Learning from Other Nations: An Exploration of “UveHukoteihem Lo Teileikhu”


Ben[i] Zoma said, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). However, Leviticus 18:3 instructs, “You shall not perform the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt and the land of Canaan to which I am taking you and you shall not walk in  their statutes (Uvehukoteihem lo teleikhu) ,”[ii] implying that there is a limit to whom one may learn from. [iii] Yet where exactly the limit lies—both halakhically and ideologically—is hard to decipher since this verse, and especially the word uvehukoteihem, is vague and difficult to interpret.

Sifra, the Midrash Halakha for the Book of Leviticus, asks if this verse could possibly mean that the Jewish people cannot plant trees or build houses in the manner of other nations. It then explains that the verse is only referring to ancient traditions of non-Jews. This teaching is derived from the word uvehukoteihem, which clarifies that the practices this verse speaks of are only those that are hakukim (engraved or legislated) to them, their fathers, and grandfathers. The Sifra then elaborates that these practices cannot be referring to idol worship as the Torah already prohibited idolatry, and offers three possibilities  explaining what the word hukoteihem is referring to. Firstly, attending theatres or circuses, events which are ingrained within the non-Jewish identity. Secondly, the ways of the Emori, the  Rabbinic term for witchcraft or superstitious behavior. Finally, to dress like non-Jews, such as copying their haircuts.[iv]

Different poskim incorporated parts of these three possibilities when deciding when and if it is permissible to follow the ways of other nations. When counting the commandments of the Torah, Rambam quotes all three approaches brought down in the Sifra as part of the “thirtieth negative commandment of not walking in the ways of nor acting according to the practices of the kofrim (those who hold “incorrect” notions about God).”[v] In Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, Rambam places extreme emphasis on the last possibility of the Sifra. In tremendous detail, he delineates how a Jew shall not appear physically similar to an idol worshiper. He also adds that a Jew should not imitate the building structures of non-Jewish sanctuaries.[vi] The Shulhan Arukh follows the ruling of Rambam almost precisely, interpreting not walking in the hukot of other nations (“uvehukoteihem lo teileikhu”) as not appearing similar to them in dress, hair style, and architecture of sanctuaries.[vii]. Rambam also explains that this commandment’s purpose is to physically separate a Jew from an idol worshipper, reflecting that a Jew is different in his or her beliefs.  The Sefer HaHinukh expands these statements, saying that a Jew must separate himself from all non-Jewish nations, even those that are not pagan.[viii]

However, there is another stream of halakhic thought which, in contrast to Rambam’s interpretation, significantly restricts the influence of “uvehukoteihem lo teleikhu.Ran interprets hukoteihem  as referring only to practices which are connected to idol worship. He says such practices are empty and null. Thus, practices of the non-Jews which evolved for reasons unrelated to idolatry, such as customs of respect and honor, are permissible for Jews to imitate. [ix] Maharik, a fifteenth century Italian rabbi, follows this approach in his ruling about the permissibility for a Jew to wear a cap.  Maharik rules that a practice only falls under the category of the hukot Jews may not follow if it is connected to idolatry or immorality. Since the purpose of a cap is to dress respectfully and with honor, it is an acceptable mode of dress for Jews.[x] Rama similarly rules that it is only forbidden to act like non-Jews regarding practices of immorality or when there is reason to suspect that the practice stems from idolatrous origins. However, if a practice has an evident purpose and does not fall under one of these two categories, it is permissible. [xi] Following this interpretation of “uvehukoteihem lo teileikhu,” the purpose of the commandment is not to physically separate Jews from non-Jews, but rather to separate Jews from possible pagan and immoral practices of non-Jews.

The motivation behind these differences in halakhic ruling and general interpretation of the commandment can be traced to two different approaches found in the Talmud. The first source presents Rav Yehudah opting to use a more repulsive death penalty so as to not imitate the ways of other nations:

It had been taught: R. Yehudah said to the Sages: I too know that this is a death of repulsive disfigurement, but what can I do, seeing that the Torah hath said, neither shall ye walk in their ordinances?  But the Rabbis maintain: Since Scripture decreed the sword, we do not imitate them [when using their method]. For if you will not agree to this, then how about that which was taught: Pyres may be lit in honor of deceased kings, and this is not forbidden as being of the ‘ways of the Amorites’: but why so? Is it not written, neither shall ye walk in their ordinances (u-vehukoteihem lo teileikhu)? But because this burning is referred to in the Bible…….. it is not from them [the heathens] that we derive the practice. So here too, since the Torah decreed the sword, it is not from them [the Romans] that we derive the practice. (Sanhedrin 52b) [xii]

The Talmud imparts that Rav Yehudah is incorrect and the less repulsive death penalty is allowed because it is referred to within Tanakh. This teaching seems to imply that a practice of non-Jews is permissible only if it is already a part of Jewish culture and taught within Tanakh. However, a similar discussion in tractate Avodah Zarah yields a different understanding of when it is forbidden to follow the ways of non-Jews. The discussion revolves around an ancient custom to burn artifacts at the funerals of important dignitaries which was prevalent among the Romans, a pagan nation.

The burning of articles at a king’s [funeral] is permitted and there is nothing of Amorite usage about it. Now if it is a cult of idolatry how could such burning be allowed? Is it not written, and in their statutes ye shall not walk? — Hence, all agree that burning is not an idolatrous cult and is merely a mark of high esteem [for the deceased] (Avodah Zara 11a)[xiii]

The assumption of this discussion is not that the burning of possessions at a king’s funeral is only permitted if it is mentioned in Tanakh.[xiv] Rather the deciding factor is whether the action itself has an idolatrous purpose or significance. Therefore not only are practical behaviors of pagan nation such as building or plating permissible, but even behaviors which lack practical purposes are permitted, so long as the practices themselves are neutral acts. Burning objects at a funeral, which is merely a signal of importance and carries no idolatrous symbolism, is one such example of a neutral act.[xv]  The ramifications of this difference in interpretation of “uvehukoteihem lo teleikhu” are seen in the different halakhic approaches cited earlier. The Shulhan Arukh and Rambam follow the attitude found in Sanhedrin, that unnecessary practices not found within the Torah are prohibited even when they are not immoral or idolatrous. However, Rama, Maharik, and Ran reflect the viewpoint expressed in Avodah Zarah, establishing whether an act is contradictory to Jewish ideology before deeming it prohibited.

Furthermore, these two Talmudic approaches to the boundary of imitating non-Jewish practices serve as an important framework not just for halakhic decisions, but also for a mindset of how a Jew may approach and learn from the ways of different religions.  The approach of Sanhedrin 52b is to view the Torah as an exclusive source of values, behavior, and actions. When encountering a practice, the appropriate response is not to evaluate its moral repercussions or purpose; such evaluation is irrelevant. Rather, the only possible justification for adopting a practice associated with pagans is if the behavior also has a Torah source. But Avodah Zarah 11a demonstrates a different attitude towards viewing the acts and practices of other religions. The Talmud there does not assume that practices which are not inherently Jewish are automatically irrelevant or forbidden to Jews. Instead, it evaluates each practice, searching to untangle the values each action incorporates, and only then deciding if it has a place within the life of a Jew. Such a method requires a willingness to learn from, engage, and understand the non-Jewish world. It acknowledges that value can be found even in practices that do not originate in Jewish sources.

The impression that Avodah Zara 11a gives of advocating a more open approach to secular culture is strengthened by the context of the “uvehukoteihem lo teileikhu” discussion. Immediately preceding it, the Talmud tells a series of stories about Rav Yehudah HaNasi, a 3rd century CE leader and the compiler of the Mishna, and his close friendship with Antoninus, a prominent Roman Emperor. The bond between them was so strong that when Antoninus died, Rebbe (a name of endearment for Rav Yehuda HaNasi) proclaimed “the bond has been snapped.” Rav, one of the greatest amoraim of the Talmud, is quoted to have said the same words upon the death of his close friend Artaban, a Parthian king.[xvi] The juxtaposition of the admiration Rebbe and Rav express for their non-Jewish friends and the laws of “uvehukoteihem lo teileikhu” is not accidental. These halakhic and aggadic components complement one another, expressing that the lives and practices of  non-Jews are inherently valuable.

This Talmudic debate about whether or not to forge a bond and learn from non-Jews continues with pages of halakhic discourse concerning the imitation of non-Jewish dress and architecture. These differences in approach, expressed in both the Talmud and halakha, are still being debated today. The modern-day argument is often expressed in terms of how a Jew should view and relate to the secular world. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein eloquently articulates the two approaches:

On  the one hand there may be a dualistic conception which sets up a rigid barrier between the two; which conceives of man’s purely natural life as intrinsically corrupt; which sees the religious as being established not upon the secular but despite it; which in short considers kodesh  and chol  not simply distinct but disjoint. On the other hand we have a unified conception which stems from a deep seated belief that life is basically one; that the secular and religious aspects of human experience are in fundamental harmony, the latter perfecting rather than destroying the former; that, finally, while kodesh and chol  are neither identical not coextensive, they are both contiguous and continuous.[xvii]

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein does not separate all things secular from the religious, nor does he view them as opposing ideas.  Rather, he advocates a belief in viewing the secular and religious aspects in this world as ultimately existing in agreement with much in common, complementing one another.  This unified conception of secular and religious life existing in harmony is not a modern or novel concept in Judaism. Granted, looking to the Torah as a sole source of wisdom is a well-established Jewish belief. However, the willingness of great Jewish leaders to respect non-Jewish practices—to interact with and admire leaders of pagan nations—testifies to their belief that the experience of life is one, with kodesh and hol inextricably linked. Ben Zoma’s statement “Who is wise? He who learns from all people” may be limited in the sense of what one may learn from all people. Yet it teaches that learning from all people, is a deep-rooted Jewish value.

[i] I first studied the sugya of Uvehukoteihem Lo Teileikhu, Avodah Zarah 11a with Rabbi Yehoshua Weisberg, Director of Nishmat’s Shana Ba’Aretz program. Rabbi Weisberg exposed me to many of the sources quoted in the article and greatly influenced the way I approached the topic.

[ii] All translations are my own unless otherwise noted

[iii] Even if one argues that the verse only instructs one not to perform the practices of other nations, this alone limits the experiential aspects of any learning process.

[iv] Sifra Aharei Mot Parsha 8:13

[v]Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 30

[vi] Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, 11:2

[vii] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 178:1

[viii] Sefer Ha-Hinukh, mitzvah 262

[ix] Dapei HaRif, Ran- Avodah Zarah Daf Bet Amud Bet,

[x] Shu”t Maharik, Siman Peh Het

[xi] Hagah, Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 178:1

[xii] Soncino Press Babylonian Talmud Translation

[xiii] Soncino Press Babylonian Talmud Translation

[xiv] Avodah Zarah 11a later provides an example of when a burning ceremony at the funeral of the king is mentioned within the bible (Jeremiah 34). However the point still stands, as this is not brought as a proof as to why it is permissible to practice a ritual that pagan cults perform.

[xv] Ritva Avodah Zarah 11a

[xvi] Avodah Zarah 10b

[xvii] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “A Consideration of General Studies from a Torah Point of View,” reprinted in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Ktav Pub Inc. 2003) 103.