K’lal Yisrael: Which Is the K’lal and Which Is the Yisrael?

I admit the title is based on the old joke about the non-Jew who orders “Jewish” food for the first time in a New York restaurant, a bagel and lox. When the waiter brings the dish, the customer asks, “Ok, but tell me: which is the bagel and which is the lox?” Once upon a time that was very funny, but today—when bagels and lox are universal food, even in small towns in the South—one may wonder what was the point of the joke altogether. I feel as if in the case of our subject, the matter is reversed. Today everyone thinks they know what the phrase k’lal yisrael means, but I wonder if it ever had that meaning when it was first coined.

Today the phrase is bandied about as if it represents a kind of concept of the unity of the people of Israel. Perhaps that is the intention behind the organization CLAL. But is “unity” the right word to describe the intent of the Hebrew phrase? It seems to me to be a category mistake, unless defined in a way that “unity” is not usually used. Or, more accurately, it may refer to Jewish solidarity despite disputes. In either case, I would like to take a look at the use of the term as coined in early rabbinic literature. The phrase is, according to our teacher Professor Kadushin, a value-concept—that is, a phrase coined by Hazal to represent a concept which is also part of an organic value system.

As in all value-concept phrases, one needs to look at all parts of the phrase: both the phrase as a whole, and its use in the value system. The attempt is to delineate the values associated with and thus folded into the phrase. Then we can understand the meaning of the term, not only linguistically but also its place in the value system of Jewish thought and religion. I will start by dealing separately with the two parts of the phrase, k’lal and yisrael.


The term k’lal is a specifically rabbinic term. It does not appear in the Bible at all. Where does it come from, and what does it signify in rabbinic Hebrew?

There are many instances in the Mishnah of the phrase zeh ha-k’lal, this is the k’lal. In all of these cases the phrase comes to summarize the outcome of distinctions which are made in the Mishnah. The word seems to imply a general principle that can be applied to every case where it would not be clear how to act on specific distinctions. For example: “If salted food is set out and bread with it, one says a blessing over the salted food and this serves for the bread, since the bread is only subsidiary to it. This is the general principle [zeh ha-k’lal]: whenever with one kind of food another is taken as subsidiary, a benediction is said over the principal kind and this serves for the subsidiary as well.” (M B’rakhot 6:7)

What is special about the general principle, the k’lal, is that it is almost always used to distinguish between at least two different things. We are used to general principles in many different configurations, but here it is mostly a principle that enables us to distinguish between things—in this case, when a blessing is said over a principal dish of the meal and when over the subsidiary. The cases where this phrase is applied as a general principle without signifying specific distinction are a minority. Still, the function of a k’lal is always the same: namely, to assert that if certain conditions, A and B, exist, then the halakhah is X; if these conditions do not exist, then the halakhah is Y.

In the light of this one might ask: what distinction does k’lal yisrael come to make? If we look at the use of the phrase, we find examples that will help us answer this question.

Rav Hisda said: A heathen slave [owned by a Jew] may marry his daughter and his mother, for he has lost the status of a heathen [yatza mi-k’lal nokhri], but he has not yet attained the status of a Jew [v’li-kh’lal yisrael lo ba].” (BT Sanhedrin 58b)

Heathen slaves owned by Jews occupied an intermediate position in respect to Judaism. The males were circumcised and permitted to eat of the Passover sacrifice. Like women, they were bound to observe all negative commandments and all positive ones not limited to certain times. We see here that this applied to marriage too. Their status was neither that of a heathen nor of an Israelite proper. As they were no longer heathens, they stood in no relationship to their former relations. But as they were not Jews either, there was no need to forbid them their former maternal relations, through fear that it would be said that they had left a higher sanctity for a lower one. Here it is clear that k’lal means “belonging to a category”—in the language of Soncino, “the status of.”

Our teacher, Rabbi Max Kadushin, explained that the phrase k’lal gadol did not denote a concept of general principle, but rather a relative generality compared to other principles. For example, Kadushin points to the debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai over which verse in the Torah is the more general principle:

“You shall not take revenge nor provoke your kinsmen” (Leviticus 19:18)—but you may take revenge or provoke other nations. “Love your fellow as yourself”—Rabbi Akiva says this is a k’lal gadol in the Torah; Ben Azzai says “this is the book of the generations of Adam” is a greater k’lal gadol than that.[1]

Since Ben Azzai uses the phrase mi-zeh, “than that,” we learn that a k’lal gadol is not an absolute concept. This explanation fits well with the use of k’lal to make distinctions of status as we saw above.[2] In order to be a klal, there must be an exception to it. No klal can have zero exceptions. But, that means that one can rate one klal against another klal that has more exceptions. The one with less exceptions would be a “greater” klal. In the Rabbinic debate over the terms “yisrael” and “adam” the “greater” klal would be achieved by interpreting all interpersonal commandments, or where the term “love” is used, in a context where adam means any human being, and Yisrael is a member of that class like every other nation.

So it seems as if the word k’lal is used to distinguish between one category and another, or to denote the preference for one thing over another as being more comprehensive. In order to understand the force of distinctions in rabbinic halakhic thinking—and distinction is one of the most prime and primal characteristics of rabbinic thought—one must understand the term k’lal, and one of the most important areas where the term is used in connection with distinctions is in distinguishing between Jews, yisrael, and non-Jews. This immediately leads us to the second word of our phrase, yisrael.


In the case of the debate between Akiva and Ben Azzai, Akiva interprets reiakha to refer only to Israel; in the words of the tradition: reiakha kamokha [means] one who is like you, namely a Jew.[3] From Rabbi Akiva’s statement we learn that Israel is commanded to love their friends of Israel, to be goodhearted towards each other. If, according to Rabbi Akiva, you think reiakha, “your fellow,” is referring to any person, the word kamokha, “like yourself,” comes to delimit reiakha kamokha, “your fellow who is like yourself”—i.e., one who takes upon himself the yoke of heaven and loves the mitzvot just as you love them. But if he is an evil person you are not commanded to love him; rather, you are commanded to hate him, as it is written: “Fearing the Eternal means hating evil” (Proverbs 8:31), and it is written: “I will hate those who hate Adonai” (Psalm 139:21).

On the other hand, according to Ben Azzai’s interpretation of the verse, reiakha refers to adam—that is, any human being. Thus, Ben Azzai can assert that his k’lal gadol is more comprehensive than Akiva’s—that is, that yisrael is merely a subclass of the more general class of all humans. This case explains the sense of k’lal as used in the Sanhedrin passage quoted above: namely, inclusion in the status of “Israel” or not.

In this midrash, the word reiakha denotes either a specific class of the more general category adam, human; or a distinct class of people different from adam. In either case, yisrael is a category that excludes—in the sense that it distinguishes between those who are Jews and those who are non-Jews. On the other hand, once a person is counted within the category yisrael, that means that they belong to the group designated as k’lal yisrael.

Since the major distinguishing mark between Jew and non-Jew is the obligation to keep all of the mitzvot of the Torah, one might have thought that within the category yisrael there would be, or should be, distinctions between those who keep more mitzvot and those who keep fewer. For some, there is indeed such a distinction to be made, one that implies an overlay of the same mentality that distinguishes between adam and yisrael as different classes of people. For them the term k’lal yisrael is a mere technical definition, perhaps having only to do with religious status of one’s mother. To that extent it is a biological category.

For others, even a Jew who keeps only one command is included within k’lal yisrael—that is, this view sees the term k’lal yisrael as being constituted by diversity! In order to not keep even one command, one would need to be a thief, a murderer, an adulterer, a blasphemer, to despise one’s parents, and so on. Thus, the assumption is that it is impossible for a person not to keep at least one command.[4] Rabbi Joseph Albo writes:

…it is very hard to accept that which some people say, that all of the commandments and warnings found in the Torah are necessary in order to achieve human perfection. If this were the case, no person could ever achieve that perfection, “For there is not one good person on earth who always does what is best and doesn’t transgress” (Kohelet 7:20). If one were lacking in one commandment, according to that opinion it would impossible for that person to acquire human perfection—and that would mean that the Torah given to Israel as an act of compassion, in order to enable all of them to achieve the life of the world to come—that very Torah itself would prevent them from being worthy of that great pleasure. And this would be the opposite of what the Torah intends! For there is no need to say that not all of them will achieve it, for we all know that not even one person in a generation would be able to encompass all of the ideas expressed in the Torah, and would not be able to observe all of the rules, nor to keep every single one of the laws in it. Thus, according to that opinion, all of k’lal yisrael would be doomed to hell, and despised by God as evil or full of iniquity. Rather, we know that one who is accepted as part of this nation is the opposite of all this, as we learn in the Mishnah: “All of Israel has a portion of the world to come” (M Sanhedrin 10:1)…We can understand this matter by looking at the natural world and we see that there are many different good ways that things happen, but not all are necessary for any one of them to work. For example, the senses that animals have may be the same as ours but better. God wants to help humans achieve perfectibility but God sees the myriad things which prevent a person from this, so God gives many options so that no one can claim that they have no way to approach perfection. (Sefer Ha-ikkarim III 29)

For the former approach, of Akiva, one could easily see how the category yisrael might be taken as a substantive distinction between Jews (especially those who fulfill many mitzvot) and all other human beings (including “bad” Jews). It is quite easy for such an approach to slip into racial or ethnic discrimination based upon the notion that only yisrael is in the category adam made in God’s image, while all other people are something else, in a different category. Indeed, we find this to be a subject of controversy both in halakhic and aggadic texts of the rabbis.

On the other hand, we find that such discriminatory statements are always countered by other rabbis who contest them, insisting on the view that yisrael is part of the group adam. The debate between Akiva and Ben Azzai is an example of that, and another important example is the debate between Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Meir about a non-Jew who studies Torah (BT Sanhedrin 59a). Indeed, the very act of studying Torah seems to challenge the clear distinctive boundaries of Jew and non-Jew. For Rabbi Yohanan such a person deserves death, but for Rabbi Meir that person is like a high priest!

Summary to This Point

To sum up: The function of the term k’lal is to make distinctions in a general way by setting boundaries between what is included in a class and what is outside of that class. Thus, the term k’lal yisrael sets the boundaries of who is in Israel and who is out. But, the same mechanism of defining boundaries, using the same term k’lal yisrael, is also applied to the whole set of individuals within Israel. In that usage one approach is pluralistic in the sense that the observance of even one mitzvah puts a Jew inside, but another approach stresses that violation of certain mitzvot puts one de facto outside the boundary, even though de jure one remains inside. That is, this approach stresses punishment for transgressions of mitzvot and overlooks the keeping of one mitzvah, basing its approach on mitzvot that one does not keep (for example desecration of Shabbat in public)—which transgression ipso facto obviates one belonging to the k’lal—and thus such a person may be killed. The term thus serves to enable a racist approach to non-Jews. For example, see the debate between Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and the rabbis over whether or not non-Jews are in the category of adam (BT Y’vamot 60b–61a)[5]—precisely the concern of our study of the term k’lal.

The overall sentiment that anyone who keeps even one mitzvah is included in k’lal yisrael impacts on Jewish ethos and mentality, and on Jewish ethnos and behavior, so that there is an underlying tendency in much of the Jewish world to accept all Jews, no matter how badly they impact on the reputation of the Jewish people (for example, Jewish criminals, unethical businesspeople, Ponzi-schemers, etc.). This approach imprints itself on the Jewish mind and manners, and in a situation where we need to make the definition of boundaries more centered on values, it allows deep faults to erupt—faults that threaten the existence of Israel altogether.

The other view, that only Jews who are strict observers of mitzvot are in the k’lal, also reverberates within the Jewish world today. Some Jewish groups stress the transgressions of other Jews, or even borderline faults, in order to designate specifically who is in and who is outside of the k’lal. They specifically cite and rely on halakhot regarding those thought of as “bad” yisrael, such as Sabbath desecrators or blasphemers. The “bad” yisrael is theoretically included in the k’lal, according to the dictum yisrael af al pi she-hata yisrael hu, “an Israelite who has sinned is still considered as an Israelite” (BT Sanhedrin 44a in the name of Rabbi Abba bar Zavda). However, according to the halakhot cited, such a Jew may be summarily blotted out of the k’lal by murder—kannaim pogin bo, “zealots should summarily execute such offenders,” which is justified in halakhic sources.[6]

The status of “bad yisrael” becomes borderline because of the actions of these individuals, because of the specific transgressions they commit. Racist tendencies in Jewish thought develop out of the exclusionary approach to understanding k’lal yisrael.

In modern times, particularly in Western democratic societies, Jewish thought has focused on the inclusionary aspects of k’lal yisrael, totally ignoring the exclusionary aspects—most likely out of a deep wishful thought that such things do not exist in Judaism. Too many of our brightest leaders and scholars have buried their heads in the sand so deeply that they do not see specific and clear black-and-white texts in the Talmud and pos’kim.

As far as non-Jews go, these texts express harsh, exclusionary racist views—for these texts see non-Jews as a group and not as individuals, except for a small number of exceptions of borderline or unclear cases where there might be a mixture between Jewish and non-Jewish blood. On the other hand, the categorical status of non-Jews does depend on their actions (i.e., and not their biology), if they did not keep the Noahide commandments. In the case of non-Jews, individuals are not singled out for murder; whereas Jews who are so designated can be killed for their actions, but non-Jews are all worthy of not being called adam—and this has the characteristics of classic racism.

Implications for Theories of Ethics

So, our examination of the term k’lal has led us to delve into the question of what is the scope or the boundaries of the moral imperative. To put this question in the terms of the sages: are the Torah’s commandments meant for the people of Israel alone, or are they meant to be universal moral demands? Kant establishes the test of universality for the moral imperative; he thus tests if a thing is a moral imperative by asking not only if it is a product of reason, but also “what would be the result if everyone were to do this?” For some of the sages, it seemed that the answer to this question for the pagan world was that since they did not observe even the seven Noahide commandments that they were given, they deserved no protection under the laws of Israel (cf. BT Bava Kamma 38a). But the Jews were commanded to observe the Torah and they did keep it (cf. BT Avodah Zarah 3a). Thus, the distinction between other nations and Jews is based on the exclusion of other people from the obligation to follow the laws of the Torah.[7]

The other aspect of racism has to do with the debate about whether yisrael is a sub-category of adam, or whether it is in a separate class of its own known as adam and all other nations are outside of that class.[8]

Is There Any Indication of Deciding this Debate?

Perhaps, M Sanhedrin 4:5 is the “official interpretation” of Genesis 1-3, because it is included in the Mishnah in such a prominent, clear-cut fashion. In its original text, it seems to imply that adam applies to all humanity, so Israel is a subclass of the class adam; but in the printed editions the original text of the Mishnah as found in manuscripts is “rectified” to be more in line with the halakhic stream in Jewish thought that denies the title adam to non-Jews. Thus, instead of a text which sees every human being as deriving from adam, and thus equal to all humanity; in Mishnah texts dating to after the invention of printing, the word mi-yisrael is added to the original Mishnah text so that the text ends up declaring that God originally made the decision to create all humanity by starting with a single individual, called adam, specifically so as to suggest that one who kills a single Jewish person—nefesh ahat mi-yisrael—should be considered as one who has slain the entire world.[9]

From this Mishnah one may learn that the moral obligation of one person to another is not based on our commonality as human beings alone. True, the essential interconnectedness of all humanity is an essential point, but only the first conclusion of this text. Rather, my obligation to others is based more on uniqueness—namely that each individual person is a whole world, and thus to kill one person is like being an evil genius out to destroy the entire world. In addition, uniqueness as the grounds for moral obligation is spelled out even more explicitly in the coin metaphor, for to kill any person is tantamount to killing the last one of a species. There is affinity here for the basis of ethics proposed by Levinas, in contrast to Kant, and our text stresses the obligation of responsibility, termed by Levinas as “infinite responsibility” for the whole world, which in this case is every individual.

The Mishnah ends with framing responsibility in a strange way: “the world was created for me.” As it appears in this context, it is a rallying cry toward responsibility—not an assertion of rights. For in this context, saying “the world” means the other person who is equivalent to the whole world, even if that person is being brought forward for the death penalty, and thus I would render the phrase: “this other person is created for me to tend and take care of, as Adam had to cultivate the world in the creation story.”

Final Word

In any case if we relate to the use of the term k’lal yisrael only within Israel, it turns out to be a term that is based upon diversity within Israel. It is an attempt to preserve the basic underpinning of the word k’lal as making distinctions between different types of religious expression, while acknowledging the diversity. It is thus not a word that signals unity or oneness, but an indicator of diversity and the relationships between the various diverse groups. One approach in Jewish tradition is judgmental about the diversity and wishes to exclude some Jews from the k’lal, while another approach is more inclusive and accepts everyone who was counted as in the k’lal, since they all must have some mitzvot that they observe. Indeed, the latter  approach, which I identify with, can even claim that it signals something more than just the fact of diversity, something much more meaningful: namely, the validation of diversity.

This claim is supported from another discussion in Jewish tradition about diversity within unity. It is the discussion by our ancient sages about how the angels say the K’dushah. Isaiah hears the prayer of the angels, which he precedes with the phrase “and one would call to the other” (v’kara zeh el zeh v’amar, Isaiah 6:3).[11] Rashi’s commentary to this verse summarizes rabbinic traditions, which explain the unusual Hebrew phrase. “And one would call to the other”—they gain permission from each other, so that one does not precede his fellow… in order that all of them can begin at the same time as in one voice, as we see in the Yotzeir Or prayer, “k’dushah they all recite as one…”

The calling zeh el zeh, “to each other,” that precedes the prayer signifies the asking and receiving permission to say the prayer, each angel in their own voice. They validate each other’s prayers, and any sense of unity only comes from the underlying validation! In other words, the validation of each one’s individual prayer is necessary for there to be “one voice.”

This powerful concept was understood by Rabbi Hayyim B. Shlomo Tyrer in the following way:

…we have explained elsewhere that a person who loves God, not himself, will not care if he is the one doing a mitzvah or someone else, as long as the good deed is done… That is the essence of serving God: to bring pleasure to the Divine, and not to care who is the cause of that pleasure….. One who truly loves God will not try and snatch a mitzvah for oneself …. This is why in the Yotzer Or prayer we say of the angels, “they all accept… and gain permission from one another”… not one of them wishes to appear greater in the eyes of God than his fellow… [so] they grant permission to each one to praise God in their own way, and it is like one…. (Beeir Mayim Hayyim, 1816)

In my view the term k’lal yisrael does not signify unity, but rather it signifies belonging to the group although it is diverse. But, as we learn from how the angels say k’dushah, belonging to the group can only come about if there is a prior validation of the diversities. Thus, the only way that k’lal yisrael could have a positive meaning today is if it is based upon an a priori recognition of diversity within Jewish life and practice, and an acceptance—a real validation of the diversities. At the very least there would need to be discussion and agreement on the boundaries which all those participating would be willing to validate, and only then we may claim to have a clear notion of the meaning of the term k’lal yisrael.

[1] Sifra Kedoshim, perek 4:12

[2]Cf. Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 31–37.

[3]Sefer Y’reiim 224, by Rabbi Eliezer ben Shemuel of Metz (twelfth-century France; one of the Tosafists and one of the great students both of Rabbeinu Tam and his brother, the Rashbam).

[4]Cf. Joseph Albo, Sefer Ha-ikkarim III 29, and the sources Albo cites there. Cf. also Ramban on Deuteronomy 15:11.

[5]Cf. also BT K’ritot 6b.

[6]Cf. M Sanhedrin 9:6; MT Hilkhot Issurei Biah 12:4; Hilkhot Edut 11:10; Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 10:1-2; Hilkhot Milah 3:7; SA Hoshen Mishpat 425:4-5; Yoreh Deiah 158:1.

[7]Cf. also my discussion of hillul shabbat to save the life of a non-Jew in “The Right to Medical Treatment: A Study in Ethics and Halakhah,” Conservative Judaism 56 (Summer 2004), pp. 66-74.

[8]Cf. Tiferet Yisrael on Avot 3:14, who wonders: if that is the case, what are they—animals?! They might be known as enosh or ish, but because of halakhic texts they are usually called simply b’nei noah.

[9]Cf. Raphael Nathan Rabbinovicz, Dikdukei Sofrim, Sanhedrin (1868-1888; reprint: Jerusalem: Hotza·at Or Ha-hokhmah, 2002), vol. 2, p. 100. Cf. also Adin Steinsalz, Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin (Jerusalem:Ha-makhon Ha-yisraeili Le-firsumim Talmudiim, 1974), p. 161; and E. E. Urbach, “’Whoever Preservers a Single Life…’: The Evolution of a Textual Variant, the Vagaries of Censorship, and the Printing Business,” Tarbiz 40 (1971), pp. 268-284; and in his Mei-olamam shel Hakhamim (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), pp. 561-577.

[10]Other examples of this approach include the blessing of pluralism, hakham ha-razim (BT B’rakhot 58a) and the blessing on misshapen people, m’shanneh ha-b’riyyot (BT B’rakhot 58b).

[11] See, e.g, the Midrash Tanhuma to Parashat Tzav, chapter 13 or the Avot D’rabbi Natan, text A, ch.12 or text B, ch.26.