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.)

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