A Minimum of Pleasure - Middah Miyut Ta'anug

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

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 "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").


The word "miyut" comes from the Hebrew root mem-ayin-tet and means "a little" or "a minimum." "Ta'anug" is based on the Hebrew root ayin-nun-gimel and means "pleasure, enjoyment, luxury."


"Crave not the luxurious table of kings, for your table of learning is greater than their table of food, and your crown is greater than their crown." ( Pirkei Avot 6:4)


The middah, or ethical value, of miyut ta'anug teaches us to limit our pleasure. It seems that Judaism is of two minds when it comes to pleasure and enjoyment. There are numerous examples of taking pleasure from the world, treating oneself to luxury and enjoying beauty. In the midrash we read the following statements: "Rav said to Rabbi Hamnuna: My child, if you have the means, treat yourself well;" "Three things restore a person's spirit: beautiful sounds, sights, and scents;" and "Sages said in the name of Rav: A person will have to give reckoning and account for everything that his or her eye saw and that he or she did not eat." (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 585:95, 586:102, and 586:100).

In contrast,Midrash Shmuel teaches that even wealthy people should not seek pleasure for its own sake; to do so is spiritually detrimental. ( Pirkei Avot, ArtScroll p. 415)

In the Text above, a direct comparison is made between a table of luxurious food and a table of learning. Clearly the table of learning is of more value than the table of special foods.

Reuven Bulka wrote, "one should not eliminate pleasure altogether, but one should moderate pleasure in order to properly appreciate Torah in its spiritual dimension." (As A Tree By The Waters, p.255)

The best advice may come from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin who wrote, "As long as you act morally and generously, you have a right to enjoy life's delights." ( The Book of Jewish Values, p. 96)

To Talk About

1. What is the difference between moderation and limit? What does each teach you? Discuss.

2. When it comes to pleasure, should one moderate it or limit it? Explain.

3. What do you do for pleasure? Does seeking out pleasure ever get in the way of your accomplishing other goals? Explain.

4. When is taking too much pleasure detrimental? Give examples.

5. Why do you think Judaism has such mixed messages about taking pleasure and enjoyment?

To Do

Purim is a holiday that commands us to both indulge in feasting and merrymaking, in sending gifts to one another and giving presents to the poor. (Esther 9:22) These mitzvot of Purim encourage our pleasure in the holiday but also moderate it with tzedakah and generosity. Fulfill these mitzvot of Purim and you will be acting both morally and generously as Rabbi Telushkin suggests.