A History of Mussar, part II

The Ramchal and the Gra
The Ramchal lived in the early 18th century, primarily in Italy, but he moved to Akko shortly before his passing. He was primarily a qabbalist, although he also wrote Derekh Hashem, a philosophical work that does not overtly rely on his qabbalah. In Derekh Hashem the Ramchal describes the purpose of our time in this world is to prepare ourselves to properly receive the joy of His Presence in the next. And this structure shows in his mussar work, Mesilas Yesharim.Mesilas Yesharim is patterned after a beraisa by Rav Pinchas ben Ya’ir. Each middah listed in the beraisa becomes multiple chapters on its definition (including subcategories) and acquisition. It starts with zehirus (watchfulness) and zerizus (alacrity) and progresses upward to holiness. Like Rabbeinu Bachya, the Ramchal gives us a philosophically based path to G-d.The Vilna Gaon also lived in the 18th century, but in Lithuania. His position was quite firmly that of mussar as a path to self-perfection. Yes, the perfect person had a healthy relationship to Hashem, but that was part of wholeness, not the primary goal. This was in contrast to the nascent Chassidic movement, which was teaching people that one should relate to Hashem and let the self-perfection come as a consequence of that.
The Vilna Gaon’s students collected his thoughts and published them. In particular interest to the history of mussar are the commentary/ies on Mishlei and Even Sheleimah. Interestingly, the title of the first chapter is an echo of the approach of Chassidei Ashkenaz, “The Root of Avodah: Breaking the Middos”. And yet, we see as we read on, that the primary tool for breaking the negative middos is given as building the opposing middah. In fact, despite the great contrast on the subject of philosophy and qabbalah (the Gra himself voices discomfort with the Rambam’s Aristotilianism), his position is closest to that of the Rambam.

From the Gaon to Rav Yisrael Salanter

Rav Chaim Vilozhiner, a student of the Vilna Gaon, was the founder of the yeshiva movement. He started the first modern Yeshiva in Vilozhiner, and his work “Nefesh haChaim”, particularly sec. IV, provides the movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

In the yeshiva movement, his words about Torah leading to self-perfection were taken more mystically. By knowing the Divine Truth, one naturally is brought closer to Divine Perfection.

And yet, his work could be — and was — taken a second way. Rav Zundel of Salant took his teacher’s words quite differently, and in a manner consonant with the Vilna Gaon’s, R’ Chaim’s rebbe’s approach. Torah study is that which brings one closer to perfection. If one is learning Torah and not growing as a person, then the Torah being studied isn’t really Torah.

Rav Zundel understood life’s mission in terms of three duties: those between man and the Omnipresent, those between man and fellow man, and those between man and his soul. Man’s duty is self-perfection, but it’s not a narcissistic pursuit. Following the Vilna Gaon’s approach (and R’ Saadia Gaon and the Rambam before him), the goal of mussar is to improve oneself. But the definition of a better self is one who is better at relating to G-d and other people.

Rav Zundel didn’t set out to become a teacher. He was content simply living his own life, as a common man striving for holiness. However, one youth named Yisrael Lipkin, a gemara student of R’ Zvi Hirsch Broide, followed him around, trying to learn from his example. One time, Rav Zundel was in the woods contemplating where he stood in life when R’ Yisrael’s motions interrupted him. R’ Zundel called to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) Rav Yisrael later wrote that that moment changed his life.

The Birth of the Mussar Movement

Rav Yisrael Salanter took a very different lifestyle than Rav Zundel. He saw a Judaism that was struggling to survive the Haskahalah on one side, and one that lost contact with the basic notion of menchlachkeit on the other. He saw the needs of society too acute to allow him a quiet life of personal sanctity.

It is impossible to know which or how many of the stories about Rav Yisrael are true. However, one can learn from the kinds of stories what values his students saw were important, what he taught them to value. Rav Yisrael’s mussar taught a balance between ritual mitzvos and interpersonal ones. Yes, one must be meticulous in matzah, but stringencies beyond the minimal needs of the law can not be placed ahead of concern for the widows who made their money baking it. Balance of our relationships with G-d, men, and ourselves.

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s first major innovation is recognizing the role of the unconscious. (In that, he anticipated psychotherapy by decades.) We know right and wrong far more exactly than we actually choose to do what’s right. There is a huge gap between mind and heart. The role of mussar is to internalize truths that are minds may already know. This internalization requires emotional involvement and constant repetition; it’s a slow but steady process.

This active process was a second innovation of Rav Yisrael’s . He taught the need to actively work on self-improvement, and developed tools for doing so. He defined mussar in terms of knowing where you are, knowing where you ought to be, and tools for bridging that gap.

Rav Yisrael didn’t write any books. However, R’ Itzeler Blazer (“Petersburger”) collected many of his letters into a seifer titled Or Yisrael. In particular, R’ Yisrael’s famous Igeres haMussar (Hebrew and English; newer English translation by Rabbi Zvi Miller) became its 10th chapter.

Rav Yisrael also was a driving force behind the republishing of Cheshbon haNefesh, by R’ Mendel. R’ Leffin was himself a maskil, and the methodology in the book appears to be the invention of Benjamin Franklin, found in his autiobigraphy. Rav Yisrael was fully willing to employ any methodology, regardless of its source. As the Rambam wrote, “Accept the truth from whomever says it.”

One also sees this in the contrast between Mesilas Yesharim and the middos Rav Yisrael had them include in this edition of Cheshbon haNefesh. Following his lineage from the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yisrael’s list of middos are ones of honesty, cleanliness, silence, patience — a greater focus on perfection as a person than on a path upward to G-d.

Part of this was the realization of the need for a mussar community. At the heart of that community would be the beis hamussar, a place dedicated to mussar and introspection, separate from the shul and beis medrash. Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t set out to start a movement, but to revitalize the general misnagdic community through people more actively pursuing its basic notion of seeking wholeness.

Rav Yisrael started in Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania. He also went to Prussia and Paris to try teaching Jewish communities that had already drifted further from Judaism. He felt it would be easier to reach Jews for whom the Haskalah already ran its course than trying to “capture horses as they are charging downhill.” But he didn’t see the success establishing institutions that he did in Lithuania.

The First Generation Students

Of Rav Yisrael’s many students, 3 really set themselves apart in their further impact in the Mussar Movement.

Rav Itzeleh Petersburger was rav in St. Petersberg until he returned by R’ Yisrael’s invitation to run the kollel. As already noted, he was the one who collected Rav Yisrael’s writings into Or Yisrael. He and Rav Naftali Amsterdam brought mussar’s influence beyond the limits of the movement.

In the meantime there were also other institutions that — while not mussar in giving as central of a rule for behavior or attitude changing practices, drew heavily from its inspiration. In the Mir and Telhz mussar ideals were aspired to through a less proactice, cognitive approach. Rather than a mussar shmuess, in Telzh they had shiurei da’as (thought classes).

Rav Simcha Zisl Ziv established the first truly successful musar yeshiva in Kelm, where he was known simply as Der Alter. The Alter of Kelm’s approach could be briefly sketched as being about uncluttering the mind and engaging in objective self analysis. Kelm stressed the need for a lifetime of steady work, rather than focusing on quick or flashy results.

Novorodok and Slabodka

Of the Alter of Kelm’s students, two went on to found their own schools of throught within mussar.

Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novorodok, taught a focus on bitachon, a need for G-d in your life, closeness to G-d. But he did not understand this in the Ramchal’s terms; it was not a concept of mussar that defined the ideal man in terms of that closeness. Rather, he taught of the need to “storm the castle”. The only way to fight passion with passion, the only way to replace inappropriate passion is to fill one’s life with passion for the A-lmighty.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel founded Slabodka on the notion of gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man. Slabodka students were easily recognizable by their meticulous attention to dress; a student should carry an air of nobility. In the Alter of Slabodka’s approach, the student is motivated to improve by being shown his full potential. Anavah, modesty, comes from knowing one’s distance from that potential, knowing how much more he can accomplish. Therefore, rather than immobilizing people with a belief that they’re incompetent, it motivates and inspires. Whereas Novorodok fought passion with passion, Slabodka fought passion with intellect and self-respect.


Which brings us to today. Or, more precisely, to last Pesach, the 17th of Nissan, when R’ Shelomo Wolbe, one of the last remaining students of Slabodka, passed away. Rav Wolbe, “The Mashgiach”, ran a beis mussar in Yerushalaim, but was better known for the numerous yeshivos in which he gave shmuessen.

Rav Wolbe focused on the positive. His book on parenting is titled “Planting and Building in Childrearing”. The key is to build the child’s positive middos, rather than focus on pruning the inappropriate ones. Work on building patience rather than attacking anger. Track our successes in each middah, not our failures.

Where does that leave us? The goals of mussar stay on the same one or two themes: be it the school of Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbeinu Yonah and the Ramchal or that of Rav Saadia Gaon, the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon. However, the tools changed to meet the needs of the generation. I described Rav Wolbe’s approach because it might sound most correct to us, but his is the voice of our period.

Mussar is the awareness of where we are, of where we ought to be, and the means to cross that gap. We today need far more of all three. We lack the quiet and time to look into ourselves. And while Jewish learning (in the observant community) is at an all time high, our awareness of the greater picture, of the picture that should emerge from all those individual laws, is not. And we have a culture in which people who engage in hispa’alus or accepts upon themselves qabbalos, or any of the other mussar practices are looked upon as odd. We might have the das, the attempt to comply to ritual. But we desperately need the aish, the passion we can get from mussar. We can’t simply drop the torch now.

A History of Mussar, part I

The Dawn of Mussar
Why is Avraham our first forefather?It can’t be his independent discovery of Hashem as Creator and Lawgiver, as Sheim and Ever already established such a tradition. In fact, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov each went to the school established by Sheim and Ever rather than relying on their parental tradition!The difference is that Noach and his children built an ark and saved themselves. They did not reach out to others. Avraham and Sarah, on the other hand, trekked to Kenaan with “the souls they made in Charan”. As we see in the story of his feeding the three “men”, Avraham ran to do chessed. A child of Avraham is identified in mishnah Avos (5:19) as one who has “a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul”. The legacy of Avraham is one of mussar. Not just a notion of Divine Law, but of morality, ethics, and personal growth. Note the idiom: they made souls in Charan.And in fact the commentators ask why the Torah doesn’t begin a third of the way into Shemos, when Hashem gives us the first mitzvah, to establish the month by the new moon. Numerous answers are given (including the well-known one cited by the first Rashi on the Torah). One of the answers Chazal offer is that Bereishis exists to give us examples of how to behave (and how not to). In fact, they call it “Seifer haYasharim”, the Book of the Upright, and the forefathers, “yesharim”. Bereishis is a mussar text; from G-d giving us existence and clothing Adam and Chavah through till the burial of Yaaqov.

“Derekh eretz qodmah laTorah.” Avraham and Sarah founded our nation because they had the derekh eretz, that basic mussar perspective, which is a precondition for Torah.


And in fact the entire Tanakh is a mussar text.

Why does it say “ayin tachas ayin“, “an eye instead of an eye”, with no explicit mention that the Torah in fact requires financial payment, not blinding the eye of the attacker? The person who committed the act can’t think that injuring another is a light thing. In truth, the person deserves to lose his eye, but the law is tempered with practicality and mercy. Note that when these other considerations conflict, the message is in the simple words of the Torah. Halachah is found in the derashah on the text.

Similarly in the rest of Tanakh. Yeshaiah condemns those who oppress the poor, the widow and the orphan, and then think they can buy G-d off with qorbanos. Yirmiyahu helps the masses take lesson from the exile and destruction of the first Beis haMiqdash. Proper behavior and attitude is the predominent theme in all of Tanakh.

Shelomo haMelech

But, of all the books of Tanakh, two are clearly mussar texts even according to people with no agenda to look for the mussar in the book.

In Mishlei, Shelomo spells out attitudes, mostly in the positive, things the student should follow. Qoheles, however, is primarily a lament of years wasted pursuing warped values.

Mishlei adds something critical to mussar. It’s written as meshalim, metaphors. Each verse can be studied at length on its own, mined for more wisdom. Mishlei is designed for learning with hispa’alus. Of the books of Tanakh, it’s Mishlei (primarily with Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary, the Gra’s also to some extent), that is studied as a primary mussar text.


Of the books of the mishnah, Avos is the one dedicated to mussar topics. Gemara is organized along practical halachic lines; even those mesechtos which focused on laws not applicable in Bavel are omitted. To find mussar in the gemara, one has to look for it strewn amongst the aggadita all across the work. It’s not that the mussar is missing. Rather, since halakhah is the organizing principle, there is no one place where it’s all gathered.

To give a sense of how central mussar is to chazal’s worldview, look at the name of the mesechta: Pirqei Avos. Usually this is translated “Chapters of the Fathers”. But in truth it’s only the first chapter and a little into the second that quotes particularly early sources. The Bartenura translates the word “avos” in the title in the same sense as “avos melakhah”, the 39 categories of work on Shabbos from which the rest are implied and derived. Pirqei Avos lists the categories and underlying principles behind the rest of the Torah.

A truly mussar perspective.

Philosophy and Qabbalah

Rav Saadia Gaon did not write a well-known mussar work. However, in Emunos veDei’os, his philosophical treatise, he does give his position on the role of mussar. According to Rav Saadia Gaon, having a proper personality make-up, the pursuit of wholeness, is a primary value and the mission for which we were given mitzvos.

A century later, Jews were forced from Bavel, and the centers of Judaism shifted to Europe. Among the first of the rishonim is Rabbeinu Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pasuqa (11 cent. Spain) the author of Chovos haLavos. He begins his work with a philosophical proof of the unity of G-d, and ends with a love of G-d. Unlike Rav Saadia Gaon’s focus on wholeness, Rabbeinu Bachya sees mussar as a means of becoming the kind of person who can have a relationship with Hashem.

Rabbeinu Bachya is not telling one to “simply” pray ecstatically and with song, and have a relationship with the creator. This is not proto-chassidus, but a forerunner of the mussar movement. In Chovos haLvavos the attention is on how to change oneself so that these expressions of a relationship are natural and authentic.

The Rambam wrote two of the more fundamental mussar works: Shemoneh Peraqim, a philosophical work about the nature of the soul and the human condition, and within his Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Dei’os, the Laws of Attitudes. The Rambam took a position closer to Rav Saadia Gaon’s. However, he adds to points. First, he gives a specific definition to this proper character in terms of balance, of the Golden Mean. Second he sees the purpose of wholeness itself to be to be like G-d.

Both Rabbeinu Bachya and the Rambam describe a “derekh Hashem”. To Rabbeinu Bachya it’s a path to G-d. Chovos halVavos begins and ends with the pursuit of G-d. To the Rambam, the “derekh Hashem” is the path He takes. The Rambam sees the purpose of character improvement is the pursuit of G-dliness.

Rabbeinu Yonah Gerdondi (of Gerona) was on the opposite side of the fence from the Rambam, and in fact was at the forefront of condemning the Rambam’s work, and instrumental in having them burnt. Soon after, when the Christians learned from example and decided to put the talmud to the fire, Rabbeinu Yonah realized his collasal blunder. In terms of mussar history, it’s most accurate to remember Rabbeinu Yonah as the one who did teshuvah for burning the Rambam’s works. The story has it that he wrote Shaarei Teshuvah, a step-by-step guide to teshuvah — and therefore for self improvement in general — as part of that teshuvah process. I do not know the primary source for drawing that connection, other than the attractiveness of the idea. He is also the author of a commentary on Chumash and the aforementioned commentary on Mishlei.

Rav Moshe Cordovero, one of the Qabbalists of Tzefas and a student of Rav Yosef Caro primarily wrote books of qabbalah. But among his works is Tomer Devorah, on mussar. Tomer Devorah quite interestingly takes a similar approach to the Rambam’s, despite being on the other side of the philosophy-qabbalah divide. The Rama”c structures the books according to the 13 attributes of Divine Mercy, and teaches what each one means, and most significantly, how to go about emulating them.

Meanwhile, Chassidei Ashkenaz saw the goal of mussar in a third light. To them, the means to closeness to G-d and wholeness were not the pursuit of either, but the elimination of the extraneous that can get in the way. Their self-improvement pursuits focused on destroying bad midos.

I think the most interesting thing to note about mussar during the rishonim is that mussar was a given that ran even deeper than the hashakafic debates of the period.
(Continue to Part II.)

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

There is a quote from the Christian Testament that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it is a rich man to get into heaven.It makes an interesting contrast to a Talmudic quote, a promise G-d makes the repentant: If you make for yourself an opening like the eye of a needle, I will make it into a doorway like the entrance to the Temple Portico.

This is a useful metaphor, as first the doorway was huge, roughly 30×60 ft (20×40 amos), and second because it suggests that G-d gives us the means, but awaits for us to actually step through the portico (ulam) to the holies and holy of holies within.

See also Eiruvin 53b, which speaks of the hearts of the earlies sages being like the doorway of the portico, but the later ones being as broad as the doorway of the heichal (“only” 10×20 amos). It’s a true “dwarves atop giants” type metaphor — the later sages are further within, but their hearts are smaller.

Mahadura Basra ad loc links this to an enigmatic gemara on Eiruvin 21a about the size of the Torah. For more info, see the Kollel Iyun haDaf Insights page for Eiruvin 21.

The line about the sinner having no hope is in the Qur’an 7:40: “The impious shall find the gates of heaven shut, nor shall he enter till a camel pass through the eye of a needle.” The difference is in line with Islam’s stress on Divine Justice to the exclusion of Divine Mercy.

Yeishu’s comment, OTOH, reflects their belief that man can’t redeem himself but must rely on external salvation. Playing down divine justice and only speaking of their god’s mercy. (I don’t capitalize for the trinitarian god, unlike Islam’s true monotheism.)

We, on the other hand, believe in a definition of Good that is tif’eres, a harmony, between the two. We recognize a human condition that is a set of dialectics; we must balance law and love, justice and mercy, truth and peace (think about tact). We therefore see G-d’s actions through two conflicting lenses. As Rashi quotes Chazal in his commentary on the beginning of Bereishis: the Torah uses the tetragrammaton when His actions look to us as those of mercy, and the name E-lokim (c.f. A-llah) when they appear harsh and the imposition of law.

The following is from Hamaayan by Reb Shlomo Katz, served off torah.org:

In the Friday night zemirot composed by the Arizal we read: “To the right and to the left, and in between them, the bride.” The “bride” presumably is Shabbat, but what is “to the right and to the left”?

Rav Pinchus David Horowitz z”l (the “Bostoner Rebbe”) explains:

In kabbalah, the “right” and the “left” represent the attributes of “chessed” (loving-kindness) and “gevurah” (strength) respectively. In our history, Avraham epitomized chessed (the right) and Yitzchak, gevurah (the left).

Avraham fathered Yishmael, who, according to the midrash, refused to accept the Torah because it outlawed adultery. Adultery is the result of chessed (love) gone awry (see Vayikra 20:17). Yitzchak fathered Esav, who refused to accept the Torah because it prohibited murder, which is the excessive use of accept the Torah because it prohibited murder, which is the excessive use of “gevurah.”

The nations on the right and the left observe their sabbaths to the right and the left of Shabbat, i.e., on Friday and Sunday, respectively. It is to this that the Arizal’s song refers.

Each of these three nations –Yishmael, Esav, and ourselves — claims to have the true Torah of Avraham. When we observe Shabbat, says the Bostoner Rebbe, we add to it a few minutes from Friday and a few minutes from Sunday in order to solidify our claim. (quoted in Shoshelet Boston p.273)

Yom haAtzma’ut

A few years back, when Yom haAtzma’ut was also celebrated on Thursday 3 Iyyar, my father asked me what I thought about not saying Tachanun or saying Hallel. The choice of 5 Iyyar as the point at which we gained atzma’ut, independence, is itself not perfectly compelling. It was not the date we were given independence, or the date the war was won, but the date we made a declaration. No overt miracles. So even a full Zionist could question changing the liturgy for 5 Iyyar. And 3 Iyyar doesn’t even have that much!I replied that quite the contrary. Why is Yom haAtzma’ut celebrated early this year? Because the government has an office of the rabbanut , which did not want to establish a commemoration that would lead to Shabbos violation. The government doesn’t want to take responsibility for celebrations on Shabbos, or on Friday that could run into Shabbos and violate its laws.

Is not the existence of a country that adapts its commemorations for the sake of the Torah not extactly what we should be celebrating?

Rav Dovid Lifshitz spoke more than one year on the dual meaning of “atzma’ut”. Yes, we gained our “atzma’ut” our independence, our ability to be a fully capable and productive individual nation. However, “etzem” not only refers to an individual, it is also a bone or core. For observant Jews, Yom haAtzma’ut recalls what can only be considered a huge gift from the Creator, but only half of the task is done. The Jewish essence, the “etzem” is not yet manifest. We must respond to His gift.

Having a country that works to preserve Shabbos is one thing. Having one that doesn’t even need to, quite something else.

PS: In Rav Dovid Lishitz’s minyan on a year where Thursday was both an early Yom haAtzama’ut and BaHa”B, we said Tachanun, Selichos, and afterward Hallel without a berakhah.


In Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzato) writes of three kinds of yir’ah (fear / awe / awareness of magnitude).

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively.

R’ Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes that today, we’ve lost that motivating quality. Punishment invokes more thoughts of rebellion than of compliance. He therefore bans corporal punishment of children, and also plays down the role of yir’as ha’onesh a generation raised on democracy, rights, and personal freedoms.

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven

This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it’s fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself]).

Which would mean that it’s fair to assume this is the kind of yir’as shamayim is the one R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan described in Be’ikvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer).

…But one who has not traversed the actual pathway of illumination [that of the prophets and the sages],he who stands opposite the rays of light, at some distance, possesses little understanding of this term [yir'ah]. It would be better had he never known this term, and was now learning it for the first time. But this is his problem: He knows it, but does not know it properly. He possesses a dangerous translation of the entire concept, and cannot avoid its negative ramifications. For example, when we mention yir’ah to this person he can only translate it thus: Bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels. And he does not know that this translation is heretical for the one who knows what yir’ah is and what it means, the source from which it flows, and from whence it comes… There are times that demand tears and eulogies… It is necessary then to stoop like rushes and take up sackcloth and ashes. Times come upon the world when our sins require these. Such, however, is not Yir’as Hashem, not it and not even part of it. It is not yir’ah’s essence, but only preparation for it…Yir’ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy… {It is clear from the original Hebrew that this is a reference to the rods that held the boards together to make the walls of the Tabernacle. -mi} [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

A Swedish wise man, when once discussing sanctity, said: “The sanctity of an individual proves that he who possesses it has a direct relationship with the strongest source of existence.” In my opinion, in the conception of Judaism this is a definition of yir’ah (but sanctity – kedusha – is loftier still, we have a different idea of it, but this is not the place to define it). What is yir’ah? It is the broad jump over the vast gap between myself and my Creator… It is a mitzvah to separate – to separate from smallness! Fly over barriers! And from there quest Him, for there you will find Him…

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Note that as the Ramchal progresses, the translation for yir’ah as “fear” becomes steadily less compelling, and that of awe, or acting with awareness of the magnitude of what one is engaging in, seem more appropriate. And actually, awareness of magnitude brings more weight to the event. It’s the difference between the joy of dancing at a siyum and that of dancing at a daughter’s wedding. Because the wedding is so momentous, the joy is that much more intense. To return to R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan’s metaphor, the depth of my love for my son adds to the joy of dancing with him. Without the yir’ah, the awareness of what a big thing it is to put one’s son atop one’s shoulders, the joy wouldn’t be there.

I don’t think that the more primary definition of “yir’ah” could possibly be “fear”. The Torah writes “Your mother and your father tirah — you should feel yir’ah.” Living in fear of one’s parents is unhealthy, and obviously not the Torah’s intent. Rather, I believe that “yir’ah”‘s primary meaning is that of the awareness, and from notion of awareness one can speak of awareness of the magnitude of possible upcoming bad consequences and gets the derived meaning of “fear”.

Later in the essay, R’ AE Kaplan writes:

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir’ah… And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of punishment (“yir’as ha’onesh”). This is also vision – seeing things as they really are… One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yir’ah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten…”) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“… Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…

Even yir’as ha’onesh has an important role. One who avoids it is avoiding dealing with things as they truly are. Facing reality, allowing oneself to experience (re’iyah) G-d’s interaction in our lives — both positive and not so — leads to being overawed by Him (yir’ah, i.e. “yir’as Shamayim veyir’as hacheit”). That is the yir’ah we are being asked to develop alongside ahavah in our relationship with Hashem. True yir’as shamayim, rather than being about quaking in one’s boots, debilitated, leads one to joy, song and action. And in fact, adds to the ahavah, the Love of G-d. By facing a glimmer of the Greatness of the Beloved, we come to treasure that love, and love Him all the more. “Az yashir — And then he will sing…”

Reasons for Mitzvos

There are three things we might be talking about when we ask about reasons for a mitzvah:

  1. (if it’s Torahitic:) the source in the pasuq directly or through derashah;
  2. the halachic mechanism by which a given conclusion was reached;
  3. the philosophical principle behind the mitzvah.

I’m speaking of the third. But the gemara’s usual question is the first: How do we know something is the law?

The two most cited sefarim aimed at discussing the function of mitzvos are the Chinuch and R’ SR Hirsch’s Horeb. An interesting (to me) difference between each of those books, and R’ JB Soloveitchik. All three agree that we can’t fully grasp the reason for a mitzvah. Torahitic mitzvos require knowing the Infinite “Mind” of G-d, and therefore are beyond our abilities to comprehend. Rabbinic ones, unless the reason is explicitely given as part of the legistlation, are products of cultures that are beyond our current abilities to recreate.

They insist, as does the Rambam before them, that while we can’t fully explain a mitzvah, we are also not freed from trying to explore reasons that we can grasp. What’s interesting is that each has a different description of what we’re trying to find:

1- The Chinuch often introduces the reason for a mitzvah with the words “mishorshei hamitzvah” — among the roots of the mitzvah. It would seem that he believes that we can find part of the telos that motivated G-d to give us a mitzvah. But never the whole.

2- R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch sees ritual as a means of communication, G-d transmitting truths to man by means of symbols. In order to fully integrate these symbols into ourselves, and fully explore their richness, they are presented as acts for us to perform.

Any aspect of the message that we understand fully justifies doing it. And every aspect we don’t yet understand, fully justifies doing it until we reach that comprehension. The mitzvah can never be fully comprehended because there is no limit to human growth — there are always new things to learn from it.

3- In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s writings, he calls his explorations into the purpose of mitzvos “halachic homiletics”. In other words, he sees these lessons as things gleaned from the mitzvah, and have value, and should be internalized — but do not necessarily have any connection to the “Idea” that motivated their legislation.

Notice that all three approaches fully conform to the idea of “na’aseh vinishmah”, where doing causes thinking. None of them would say that these ideas should have impact on behavior or legislation. R’ Soloveitchik entire position is based on the premise that there is no causal connection.

Rav Hirsch contrasts Geiger’s Wissenschaft des Judentums (the “science of Judaism”) with true science. Geiger changes Jewish practice to fit his understanding of what Torah is. Fitting experiment to theory is alchemy, not science. A scientific approach to Judaism is one that takes halakhah, the givens, and constructs theories to explain them.

The Chinuch, though, by saying that these are parts of “The Reason”, might support the creation of stringencies based upon these “shorashim”. However, he couldn’t justify a leniency that might run counter from one of the roots he didn’t uncover.

A Use for Every Middah, part II: Two Dictionaries

Among the ideas I touched on in “A use for every middah” was that oftentimes the use is when dealing with others.It’s okay to be an “apiqoreis” and worry about Hashem not providing, when it comes to providing for others.At ne’ilas hachag last night, I heard R’ Yitzchak Wolpin (Rosh Yeshiva of Slonim, Boro Park) repeat a thought from his rebbe, R’ Shraga Feival Mendlowitz zt”l, that jogged the following thought.R’ Medlowitz asked a question about the laws of marriage. If someone gets married “On the condition that I am a chakham“, we ask him some questions and if he answers them like a wise man, the marriage holds. If he says, “on the condition that I am a gibor“, we check his stength. “That I am an ashir“, we compare his net worth with the norms.

But isn’t there a mishnah in Avos? “Who is wise? Someone who learns from anyone.” Why do we check the person’s knowledge and intellect? Shouldn’t we check if the person does indeed take lessons from everyone he encounters? Similarly, “Who is strong? One who conquers his inclination.” Shouldn’t a puny person, the proverbial “90 pound weakling”, but who has truly gained control over his yeitzer satisfy the condition of being a gibor? For that matter, shouldn’t a powerful man who falls pray to every desire not satisfy the condition? “Who is rich? Someone who is happy with his lot.” And yet, the man with much wealth but always hungry for more would be married “on the condition that I am an ashir“, not the poor man who is happy. Why?

R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explains: We all need to have two dictionaries. The words we use in common discourse, and the words we use for ourselves. When looking at ourselves, it is fair to say “I am rich; what more do I need?” But conditionals are based on common language. When speaking to others, “rich” refers to wealth, not contentment.

Perhaps we can extend this. When thinking and speaking of others, we shouldn’t be satisfied that another is happy with what he has. That’s good for personal development, not for addressing the needs of others. We need two dictionaries: one for the world inside ourselves, one for the one in which we interact with other people.

Related to this idea is a quote from Rav Yisrael Salanter that I recently added to my email signature generation system:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.