Modesty - Middah Anavah

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 ").

Anavah comes from the Hebrew root ayin-nun-vav and means "humility" or "modesty."

"Pride goes before ruin,
Arrogance, before failure.
Better to be humble and among the lowly
Than to share spoils with the proud." (Proverbs 16:18-19)

This text illustrates the Jewish attitude toward humility and pride. Excessive pride is destructive; humility is the preferred path. There are several instances in the biblical text where we are counseled to be humble and to guard against pride. The rewards of anavah—humility—are "awe of Adonai, wealth, honor and life." (Proverbs 22:4) "Recognizing one's own insignificance leads a person to humility and fear (awe) of God. In turn, God will reward such an individual with success." (The Stone Edition of the Tanach p.1599)

According to the Machzor Vitry, humility allows one to ask questions when one does not understand; conceit and arrogance are impediments to the acquisition of Torah. As the commentator interprets in the ArtScroll Pirke Avos,

"One who overestimates one's own intellectual abilities is liable to denigrate the dignity and sanctity of the Torah and its teachers and bearers, thus blocking his or her own path towards wisdom. Hence, awe and reverence born of humility will protect one from missteps and errors in practical observance and moral judgment." (pp.413-414)

If an individual is convinced of the depth of his or her own abilities and intelligence there is very little room for learning and growth. Humility gives us that space within ourselves for personal development.

Rav Abraham Issac Kook taught that humility should lead to joy, courage, and inner dignity.

The observance of anavah should not lead one to belittle oneself. Even in the quest for humility, there needs to be a balance with self-esteem and confidence.

A Hasidic teaching illustrates this balance. Rabbi Bunim taught:

Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "I am but dust and ashes." When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "For my sake was the world created." When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it. We are each the joining of two worlds. We are fashioned from clay, but our spirit is the breath of Adonai. (Tales of The Hasidim Later Masters, Martin Buber, p.249-50)

To Talk About

  1. In your own words interpret the Text.
  2. Reread the Commentary about the rewards for anavah. What are the rewards that Proverbs lists? What other kind(s) of success might one achieve by being humble?
  3. Compare and contrast the middah of anavah with self-esteem. In our day and age we are taught to feel good about who we are and what we do. Is high self-esteem compatible with anavah?
  4. Reread the Hasidic tale in the Commentary section about the two pockets. What does this story teach us about self-esteem and humility? How do those sayings balance each other and the middah of anavah and the concept of self-esteem?
  5. In Tanna de Be Eliyahu it is written, "Ever let a person be humble in Torah and good works, humble with parents, teacher, and spouse, one's children, with all persons in the household, with relatives near and far, even with the heathen in the street, so that that person become beloved on high and desired on earth." (p.197) List and discuss the behaviors that would show one's humility in these relationships. Why do you think that would cause a person to be beloved on high and on earth?

To Do
In her book Teaching Jewish Virtues, Rabbi Susan Freedman suggests the following activity: Take a sheet of paper and divide it in half lengthwise, from top to bottom, making two columns. At the top of the first column write the heading "Good Traits." At the top of the second column write, "Traits to Work On." In each column fill in your own traits. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that our good qualities can help us elevate our negative qualities. Study your two lists, and then think about how your good qualities can help you with your traits to work on. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.16)