Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Replying to Letters, Emails, and Phone Messages

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

I don’t know about you, but I am disturbed by those who do not respond to letters, email, or return phone calls within a reasonable time frame. In fact, in the event of a first time correspondence, it is the only gesture that allows me a feeling of that person's level of derech eretz.

It seems that I am not the only one who views failing to respond to others in a timely manner as distasteful behavior. Rabbi Chaim Palagi writes:[1]

"Derech eretz kodma l'torah….Therefore, one who has received a letter from a friend should respond immediately as there are a number of prohibitions which one may violate by not responding in a timely manner. Responding to a correspondence is basic derech eretz, and causing one to long for a response has the potential to cause that person long term health concerns… It may just be that the one's reply has the ability to lead to having a mitzva performed… Not responding causes the one who sent the letter great pain waiting for his needs to be addressed. It is also cruel and a sign of arrogance. He who judges the world will pay back such people midda k'neged midda. I myself have sent letters to many prominent people, and those who did not answer my letters fell to unfortunate circumstance."

Click here to read moreFurthermore, in yet another one of his works,[2] Rabbi Palagi quotes the Re'im who goes off on a lengthy tangent apologizing to someone for not having answered a letter, explaining that he did not receive it and that perhaps it got lost. He also highlights to the person he is addressing that it is the first time he has ever missed responding to a letter. The Re'im also writes that he is proud to be among those who answer letters from all people, regardless of their status. Rabbi Palagi then elaborates on the importance of responding to correspondence and it should be one of the things that one should hurry to discharge. He again asserts that not doing so is a sign of arrogance.

We also find that Rabbi Chaim Benvinisti once apologized excessively and begged forgiveness from someone for not having responded to a letter in a timely fashion. He too elaborates on the importance of responding to correspondence in a timely manner.[3]

Rabbi Avraham Palagi, the son of Rabbi Chaim, writes regarding his father:[4] "He always answered letters from even the most simple people. He did so even when terribly inconvenient."

Although the issue of v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha,[5] loving your fellow Jew as yourself, (i.e. treating others how you yourself would want to be treated[6]) is not explicitly mentioned, it is no doubt one of the "number of prohibitions which one may violate in not responding in a timely manner". I would also add that there are some serious violations of "Lo Tonu"[7] and its related ramifications within the realm ona'at devarim.[8]

After contacting a number of experts in the field of social and business propriety, it seems to be the consensus that proper etiquette calls for correspondence to be responded to within five days. As with most things in Choshen Mishpat, the "minhag hamedina" has the strength to establish halacha.[9] As such, I would like to suggest that those who delay, let alone ignore responding to correspondence will be in violation of the issues discussed above after five days.

Although the issue of responding to emails and phone messages may seem somewhat trivial in the greater picture of halachic practice, many people have a conceptual difficulty attaching non-ritualistic precepts to a spiritual accountability. Perhaps it is time that as part of our constant efforts to upgrade our halachic behavior, we should pause to reflect and apply the day-to-day bein adam l'chaveiro issues to their corresponding biblical categories.

Perhaps the words of the Rambam will assist us in internalizing this idea. The Rambam once praised himself saying: "…how many [written] questions have I received and not answered? I swear to you that I have no recollection ever of not answering a single question!"[10]


[1] Ginzei Chaim 20:73. Note: Rabbi Palagi's lyrical and rabbinical style of writing made for a literal translation virtually impossible.
[2] Nefesh Hachaim 1:20
[3] Boei Chayei C.M. 1:56
[4] Tzavaa M'chaim 75
[5] Vayikra 19:18
[6] Shabbat 31a
[7] Vayikra 25:14,17
[8] See Sefer Hachinuch 338
[9] Bava Metzia 83a. This concept is cited extensively throughout Choshen Mishpat
[10] Igeret Harambam Vol. 2 in letter to Rabbi Pinchas Hadayan

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