Lists of Middos

One of the more amazing pieces of history of the Mussar Movement was that Rav Yisrael Salanter, despite his own antipathy for Haskalah (Enlightened Judaism), promoted a seifer written by a maskil, Rabbi Mendel (Leffin) Satanover. Admittedly, Reb Mendel Satanover was from the early Haskalah and was himself a fully observant Orthodox Jew. However, if you think of how Orthdox history portrays Moses Mendelsohnn, about whom the same could be said, and Rav Yisrael’s embracing and republishing R’ Mendel’s “Cheshbon haNefesh” is astounding.

More so, Rav Yisrael Salanter must have been aware of the book’s original source. Cheshbon haNefesh describes a particular way to keep a mussar journal, keeping track in one’s progress in various middos. This format is seasonal, 13 middos to work on each season, and each week of the season focus is placed on one of those 13. One therefore maintains each week a 13×7 graph, one direction marking off the days of the week, the other marking off that season’s middos, creating boxed in which marks can be made counting incidences of success or failure at each middah.

The plan is taken from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Malcolm Shosha posted the relevant chapters to Avodah, here. The differences are twofold. First and more fundamentally, Franklin intended to create a list of virtues. R’ Mendel Satonover is clear that he is offering 13 sample middos to demonstrate the principle. For example, while he discusses each of the 13 at length, at the end of the book he has a short list of other possibilies that someone they may find they have to work on.

Despite this, it appears that there was a tradition that Rav Yisrael Salanter considered a list of 13 middos, 12 of them the same as in Cheshbon haNefesh, to be the primary ones to attend to. They are listed as such by Rav Barukh Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah in his Meqor Barukh (pg 1111, a/k/a vol 2 daf 556a). Rav Dov Katz, a product of Slabodka and author of a six book series on the history of the Mussar Movement and the thought of its key figures, cites this list in his coverage of Rav Yisrael, indicating that this tradition had some currency within the movement as well.

Here is a comparison, a list of Franklin’s Virtues with the middos from Cheshbon haNefesh and Rav Yisrael Salanter that appear similar. My ordering is based on that of the Cheshbon haNefesh, since the Meqor Barukh gives alphabetical order and thus isn’t indicative. Houwever, I group Rav Yisrael’s middos on top, so that you can better see how the list evolved to its final state:

Benjamin FranklinCheshbon HanefeshRav Yisrael Salanter
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.1. MENUCHAS HANEFESH. Rise above events that are inconsequential — both bad and good — for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.5. MENUCHAH. Have a spirit that is at rest, without ever being hasty, so that you can do everything calmly.
2. SAVLANUS. When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.8. SAVLANUS. Bear with calm every happening and every event in life.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.3. SEDER. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly — each and every one in a set place and at a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.9. SEDER. Do all of your deeds and all of your undertakings in an organized and disciplined manner.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.4. CHARITZUS. All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without hesitating.3. CHARITZUS. Do what you decide to do with industriousness and enthusiasm.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.5. NEQIYUS. Let no stain or ugliness be found in your possessions or in your home, and surely not on your body or clothes.7. NIQAYON. Keep your body and clothes clean and pure.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.6. ANAVAH. Always seek to learn wisdom from every man, to recognize your failings and correct them. In doing so you will learn to stop thinking about your virtues and you will take your mind off your friend’s faults.10. ANAVAH. Recognize your own shortcomings and pay no attention to those of others.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.7. TZEDEQ. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.11. TZEDEQ. Do whatever Torah says is right, in its letter and spirit, and give in on what is rightfully yours.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.8. QIMUTZ. Be careful with your money. Do not spend even a penny needlessly.12. QIMUTZ. Do not spend a penny that is not for a necessary purpose.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.9. ZERIZUS. Always find something to do — for yourself or for a friend and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.2. ZERIZUS. Never waste a moment, to let it be for no positive purpose, and likewise actively do what you seek to accomplish.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.10. SHETIQAH. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: “What benefit will my speech bring to me or others?”13. SHETIQAH. Consider the result that is to come out of your words before you speak.
11. NICHUSAH. The words of the wise are stated gently. In being good, do not be called ‘evil’.6. NACHAS. The words of the wise are with gentleness heard, so therefore always strive to speak gently.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.12. EMES. Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.1. EMES. Never let anything out of your mouth that your heart cannot testify as to its truth.
4. KAVOD. Be cautious in the honoring of every person, even anyone whose thinking you consider to be imperfect.
1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.13. PERISHUS. Strengthen yourself so that you can stop lewd thoughts. Draw close to your [spouse] only when your mind is free, [occupied only] by thoughts of fulfilling your conjugal duties [to your spouse] or procreating.

Assuming that on 11 of these the close match was intentional, even though the order differs, you’ll notice that R’ Mendel Satonover dropped two of the virtues: Temperance and Moderation. This was not oversight, as HISTAPQUT (“Before taking food into your mouth, consider what benefit it has for your personal health or the fulfillment of a precept.”) is one of the middos he suggests for customizing the list. R’ Mendel instead added the following middos:

  • 2. SAVLONUS. When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.
  • 11. NICHUSAH. The words of the wise are stated gently. In being good, do not be called ‘evil’.

In short, two middos that we tend to think of in “religious” terms were replaced by ones that have more interpersonal application. The one difference between Rav Yisrael’s 13 primary middos and those listed in Cheshbon haNefesh takes this another step in the same direction. The middah of perishus, which R’ Mendel Satanover explains with a focus on chastity, is replaced with Kavod, respect for others.

When I was discussing Mussar with a friend once, he noticed my focus on Middos work. He asked if this perception wasn’t a product of our times, where Chassidus, Mussar, or lehavdil New Age and Self-Help work are all seen in very personal, Me-Centered, terms. What about the Mussar of R’ Yisrael, he asked, of dropping everything to help care for people during the cholera epidemic; of missing Kol Nidrei to care for a child left with an older sister who didn’t know what to do for her; of washing his hands with as little water as possible, so that Rav Yisrael’s “hamotzi” wouldn’t be at the expense of the person who had to draw and carry the water; or who said the most important stringency in matzah baking is not to overwork the widows who were employed at the bakery; etc, etc, etc…?

My answer was that yes, Mussar is about building relationships, but the only part of that bridge to others that we can actually work on is the stanchion on our shore. Thus, we work on middos, but Rav Yisrael defined the perfection of those middos in terms of what best aids us to best share Hashem’s Good with others.

And we see that in his list of Middos.

In contrast, while Mesilas Yesharim is a forerunner of the Mussar Movement, R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wasn’t of the same mindset when he wrote it. To him, man’s ultimate goal is the ability to cleave to a particular Other, which was only possible in a particular “place”. And so, in Mesilas Yesharim the measure of middos is how much they will enable me to “enjoy the shine of the Shechinah” in the World to Come.

Are those goals really different? No. As the Ramchal himself puts it in the beginning of Derekh Hashem, G-d created us in order for Good to have someone to bestow that good upon. Cleaving to G-d means being a conduit of His Good to man, and the only way to be that conduit is to stand in His Image.

However, as I note on the “Forks” category a number of times, the difference in focus, in the approach by which we choose to reach for that goal, does create changes in our practice.

See also:

13 thoughts on “Lists of Middos

  1. Very interesting.

    However, I don’t think the way Orthodox history portrays Mendelssohn makes this astounding. How did Orthodox history portray Mendelssohn then? In Lita, among non-Chassidim, not so badly in the 1840s. Actually, Lefin was far more radical than Mendelssohn.

    However, that is a sidetrack from this excellent post. It’s nice to see someone take the time to actually compare these side by side.

    • An ADHD person has a problem with a few middos, most notably seder (organization).

      However, my son Eli, who managed to take out a drumstick and start playing on the desk in the middle of a HS interview, has far better control of his temper than I do, is far less lazy, more readily volunteers to help others (e.g. take out the trash without being asked), etc… We all have our unique challenges. Among them, not letting ourselves use those challenges as an excuse to let oneself off easy.

      Another recurring theme in my blogging is the notion that we aren’t assessed by where we are, but by how we are traveling. The ideal person is one who is climbing upward. After all, Hashem knows what He gave us to work with, what challenges to overcome, and what life situations He set up for us to encounter. The ideal person isn’t the one with perfect middos, that is only partially under our control anyway; it is the one who is perfecting them to the best of their ability.

      Does that address your question?
      -micha

  2. Your comment about an ideal person isn’t the one with perfect meddos, it’s the one who is perfecting them to the best of their ability. It’s a refreshing statement for the simple fact that most people only see the ones that appaer to have perfect meddos not the ones who are honestly trying but I suppose in the long run it doesn’t really matter what onter people see just as long as you in your souls heart is honestly making rightous effort. Just wanted to thank you for that comment its an uplifting statment with alot of power behind it.

    • I fail to see it. Moderation is defined as not going to extremes, of which Franklyn includes extreme responses to those who wronged you. Patience is about how we relate to other people. There is overlap, but only in that one mentions not indulging in revenge, and the other mentions tolerating what others do so that you don’t have cause for revenge. But neither actually focuses on avoiding revenge as the core of the virtue/middah.

  3. Hi Rabbi Berger. I stumbled across this website and article while trying to figure something out. Maybe you can help me. I am aware that there are many middos we are trying to perfect. The orchot tzaddikim and maalos hamiddos both supply lists of them that somewhat different.

    1) But is there an underlying theme to all the middos? Do they all come back to emulating G-d?

    2) When we say the 13 middos of compassion of God, is that a different part of middos development because O”T and M”H don’t really seem to focus on them?

    3) Is Hilchos Dayos in the rambam and his Shvil Hazahav the template for all middos that are included in O”T and S”H? If you have time to answer this I’d appreciate it. Thanks, Dovid

And your thoughts...?