For the week ending 5 November 2011 / 7 Heshvan 5772

A Standing Question

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: David

Dear Rabbi,

I have a question that recently had practical implications. We were sitting in a restaurant and some older people walked in as they had a booking. The restaurant management confused the booking and it turns out that there was no space for them to be seated. They were angry that we as the younger generation did not show “derech eretz” by getting up for them and offering our table. We were surprised at this and my question is, is there an obligation to get up for older people in a commercial setting where we are paying customers like all other customers? What is the halacha and would there be a difference between a bus situation and a restaurant?

Dear David,

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between “old” and “sick.” The Torah teaches us to honor the elderly even if they are healthy, and to help sick people even if they are young. So, in order not to confuse these issues, let’s assume we are talking about healthy 70 year olds who need no physical assistance. Assuming this, you were not obligated to give up your table. Depending on the situation, however, it may have been a good thing to do.

The Torah says, “Rise before an old person, and honor the presence of a sage.” The Shulchan Aruch defines “old” as age 70. If a 70 year-old person walks by, you must stand. This is not in order to offer him your seat, but rather as a way of showing honor by recognizing his presence.

The obligation to show honor is not limited to standing up, but can also involve giving your seat, helping with a package, or otherwise offering assistance. However, one is not required to incur a financial loss as a result. Since there is a definite monetary value in having a seat in a restaurant, you were therefore not required to offer your seat. Although a similar argument can be made for a bus seat, as you have paid for the right to sit there (again, assuming the older people are physically able to stand in relative comfort), one should still stand for an elderly person on a bus or subway since the loss of forfeiting one’s seat is usually relatively small.

That having been said, keep in mind that “derech eretz kadma l’Torah” — good manners and character traits are a prerequisite to observing the Torah. Depending on the situation, simple etiquette and common sense may require you to stand. This is especially true if you are a visibly observant Jew, because people tend to generalize about others based on their dress. Therefore, as such, you are “Judaism’s ambassador” and should generally keep to a higher standard than the letter of the law requires.

In the case of a restaurant booking, I don’t think this applies, as it is normal to be seated on a reservation or on a “first come first served” basis, and one is not expected to relinquish his seat for another. In a pizza shop, or other informal setting where people “eat and run,” you probably should offer your seat.


  • Leviticus 19:32
  • Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 244:1

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