Is respect earned or given?

December 10th, 2015 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 4 comments


Is respect earned or given?

∼ Vinetta D.


Dear Vinetta,

In Hebrew, the word usually translated as respect is ‘kavod’. Pronounced differently, the word also means ‘heavy.’ We have the same concept in English where we might say that we ‘give weight’ to an idea as a way of saying that we are treating it with extra attention.

There is an idea, in ancient Jewish wisdom, call ‘kavod habriyot,’ or ‘respect for humanity.’ By virtue of man being created in the image of God, each individual must be accorded basic decency. Even if someone’s behavior was so extreme that he was legally sentenced to death, his corpse was still buried and prior to execution he needed to be fed and clothed decently.

The Torah demands a specific form of respect for parents. While there are, tragically, times that parents need to be disobeyed or distanced from one’s life, there are boundaries that cannot be crossed. For example, calling a friend by his or her first name is not disrespectful while using a parent’s first name is. Ideas like that are completely disassociated from anything the parent is or does. Respect is given automatically for being the source of the child’s life.

In between the type of respect due every human being and the type of respect due parents, respect is earned. We each know people whom we treat with extra deference because of things they have done for us or others, life accomplishments, or other reasons. By acting in certain ways they have moved higher on the scale than all humanity and possibly even surpass the respect we owe our parents.

Respectfully yours,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Lisa says:

What about respect between spouses? Do spouses have to earn each others respect or should respect be freely given out of courtesy to that spouse bc they is the most important person in their world? Or is it a mixure of given amd earned respect between spouses?

Susan Lapin says:

Each spouse should work to earn the respect of the other while graciously giving respect to the other.

Magda Czechowicz says:

Wow! Thank you so much for your lovely article! I am not Jewish, but I completely agree. Thank you for also elaborating on the comment above, because I recently (ok., today, ended a 5 year toxic rel. with a man who always disrespected me, and used this phrase “respect is earned not automatically given”. This was a person who would never say “thank you” or “please” in most common situations, and ultimately was the underlying foundation of why I left. I respected MYSELF more.

Susan Lapin says:

We’re so glad that this answer resonated with you, Magda, and that you had the strength to get out of a toxic relationship. We hope and pray that you build healthy relationships going forward.


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