This interesting phrase is made up of two words. The first is “way,” “de-rech” (you remember, of course, that Hebrew is written from right to left and, therefore, when we say “the first word” we mean the first from the right-hand side of the line).
The second word is “land” or “earth,” “e-retz.” If you say it out loud, you’ll easily notice that “earth” came from the Hebrew origin “eretz.” Courtesy is then “the way of the land.” It sums up the unwritten codes of conduct and rules of behavior acceptable in each land or community.
The Talmud* dedicates two tractates (treatises) to the subject of “de-rech e-retz,” courtesy. The first tractate, “De-rech e-retz Ra-ba,” (the large Courtesy tractate) discusses manners between person-to-person. The other tractate, “De-rech e-retz Zu-ta,” (the small Courtesy tractate), includes ethical rules for young Bible students.
There is a common saying of the Talmud sages which claims that “De-rech e-retz” preceded the Torah. According to this saying, a person needs to have pre-existing good manners and maintain proper courtesy conduct before he/she can delve into learning the Torah.
A famous sage, Rabbi Gamaliel (mentioned twice in the New Testament as a great scholar (The Acts 22:3 and The Acts 5:34), declared that “it is better to couple Torah studies with “De-rech e-retz” (Avot 2:2).
Here is a beautiful excerpt from “De-rech e-retz Zu-ta” tractate (the small Courtesy tractate): If others said something bad about you – you should treat it as a petty issue. If you said something bad about others, you should see it as a grave issue until you go and appease that person.
*The Talmud is the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, constituting the basis of religious authority for traditional Judaism. The Talmud discusses the law that is found in the Bible and interprets it for everyday life.