About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a " ").
Yishuv BeMikra translates as "calmness (quiet deliberation) in study." The word yishuv comes from the Hebrew root yod-shin-vav and means "to sit" or "to dwell." The word mikra comes from the Hebrew root kuf-reish-aleph, and means "to read" and is understood as "text." In other words, "to dwell in the text."
"But his delight is in the law of the Lord; And in God's law he meditates day and night." (Psalm 1:2)
According to one Biblical commentator, this text, taken from the Book of Psalms, suggests that one should always study Torah first, and then take the time to meditate (or dwell) upon it. "For Scripture says, "His delight is in the Torah of the Lord" (Ps.1:2) and only after that, "And in God's law he meditates."
In Sefer Haggadah (Tanhuma Yitro 15), we are also reminded of the importance of studying with slow, unhurried reflection. We are told that the Torah teaches: if you are a person of learning, do not be so arrogant as to say something in front of an assembly before you have made the matter clear to yourself by going over it two or three times. In fact, an individual is not allowed to read a portion of Scripture in public unless that person has made its words thoroughly clear by going over them two or three times.
In the "Commentary on Pirkei Avos" (page 415), we are cautioned never to rush to reply to questions; rather one should spend time deliberating and carefully analyzing a question before replying. This prevents jumping to premature conclusions. In addition, to derive the most from studying Torah, it suggests that one must have a calm environment.
The Talmudic rabbis asked what purpose was served by the empty spaces that occur from time to time in the written text of Scripture. They considered the following explanation: "To give Moses time to reflect between one passage and the next, between one subject and the next. They went on to say that "If he who hears words from the mouth of the Holy One and himself speaks with God requires reflection between one passage and the next, between one subject and the next, how much more is reflection required by one who is a mere commoner taught by another commoner." (Sif. Lev. 1:1)
To Talk About
- The translation of this middah (virtue), yishuv bemikra, challenges us to find a connection between several meanings. In what ways are "calmness in study" and "dwelling in the text" similar? In what ways are they different? What do you think it means to "dwell in the text"?
- Reread the Commentary section that talks about Sefer Haggadah. What advice does Sefer Haggadah give us about speaking in front of an assembly? Have you ever had to give a presentation or make a speech to a group of people? How did you prepare for your presentation? If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?
- A first-century rabbi with the unlikely name of Ben Bag Bag, taught about the Torah: "Turn to it, and turn to it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, grow old and gray over it. Do not budge from it. You can have no better guide for living than it. "(Avot 5:25) How does Ben Bag Bag's advice relate to this middah (virtue), yishuv bemikra? What does it tell us about the value that Judaism places on studying a text over and over again? Think about the stories that you have studied from the Torah. Choose one of them and reread it again. Try to find something new in the story that you did not notice or understand the last time you read it.
- Reread the section that deals with the Talmudic rabbis' explanation of the purpose of the empty spaces that occur from time to time in the Torah. What did the rabbis mean by this explanation? Do you think this was an effective way of illustrating their point? Why or why not?
- The Talmud is so committed to the significance of concentrated study that the Rabbis wrote: "He who repeats what he has learned one hundred times cannot be compared to one who repeats it a hundred and one times"(Hagigah 9b). What message were the Rabbis trying to give us? Do you agree with them? The comparison between the two learners seems so insignificant. Why do you think the Rabbis used this example?
- One of the great Biblical commentators, Nachmanides said, "When you rise from your book, probe into what you have learned, to discover whether there is in it anything you can translate into reality." Compare Nachmanides' statement to that of Ben Bag Bag in question #3. How are they the same? How are they different?
Fifteen characteristics are mentioned of a disciple of the wise (Derech Eretz Zuta 3). "One is pleasant when one comes in and pleasant when one departs. One is assuming in the academy, resourceful in bringing about fear of God, prudent in awareness, wise in one's ways. One collects [words of Torah] and remembers them well, takes pains to reply properly, makes questions relevant and replies to the point, listens carefully before replying, adds something novel of one's own to each and every chapter, goes to a sage [to minister to the sage], and studies in order to teach and to practice."
Using your own words, make yourself a list of these characteristics. Each time you have the opportunity to learn something new, check to see how many characteristics apply to you. You too can be a disciple of the wise!