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 " ").
Miyut Sechorah translates as "moderation in business" or "limited business activity." The word miyut comes from the Hebrew root mem-ayin-tet and means "little" or "limited." The word sechorah comes from the Hebrew root samech-chet reish and means "merchandise" or the "act of trading."
"There are eight things of which a little is good and much is bad: travel, mating, wealth, work, wine, sleep, spiced drinks, and medicine." (Talmud Gittin 70a)
This text, taken from the Talmud, illustrates the importance that Judaism places on moderation in virtually all aspects of our lives.
The rabbis of the Talmud often expressed their concerns that people would get so involved in conducting their businesses that they would neglect the study of Torah. R. Meir cautioned,
"Give little time to business, and occupy yourself assiduously with Torah. Be lowly in spirit before all men. If you have once been remiss in study of Torah, soon you will find many other occasions to be remiss in studying. But if you have toiled (assiduously) at the study of Torah, God has abundant reward to give you." (Avot 4:9-10)
While they deemed very little to be more valuable than study, the rabbis knew that a certain amount of work was necessary in order to make learning possible.
"Rava said to the rabbis: Don't come to me to study during the month of Nisan [harvest time] or the month of Tishrei [when grapes and olives are ready for pressing]. Do your work then so you won't be threatened by poverty." (Jewish Moral Virtues, p.82)
In fact, what they counseled was moderation—a middle course. R. Judah illustrated this advice by the following parable:
"There is a highway that runs between two paths, one of fire and the other of snow. If a person walks too close to the fire, this person will be scorched by the flames; if too close to the snow, this person will be bitten by the cold. What is the person to do? This person is to walk in the middle, taking care not to be scorched by the heat nor bitten by the cold." (Avot de Rabbi Natan 28)
In allocating our energy, we are continually making decisions about the relative importance of each choice that we make. While making money is a highly regarded Jewish goal, it is only one of many. Taking the time to study and to learn about the paths that the Torah can lead us to can help us reach other worthy goals.
To Talk About
- Why do you think the rabbis were so concerned that people would get too involved in conducting their businesses? Why do you think they placed so much importance on the study of Torah?
- A parable is a story that teaches a lesson. Explain in your own words the meaning of the parable told by R. Judah. Do you agree or disagree with the Rabbi's advice? Why? Create your own parable to teach the importance of the middah, miyut sechorah.
- "Torah scholarship is rarely found among those totally engrossed in trade and commerce. This does not say that one should be without business activity, since one must have the means to provide a livelihood. One should, however, restrict business activities to what is necessary, even when there is an opportunity for a quick profit; the time could be better spent on spiritual activities." (Midrash Shmuel, Pirkei Avos/Ethics of the Fathers Treasury p.415) Do you agree or disagree with the rabbis who wrote this opinion? Divide participants into two teams—one pro and one con—and engage in a debate over this question.
- In modern times, we refer to a person whose life revolves around work as a 'workaholic.' What advice do you think the ancient rabbis would have given to a modern-day workaholic?
- The sages wrote that "One who has become a slave to work is no longer one's own master and cannot act differently, even should one want to do so." (Mesillat Yesharim: The Jewish Moral Virtues p.87). Can you think of an example of someone who is 'a slave to his work'? Do you agree with the sages that such a person cannot act differently, even if he or she should want to? What do you think might persuade this person to try to achieve moderation?
- It is said in the name of R. Judah bar Ila, "Pause and consider how recent generations are not like the former generations. The former generations made the study of Torah their regular concern and their daily work their occasional concern and they succeeded in the one and in the other. The recent generations have made their daily work their regular concern and their study of Torah their occasional concern, and they have succeeded neither in the one nor in the other." (Sefer HaAggadah 408:55) These words were written more than 1,500 years ago. Do you think they are applicable to our times? In what ways are they still true?
We are all busy people, whether we work in an office, in our homes, or at school. Very often we spend our evenings and weekends running errands and trying to catch up on work that didn't get done during the week. How can we begin to create a sense of balance or moderation in our lives? For the next few weeks, set aside ten minutes each day to study Torah, read a Jewish book or magazine. Make a conscious effort to make Shabbat different from the rest of the week. Study, rest, go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of the Shabbat. By limiting our busy-ness activities, we can discover the joys that Judaism has to offer.