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 " ").
"A listening ear." Sh'miat comes from the Hebrew root shin-mem-ayin and means to listen or hear. Haozen means "the ear."
Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu lishmoa kol shofar.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to hear the sound of the Shofar.
Sh'miat Haozen is the "pay attention" middah or virtue. We learn by many senses and focus on acquiring Torah by listening. Regardless of whether one can physically hear or not, we are all capable of listening. One can hear things but still lack understanding. The act of attentive listening takes intention and work on the part of the listener.
This text is the brachah (blessing) that is recited during the Shofar service of Rosh HaShanah. In ancient days the shofar announced the beginning of a new month, the Jubilee year, the crowning of a new king, and marked the solemn occasions of the year. The Shofar called to the people, informing them of events and occasions.
However, the blast of the Shofar at Rosh HaShanah has additional meaning aside from the actual sound. In a reading for Rosh HaShanah, Hershel J. Matt has written:
"The blasts of the shofar call us to repentance, to renew our loyalty to God, to defy false gods, to remember Sinai, to keep the mitzvot, to renew our devotion to the Land of Israel, to recall the vision of the prophets when all peoples shall live in peace, the blasts of the shofar reminds us of the flight of time and to live our lives with purpose."
The reading concludes, "May the sound of the Shofar enter our hearts; for blessed is the people that hearkens to its call." (The Sound of the Shofar by Hershel J. Matt, Machzor Hadash p.244)
The Shofar demands that we pay attention not just to the sounds that are made by the ram's horn but to the meaning of those sounds. The Shofar grabs our attention. We are called to listen, learn and to do.
When a learner is committed to Sh'miat Haozen, the learner is committed to attentive listening. One is receptive to what is being taught, one wants to learn and to understand.
Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that the 48 middot (attributes) are not gifts that are acquired together with Torah, but the means through which it is possible to acquire Torah. One who strives to learn Torah must acquire and employ these 48 attributes through diligent labor upon their own personality. He further taught that proper, accurate and thorough listening is the first demand made on the learner. Such intentional and accurate listening precludes any carelessness, inattention or distraction by other things. (Chapters of the Fathers, translation and commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch pp. 103-4)
To Talk About
- When you listen to the sounds of the Shofar what do you hear? Think beyond the sounds that are made. What do you think the Shofar calls us to remember, to observe and to do?
- We hear the Shofar once a year at the High Holidays. Are there other sounds that demand your attention and focus you during the course of the year? What are those sounds and how do they influence your life and the way you live?
- What attitude and traits do you need to foster within yourself to commit to Sh'miat Haozen-attentive listening? Share and discuss.
- In Orhot Tzaddikim, a 16th century work, the author wrote "There is nothing as good in all the world as listening" ( The Jewish Moral Virtues, p. 205). Based on the material in the Commentary section and your own thoughts and ideas, discuss and interpret this saying.
- Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming or being inattentive during a class, conversation or lecture? What is your reaction as the listener when this happens? What about if you are the presenter and are aware of the situation? What do we lose when we do not listen attentively? What is gained when we do?
- In Jewish life, a certain type of study is called "Torah L'shma," or Torah that one learns through listening, without taking notes or doing advance preparation. This is learning that feeds the soul. Describe special learning that you have done when you have simply listened. Share your stories.
Become a practitioner of sh'miat haozen by reciting the Sh'ma. The Hebrew word sh'ma comes from the same root assh'miat and is translated as "hear." Our tradition suggests that the Sh'ma be recited before bed and upon waking. Recite the Sh'ma at night and in the morning. Close your eyes as you do and listen not only to your own voice, but to the words of the prayer and the sounds of the day. Share your experiences with your family at your Shabbat Table.