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 minimum of frivolity.” The word miyut comes from the Hebrew root mem-ayin-tet and means "little or limited." The word sechok comes from the Hebrew root sin-chet-kuf and means "laughter, playfulness, or jest."
"He who undertakes to be an associate scholar (chaver) may not be profuse in laughter." (Demai 2:3)
Our text suggests that anyone who wants to be a scholar must not engage in too much laughter. It is puzzling that too much laughter is considered a negative virtue and is discouraged. Is it possible that the rabbis were merely concerned about students having too much fun and not spending enough time on their studies?
The great Talmudic teacher, Rabbi Akiva, best known for his wisdom and his diligence in studying Torah, suggested another reason for miyut sechok. He warned: "Raucous laughter and frivolity predispose a person to behavior that is not virtuous." (Avot 3:13)
Simeon Ben Jesus Ben Sira, a great sage and scribe who lived in the second century BCE, identified laughter as a sign of foolishness. In his book, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, he wrote: "A fool raises his voice in laughter, a wise man smiles in silence.” (Ben Sira 21, 20)
In Sefer Aggadah, the following story is told to illustrate the concern for moderation in laughter and celebration, even at a joyous occasion. Mar, the son of Ravina, made a marriage feast for his son. When he saw that the sages were getting overly merry, he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and smashed it before them, and they grew serious. (The Book of Legends, p.714)
Although we are warned that excessive laughter leads to behavior that is inappropriate, especially for someone who wants to be a scholar, we are also advised that too somber a mood is not conducive to study or growth in Torah either. The Talmud reports that Rabbah would commence his lectures with an amusing statement in order to put his disciples in a relaxed state of mind. (Midrash Shmuel, Tiferes Yisrael)
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) was another great Jewish figure who appreciated the significance of humor. Reb Nachman wrote, "There are men who suffer terrible distress and are unable to tell what they feel in their hearts, and they go their way and suffer and suffer. But if they meet one with a laughing face, he can revive them with his joy. And to revive someone is no slight thing." (The Book of Jewish Values, Telushkin)
To Talk About
- Reread the text section. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?
- Why do you think Rabbi Akiva cautioned against too much laughter and frivolity? Do you agree with Rabbi Akiva? Think of an example from your own experience when too much laughter or frivolity led to inappropriate behavior.
- Explain the meaning of Ben Sira's statement in your own words. Compare and contrast Ben Sira's comment to that of Rabbi Akiva. How are they the same? How are they different? Do you think that Ben Sira and Rabbi Akiva would have agreed with each other's statements? Why or why not?
- Why do you think Mar, the son of Ravina, decided to break a precious cup at his son's wedding celebration? What did it accomplish? Have you ever been to a celebration that got "out of hand"? What did you do? Talk about ways in which you might have been able to help get things under control.
- We are reminded in the Book of Ecclesiastes, that "For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heavens:.A time to weep and a time to laugh" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Think of some times when it would be inappropriate to laugh. Sometimes, people laugh when they are uncomfortable or nervous. Has that ever happened to you? How did you feel? What did you do about it?
- What did Rabbi Nachman mean when he said, " But if they meet one with a laughing face, he can revive them with his joy. And to revive someone is no slight thing."? What advice do you think Reb Nachman would give you about the middah of miyut sechok?
Most of us give very little thought to who we are and how we behave. We assume that the way we think and feel is proper. However, the rabbinic sages recognized that one could always become a better person by trying to develop and improve in the area of middot or virtues. Make yourself a calendar and as you plan your activities, make sure that there is a balance between having fun (laughter and frivolity) and studying or learning something new.