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Knock Before You Enter


Why does the Kohen Gadol have bells hanging on his clothing? What lesson do they intend to teach us? Why should one knock on a door before entering? Can the same effect be achieved through other means? When is knocking forbidden? Is it permitted to hate ill-mannered people? What is the polite way to greet a group and its leader? When is surprising someone forbidden? Of this and more in the coming article.

The Halachic Obligation to Knock Before Entering

In this week’s parsha we learn about the kohen gadol’s uniform that he wore during his service in the Mikdash. Of the cloak-like garment, the me’il, the Torah tells us: “You shall make on its hem pomegranates of turquoise and scarlet wool, and golden bells among them…”. And why? The pasuk explains: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before G‑d, and when he leaves…” (Shemos 28:33, 35). Every step he takes in the Mikdash, especially entering and leaving, must be announced by the bells hanging on his clothing.

The commentaries (Rabbenu Yosef Bechor Shor; Ramban; Rabbenu Bachye; Abarbanel; and others) explain that this obligation is born of the requirement to respect the Mikdash and He Who dwells within it —  entering a king’s palace unannounced shows lack of honor. Achashverosh’s court etiquette mirrored this rule: whoever entered his inner chambers without announcement was immediately killed, unless specifically saved by the king’s grace (Esther 4:11).

In the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 21:8) we learn how Rabbi Yochanan behaved when he went to visit Rabbi Chanina. Before entering, he’d shake a noise-producing apparatus to announce his arrival (apparently knocking on the door was not an option). The Midrash explains that he learned to do so from the above-mentioned pasuk in this week’s parasha.

Is knocking on a door before entering compulsory? What is the reason for doing so? When is doing so forbidden? How severe is the prohibition for failing to knock?

Sudden Arrival

There are several sources that teach of the prohibition to enter a house without announcement:

The Gemara (Psachim 112a) lists seven directives Rabbi Akiva gave his son Rabbi Yehoshua. One of them was never to enter a house suddenly, even one’s own home. Tehsuvaos HaGeonim (chapter 39) and Rashbam (Psachim 112a) attribute the source for this halacha to the above-mentioned Midrash (Vayikra Raba).

Similarly, the Gemara quotes (Niddah 16b) Ben Sira who listed three things he hates and one thing that he does not like. One of them is a person who enters his house suddenly. Rabbi Yochanan explains it even refers to one who enters his own private house, and certainly — another person’s dwelling. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai writes that also Hashem hates him, and he too does not like him (below we will explain the difference in definition).

Additional Sources

Maseches Derech Eretz (Pirkei Ben Azzai 3:2) notes this halacha. The Briata adds that people must learn derech eretz from Hashem: when He appeared to Adam Harishon to admonish him for having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem preceeded his appearance with sounds: “And they heard the voice of G-d walking in the garden toward the cool of the day” (Bereshis 3:8). Just as G-d did not appear to man suddenly, so, too, humans should not appear suddenly before others.


Tehsuvos Hageonim (chapter 39), Rashi (Niddah 16b), and Rashbam (Psachim 112a) explain that one should knock before entering a house because people inside might be engaged in private behaviors, and entering a home suddenly is a breach of the laws of modesty, even if one is entering his own private home. The Maharal explains (Chidushei Agadot, Niddah 16b) that since suddenly entering a house negates modest behavior, Hashem, who is the ultimate Holiness, does nothing that might contradict modesty, and hates anyone who does. As purified and holy one’s soul is, that much more he hates indecent behavior and one who behaves in such a manner.

Chazal Set an Example

Maseches Derech Eretz tells a story to illustrate the proper mode of behavior. Once, the Chachomim needed to visit Rome to plead on behalf of the Jewish people, and discussed the possibility of visiting a friendly gentile by the name of Philosophus.

Rabbi Yehoshua asked Raban Gamliel: “Do you wish to go visit our friend Philosophus?” It was at night, and Rabban Gamliel turned down the offer. The next morning, Rabbi Yehoshua again suggested meeting their friend. This time, Rabban Gamliel agreed. It was the right time to visit the Roman.

When they reached his doorstep, Rabban Gamliel stopped and knocked on the door. Apparently, while they were physically in Rome, they did not “do as Romans do”, because Philosophus heard the knocks, and realized they were not locals. He said to himself, “These fine manners are fitting for a talmid chacham.” When again they knocked, Philosophus prepared himself for the meeting. He washed his hands, face, and feet. When the sages knocked a third time, he was ready, and he opened the door to welcome them.

Seeing the honorable delegation, Philosophus debated how to greet them. If he’d welcome only Rabban Gamliel, he’d be showing disrespect to the rest of the sages. And if he’d greet them all in general, he’d be insulting Rabban Gamliel who was the Nasi (prince). Therefore, he said, “Welcome to Chachmei Yisroel, and to Rabban Gamliel leading them.”

This story teaches us several derech eretz lessons:

  • Rabbi Yehoshua knew that to ensure their mission’s success they had to visit Philosophus. Before setting up a visit, he first asked for Rabban Gamliel’s approval for the timing. After receiving a negative reply for an evening visit, he returned again in the morning, perhaps it would be more appropriate to visit then.
  • The sages knocked on the door but did not enter. This, apparently, was uncommon practice in Rome. Therefore, Philosophus deduced that his visitors were Jewish sages.
  • When their knocking went unanswered, they understood their friend still needed time to prepare himself. They waited, and only then knocked a second time. When he still did not answer, they waited some more (enough time to allow their friend to wash up), and only then knocked again.
  • When greeting the elders, Philosophus was careful to find the exact wording which would show respect to all those who had arrived – to Rabban Gamliel and his position, and to the entourage of elders.

Additional Reasons for Knocking

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Tetzave 382) understands from the pasuk: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary” that entering a room without warning is forbidden. It tells a story to illustrate how important knocking is.

Two Tana’im, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Chanania ben Chachinai, left their homes in the Galilee to learn Torah in Bnei Brak under Rabbi Akiva’s tutelage. While Rabbi Shimon was careful to receive periodic updates about life at home and managed to send messages back to his family, Rabbi Chanina left for the thirteen years as he had wife had agreed to, receiving no updates at all. Finally, after thirteen years, his wife sent a message asking him to return home. Their daughter had reached marriageable age and needed his help in finding her a match. The Midrash tells us that at the same time she sent a message, Rabbi Akiva learned from the Divine Inspiration that Rabbi Chanina was needed at home, and sent him back.

When Rabbi Chanina arrived at his hometown, he found the village had changed since he left it, and their home was now in a new part of the city. In order to discover where his house was, Rabbi Chanina stood by the well. When he heard one of the girls tell another, “Daughter of Chachinai, it is your turn to fill your water jug,” he realized the girl was his very own daughter whom he had left as a baby. He followed her home, and when she walked into the house, he followed her in. His wife, who suddenly saw him standing at home, was so surprised that she dropped down dead from shock. Rabbi Chanina prayed for her, “My precious wife who let me leave her alone for thirteen years with such mesirut nefesh, should die as soon as I return? Is this her reward?” The Midrash recounts that his prayers were answered, and she came back to life.

The Midrash here teaches us several lessons.

  • Despite the difficulties and dangers, Rabbi Shimon made sure to stay in touch with his family. This is noteworthy and praiseworthy.
  • Entering one’s home suddenly is prohibited and dangerous. Despite the fact that Rabbi Chanina probably did so because he didn’t want to make his wife wait even one additional unnecessary moment, or — because he wanted to surprise her, it would have been safer had he first sent a message that he was in town before appearing at home.

Door Knocking

While apparently knocking on door was not accepted etiquette in the times of the Talmud, this practice is very much accepted in the Torah. In Shir HaShirim the pasuk speaks of door knocking: “Hark! My beloved is knocking” (Shir HaShirim 5:2). The Rambam (Tamid 1:2) explains this knocking was weak and gentle tapping on the door, meant to attract the attention of those inside. When Hashem appears to us, it is not a sudden, bold appearance, but a weak, light tapping, meant to make us aware that He is there and wishes to enter. The Mishna (Tamid 1:2) describes how the memune – the Mikdash administrator — would arrive in the morning and knock on the door. Then, those inside would open for him. Despite having full pass of the entire Mikdash complex, and carrying his own key, he would not open the door himself or let himself in with his key. This mode of behavior appears often in Chazal (Chulin 95b, and elsewhere).

Torah Prohibition or Proper Manners

The Gemara (Niddah 16b) lists failing to knock before entering as not one that Ben Sira hates, but one he does not like. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai reiterates that Hashem hates him, and  he also does not like him. What’s the difference between hating and not liking, and of what consequence is it?

The Maharal (Chidushei Agadot) and Aruch LaNer (Niddah 16b) explain that the hatred referred to here is not hatred of the heart, but spiritual hatred of the soul. This impolite and immodest behavior arouses disgust in the soul, and is disgusted by Hashem. However, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochaiwho had yet not arrived at the spiritual level of making it despised by his spirit, describes it as behavior which he “does not like”. The Ben Ish Chai (Ben Yehoyada) explains that Hashem hates the essence of this behavior, but Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai despised it on the personal level.

The Maharsha explains (Niddah 16b) that the prohibition to enter a house without knocking stems from immodesty. One who purposely transgress a Torah prohibition is despised, both by G-d and by man, as we learn from the pasuk in Tehilim: “Did I not hate Your enemies, O Lord? With those who rise up against You, I quarrel” (139:21). In addition, towards one who behaves in this manner the prohibition of hating another Jew: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17) does not apply. However, this only refers to one who transgresses a full Torah prohibition. Nevertheless, one is not obligated to love a person who behaves this way.

Shevus Yaakov (Iyun Yaakov 16b) asks further: One who does not love his fellow transgresses a positive mitzva (which appears in the above quoted pasuk). How can a positive mitzva be cancelled in face of poor mannerism? The Aruch Laner (Niddah 16b) asks the opposite question: how can the rabbis NOT hate one who is despised by G-d? If Hashem hates someone, why shoudn’t people hate them too? And how did Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai not hate the person, only his actions?

Matan B’seter (Niddah 16b) explains that Rabbi Shimon means that since Hashem hates these people, the mitzvo of “love your fellow as yourself” does not apply to them, because they are not considered “your fellow” since they are hated by Hashem.

Shevus Yaakov explains that a person with poor manners is excused from earthly judgment, but bound by heavenly judgement. Therefore, while there is no obligation to love him, only Hashem may actually hate him.

The Ya’avetz (Niddah 16b) writes that Hashem hates only one who always enters without knocking, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai does not like one who does so even once.

The Chida (Mar’is Ayin, Niddah 16b) explains Rabbi Shimon’s statement: when a tzaddik prays for someone, he expresses his love for him. Rabbi Shimon would not pray for those who walked in unannounced. This way he expressed his disdain for them.

Rabbi Binyomin Chashin (Amtachat Binyamin, Niddah 16b), and Rabbi Yirmiyahu Lau (Divrei Yirmiyahu, drashot p. 10) explain that Hashem, who sees all one’s inner thoughts, hates those who surprise others with their presence. However, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who does no know people thoughts, was able to assume they had other motives for their behavior, therefore he only does not like them.

Othe Areas

Maintaining privacy is important in other areas as well.

When Bila’am gazed at the Jewish camp, he recited the famous pasuk: “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael!” (Bamidbar 24:5). The Gemara explains that he said this pasuk when he saw how the Jewish camp was arranged: with the entranceways purposely not facing each other. This is the source from which the Gemara learns of the prohibition of hezek reiya – damage by eyesight — and the right of people for their privacy. Neighbors have a right to demand that others not look into their private property, and doors and windows not be built facing theirs. While there are many details involved, this is an underlying rule in Jewish property rights which appears in Maseches Bave Basre.

Not entering to take collateral:

When a debtor fails to repay his debt and the lender arrives at his house to collect it, the lender must not enter his debtor’s home in search of collateral. Instead, he must wait outside for the debtor to bring collateral out for him.

Elsewhere, (Choshen Mishpot 97) we learn of instances in which Beis Din permits their emissary to enter another’s property, and when entering it is forbidden.

Another issue discussed in the Shulchan Aruch regarding barring entrance is preventing relatives from entering a couple’s jointly owned property (Even Haezer 74:10, Rambam and Ra’avad, Hilchos Ishus 13:14).



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