Mussar – refining our character traits

What is mussar? It is a Jewish a spiritual practice that enables one to refine one’s character traits. Some of the ideas and mindfulness practices that we engage in are

Cheshbon HaNefesh – חשבון הנפש – An accounting of the soul.

Hargashah הרגשה – An awareness of where one stands. Mussar teaches that we next “become aware of the ideal, internalize it, and create a longing to reach it.” (R. Micha Berger.)

Hitpakut/Histapkus – התאפקות – Cultivating equanimity, contentment. Being satisfied with whatever one has.

Hitlamdut/hislamdus – התלמדות – Teaching oneself, the feeling that one has not mastered a topic, but it still learning it.

“Hitlamdut means to adopt a stance of being a learner and having what we learn impact us. It is the reflexive form of the Hebrew root “to learn.” – Tikkun Middot Project Curriuculum.

Hitpa’alut/hispa’alus – הִתְפַּעֲלוּת – enthusiastic readiness to work on one’s self.

The root of this word is פעל , worker (noun); active/enthusiastic (adjective); or “to work,” “to do,” as a verb. When written as התפעלות we have a reflexive conjugation for the verb – means working on one’s self.

Hitbonenut/hisbonenus – התבוננות – contemplation – In mussar this refers to deep contemplation on a mussar idea. It also refers to Jewish meditation.

From the Hebrew root ב – י – ן meaning “understand.” “It derives from the Hebrew word Binah (lit. understanding) and refers to the process of understanding through analytical study. ” – Jewish Meditation, Wikipedia

Zehirut – זהירות – Illuminated awareness. “Zehirut in the Mussar literature has to do with encouraging you to inspect your actions to determine whether or not they are right and desirable” – Alan Morinis

From the Hebrew root ז–ה–ר.  Lizhor – לִזְהוֹר – to shine, illuminate. And as Lehizaher – לְהִיזָּהֵר – to be careful, aware.

Classical Mussar texts

• Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers.) The second-to-last tractate in the order of Nezikin in the Mishnah. 200 CE

• Chovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Hearts) Bahya ibn Paquda, 11th century

This work is divided into sections called “gates.” The mussar sections of this book include the sixth gate, Sha’ar HaKeni’ah, humility, and the seventh gate, Shaar HaTeshuvah, repentance.

• The Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, 12th century.

See Book 1, HaMadda (Knowledge) – the sections on De’ot (proper behavior) and Teshuvah (repentance.)

• Shaarei Teshuvah (The Gates of Repentance) Yonah Gerondi, 13th century

• Orchos Tzadikim (The Ways of the Tzaddikim) 15th century

An anonymous work on mussar. There is a Hebrew-English version from Feldheim edited by Gavriel Zaloshinsky and translated by Shraga Silverstein.

• Mesillas Yesharim (The Path of the Just) Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 18th century

Luzzato’s most influential work, widely learned in virtually every yeshiva since formal study of ‎musar texts was introduced to the yeshiva curriculum by the Mussar Movement of Rabbi Yisrael ‎Salanter. The aim is the perfection of character. Within each step, Luzzatto explains the step itself, ‎its elements, how it can be acquired, and what might detract from its acquisition.‎

• Ohr Yisrael: The Classic Writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter and His Disciple Rav Yitzchak Blazer. 19th century

Translated by Zvi Miller, this is a compendium of four books – The Gates of Light, The Light of Israel, Paths of Light, and Stars of Light. This has been published by Feldheim and Menucha Publishers.

• Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Strive for Truth. By Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, 20th century. Translated by Aryeh Carmell.

• Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh: A Guide to Self Improvement and Character Refinement

Written by Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov,  in1809, this is a classic work of mussar based in part on the ethical program by Benjamin Franklin.

Modern mussar texts and commentaries

• Lights Along the Way: Timeless lessons for today from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Mesillas Yesharim.

In this book, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski applies the text and themes of Mesillas Yesharim to the everyday challenges of life today.

• Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis

A recent book on mussar which brought this classic path of self-improvement to the attention of moderns in the 21st century.

• Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar, by Alan Morinis

• The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, edited by Barry Block. From the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform Judaism.)

This commentary offers a thoughtful analysis of each of the Torah’s weekly parashot. Each essay brings a parashah into juxtaposition with one of the Mussar middot (character traits,) providing an applied lens of Mussar teachings. This helps us to delve deeper into our tradition with increased mindfulness and intention.

• A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar Paperback – May 14, 2013, by Ira F. Stone. William Liss-Levin­son writes about this book

“Stone take us on a remark­able jour­ney into the world of mus­sar, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on the phi­los­o­phy of Reb Sim­cha Zis­sel Braude of Kelm, a key dis­ci­ple of Rab­bi Yis­rael Salanter, founder of the Mus­sar move­ment. Stone even includes in the appen­dix his own trans­la­tion and analy­sis of Reb Simcha’s clas­sic Mus­sar text, Hokhma U‑Mussar… [here] mus­sar becomes a much deep­er phi­los­o­phy of under­stand­ing our role in the world, the respon­si­bil­i­ty we have to bear the bur­den of an oth­er as we seek to ulti­mate­ly become clos­er to the Other. “

• Return and Renew­al: Reflec­tions on Teshu­va and Spir­i­tu­al Growth, Aharon Lichten­stein

“The process of repentance, teshuva, presents each of us with both challenges and opportunities. While self-scrutiny, confession, and commitment to change are among the most difficult human undertakings, the very process of renewing and reconnecting -to ourselves and to God – is a gift that can fundamentally repair us, our communities, and society at large… In these essays, Rabbi Lichtenstein marshals a broad array of Jewish sources, along with classics of the Western tradition and his own sensitivity to the human condition, to examine the psychological, emotional, and spiritual elements of sin and repentance. By exploring the habits and impulses that may prevent enduring change or abet it, Return and Renewal provides a high-resolution map of our spiritual lives as we embark on our journeys of religious growth.”

• Widen Your Tent: Thoughts on Life, Integrity & Joy Hardcover, Micha Berger

We so often study a book yet skip its introduction. And yet, introductions are where authors lay out their view of the world, the grand “big picture” they see the work fitting into. In the introduction of his magnum opus, Shaarei Yosher, Rav Shimon Shkop (1860-1939) outlines his views of mussar and theological issues – What is the purpose of Judaism? The nature of holiness? What does it mean to be a good person, to be made in the “image” of G-d? How can I be happy with what I have? How do I grow my soul? How can I learn to understand and love other people? Widen Your Tent translates and explains this classic text for modern readers. Rabbi Berger’s goal is to infuse Jewish observance with love, Mussar and grounding in Jewish thought. To that end, he established The AishDas Society.  Published in 2019 by Mosaica Press.

“The Practice of Musar” by Geoffrey Claussen

An important article on the importance of mussar in today’s modern day Jewish world. Originally published in the journal Conservative Judaism, Vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 3-26, 2012


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