Thursday, October 15, 2009


I ranted to a friend the other day about the knee-biters (alternatively, kneebiters) we encounter in the Jewish community. I didn’t realize I was coining a phrase; I thought the term already existed.

To clarify: I discovered, in drafting this post, that the word “knee-biter” does exist; it's in Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams. However, Adams uses it simply to describe an obnoxious person; my usage is more specific, and more colorful. I define knee-biters as small (and small-minded) people who attack those who are engineering great things; they only reach the knees of their betters, and so they simply bite at the reachable knees.

In a sense, knee-biters are the opposite of the far-sighted people who stand on the shoulders of giants; knee-biters busy themselves gnawing those giants’ legs and reducing them to knee-biter size.

My knee-biter is someone who seeks political strife on the grand stage, or who hunts for nits to pick in great and sprawling projects. These people are the death of political, philanthropic and religious leadership, and they are a major reason why potential leaders abdicate early. Further, they overshadow any important message they may carry, through their obnoxious methods. Who needs to live a life exposed to the nasty knee-biters?

Of course, knee-biters are nothing new; the Torah offers several examples. Think of Dasan and Aviram nipping at Moshe’s knees at every turn, or think of the naysayers who undermined various kings, such as Yoshiyahu, who tried to steer the Jewish people on a straight path. The hour is late, or I would give a few examples from the gemara and later Jewish history as well. These people may call themselves “the loyal opposition,” but their loyalty is only to themselves and their egos.

What should we do about our knee-biters?

In my rabbinic days, I appeased them. I understood their need for security, for feeling respected, and tried to find ways to fill that need so that they could then lend their talents to the community in positive ways. Indeed, this was what my friend encouraged. But I find in general that my rabbinic instincts are subsiding somewhat these days (I hope it’s only temporary, due to the stress of starting a new venture), and this is certainly true on the topic of knee-biters; today I would prefer to blow the whistle on their shtick.

What do you say: Feed the knee-biters to help them become more productive, or crush them?


  1. I say, feed them. It's compassionate, and since they're closer to the ground, they just might give you advance warning of an upcoming stumbling block.

    In my experience, well-fed Knee-biters make a loyal (albeit kvetchy, annoying, and loud) living security system. They will defend you and your project against anyone ELSE who comes up with a complaint they haven't personally lodged.

    They tend to be the folks who complain to your face and defend you in absentia. Much better than the other way around.

  2. Feed them Ex-Lax brownies and hide the keys to the bathroom. Ok, that is not nice, but it feels good to think about it.

    Usually I try to find little tasks for them to do. When things go well they look at these things as being incredibly important and it takes some of their bitterness away.

  3. athletic supporter sniffers was the term back in the day (almost). Get them in the tent if you can
    Joel Rich

  4. I just remembered that "Odd Couple" episode where Oscar and Felix go on the cruise ship, and Felix was put in charge of activities by the cruise director.

    When Oscar asks in exasperation why this was done, the director explains that he learned early on the key to a successful voyage: "Give the troblemaker a whistle."

  5. The knee-biter you starve today may be the person interviewing you tomorrow.

    Of course, one cannot function in a job if he insists on avoiding conflict at all cost. I know this from personal experience. Nonetheless, if at all possible I would engage knee-biters to a reasonable degree.

  6. Thanks, all; some great food for thought here!

  7. Just thought of this now -

    Is knee biting the same as והוא ישופנו עקב of the נחש?