Sotah 5a – 1/8 of 1/8 of Haughtiness


The Talmud (Sotah 4b-5a) strongly condemns the trait of haughtiness comparing this sin to worshipping idols, denying the existence of Hashem, and cohabiting with forbidden relations. In addition Rabbi Levitas of Yavne stated, “Be exceedingly humble in spirit for the anticipated end of mortal man is worms (Avot 4:4). 

Even Maimonides who advised to follow the middle path between extremes (Laws of Conduct 1:4) ruled that with respect to haughtiness (ibid. 2:3) one is forbidden to follow the middle path. Rather he should move from one extreme and adopt the other, name exceedingly low of spirit which is beyond humility.   

Excessive Humility

Despite the above moral lesson the Talmud recognizes that excessive humility might be detrimental to the person himself or in fact the entire nation. The Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) relates that during the turbulent times of the rebellion against Rome (3826 or 66 AD) excessive humility led to the destruction of the temple.

The Talmud continues by saying that there was a man whose friend was named Kamtza and his enemy Bar Kamtza. This man prepared a large feast and asked his servant to invite Kamtza. By mistake the servant invited Bar Kamtza. When the host saw Bar Kamtza he asked him to leave. To avoid embarrassment Bar Kamtza asked to stay and even pay for his meal. The host refused and insisted that he leave. In turn Bar Kamtza was prepared to pay for the entire banquet. The host refused and eventually ejected Bar Kamtza. After leaving, Bar Kamtza reasoned since the rabbis who were present did not protest they must have agreed to his public humiliation. The Midrash Lamentations 4:3 presents the same story with some variations and identifies the senior rabbi as Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas (see next paragraph) who had the power to protest this injustice but did not follow through. In his misplaced humility he felt that he did not have the authority or power to protest.  

As a result, Bar Kamtza sought revenge against the people that humiliated him and became an informant against the Jews. He went to the Roman emperor saying that the Jews were rebelling against Rome and this claim may be verified by sending an animal offering to the temple in Jerusalem. If the Jews refuse the offering they do not recognize the authority of Rome.  To bolster his claim Bar Kamtza purposely blemished the animal to prevent its offer on the altar. The rabbis were faced with a dilemma. If they offered the animal Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas felt that people would conclude that one is permitted to offer blemished animals. If they refused the animal then Roman emperor will conclude that the Jews are in rebellion leading to military action from Rome resulting in loss of life. Perhaps they should kill the informer to quash the incident. Again Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas objected and felt that people would conclude that one making a blemish in a consecrated animal is to be killed.  As a result they did nothing and Bar Kamtza told the Roman authorities that the Jews refused to offer the animal leading to Roman retaliation. The Talmud concludes by quoting Rabbi Yochanan, “The excessive humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” 

Rashi explained that Rabbi Zechariah was too tolerant (i.e. humble) and should have killed the informant. Maharitz Chayes explained that Rabbi Zechariah was in a quandary because each action, offering the blemished animal or killing the informant was against normative Torah law. Rabbi Zechariah knew that one may suspend Torah law in an emergency situation (שעה הוראת) especially when many lives are at stake. However due to his excessive humility he felt that he was not qualified to rule in this matter. Hillel advised (Avot 2:6), in a dire situation, “In a place where there are no leaders strive to be a leader.”  Others explain that Rabbi Zechariah should have followed his own convictions and ignore public opinion.        

In a similar vein Rashi (Sotah 5a) explained that a Torah scholar must possess strength of spirit (i.e. apparent haughtiness) because excessive humility will diminish his position. People will disrespect him and his rulings, leading to a discrediting of Torah in the eyes of people. Faced with this delicate balance Rava states (ibid.) that a Torah scholar with haughtiness should be excommunicated and in turn a torah scholar without haughtiness should also be excommunicated. (In the vernacular, “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.”) The reader may ask, “What should a Torah scholar do?”

1/8 of 1/8 of Haughtiness

To balance the need for Torah authority and at the same time guard against haughtiness, Rav Chiya bar Ashi in the name of Rav advised that a Torah scholar must possess 1/8 of 1/8 of haughtiness. Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua added that this small amount of haughtiness crowns him as the bristles of a wheat stalk. These bristles are aesthetically pleasing and also protect wheat from foreign matter. Similarly this haughtiness adds dignity to the office of the Torah scholar and protects him from undue interference. However just as the bristles are attached to the stalk only on its outer surface, a scholar may only appear haughty externally for honour of the Torah. Internally he must be completely humble and serve Hashem with modesty (Micah 6:8). As Maimonides wrote about anger (Laws of Conduct 2:3), justified in certain situations, with the condition that a person may appear angry to protest an outrage. However  he must be fully in control of his person.    


The reader may ask the following questions about this ratio of 1/8 of 1/8:

  1. How do you measure haughtiness?  
  2. What is the significance of 1/64 (i.e. 1/8 * 1/8)?
  3. Why is the number expressed as a multiplication, simply say 1/64?

This enigmatic ratio has intrigued many Talmudic commentators leading to numerous explanations. This article will present some explanations while attempting to answer these questions.


Maimonides in his commentary on Avot (4:4) understood this ratio is in a literal sense. He conceived a number line starting from zero, corresponding to abject humility (e.g. torn clothes, sit on the ground) and increasing to 64 representing absolute haughtiness. A Torah scholar is allowed to conduct himself at level 1 only (i.e. 1/64 of haughtiness). This approach answers the first question but does not address the other two.     

Maharitz Chayes explained the ratio of 1/64 as a number representing nullification (e.g. laws of kashrut. For example if a small amount of milk fell in to a meat stew and can no longer be identified then the stew is permitted for consumption provided that the volume of the stew is 60 times that of the milk. The taste of milk had been nullified in the meat stew. The Talmud (Berachot 57b) uses this ratio even for intangible items, “Shabbat is 1/60 of the world to come, sleep is 1/60 of death, and a dream is 1/60 of prophecy.” (Since the ratio is 1/60 that means that there are 59 measures of a Shabbat experience in this world and one measure of the world to come and is therefore not nullified). In this manner we can understand that a Torah scholar may possess 1/61 of haughtiness because this small amount will be nullified by his overriding humility.

However Rav Chiya mentioned 1/64 which is less than 1/61. Maharitz Chayes further explained that Rav Chiya expresses the ratio as a multiplication (mathematically as a squared term) hence 1/64 is the largest of the squared terms below 1/61. (For example 1/7 *1/7 equals 1/49 which is too large and 1/9 * 1/9 which is 1/81 is too small.) However Maharitz Chayes did not explain why the term must be squared. Perhaps Rav Chiya wanted to emphasize that any degree of haughtiness must be carefully examined before application like a double sifting. As the men of the Great Assembly said (Avot 1:1), “Be deliberate in judgment (even self-judgment) – בדין מתונים הוו. (It is interesting to note that the gematria of דין is 64.)

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) also understood this ratio as a balance between haughtiness for the honour of Torah and potentially destructive ego, however in terms of gematria and not nullification. Rav Chiya set the limit as 1/64 to guard against a level of 1/63 because the gematria of haughtiness גס is 63. Again the squaring of the term is not explained but perhaps the above explanation of double sifting may be applied.

(It is interesting to note that this term does not appear in the bible in direct or construct form even though it appears in the Talmud many times including Sotah 5a הרוח גסות. However the word סג (same letters but reverse order) appears once in the bible (Psalms 53:4), “They are all dross (סג); together they have spoiled; no one does good deeds, not even one.” This chapter of psalms speaks about people who deny Hashem and commit abominable injustice (ibid. 52:1). In a similar vein, connecting haughtiness to obstructing the divine plan, Rav Chisda or Mar Ukva said (Sotah 5a), “If a person is haughty the Holy One, blessed is He, says that I and he cannot dwell together in the (same) world.”   

Textual Basis

Other commentators (e.g. Maharsha, Eitz Yosef) understood the 1/8 of 1/8 ratio not in a quantitative sense but rather on a textual basis referring to a chapter of psalms containing a word related to 8 (e.g. chapters 6 and 12) or groups of 8 verses (e.g. chapter 119) and then choosing a verse from that chapter to reflect humility.

The Vilna Gaon explained this enigma by in terms of the 8th verse (Genesis 32:11) of the 8th parsha (Vayishlach), “I have been diminished by all the kindness and all the truth You (divine) have done to Your servant.” In this verse Jacob humbly acknowledged all the bounty he had received from Hashem despite the many difficulties in his life.        

(Note: this explanation applies to our custom to read the Torah in a yearly cycle. In Israel at the time of the Talmud and earlier the practice was to read the Torah in a triennial cycle (Megillah 29b).Therefore according to their custom the 8th verse of the 8th parsha would occur much earlier in the Torah.)

Practical Advice

The tradeoff between apparent haughtiness to protect the honour of the Torah and ego has been analyzed by the sages and they offer practical advice to deal with this situation.

Association with Scholars

The Torah (Deuteronomy 30:20) commands the Israelites to love and cleave to Hashem. The Talmud (Ketubot 111b) questions, “Is it physically possible to cleave to Hashem?” Rather the Talmud answers that one should cleave to Torah scholars, in terms of marrying his daughter to  a Torah scholar, doing business with him, or helping him materially.  Maimonides (Laws of Conduct 6:2), following this quote from the Talmud, added that this cleaving is a positive commandment of the Torah and includes any contact with Torah scholars in addition to the examples listed above. Maimonides (ibid.) also mentioned the obligation to study Torah with scholars and drink with thirst their words (Avot 1:4). In this manner one acquires humility as follows:

  1. Torah scholars are themselves very humble and serve as role models. (One is influenced by his surroundings.)  
  2. One is naturally humbled by studying with a Torah scholar due to his depth, clarity, intellect, and elevated mannerisms. (A Torah scholar will politely expose flaws in one’s Torah study and character leading to humility and self-examination.)

In conjunction with associating with Torah scholars the sages provide suggestions for self-examination to protect against haughtiness. Even if one erroneously thinks that he is “better than someone else” he should realize that his finite abilities are totally insignificant in comparison to the infinite abilities of Hashem (Magen Avot on Avot 4:4). He should also reflect on his actions with respect to the divine plan ordained for him (Avot 2:4). In addition a person must realize that all of his abilities (e.g. wisdom, physical strength, and business acumen) are gifts from Hashem which may be revoked if used improperly. Rav Avira (Sotah 5a) stated, “Any person who is haughty will ultimately be diminished in stature”, whether by Hashem directly or by abandonment of people. The Talmud (ibid.) uses the analogy of wheat stalks protected by bristles in reference to haughtiness. The bristles may fall off (e.g. by wind) representing Hashem’s action or the whole wheat stalk is chopped down representing spurning by the public.   

Pride in Fulfilling Hashem’s Will

The Rebbe of Lubavitch in a talk on the 19th of Kislev 5713 expounded on the concept of pride and passion in fulfilling Hashem’s will while maintaining personal humility. Rabbi Levi New of the Montreal Torah Centre explains this concept in a YouTube video, Talmud Sotah #025, with link starting at 13:50. This confidence does not arise from personal pride but rather the divine soul granted by Hashem to fulfill His (divine) will. The lecture quoted the verse in 2 Chronicles 17:6 that King Jehoshaphat’s heart was elevated in the ways of Hashem. Moreover, he abolished the (idolatrous) shrines and posts from Judah. The Hebrew term for elevation לבו ויגבה raises the following points:

  1. This term is usually reserved for personal pride leading to rebellion against Hashem haughtiness (e.g. Proverbs 16:5, 2 Chronicles 26:16, 32:25).
  2. The gematria of לבו ויגבה is 64, corresponding to the “permitted” 1/8 of 1/8 of haughtiness.

 From this verse we can see that pride in Hashem’s plans is justified provided that the limit is set to 1/64 to guard against ego.


This article examined the trait of haughtiness from different perspectives. The sages understood the tradeoff between preserving honour of the Torah and the rabbinic office against the perils of inflated ego and acting in self-interest. The sages also offered practical and time tested advice to deal with this conflict. In addition this article provided different explanations of the enigmatic phrase 1/8 of 1/8 of haughtiness.  

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