm creeping in the dust.
God is the highest type of humility. Among the ten degrees of moral perfection humility stands highest ('Ab. Zarah 20b; 'Ar. 16b). It is the expression of the highest reverence (Sanh. 43b), and the distinguishing feature of the "disciples of Abraham" (Ab. iii.). The prophet, in order to attain inspiration, must possess humility (Ned. 38a). It belongs next to mercy and charity among the ornaments of the true Jew (Lev. R. ix.). "Even poverty is blessed because it leads to humility" (Cant. R. i.). "He who humbles himself, him will God elevate; he whoelevates himself, him will God humiliate. He who runs after greatness, from him greatness will flee; he who flees from greatness, him will greatness follow" ('Er. 13a). "Be not like the upper threshold, which can not be reached by everybody, but be like the undermost, which is accessible to everybody. Even though the building may fall, the lowest threshold remains unharmed" (Ab. R. N. xxvi.; Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa iii.). Hillel said: "Remove from thy place two or three rows of seats and wait until they call thee back" (Lev. R. i.). Do not underrate the bad opinion which the common people may entertain regarding you (B.Ḳ. 93a; Pes. 113b; Sanh. 37). The small should not say to the great, "Wait" (Shab. 127; Pes. 6b; Yoma 37; Suk. 29; 'Er. 55). "Happy is the generation in which the great listen to the small, for then the more anxiously will the small listen to the great" (R. H. 25b; Ta'an. 15a, 18b; Meg. 11a, 13b, 14b, 18b).
The reason why the high priest was not allowed to officiate in his golden garments on the Day of Atonement was to remind him of humility (Yoma vii. 4; Yer. Yoma xii.; Ex. R. xli.; Lev. R. i.). Pride humiliates man (Yalḳ., Sam. 3). The "miẓnefet" (miter) atones for the sin of haughtiness (Zeb. 88b; Ḥul. 5b).Examples of Humility.
The prayer of man will be effective only when he regards himself as dust (Soṭah. v. 48b, 71a, 82a; B. Ḳ. 81b; B. B. 10, 18b, 98a; Sanh. xi. 19b, 81a, 93b). "Jeroboam, the generation of the Flood, and the Sodomites were haughty" (Sanh. 106a, 108a, 109a). "Through humility calumny will cease" ('Ar. 15a). "I am God's creature, so is our fellow man: my sphere of usefulness is in the city; his, in the country. I have no more right to be overbearing on account of my work than he on account of his"—this was the motto of the sages of Jabneh (Ber. 17a). He who walks about haughtily insults the Shekinah (Ber. 43b). Humility is a quality especially appropriate for Israel (Ḥag. 9b; Ned. 20a; Mek., Yitro, xx. 17; Ber. 7a). Plagues come on account of haughtiness ('Ar. 17). The Messiah will not come until haughtiness shall have ceased in Israel (Sanh. 98). The haughty man, even if he be wise, will lose his power of prophecy (Pes. 6b). The haughty pollutes the land and curses God (Mek., Yitro, ix.; Soṭah 4b; Kallah 7). Humility is just as important as wisdom and the fear of God (Derek Ereẓ, Rabbah viii., xi.). The habit of the sage is to be humble, modest, and to bear insult (Shab. 88; Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa i.). Do not forget that the fly was created before man (Sanh. 38; Tan., Shemini, 9). "Be not proud on account of thy decisions" (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa 6; Ab. iv. 7; Sanh. 7; Midr. Teh. cxix.; Soṭah 21; Pes. 50). R. Jonathan ben Amram during a famine insisted on receiving no more consideration in the distribution of bread than any other creature (B. B. 8b). Rabbi Ṭarphon felt sorry all his lifetime because he once saved his life by saying that he was a scholar (Ned. 62a). The ornament of the Torah is wisdom; and the ornament of wisdom is humility (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa iv.).
God said to Moses, "Because of thy self-denial, the Torah shall be called by thy name" (Shab. 89a). Five men were highly endowed by divine grace, but pride was their downfall: Samson suffered through his strength; Saul, through his stature; Absalom, through his hair; Asa, through his feet; and Zedekiah, through his eyes (Soṭah 10a). Wherever God's omnipotence is found, one finds also his humility—in the Torah, in the Prophets, in the Hagiographa Meg. 29). Learn humility from Moses (Ab. R. N. ix., xxiii.). The spirit of God rests on the humble, as is seen in Moses (Ned. 35a; Mek., Yitro, ix.). David said: "My heart was not haughty when I was anointed king by Samuel, and when I conquered Goliath" (Yer. Sanh. 11; Ḥul. 88a). Johanan ben Zakkai said: "If thou hast acquired much knowledge of the Torah, do not pride thyself therein" (Ab. ii. 8; Sanh. 93; Ber. 9; Meg. 26). Why were the decisions of the Hillelites accepted? Because they were humble, quiet, and meek ('Er. 13). Saul and Judah acquired the kingdom through their humility (Tosef., Ber. iii.; Sanh. 92b). Be humble toward all people, but particularly toward thy own household (Tanna debe Eliyahu iv.). While God despises what is broken among the animals, he loves in man a broken heart. Man is ashamed to use a broken vessel; but God is near to men whose heart is broken (Lev. R. vii.). "If you minimize your merits, people will minimize your faults" (R. H. 17a). Among three who are participants of special divine love is he who does not insist on the recognition of his virtues (Pes. 113b; Ab. i. 19).Maxims of Humility.
"Be pliant and flexible like the reed, because scholarship is only with the humble" (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa viii. 1; Ta'an. 7; 'Ab. Zarah 6). He who humbles himself on account of the Torah will ultimately be elevated through it (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa v.). Just as water in its course seeks the low lands and not the high ground, so the words of the Torah will be realized only among those who are endowed with a humble spirit (Ta'an. 7, with reference to Isa. lv. 1). The Shekinah will rest upon him that is of a meek spirit (Mek., Yitro). Hillel said: "My humility is my greatness, and my greatness is my humility" (Lev. R. i.). Pharaoh said boldly: "Who is God?" (Ex. v. 2); Nebuchadnezzar, "I shall ascend to the heights of the clouds" (Isa. xiv. 14); and Hiram. "Like a god I dwell in the midst of the ocean" (Ezek. xxviii. 2). But Abraham said, "I am but dust and ashes" (Gen. i. 18, 27); Moses and Aaron, "Who are we to go to Pharaoh?" (Ex. xvi. 16); and David, "I am a worm and no man" (Ps. xxii. 7); therefore God gave to them honor and greatness, and said, "When I made you great and exalted, you made yourselves lowly and humble" (Ḥul. 9). When man sacrifices a burnt offering he receives a reward for his offering; but whosoever offers his humility has merit as if he had offered all the sacrifices of the earth; for "not sacrifices of animals demandest thou, neither hast thou pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken heart" (Ps. li. 18-19; Soṭah 8; Sanh. 63b; Ber. 32b). R. Levitas said: "Be of a humble spirit; for the end of man is the worm" (Ab. iv. 3). Even the eighth part of an eighth portion of haughtiness is an abomination in God's eyes (Soṭah 5). God intentionally selected for the purification of the leprous not only the proud cedar, butalso the humble hyssop (Lev. xiv. 4, 6). God ignored the high mountains and selected the smallest, Mount Sinai, for the revelation of the Ten Commandments (Soṭah 8). The humble stand higher than the pious ('Ab. Zarah 2). The spirit of God will not rest on the haughty (Suk. iii. 1; Ḥag. 14b; Shab. 92a; Ned. 38). He only will share in the blessings of future salvation who is humble and continually enriches his store of knowledge without the least self-conceit (Sanh. 88b).
But, while Judaism highly praises humility and meekness, it wisely limits and restricts this virtue, which, carried to the extreme, would be cowardice. Humility must not be practised at the expense of manhood. "The disciple of the wise," the Rabbis say, "should have sufficient pride to stand in defense of the Law he represents" (Soṭah 5a).
- E. Schreiber, Die Prinzipien des Judenthums, Leipsic, 1877.