What is Frumkeit?

The word “frum” has become a near-synonym for Orthodox. How this came to be is noteworthy.

“Frum” descends from the German “fromm“, meaning pious or devout. In pre-war Yiddish, usage appears to have varied widely. On the one hand, those who named their daughters “Fruma” clearly thought being frum as complementary. On the other, there was an idiom, or as Rav Aharon Kotler often put it, “Frum iz a galech; ehrlich iz a Yid — the town priest is ‘pious’, a Jew is refined.” I also heard the first part from Bergers of that same generation, “frum iz a galech“.  Admittedly, both data points from Lithuanian Iddish.

How did the word “frum”, then, ever catch on in the Yeshiva world, a community that aspires for continuity with the yeshivos of Lithuania? How did a word go from being a scornful description of the wrong kind of religiosity to a self-label?

I think that’s it’s for the same reason why kids who are eating at McDonald’s are branded “at risk”, but those who are chronic liars are not. The first group are “at risk” in the sense of their risk of leaving the community and no longer staying exposed to our values — and thus losing the likelihood of returning. Which means we’re defining ourselves by how we differ from non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews — not by what’s most important.

To some extent, when we use it as a self-identification, we are still thinking of frum in its original, ritual centric, meaning. A frum Jew is one who belongs to our community, and thus is following Orach Chaim, Even haEzer and Yoreh Dei’ah. And as implied by my comparison, this is an important threshold — it’s the line between someone who wishes to remain influenced by our teachings and culture, and those who do not. But it does not accurately reflect priorities. “Ehrlich is a yid.”

It is the original derogatory usage which is clearly the starting point for Rav Shelmo Wolbe’s essay on Frumkeit, in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. R’ Wolbe takes the informal usage of yore and gives it a robust, specific, technical meaning. In his hands, the word “frumkeit” refers to an etiology for a specific kind of cul-de-sac on the path of religious growth. Rav Wolbe opens:

וְאָמַר “סֹלּוּ! סֹלּוּ! פַּנּוּ-דָרֶךְ! הָרִימוּ מִכְשׁוֹל מִדֶּרֶךְ עַמִּי.”

And He will say, “Build it up! Build it up! Clear the way! Lift the stumbling-block out of the way of My people.

– Yeshaiah 57:14

On the narrow path to Truth in serving G‑d there is a major impediment which is called “frumkeit” (religiosity) – a term which has no clear and exact translation. “Frumkeit is the natural urge and instinct to become attached to the Creator. This instinct is also found amongst animals. Dovid said, “The lion cubs roar for their prey and ask G‑d for their food” (Tehilim 104:21). “He gives to the beast his food and to the young ravens who call to Him” (Tehilim 247:9). There is no necessity why these verses should be understood as metaphors [and therefore they will be read according to their literal meaning]. Animals have an instinctive feeling that there is someone who is concerned that they have food and this is the same instinct that works in man – but obviously at a higher level. This natural frumkeit helps us in serving G‑d. Without this natural assistance, serving G‑d would be much more difficult.

As you may have noticed following this blog, I am a strong advocate for a thoughtful and passionate approach to religious observance. As the name says, a fusion of passionate aish with the rigor of das’s law-based rite forming a new thing, a new word, “AishDas“. But in my discussion of thoughtful Judaism, I have always presumed the antonym of thoughtless Judaism, observance based on habit, on culture. Putting on tefillin merely because “that’s what is done.”

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, to the ravens’ offspring who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Rav Wolbe explains:

However this frumkeit, as in all instinctive urges that occur in man, is inherently egoistic and self-centered. Therefore frumkeit pushes man to do only that which is good for himself. Activities between people and actions which are done without ulterior motivations are not derived from frumkeit. One who bases his service of G-d entirely on frumkeit remains self-centered. Even if a person places many pious restrictions on himself – he will never become a kind person and he will never reach the level of being pure motivated. This is why it is necessary that we base our service of G-d on commonsense (da’as). (Study Sotah 22b lists 7 types of activities which it labels as foolish piety. Each one of them is a manifestation of frumkeit without commonsense). Commonsense has to direct our service of G-d. From the moment we desert commonsense and act only according to frumkeit, our Divine service becomes corrupted. This is true even for a person on the level of a Torah scholar.

Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

A while back I posted about something I called the paradox of performing mitzvos bein adam lachaveiros lishmah — doing interpersonal mitzvos for the sake of the mitzvah:

What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.

Rav Wolbe quotes the Alter of Slabodka’s treatment of this question:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha komakhaand you shall love your peers like yourself.” That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.

To which Rav Wolbe notes, “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.

One must approach a mitzvah with a drive to see the deed done, rather than the self-interested drive to be the one doing it. This is “mimaaqim qarasikha Hashem — from the depths I call out to you, Hashem.” I reach for G-d not while instinctively grasping for loftiness, focusing on how can I make me more lofty, but when I subdue myself for the sake of the deed. To honor Shabbos out of a sense of honor, to give to the poor because one feels such love and empathy that nothing else would be thinkable.

This is why mussar is primarily a study of da’as, of wisdom and thoughtfulness.

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34 Responses

  1. Shmuel says:


    Please post this to B’nei Machshava Tova (remember that?)

  2. Wonderful post. I wish I had written it. 🙂

    Quick thought: I believe that RYBS’s Halakhic Man would not agree with Rav Wolbe. He is of the view that every act; every perception; our very being is to be looked at in terms of serving God via the medium of Halakha. IOW it IS the Mitzvah and NOT the personal feeling.

    So for Halakhic, Man – Bikur Cholim (for example) is to be done for the Mitzvah – not because we feel the sick individual’s pain. That a sick individual appreciates it and that we are required as part of the Mitzvah to try and alleviate their pain and ‘cheer them up’ may in fact be part and parcel of the definition of that Mitzvah. But the purpose of Bikur Cholim is indeed to follow the will of God (Halakha).

    • micha says:


      It’s quite likely HM does not agree — Mussar and Brisk don’t work well together. The Gra saw the goal of life in terms of sheviras hamiddos hara’aos. R’ Chaim Volozhiner wrote a number of things about it. In the first three, the perspective is basically mussar’s — he speaks in the language of yir’ah and ahavah. It’s the fourth cheileq that bachurim in yeshiva are pointed to. In it, we are told that immersion in Torah, primarily learning, has a miqvah-like effect. That one doesn’t need to work on self-perfection directly because it happens in-and-of-itself through Torah. I would say that the split between the Yeshiva Movement and Mussar occurred when the Beis HaLevi emphasized the fourth cheileq, whereas R’ Zundel Salanter focused on the other chalaqim. Actually, Brisk’s roots (as well as the other subtypes of Yeshivish) are more mystical than Mussar’s. And IMHO disproven by population study.

      HOWEVER, there is more to “frumkeit” than doing the mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah. The essence is that it’s instinctive — meaning (1) it’s without thought and (2) it’s all about making me better, not about doing Hashem’s will. It’s not even really for the sake of the mitzvah, it’s for the sake of me having the mitzvah under my belt. I may need to hone the post to be clearer about this.

  3. Just to be clear, I was not equating Halakhic Man to Frumkeit. I was just giving Halakhic Man’s perspective on our purpose in this world – to serve God. To me Frumkeit is basically wearing your religion on your sleeve (which is how I think Rav Wolbe defined it) – the opposite of what Halakhic Man should be. The ultimate goal of Halakhic Man is to be L’Shma 100% of the time.

  4. micha says:

    I disagree that your definition matches R’ Wolbe. To repeat my summary from the previous comment: “The essence is that it’s instinctive — meaning (1) it’s without thought and (2) it’s all about making me better, not about doing Hashem’s will. It’s not even really for the sake of the mitzvah, it’s for the sake of me having the mitzvah under my belt.” Nothing about what others think of me, it’s more about trying to think higher of myself, or to convince myself that Hashem does.

    HM is not doing G-d’s will for narcissistic reasons — I like me so I want me to be holier/better/greater. However, Brisker derekh’s unwillingness to tie halakhah to any principle more fundamental than halakhah does make the slippery slope to frumkeit a weak point.

  5. Unfortunately I do not own a copy of Alei Shor so I will concede that my understanding of R’ Wolbe may be inexact. But I don’t think I’m too far off. Nor do I think it contradicts what you said in your summary. You are focusing on R’ Wolbe’s understanding of the purpose of Mitzvos. I was describing what I think R’ Wolbe’s definition of Frumkeit is. Opposite sides of the same coin – I think.

    BTW using HM in refference to Halakhic Man in response to me (HM) can be a bit confusing. 🙂

  6. micha says:

    There is a link to a PDF of a scan of the relevant pages in the post. And now, in this comment too.

    I gave his definition of frumkeit. I summarized his discussion of the purpose of mitzvos just in order to note that frumkeit keeps a person from focusing on them. Halakhic Man doesn’t appear to value such attention to the purposes much, beyond the blanket “ana avda deQBH” motive. Which even on RSW’s ruler is still greater than the “I have to be loftier”

    BTW, on Avodah, they refer to the Mishnah Berurah as “MB” alot. I got used to noticing “the MB” vs “RMB”. You can do the same… 🙂

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Would it be fair to say that the term frumkeit relates mainly to the outward, humanly observable aspects of our actions?

  8. micha says:

    I don’t think so. I think it relates to actions that make us feel religious. It’s the instinctive pursuit of holiness, turning religion into a self-sanctification process rather than actually becoming the person the Torah describes. It’s a focus on rites, and even on turning interpersonal mitzvos into rite.

    (Some people following the Chafetz Chaim Foundation’s wonderful programming are probably in this trap. Rather than developing empathy toward the other person and thus be concerned about the effect of one’s words, some can turn the whole thing into a “I want to be a shomer lashon”. Notice the elements of instinct involved: no thoughtfulness needed, and it’s all about what the person can do for themselves.)

    RBM and RHM have made it clear that I will need to refine this post. Please point me to the areas that misled you, so that I can rewrite the confusing parts.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    I was not misled by your article. I believe there are various definitions of frumkeit out there, that don’t differ only in the goodness or badness attributed to the concept.

  10. S. says:

    >How did the word “frum”, then, ever catch on in the Yeshiva world, a community that aspires for continuity with the yeshivos of Lithuania? How did a word go from being a scornful description of the wrong kind of religiosity to a self-label?

    I have to take issue with your assumption that the original useage is derogatory. Maybe, maybe not. Furthermore, one of the Litvish traits is cynicism and sarcasm (not necessarily in a bad sense).

    Secondly, by your use of the word “aspires for continuity” you betray your historical sense and historical knowledge. If this truly is a real Litvishe thing (which we haven’t even proved) then therein lies the rub. How did “Teyre” become “Toyre” and so forth? There’s less continuity than meets the eye.

    As for the substance of the philology, obviously any word meaning “pious” is going to be used both literally and sarcastically, positively and negatively. c.f. חסיד.

    Assuming that it’s really true that in certain parts of Yiddishland in Europe pious, Orthodox Jews really did only use the term in a sarcastic way, that’s interesting, but cannot negate that the term can also be used the other ways.

    Perhaps a parallel can even be found with the term Orthodox, which was originally used in the sense of “unenlightened” and which eventually was accepted by most Orthodox Jews as an acceptable term to describe them, to the point where now it’s a given that only certain kinds of Jews and Judaism are *entitled* to be called Orthodox.

    And of course because of the delicious irony of the term frum being used as a sociological description, it becomes a pungent source for a mussar shmuess.

  11. micha says:

    “S”, all I’m saying is that to older generations of my family, “frum” was derogatory, R’ Aharon Kotler used it derogatorily in an idiom I’ve heard from numerous others, and R’ Wolbe similarly assumes frumkeit is a bad thing. So, I don’t know why you re-assert that the question is open without any evidence contrary to my experience.

    I did mention that someone must have used it otherwise, or else there would have been no girls named Fruma.

    In any case, I am concerned that because we define ourselves by what makes us unique, we are losing sight of what we historically considered most important. Derekh eretz qodmah laTorah is true even if non-Orthodox Jews agree. I hope that point doesn’t get lost in the discussion.

    R’ Wolbe’s etiology for our condition has interesting points, such as explaining the “chumerah of the month club”, the connection between frumkeit and the modern’s focus on self-gratification, and also a second reason why we focus on rites more than mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro or that lack ritual specifications.

  12. MP says:

    > RBM and RHM have made it clear that I will need to refine this post. Please point me to the areas that misled you, so that I can rewrite the confusing parts. <
    As RBM subsequently noted, the issue isn't that you misled anyone — it's that there are other definitions of "frumkeit" besides that of RSW, yet the title of your 'blog entry doesn't speak of an Act II to this play. Perhaps, if you wish to insist you misled us :), you should change the title a la what RGS often did at Hirhurim and add a "[part] I" modifier (which will hopefully nudge you towards making the time for a "What is Frumkeit? — II" post (not to mention "What is Frumkeit? — III" et al.)….

  13. micha says:

    I doubt there will be a part 2. There are two other reasons why I’m not thrilled with this post:

    1- I lay out a problem without proposing a solution. I prefer to promote X rather than denigrate Y.

    2- I throw out two positions that don’t really jibe:
    i- My own thesis, that (a) we call ourselves frum because being ehrlach isn’t what makes Orthodoxy unique and consequently (b) I’m afraid we don’t fully internalize our priorities correctly. We’re over-prioritizing things just because we need to bolster them to fight assimilation.

    ii- RSWolbe’s thesis, that “frumkeit” is an instinct, and thus (a) an antonym to thought and (b) overly focuses on the self.

    Of course, this post got a comment chain, unlike most of my entries. It reinforces my theory about blogging: a successful blog needs to keep people annoyed enough to have an itch to respond. Two approaches for doing this are common:

    A- Say things that rub a subpopulation of the readership the wrong way, and they’ll not only comment but if you’re polite and tactful, you’re a good sparring partner and they’ll come back for more. A certain very successful Torah blog carries ads for the programming run by a yeshiva whose positions are often attacked in that blog. That yeshiva knows the blog’s commentor population includes many people who want their programming. So why do they follow the blog?

    B- Alternatively, share your own irritations with them, so that they too can dwell on an issue that bothers them — and write in.

    This then motivates the blogger to produce more and more of the same. More comments is more proof their thoughts are getting read. The cycle gives a certain skew to the content of bloggery.

    I would prefer to have a blog that only my parents and one or two of my kids read than end up in category (B). This post bent that rule. It attacks an archetype and a spiritual malaise, not a real population, so it bothers me less.


  14. Bob Miller says:

    It’s not so easy for a person to know the state of another person’s spirituality. Sometimes, “frum” or “frumkeit” are used to denote people or behavior that conform at least outwardly to Torah standards. If it would only be outward, it would be like dressing in costume or disguise, but its presence might also create the presumption of an underlying inner spirituality.

  15. It is possible that “frum” today is used the same way as “Orthodox”. “Orthodox” was not a term chosen by the Torah-observant community but a label created by the Reform and Conservatives so they could have a reference term when discussed those who were still properly observant of the mitzvos. “Frum”, to a large extent, is used like that. I doubt the majority of people who use it routinely are aware of its deeper meaning, just like most Heterodox who use the term “tikun olam” have no idea what it is really referring to.

  16. micha says:

    Whether or not the person is scrupulously honest in his business dealings is no less visible than his shemiras Shabbos. My problem is with our focus on the subset of “Torah standards” that have to do with ritual. I gave my theory why at the top of the post, and RSWolbe suggests that instinctive “frumkeit” is another.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    I wouldn’t think of calling a known crook frum.

  18. Phil says:

    “But in my discussion of thoughtful Judaism, I have always presumed the antonym of thoughtless Judaism, observance based on habit, on culture. ”

    Micha, here’s a quote (or at least a very close paraphrase) that I thought you’d like:

    “Habit is a kind of first aid, until thought arrives.” — Rabbi Shraga Silverstein, “A Candle By Day”.

  19. Eli says:

    Bob – unless the known crook is stealing from goyim and he thinks that he’s doing a mitzvah and it makes him feel good. Then that is about as frum as you can get according to the Alei Shor definition.

  20. Rebbitzen Ella Soloveichik aleha hashalom, the wife of Reb Aharon Soloveichik zatzal, used to tell us that her grandmother used to say “A galach is Frum. A Yid is a yarei shamayim.” Same idea. But my father zatzal, when he wanted to show the greatest respect to a Rosh Yeshiva, would refer to him as “an Ehrlicheh Yid.” As a child, I thought it was a pretty pareveh thing to say about a highly respectted Rosh Yeshiva. Age and unfortunate experience have taught me that it is indeed high praise.

  21. Please see my article

    “Frum or Ehrliche?” The Jewish Press, October 20, 2006, page 1 @


    This article is also available at


  22. Some very thoughtful observations of this whole piety (frumkeit) versus a more holistic type of devotion (erilicheit) which entails being deeply true to one’s ideals. I think this latter point is particularly salient because many of our life’s greatest challenges are completely outside of the purview of halacha

    Firstly, I think there’s actually a real tradeoff between frumkeit and erilicheit. Someone truly involved in solving life’s issues and dilemmas in a way that’s true to Torah ideas is not going to have time to kiss every mezuzah in the world and make sure the entire shul knows he’s said every word of pesukei dezimra. Blatantly excessive piety is almost always a deliberate show to mask something ugly beneath.

    Secondly, it would be interesting to think about one’s overall frum vs erlich state not as a snapshot in time but dynamically over a time span and also consider that it is not always a completely conscious choice. People are frequently presented with challenges to overcome and temptations to flounder changing this internal balance. Frequently when we are doing something we think is wrong we try to overcompensate and be outwardly more pious (e.g. shuckle more under a talis) in order to alleviate an internal guilt. On the other hand the kind of gratitude and elation we get from overcoming a challenge usually yields a different flavor of response then garden-verity piety because the resulting change in avodah is more personal the ‘religious’ per se. (e.g. give more charity, do more chesed, etc…).

    In general, I think judaism would be better served by a descriptive analysis of one’s experiences and emotions as opposed to the prescriptive recipes which define much of mussar. We should be analyzing the ‘is’ versus the ‘should be’ in order to be in touch with our own humanity.

  23. Withheld says:

    Ironically, I came upon this site and this article on the heels of discovering my husband’s affair with a very young adult female member of our orthodox synagogue. She was most definitely aware of his married status and even lied directly to me about her involvement with him.

    After his affair, I have struggled myself with the place of Orthodox Judaism in my life. Among other things, they arranged to spend many shabbos weekends together, casting a distinctly dark and painful stain for me on the most beautiful and family-oriented aspects of Shabbat. Knowing that he would use attending services, classes, and activities at synagogue as a means of seeing her, catching a moment alone with her in passing – and that he met her in just such a community-related activity – causes pain for me. And, the whole inner turmoil over how one who is moving forward in embracing Orthodox Judaism as a Ba’al Teshuva (my husband did not enter into our marriage keeping kosher or keeping the shabbos or any other form of mitvos; these were aspects of our life together that I brought into the marriage originally) could engage in such powerfully deceptive and destructive acts – as well as how someone from the very congregation could participate with him in those acts – has shaken me. Her use of various kabbalistic texts, rabbinical essays, and talmudic references as ways to validate and demonstrate how their involvement was clearly the “will of Hashem” and “Hashem knowing that they are two halves of the same heart” has been incredibly disturbing for me.

    On our therapist’s advisement, he has since left that particular synagogue and has begun to seek involvement with another area synagogue.

    His affair partner just sent him a text, despite his repeated requests that she refrain from contacting him since the affair ended. Apparently in reaction to her observations that he is no longer in attendance at the synagogue where they met (which she assumes to mean that he has left observant Judaism) she tells him “It’s not my business, but I feel strongly that moving away from frumkeit is more damaging to you than anything.”

    Her statement for me truly exemplifies frumkeit as acting in an inherently egoistic and self-centered way, and thereby pushing one ‘to only do what is good for himself’ or herself. As such, it truly is the ‘wrong kind of religiosity’ and does not accurately reflect priorities.

    For me, finding this article comes at a very timely point. Thankfully, this article has helped me clarify for myself my spirituality, how I have long seen the embracing of mitzvos, and how I can best continue to heal myself and to continue growing in my own observance.

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