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George Washington’s Mitzvah

When to stand up, according to Washington, Obama, and the Talmud

Sara Ivry
July 07, 2009

David Brooks continues his Barack Obama torch-carrying in today’s New York Times, likening the president’s dignified ways with those of George Washington, who strictly followed 101 rules of civility. One of them—“if any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up”—caught our eye, as it’s coincidentally also the subject of assiduous pontification in the Yiddish-news website Vos Iz Neais?.

It turns out there’s a mitzvah derived from Leviticus 19:32 that states that a person should rise when a man—specifically with grey hair—enters a room. Later rabbinical parsing tried to determine at what age a person is considered hoary enough to stand for (60 or 70); whether you rise when an elderly woman approaches (some say only if her husband is a Torah scholar—don’t sweat it for merely a doctor’s wife); and if you’re exempt from standing if so doing runs you the risk of losing money, on a subway, for instance, where someone could swipe your seat if you get out of it for only a second. If that last bit seems a little crass, don’t worry: there are further caveats to that exception (for one, it’d constitute “a chillul Hashem,” or desecration of God). We have no doubt someone as dignified as Barack Obama would execute that double-reverse caveat to the caveat and risk forfeiting the $2.25 to show respect for a kindly grandmother. And when he does, you-know-who will write all about it.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.