Torah Lishmah and Nefesh haChaim

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  1. I had occasion to look briefly at an English translation of this sefer in shul on Friday night. I found its content so far above things that I know about Yahadus, that I am wondering who this sefer was written for. Who was the target audience? I doubt that it was the ordinary Jew who more often than not went to work in those times around the age of Bar Mitzvah.

    Shaul Stamper in his essay about the Cheder makes it clear that unless a boy could make a leining of gemara by himself by age 13, he went to work. Very few apparently could make a leining by age 13.

    When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, he replied, “It was written for the Baal Hatanya.”


  2. B. Feldman says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking and eye-opening analysis. A few thoughts (though I still need to reread the post to fully digest it):

    1] The idea of Torah study as עשה רצונך כרצונו, which I think is undoubtedly true and may be expressed in other sefarim, seems to me to be strikingly absent from Nefesh HaChaim. I do not see him anywhere talking about how my daas is impacted by cleaving to the will of God. He invokes the fact that Torah is the will of God only to explain that studying Torah is an act of deveikus, since God and His will are one.

    2]To add to this: There seems to be a striking difference in the terminology of N.H. and Tanya, even when both explain the same concept, namely that through Torah study one achieves deveikus to God. Tanya states numerous times that the Torah is רצונו וחכמתו ית’, whereas N.H. absolutely refuses to use the term חכמתו ית’, insisting instead on calling Torah רצונו ודיבורו ית’. Moreover, he employs the term, שכך גזרה רצונו ית’, which is a terminology usually associated with chukim, or accepting that which I cannot understand. If this is correct, then the emphasis seems to be on a metaphysical connection to God through connecting to His will, rather than on molding my thought process to match that of God.

    • B. feldman wrote:

      “…whereas N.H. absolutely refuses to use the term חכמתו ית’..”

      R. Chaim uses the phrase “khokhma el-yone” [supernal wisdom]. See NH 4:5:

      ““Rabbee Cheeya began: ‘The beginning of wisdom is fear/awe of God-YHV”H…’—This text should have stated ‘the end result of wisdom is…’981. Rather, it [fem.] is the first to enter within the level of supernal wisdom…, the first gate to the supernal wisdom is fear/awe of God-YHV”H.” Refer there [for more details].”

      And 4:6:

      “And this is what they stated, that the Holy One (blessed be He) does not award nor impress the supernal wisdom of Torah so that it should be preserved in his domain and that this learning should be available to him, except to one who [already] has wisdom within him, namely a storehouse of fear/awe that is a necessary prerequisite in a person’s domain, as described above.

      “(And a person of deep understanding will understand the inner meaning of their (OBM) statement in consonance with our approach, according to the secrets of the Zohar and the writings of the Ariza”l, who stated that the supernal wisdom is revealed only via the aspect of His (blessed be He) sovereignty,”

      And also see 4:12 and 4:28:

      “It was only our original ancestor, the one who accomplished the acquisition of his soul-Neshama-of-the-soul-Neshama, who was able use it to contemplate the supernal splendor, the soul-Neshama-of-the-soul-Neshama of the holy Torah, and the supernal wisdoms were revealed to him at the root of their supernal roots.”

  3. R. Micha wrote:

    “Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing.”


    “It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence.”

    I understand R. Chaim’s understanding of tzimtzum to mean “constrained” or “hidden”, rather than “contracted.”

    See NH 3:7:

    “For the definition of the word “tzimtzum” here, is not a way of referring to leaving a space, or transporting from place to place, to cause Himself to enter and to cause Himself to connect to Himself (so to speak), to actualize a vacant space (heaven forefend). Rather the matter is as stated in B’reisheet Rabba, at the end of parsha 45: “She tzim-tz’ma pa-neh-ha [constrained her presence] and she did not perceive the King”. And in Eikha Rabbatee at the beginning of the alphabetic section “ah-nee ha-gevver”: “She went and tzim-tz’ma pa-neh-ha [constrained her presence] behind the column”, whose explanation there is: using the language of being hidden and covered (refer to the Ahrookh in the entry for Tz-M-Tz-M). So too here [is found] the word Constraining, namely, being hidden and covered.”

  4. B. Feldman says:

    Len Moskowitz: PoinHt well taken. However, the fact remains that R. Chaim avoids using this term in articulating the centrality of TT and its functioning as deveikus. Rather, it is the term used by Chazal in the statements he cites to explain the relationship bet. TT and yirah. Hence my hesitation to accept that molding our will to reflect His is a central pillar of R. Chaim’s TT (though I certainly believe the concept itself to be true).

    • micha says:

      But RCV is very careful to make sure we do not mean that Torah creates deveiqus in the same way that chassidim mean the word “deveiqus”.

      4:2 opens:

      ענין עסק התורה לשמה. האמת הברור. כי לשמה אין פירושו דביקות כמו שסוברים עתה רוב העולם.

      On the matter of toiling in Torah liShmah: The clear truth is that ‘lishmah’ doesn’t mean deveiqus as most of the world now think.


      הרי שהעסק בהלכות הש”ס בעיון ויגיעה הוא ענין יותר נעלה ואהוב לפניו ית’ מאמיר’ תהלים.

      … that the toiling in the laws of the Talmud in depth and concentration is a matter that is loftier and more beloved before Him (may He be blessed) than the saying of Tehillim.”

      And 4:10:

      ובשעת העסק והעיון בתורה. ודאי שא”צ אז לענין הדביקות כלל. ×›× “ל שבהעסק ועיון לבד הוא דבוק ברצונו ודבורו יתב’ והוא יתב’ ורצונו ודבורו חד

      At the time of being busy with and concentrating in Torah: It is definite that he doesn’t at that time any need for deveiqus at all. So it seems to me that the being busy and contrating alone is itself deveiqus to His Ratzon and Word (may He be blessed). And He (may He be blessed), His Ratzon and His Word are One.

      That’s my justification for surmising that the deveiqus of NhC shaar 4 in being connected to Him by internalizing His Will. And not what we usually mean by “deveiqus”.

      But my motive (as opposed to justification) lies in trying to fit RCV’s hashkafah into a single picture: It also

      • fits the existence of the first two she’arim,
      • avoids saying that RCV defines Torah lishmah in a manner contrary to Chazal, is consitent with
      • what RCV tells RYV is the central value of life,
      • RYV’s introduction to NhC as describing it as book about “the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”, and
      • the latter’s putting yir’ah in the title of the book — so how could it “only” be the silo for Torah?
    • R. Chaim says that d’veikoot (a manifestation of thought/n’sha-ma) by itself is essentially worthless if the action/neffesh & speech/ruakh levels of the mitzva have not been fulfilled. It’s, at best, a way to make the mitzva more effective in its outcome once the fundamentals have been performed.

      I understand that for R. Chaim, dveikoot has – if done right – the potential for adding hit-kosh-root ha-o-la-mote and ho-ra-daht ha-sheh-fa.

      And in my understanding, that is the unifying factor for all four parts of the NH, with the design of our souls being the foundation (Shaar 1); t’fila playing its role of bringing down the or Ein Sofe to sustain and maintain the worlds, and t’shuva re-enabling after damage is done (Shaar 2); and talmood torah being the most effective method, due to teh natureof Torah (Shaar 4). And our understanding of God’s connection to creation (me-tzahd hit-khabroo-toe la-o-la-mote), despite our not being able to grasp even the tiniest bit about the ahtzmoot Ein Sofe, is also necessary (Shaar 3).

  5. R. Chaim states that yir’ah is ideally present beforer talmud torah, and it’s also ideally cultivated before t’fila, via the character traits of taharat ha-lev/taharat ha-mahkh-sha-va.

    His definition of yir’ah is important. That’s found in 4:6:

    “(And a person of deep understanding will understand the inner meaning of their (OBM) statement in consonance with our approach, according to the secrets of the Zohar and the writings of the Ariza”l, who stated that the supernal wisdom is revealed only via the aspect of His (blessed be He) sovereignty, specifically accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of heaven.)”

    So yir’ah may be defined as ka-ba-laht ohl malkhoot sha-my-im.

    And if I recall correctly, also see SA hilkhote t’filla 98, in the R’MA, about cultivating yir’aht ha-ro-m’moot before t’fila.

  6. B. Feldman says:

    Rav Micha:
    1] I understood the debate between RCV and his interlocutor(s), whomever they may or may not be, about the nature of the deveiqus of TT as follows: His interlocutor(s) see it as an emotional attachment, a conscious awareness of God’s existence, et al. RCV sees it as a metaphysical attachment through being attached to His will, which is, in essence, Him.
    2] RCV’s slant on lishma could, I think, be easily squared with Chazal b/c if one does not study על מנת לעשות, he is clearly not approaching Torah as a revelation of God’s will.
    3] I don’t see any contradiction with the hakdama. R. Chaim is explaining the centrality of TT, and, as he himself elucidates in the shaar, part of that, and for the truly great man, is the effect it could will have on other individuals and the worlkd in general.

    4] On a personal note, I am not suggesting that NH is normative. I believe that in many ways, it is not,** and that access to it should be restricted to mature people who have studied Kuzari, Sefer HaMada of Rambam, Mesilas Yesharim a,d preferably Hirsch….The issue here is simply clarifying what NH means.

    **For example, NH’s claim that Chazal look at yirah asa a silko for the grain of Torah is a novel reading of the Gemara in Shabbos, seemingly not shared by Rashi and in my very humble opinion, one not supported by a careful reading of the Gemara).

    • micha says:

      We part ways pretty late in the discussion. I am arguing that a mystical understanding of communion with Retzon H’ via Torah, while intended, is not NhC’s entire understanding of deveiqus. And I feel justified in doing so by context more than by content of shaar 4 itself. For example, by the parallel to one of the halves of tzimtzum in sha’ar 3, the title of the book, the haqdamah telling you the focus isn’t on Torah as the peak of a process, looking at his rebbe (“האדם נברא לשבר את מידותיו ואם לא למה לו חיים”), R’ Zundel Salanter, and his son’s own quote that all of life is about others — something lacking from Torah-as-an-end-in-itself.

      Which is why I added that the union of retzonos echos a mishnah which implies it’s for mussar consequences: learn Torah to want what Hashem wants to be better at the kinds of things in the first half of the book.

      IOW, I’m turning your #2 into an iqar, bringing it into the definition of lishmah, the reason why yir’ah is needed, and the key to the mussarist understanding of NhC. As in my opening, I started writing the post looking to explore what RCV could have stood for that would produce the Mussar Movement no less than the Yeshiva World. It would necessarily reflect a different emphasis than the more common, yeshivish, readings.

  7. B. Feldman says:

    I completely understand what’s driving you, and while I remain unconvince, I concede the validity of your point. Possible proof to your theory could be brought from R. Eizik Chaver, Ohr Torah &11, who starts off almost citing NH verbatim and then explains in a manner similar to your understanding. The fascinating question would be, does he see himself as explaining NH or as presenting an alternative explanation.

  8. R.Micha wrote:

    “Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.”

    The NH doesn’t address how a Jew is to help others phsyically, emotionally and/or financially.

    Perhaps when R. Chaim mentions aiding others, he’s talking about the results of doing mitzvote (including torah, avoda and g’miloot khassadim) selflessly (2:6) – acting, speaking and intending to connect the worlds and bring down the Or Ein Sofe to sustain and maintain all of creation. That seems to me to be the primary theme of the NH: Jews are like the soul of the creation, and what we do (action, speech, thought) either nourishes creation or damages it.

    R. Chaim makes it clear in his instructions regarding of t’fila (1:21) that a serious person (ah-dam ha-ya-shar ha-o-veid ha-ah-meetee) doesn’t pray for his own needs, but rather for the sustenance and maintenance of all of creation, and what he needs personally will come to him as a a result of his efforts for creation. The same holds for talmud Torah.

    So selflessness and living in a way to benefit others is a foundation of the NH.

    • micha says:

      … and the title of the book says it’s about yir’as Shamayim, so you wouldn’t expect it to have a section on mitzvos that are more directly interpersonal (tzedaqa, not charging ribis, smiling when you greet someone, etc…) One thing about realizing the book is actually a collection, rather than intentionally R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s magnum opus, is that it means that we can’t assume it’s complete. There could be core elements that weren’t in scope for any of the qunterusim. I hadn’t realized that until now, but it seems to hold. And it gives more strength to my attempt to explain the text using context.

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