Baal Nefesh Yachmir

Continuing on the prior post… A recurring topic on Avodah is the Mishnah Berurah’s use of the concept of ba’al nefesh yachmir, that while the halakhah itself allows for some leniency, “one who masters their nefesh should be stringent”. (By the way, the idiom only appears 24 times in the MB, although the general notion of going beyond the letter does come up more frequently.)

What is a ba’al nefesh, and why are some chumeros more related to this ideal than someone else’s?

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim on Avos 3:1); see also Nefesh haChaim 3:1) defines the ba’al nefesh as:

This is what our Rabbis (Chagiga 12a) intended by: Adam was as tall as from the earth to the sky. And when he sinned, HQBH places His “Hand” on him and reduced him, standing him on two levels.

If he wants, like at the time when he has a neshamah [the higher aspects of the soul], even though he has feet on the ground, his body and essence are planted in the storehouses of on high. And when he sins, the Holy One blessed be He places His “Hand” on him and reduces him etc… two levels — it means to say two steps: nefesh [the soul's more animalistic functions] and ru’ach [its spiritual functions].

והנה הבחירה חפשית באדם ברצותו מהפך חומרו המגושם להיות רוחני, וכן להיפוך חס ושלום פוגם הרוח ושבה כבשרו, ובדור המבול הרעו לעשות, ופגמו הרוח ושב כבשר, ולזה אמר הכתוב (בראשית ו’) “לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי [בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה].” לא יהיה עוד הרוח בתוך הגוף בשגם הוא בשר נהפך לגשמי.
והאנשים המהפכים הבשר והיו לרוח נקראים בעלי הנפש…

A person’s free will turns his physicality into ruchani according to his will. Similarly in the reverse (chas veshalom) he can damage the ru’ach and reduce it to his flesh. In the generation of the flood they made their actions evil, they damaged their ruach and reduced it to flesh. It is about this the scripture says “My ‘Soul’ shall not put up with man for ever, for he also is flesh and blood; therefore his days shall be 120 years.” (Bereishis 6:3) There will no longer be a soul in a body, because [the soul] too is flesh — turned into something physical.

The people who change their flesh so that it becomes spirit are called “baalei nefesh”.  However, because of our many sins, these people who have the ruach within them are few. Rather [only] at a time when they have some merit, they lower it down into their bodies. This is what is written (Iyov 32) “And so it is ru’ach in man, and nishmas Sha-dai will understand them.” The ru’ach at times is in man — in him literally! — and the neshamah isn’t in him. Rather, it sends to him from on high a response to the ru’ach, the “Ru’ach Hashem, ru’ach chochmah ubinah … — the spirit of Hashem, the spirit of wisdom and understanding…”

So, the sinner obsesses with physicality until his nefesh, the “lowest” aspects and functions of his soul, is entirely about flesh and is physical. Whereas the baal nefesh is someone who can take even his body, and elevate it to being a pure vehicle for his nefesh. (Rav Chaim Volozhiner continues to explain how this is related to both reward and punishment in general, and how sin naturally caused the original fall from Gan Eden.)

This idea is also found in the Yerushalmi (AZ 5:4, vilna 33b). R’ Shimon ben Lazar went to a town in Shomron, and it seems he really wanted wine. The problem was that the locals were Kusim, not Jews. (The Kusiim were a tribe who presumably converted to Judaism, but as time progressed doubt arose as to their original sincerity. So, while they were initially treated as Jews, at some point the matter was treated as one of doubt, then probably not, until eventually they were considered non-Jewish.) At this point in history, it was permissible to drink a sealed barrel in a Kusi town. But an open barrel was too likely handled by someone capable of using the wine for religious libations. The town did hire a Jewish schoolteacher. RSBL asked him if there was any kosher wine available. The teacher offered him some water from a spring. Rav Shimon ben [E]lazar asked again, and the teacher replied:

אין את מריה דנפשך הא מבועא קמך שתי ואין נפשך מרתך “שַׂמְתָּ שַׂכִּין בְּלֹעֶךָ, אִם בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ אָתָּה” כבר נתקלקלו הכותים

If you are the master of your nefesh, then the spring is before you — drink!

But if your nefesh is your master, “they placed a knife at your throat if you are a person of nefesh” [a glutton] — the Kusiim already ruined it.

The pasuq’s ba’al nefesh is a glutton, and therefore not quite the same usage as a modern description of someone who chooses stringency. Or is it? Perhaps the point is that someone who knows they have an internal tendency toward gluttony, hedonism, or the like is the one who needs to work on it — and therefor a “ba’al nefesh” should adopt extra practices to harness this tendency in a positive direction.

However, it is more consistent with what we saw from Rav Chaim Volozhiner to assume that the more recent Hebrew usage of “ba’al nefesh” actually derives from the Yerushalmi’s Aramaic, rather than the Biblical coinage. That the ba’al nefesh of today is the marei denafshei — master of one’s nefesh, the more animalistic functions of the soul — who turns his flesh and nefesh into something more spiritual (ruach, ruchnius).
Although this wouldn’t change the scope of ba’al nefesh yachmir. Rather than prescriptively advising the glutton to adopt the practice to sublimate his instincts, the phrase would be descriptive — the stringency would naturally fit the temperament of a spiritual idealist. (And of someone who wants to be one.)
This definition fits the older examples I found.
Shulchan Arukh (OC 240:8) discusses tzenius even during marital relations, and concludes “these are further separations, and a ba’al nefesh must be stringent in these”.
And in Yoreh Dei’ah (116:7), the Rama writes that an animal that was ruled kosher by the force of reason rather than established tradition is permissible, a baal nefesh shouldn’t eat it.
But the Mishnah Berurah (27 s”q 44) advises every ba’al nefesh to teach his shul-mates how to wear tefillin correctly. And similarly (32 s”q 189) that a ba’al nefesh would make the titura, the part of the tefillin base that the strap runs through, at least 2 fingers wide. Similarly, as we mentioned before, the MB (301 s”q 141) that a ba’al nefesh would not use a neighborhood-wide eiruv.
It would seem usage broadened by his day. Still, it’s possible that the MB does exclusively use the idiom for someone more focused on working on becoming in touch with his own soul than our other ideals –anavah (modesty), ahavas Hashem (Love of G-d), etc…. (Appointing oneself in charge of others’ tefillin poses a challenge with regard to anavah, actually.) So it is interesting to contrast the stringencies appropriate for the baal nefesh to that motivated by other ideals. I am not capable of a broad survey of this sort, so if you notice any that fit or violate this pattern, please leave a note in the comments.
To get the list going, let me open with what I feel is a glaring example:
The Chasam Sofer (YD 39) discusses the shocheit peeling off adhesions from the lungs and testing them for holes in warm water. If the adhesion can be removed without tearing the lung, the adhesion is external enough for Ashkenazim to still consider the animal kosher, albeit not glatt. He concludes that if done by a proper shocheit, “yokhlu anavim veyisbe’u — the modest will eat and be satiated” (Tehillim 22:27). However, “shomer nafsho yirchaq – one who guards his soul should stay away.” There are conflicting priorities here. The person working on his estimate of his own self-worth in relation to others’ should trust the shocheit to have checked correctly. But the person working on subduing his physical side should avoid all questions involving food and is advised by the CS to make a policy of only eating glatt.

And your thoughts...?