The Mussar Dispute

Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote to Volozhin, the flagship yeshiva of the yeshiva movement. He offered the Netziv his services as a mashgiach ruchani. The Netziv said that he was welcome to come, but if Rav Yisrael came, the Netziv would have to leave. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a brilliant talmudist and overqualified for the job, but the Netziv felt he couldn’t operate in the same institution as Mussar.

Rav Yisrael’s student, Rav Itzele Petersburger, similarly offered in 1881. R’ Nasan Kamentzky weaves together three versions of the story to create a single plausible narrative about how his offer was received (starts at about 87 min in on this recording).

Rav Nechamiah Goldberg tells that while Rav Izele was turned down, he did get permission to give a mussar shmuess. The thrust of that talk was based on the thought from our sages that Hashem created the yeitzer hara and He created an antidote — Torah. Rav Itzele explained that the Torah cures us of evil desires the way a segulah cures a sick person. The person must perform the act or recite the text exactly, and if the segulah is to say it 7 times, there will be absolutely no effect if he only says it six. Similarly, in order for Torah to fight the yeitzer hara, it most be studied perfectly lishmah, with pure motive and no distractions. Mussar, however, is like medicine.  Even if you do not follow instructions perfectly, it will still work. Not as well, but there is still improvement. Thus, unless you are already capable of perfect Torah study, Mussar is the appropriate solution to the problem of yeitzer hara. R’ Chaim Brisker, who also taught at Volozhin at the time, was sitting near the exit. As Rav Izele left the room after his talk, Rav Chaim told him, “So mussar is for someone who is sick, but we in Volozhin aren’t ill!”

R JB Solovetchik, in Ish haHalakhah, quotes Rav Itzele Petersburger using a different idea from our sages. There is no reason to believe he didn’t actually used both, or that they are quoting the same talk.  The gemara advises: If the yeitzer hara comes upon you, sent the yeitzer hatov after it. If that succeeds, good; if not, learn Torah. If that works, good; if not say, say qeri’as shema. If that works, good; if not, remember the day of death. So you see that the final, most effective way to win out over the yeitzer hara is qeri’as shema and remembering the day of death — Mussar, not Torah study! Rav Chaim Brisker (R’ Soloveitchik’s grandfather) replied that the study of Mussar is listed is a last choice because Mussar is like castor oil — for sick people it cures, but if you don’t need it — it’s sickening! A healthy person would not need to get bayond learning Torah to vanquish his inclination.

The third version: When the Netziv found out the purpose of Rav Itzele’s visit, he expelled him from Volozhin. One detail found in Dov Katz’s Pulmus haMussar (The Mussar Dispute) that R’ Kamentzky did not retell is that students from the yeshiva bodily carried R’ Itzele Petersburger out of the building. Either this too could have been a different visit, or perhaps continues the story after the above conversation.

Where did this split come from? After all, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, was married to Rav Chaim Volzhiner’s granddaughter, Rav Yitzchaq Volzhiner’s daughter. He inherited the yeshiva from them. Clearly he represented a tradition from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. On the other hand, Rav Yisrael Salanter was publicizing the version of Judaism he learned from Rav Zundel Salanter, who in turn was a student of the very same Rav Chaim Volozhiner! How did their two traditions diverge, and what exactly was the original point of conflict?

Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein explored the relationship of the four sections of Rav Chaim’s philosophical work Nefesh haChaim. These sections originated as distinct lectures, and his son and successor, Rav Yitzchaq Volozhiner added his own notes and combined them into a single volume. Rabbi Norman Lamm identified the basic problem with the resulting structure.

The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation. The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. All three build on each other — man’s power to connect creation to its sacred Source inheres in how Rav Chaim Volozhiner describes the structure of the soul, and this connection is making explicit the Presence which is latently within creation.

Then there are some short essays between sections three and four. I wish to return to this in a moment.

Section four is the one most contemporary yeshivos focus upon. It’s about the importance and centrality of Torah learning, of how true perfection of middos and contact with the Divine are only possible through immersion in His Thought, the Torah.

One can say that what happened was that Rav Chaim’s successors in Volozhin took to heart the message of the lecture(s) that became the fourth section, and therefore they pulled Volozhin to ever more exclusively focus on total immersion intellectually in Torah. (Along the way, his rebbe‘s title changed from haGaon haChassid Rav Eliyahu miVilna to just the Vilna Gaon — mentioning his brilliance in Torah, but omitting his chassidus.)

Meanwhile, R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s pupil, R’ Zundel Salanter, placed more emphasis on the lessons captured in the first three sections. And so, when he spotted young Yisrael Lipkin — the fugure Rav Yisrael Salanter, father of the Mussar Movement — spying on his private spiritual exercises in the woods, Rav Zundel yelled out 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!”) A call to work directly on one’s middos in order to live a life of yir’ah; not a reliance on metaphysical effects of immersion in talmudic dialectic.

(Please do not take either of the previous two paragraphs as caricatures, all-or-nothing contrasts.)

Much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4. The additions begin:

Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…

Rabbi Norman Lamm (Torah for Torah’s Sake, pp 61-62)  explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.

However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein (Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy, an essay in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern) finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:

First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.

Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.

So how do yir’ah and Torah relate to eachother? I touch on this in my “Wattering our Weeds” essay (MS Word, PDF; an essay in Daas Torah: Child and Domestic Abuse vol. I, pp. 220-233).

According to the vast arrangement of the silo of yir’ah that the person prepared for himself, it is through that arrangement that the grain of Torah will be able to enter and be protected within him, according to how much he strengthened his silo.

It is [like] a father who divides grain for his sons. He divides and gives each one a measure of grain to match what the son’s silo can hold, which he [the son] prepared beforehand. For even if the father wishes and his hand is open to give him more, the son cannot receive more since his silo is not big enough to hold more. So too the father cannot now give him more. And if the son did not prepare even a small silo, then also the father can not give him anything at all – for he has no guarded place where it will remain with him.

So too Hashem, may His name be blessed: His “Hand” is open, as it were, to constantly bestow every person according to his reward with much wisdom and extra understanding – when it will be preserved by them and will be tied onto the slate of their hearts. Everything [is given] according to the volume of one’s “silo.” And if a person does not prepare even a small silo, which is that he does not, heaven forbid, have within him any yir’ah whatsoever for Him, may He be blessed, so too He, may He be blessed, will not bestow any wisdom at all, since it will not be preserved by him. For his Torah would become disgusting, heaven forbid, as our Rabbis, whose memories are a blessing, said. It is about this that the verse says, “the beginning of wisdom is yir’as Hashem,” (Tehillim 111). (Nefesh haChaim book IV, ch. 5)

The Vilna Gaon taught that without eliminating one’s poor middos first [pulling the weeds, in the quote which gave the essay its title -mb], Torah [watering the garden] will reinforce those flaws rather than help refine the soul.  Of our two descriptions of our communal problem, he is speaking in terms of the second one; the Torah is a tool for us to become the holy people Hashem created us to be, but the tool has to be used appropriately or else woefully limited.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner says, without first developing yir’ah, the positive middah of keeping the importance of G-d and the role He made us for in mind, we will not retain the Torah either, even on a basic level.  His metaphor is akin to our first formulation – that without yir’as Shamayim, we cannot even embody the Torah we are trying to study, and thus only full implementation with developed yir’ah can even be termed true observance of Torah.

Refinement requires conscious effort in and of itself.  Without first “weeding” and “building the silo,” we are left with nothing.

The Yeshiva Movement reads Nefesh haChaim as having 3 sections discussing the value and power of the soul, and how to develop yir’ah so that one can understand the sanctifying aspect of immersion in Torah.

According to Mussar’s understanding, the book is about internalizing the Torah’s values. To achieve this, one must develop the soul and yir’ah and only then one’s Torah can be retained within one’s being.

He Should Inspect His Deeds

אמר רבא ואיתימא רב חסדא:
אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו. שנא’ (איכה ג): נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה, וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה’.
פשפש ולא מצא, יתלה בבטול תורה. שנאמר (תהילים צד): אשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּ-הּ, וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ.
ואם תלה ולא מצא, בידוע שיסורין של אהבה הם. שנאמר (משלי ג): כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה’ יוֹכִיחַ[, וּכְאָב אֶת בֵּן יִרְצֶה].

Rava said, and some posit [it was] Rav Chisda:

If a person sees that suffering is coming to him, he should inspect his deeds. As it says (Eikhah 3:40), “We will search out our ways and assess [them], and we will return to Hashem.”

If he inspected and didn’t find [a flaw in his deeds], he shall attribute [the suffering] to wasting Torah [ie by wasting time from immersion in it]. As it says (Tehillim 94:12), “Enriched is the man who G-d troubles, and from Your Torah You will teach him.”

And if he [tried] to attribute it [thus] and didn’t find [any time wasted that could have been spent on Torah], it is known that they are tribulations of love. As it says (Mishlei 3:12), “For those who Hashem loves, He rebukes[, like a father to his desired son].”

- Berakhos 5a

I have been encountering a number of emails and blog posts expressing dissatisfaction with how we as a community are responding to the murder of Leibby Keltzy, finding these responses to be crass, trite or self-serving. (E.g. see this blog entry, and the second half of this one.) Charities reducing the victim to a picture they can use to promote their worthy but unrelated cause; or private individuals, politicians or (again) charities producing things that draw more attention to themselves than to the tragedy of Leibby’s death.

Thinking about it, I think we can cast this issue in terms of the above-quoted gemara. Assuming what is true of the individual’s tragedy is true of the community’s, or even of the small personal tragedy we each experienced second-hand as people moved by the news.

Before I get to the point, a quibble on my translation above. For the sake of readability, I translated “yefashpeish” as “inspect”. “Inspect” comes from the word “spect” to look over (c.f. “spectacle”, “spectator”, “aSPAQlaria“, …), whereas “pishpush” means to enter and permiate.

To get to the connotations of “yefashpeish“, let me bring in another (famous) gemara and Rashi’s comments on it:

ת”ר: שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה. הללו אומרים: נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא. והללו אומרים” נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא. נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו:

Our Rabbis repeated:

For two and a half years, Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were divided. These were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created more than if he were created.” And these were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person that he is created more than if he were not created.” They counted votes and concluded, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created, more than if he were created.” Now that he was created, yefashpeish bemaasav. And others says it: yemashmeish bema’asav.

יפשפש מעשיו – שעשה כבר ויבדוק עבירות שבידו ויתודה וישוב:
ימשמש במעשיו – כגון אם בא מצוה לידו יחשב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ולא יניח לעשותה בשביל ההפסד שהרי שכרה עתיד לבוא ואם באת לידו עבירה יחשב שכרו שמשתכר בה עכשיו כנגד הפסדה העתיד ליפרע ממנו:

Yefashpeish bema’asav: that which he already did, check the sins that are in his control, confess, and do teshuvah.
Yemashmeish bema’asav: such as if a mitzvah reached his control, he should consider the loss the mitzvah would incur against its reward, and not rest from doing it because of that loss for the reward in the future to come. And if an aveirah comes under his control, he should think of the reward he gains from it now against the future loss, to separate from it.

- Eiruvin 13b, Rashi ad loc

Yemashmeish bema’asav is about convincing oneself, going forward, to do the right thing. The idiom yefashpeish bema’asav requires going through one’s past, and finding what things in one’s life requires teshuvah  — and following up on those things in particular.

Returning to the expression’s usage in our original gemara

I think we leap past this first expression, trivializing Rava’s or R’ Chisda’s words into something like: first check for overt aveiros, than for bitul Torah, and then once you rule out sins and time we could have spent on Torah but wasted, then we can assume Hashem is in His Love motivating us to come close.

When something bad happens, we are told specifically to engage in pishpush — to spend time thinking about our actions. Looking for flaws that we can rectify. In Or Yisrael, Rav Yisrael Salanter describes the process of fixing a middah as having three steps:

  • hargashah: feeling that something is wrong, incorporating both an awareness of what one is doing, and an awareness of what one ought to be doing,  and truly feeling the gap between them
  • kibush hayeitzer: conquring the inclination, ie doing the right thing despite still feeling the yeitzer hara pushing us in a different direction
  • tiqun hayeitzer: the previous two steps (working on both cognitive and behavioral planes) will naturally lead to repairing the inclination, and no longer feeling that tug toward doing the wrong thing

Rather than tragedy being a call for the cause de jeur (no matter how significant), I would suggest that yefashpeish bema’asav is a call to developing that initial hargashah of what is off-kilter. Tragedy breaks us from whatever ruts we may be in. Hashem is explicitly pushing us to explore new areas to see if they require our attention.

[Paragraph added after comment exchange with RBM, below.] This is not saying that such a push is the reason or even a reason for the tragedy. (See the chakham section in The Four Sons Confront Tragedy for more on the difference between searching for reasons and taking lessons.) Rather, that one is obligated to take our natural response to the tragic and learn from it, hislameid from it, and change ourselves accordingly. If the news makes me think about the preciousness of my own children, then I should be leveraging that to motivate improving how I relate to them. Being diagnosed with cancer (b”H and ba”h I’ve been in remission for 8 years) evinced a very different reaction; Hashem pushed me toward a different spiritual climb.

Tragedy isn’t there to provide linear acceleration but to leave us with angular momentum.

The gemara is telling us that our response to news like Leibby Klatzky’s murder cannot be boilerplate. It must begin with real soul searching. Rava says that the first response to tragedy is to check what’s wrong with our routines. If we routinize our behavior, so that there is a standard reflex — “we need more care in not saying lashon hara“, “it’s all due to the negative influence of cell phones and internet”, (and anyone in the Orthodox community can continue this list of standard responses) — we are defying Rava’s words!



N.B.: I should point out the relevence to my recent blog entry on R’ Wolbe’s negative conception of “frumkeit“. We could say that the responses I saw complaints about typify “frumkeit” bearing all the markings of coming from instinct. They have become reduced to a fixed set of near-reflexive reactions, and all too often bring more attention to the responder than to the cause or the action being recommended.

Shechitah as a Guide for Personal Evolution

I found the following on R’ Mordechai Torczyner’s blog “The Rebbetzin’s Husband“, in a post titled “Shechitah: A Guide for Evolution“. I thought that was a little confusing, like perhaps the topic would be about how to shecht animals that evolved from our current ones, so I bowlderized the title for this post.

One might be forgiven for thinking of shechitah (kosher slaughter) as a dry topic, mind-numbing in its emphasis on minutiae. Indeed, the sage Rav (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1) argued that the point is obedience, and there is no inherent value in those fine points. Rav said, “Why would G-d care whether one performed shechitah from the front or back of the neck? The mitzvotwere only given in order to refine [G-d's] creations.”Others would disagree, though. Many chachamim, and particularly the mystics, have contended that the design of each element of a mitzvah involves deep arcana and is of cosmic importance. And beyond that, our masters and mentors, particularly among the chassidim, have attached ethical and moral lessons to the most dry legal codicils.

In a striking example, Rav Yaakov Yechezkel Greenwald, author of “VaYaged Yaakov” and Pupa Rebbe until his passing in 1941, taught lessons in personal evolution based upon the five central potential disqualifications in an act of shechitah:

Shehiyah (pausing)
Shechitah is disqualified if the shocheit pauses during the act. So, too, we who would improve ourselves must act with alacrity, not pausing and not allowing ourselves to be distracted. It is not for naught that we are encouraged, “Those who are energetic rush to perform mitzvot first.” Or as Pirkei Avot warns, one should never stall and say he will study when he finds free time, for with such an attitude he will never have free time.

Derasah (pressing)
A shocheit must slice an animal’s trachea and esophagus in a back-and-forth cutting motion; if he becomes impatient and presses down into the neck, the shechitah is disqualified. In the same vein, we must be on guard against impatience with our own growth. We are expected to learn patiently, taking time and making certain that we truly understand the Torah we study. Further, we are expected to work on our character and our intellect simultaneously; one who sacrifices his personal growth in pursuit of rapid intellectual growth is guilty of derasah, pressing and trampling upon important components of self-development.

Chaladah (tunneling)
The shechitah knife must be visible to the shocheit as he cuts; tunneling into the neck so that the knife is hidden from view disqualifies the shechitah. Similarly, we must make sure not to hide our self-improvement from the public. Legitimate concern for modesty, or for embarrassment, might grow and cause us to go underground with our growth, but our commitment to HaShem and to Torah must include pride in our beliefs. As the Tur wrote (Orach Chaim 1), “One must be bold like a leopard, and not reticent before those who would mock him.” If all who are committed to Torah will plead modesty, the result will be a world devoid of visible Torah.

Hagramah (veering)
Shechitah must be performed within a specific vertical space along an animal’s neck, and veering out of that space invalidates the shechitah. The same applies to our development – a Jew must recognize that certain sites are better suited for growth than others. Rabbi Akiva warned his son (Pesachim 112a) not to set up his studies in the town square, lest passersby distract him from his learning. Pirkei Avot instructs us, “Go into exile, to place of Torah study.” For a practical example: Our homes are comfortable, certainly, but they are as filled with distractions as the town square; better to go to a beit midrash or shul to study.

Ikkur (uprooting)
There is some debate regarding the proper definition of ikkur; students of Daf Yomi will recall Rashi Chullin 9a and Rosh Chullin 1:13 as essential sources. Rav Greenwald chooses to explain ikkur as shechitah with a flawed knife, such that the trachea or esophagus is pulled rather than sliced. Comparing the act of shechitah with our actions of self-improvement, Rav Greenwald adjured us to aspire to flawlessness in our actions, since each defect will affect our results.

Rav Greenwald saw in shechitah and its laws a metaphor for the work we do in evolving our best selves, slaughtering our old identities and replacing them with a new and improved version of ourselves. Pairing energetic alacrity with patient care, being unabashedly public in our commitment, selecting our venues for growth wisely, and demanding a commitment to excellence at all times, we will perpetually create ourselves anew, each day better than the last.

This thought reminded me of the middah Rab Wolbezt”l calls hislamdus. Quoting the first va’ad on the subject in Alei Shur vol II (translation mine):

… The Rambam teaches us through this that the purpose of Torah study is hislamdus, and someone whose intellect isn’t ready lehislameid – he is released from the obligation of Torah study. We can see what this hislamdus is in all the books of his Yad haChazakah. For example, someone who learns Tractate Nega’im in depth, and he toils at it and in the decisions of the Rambam in the Laws of Nega’im in great detail — when he reaches the conclusion of the laws in the Rambam he will find there ideas burning with flames of fire on the prohibition of lashon hara – and it is as though the blinds where torn from his eyes and he is compelled to realize that the entire tractate in truth deals with the book Chafeitz Chaim and the laws of malicious speech! And this student will be devastated, how he, with all his development of the tractate, didn’t sense that he was busy with the severity of the law of lashon hara. And is it not an explicit verse in the Torah: “Watch the affliction of tzora’as to guard well and do etc…. Remember what Hashem did to Miriam on the way as you left Mitzrayim” — Rashi: “If you want to be careful not to be afflicted with tzora’as, don’t utter lashon hara. Remember what was done to Miriam, who spoke about her brother and was afflicted.” (Ki Seitzei, shishi) And it’s good for someone who learned this, for he learned Tractate Nega’im, but without hislamdus

Dr. Alan Morinis often repeats the thought that life is a curriculum that Hashem sets before us. An essence of mussar is to see life as a learning and growing experience. I think it’s that attitude which R’ Shlomo Wolbe is calling “hislamdus“: to always find practical and personal lessons in everything we encounter.

Whether that’s in the people we meet, an “act of G-d” that adds pain to one’s life, watching our own actions, or studying the laws of tzora’as or shechitah.

The Bathroom

(תהילים לב) “עַל זֹאת יִתְפַּלֵּל כָּל חָסִיד אֵלֶיךָ לְעֵת מְצֹא…” אמר ר’ חנינא, “‘לעת מצא’ זו אשה…”  ר’ נתן אומר, “‘לעת מצא’ זו תורה…” רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר, “‘לעת מצא’ זו מיתה…”  … ר’ יוחנן אמר, “‘לעת מצא’ זו קבורה”… מר זוטרא אמר, “‘לעת מצא’ זה בית הכסא.” אמרי במערבא, “הא דמר זוטרא עדיפא מכלהו.”

“For this every pious person will prays to you for the time when it can be found.” (Tehillim 32:6)
R’ Chanina sound, “‘A time when it can be found’ — this is a woman…” [i.e. it is appropriate to pray when seeking a wife; source texts and further discussion, elided.]”

R’ Nasan said, “‘A time when it could be found” — this is Torah…”

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchaq said, “‘A time when it could be found’ — this is death…”

R’ Yochanan said, “‘A time when it could be found’ — this is burial…”

Mar Zutera said, “‘A time when it could be found’ — this is the bathroom.” In the west [Israel] they say, “That of Mar Zutera is better than all of them.”

- Berakhos 8a

The odd ending to this gemara reminded me of a quote from the Vilna Gaon in Even Sheleimah 1:11 (the basis of my published essay “Watering our Weeds” – MS WordPDF):

The topic of Torah to the soul: A comparison to rain for the ground; it causes what was planted there to grow, a cure or a poison. Similarly Torah, causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what’s in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that’s in his head will grow.

As they wrote “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” [Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal], and as they wrote “To those on the right the medicine of life is in it, and to those on the left, the poison of death.” [Shabbos 88b]

Therefore one must cleanse one’s heart every day before study and after it of impure attitudes and middos with a fear of sin and good deeds.

This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom”. They were was about this they hinted when they said “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it.” (Berakhos 8a) And when they said “Whomever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty.” (Ibid 55a) Also when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a) they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age he shouldn’t distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he couldn’t be helped.

One must inspect which evil middah is strong within him, and after that clean it out. Not like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater. It requires a lot of slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah” (Abayei, Ibid 17a) in opposition to the “snake was sly”.

One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah, isn’t helped by all the legal fences and protections that he does. For any disease which isn’t cured from within…Even the fence of the Torah which protects and saves will be useless because of his laziness. (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 25:5)

According to the Vilna Gaon, in the idiom of rabbinic metaphor, the concept of “bathroom” represents working on one’s middos. If that idea applies here, then Mar Zutera’s statement and the Israeli amora’im‘s preference for it is far less startling. As that chapter in Even Sheleimah is titled,

יבאר כל דרבי שבירות המדות הרעות בחרן כלל שהוא שורש בל עבוחת ה׳ יתברך:

This Will Explain all the Ways of  Breaking the Evil Middos in General, which is the Root of all Service of Hashem Yisbarakh

Our primary goal in life is to refine our middos. But we cannot guarantee our own success; we require Divine Aid. Finding the right spouse or the proper end to our lives — the things R’ Chanina, R’ Nasan, R’ Nachman bar Yitzchaq and R’ Yochanan find the most appropriate times for prayer — all depend on how we succeed at eliminating the dross of our souls — Mar Zutra’s interpretation. In that context, it is understandable why “In the west they say, ‘That of Mar Zutera is better than all of them.’”


The Holy Script and Speech

There is a beraisa quoted in mesechtos Megillah (3a) and Shabbos (104a) that R’ Chisda says, “the [final] mem and samech of the luchos stood miraculously.” Meaning: the letters were carved all the way through, so that  ם and ס, letters that are drawn as closed shapes had a piece in the middle unattached to rest the luchos. The miracle was that the unattached middle piece floated in place with the rest of the luchos.

Rav Chisda’s statement describes the current block script and kesav Ashuris (Assyrian script / praiseworthy script; see below) used in sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos. Which would indicate that Rav Chisda kesav Ashuris is at least as old as Har Sinai, and the original script the Torah was given in.

Another argument in favor of the age of kesav Ashuris is Menachos 29b, the famous medrash of Moshe Rabbeinu’s visiting Rabbi Aqiva’s  class, and witnessing R’ Akiva proving “heaps of laws” from the crowns atop the letters. Ashuris is the script that has such crowns.

The halachic requirements also argue in its favor. Note that we require Ashuris down to the qutzo shel yud — the thorn on the yud (understood by most to be an extension of the bottom left corner). This law has a parallel in tefillah. You fulfill the Torah law of davening if you say “haKel haqadosh” at the end of the third berakhah of the Amidah during the 10 Yemei Teshuvah. After all, the Torah requirement doesn’t require any particular text. But the Great Assembly can require repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei over this mistake. The holiness of a seifer Torah requires many many laws specific to Ashuris. It is one thing to say that they require a more specific prayer than Hashem did, or even a more specifically written Torah than Hashem did, but do Rabbis have the power to abrogate holiness that HQBH gave? If the Torah was not originally given in Ashuris, there is no qutzo shel yud on Moshe Rabbeinu’s original manuscript!

But the Yerushalmi’s version of the gemara in Megillah (1:9), has R’ Levi quoting Mar Zutra and R’ Yosi that it was ayin and tes that had floating pieces. This would fit kesav Ivri (Hebrew script, see candidates below), although Ivri also has other letters that are closed shapes. Perhaps it refers to yet another script, but it’s certainly not Ashuris!










The core discussion of the script is really in Sanhedrin (21a-22b). It opens with Mar Zutra, one of the possible sources in the Y’lmi for ayin vetes, saying:

Bitechilah nitenah Torah leYisrael bikesav Ivri velashon haqodesh.Chazrah venitenah lahem biymei Ezra bekesav Ashuris velashon Aramis.

Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Ivri script and in the holy language. It was returned and given to them in the days of Ezra in Ashuri script and in Aramaic.

However, we chose Lashon haQodesh and Ashuris, leaving the other language and script for the hedyotos (usually: commoners).

Rav Chisda, our source for mem vesamech, explains Mar Zutrah — who until now I had assumed was the other side of the machloqes. He says that “hedyotos” here are the Kusiim (a heterodox group of uncertain Jewishness; probably a major component of today’s Samaritans — who do use Ivri script today), and kesav Ivri is “Libunah“. Rashi identifies Libunah as a script used in qemei’os and [the extra-halachic portions of] mezuzos.

The question as I see it is whether we can assume that if R’ Chisda explains a position we can conclude he holds like it. Beis Hillel, for example, was known for first explaining the shitah of Beis Shammai that they rejected. Alternatively, this could be a proof for the Radvaz, that there really is no dispute.

The amora’im in mesechtes Sanhedrin take three positions:

1- R’ Yosi holds that the use of Ashuris was a new institution in Ezra’s day. And Ashuris is so named because it was brought over from the land of Ashur (Assyria).

That view also seems to be the one of a medrash quoted by a number of rishonim on the beginning of Yonah. There the person Ashur is credited with not participating in the Tower of Bavel for which he received two gifts: His children were given a second chance in the days of Yonah (who was sent to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria), and kesav Ashuris.

The archeological problem is that the people of Assyria spoke Akkadian and Sumerian, both of which we have records of only in Cuneiform, not Ashuris.

2- Rebbe holds it’s a case of chazar veyasdum – the knowledge was lost, and the Anshei Keneses haGedolah (AKhG), reestablished it. The name of the script, Ashuris, is from the same root “ashrei“, praiseworthy. (This is also the etymology found in the Rambam.)

Perhaps this is the same chazar veyasdum mentioned in the same TB Megillah, in which AKhG restored the final forms of the letters (םןץף”ך). Which works even more smoothly if Kesav Ivri has no finals.

3- R’ Shim’on ben Elazar, and a mass of others, give the final opinion. The two factors, number and finality, leads a few rishonim to decide that this is the gemara‘s conclusion. The script was always used in sacred texts. Rather, it was only popularized for other writing in Ezra’s day.

The Ridvaz (Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky; Rosh Yeshiva of Slutzk; b. Kobrin, Russia 1845 – d. Tzefas 1913), in his commentary on the Yerushalmi, suggests that there is no dispute between the two talmuds on this point. The first luchos were in Ashuris, and after the loss of holiness caused by the Golden Calf, the second pair were given in kesav Ivris. The Bavli cited a quote about the former, the Yerushalmi, about the latter.

The Ridvaz’s resolution would lead to the state described by Rav Shim’on ben Elazaer et al as well. It would mean that the sacred Ashuris was known to only a few. Only Moshe saw the first tablets unbroken — possibly Yehoshua caught a glimpse. But the masses were given the second set, the one in Ivris.

It would also explain the use of the words “nitenah Torah leYisrael” rather than simply “nitenah Torah“. Because Mar Zutra in Sanhedrin is discussing how it was given to the masses, to “Yisrael” as a whole rather than only the intelligentsia. If understood this way, then the reference to Aramaic is that the masses in the days of Ezra, speaking Aramaic and not Lashon haQodesh, were given a targum. However, no one proposed changing the language of the text itself. (What would happen to derashos, the derivation of halakhah through textual analysis, if that really were the proposal?)

Last, it would explain why Daniel would be able to read the writing on the wall, while most people could not — it was in Ashuris!