Not Being Arrogant with One's Learning - Middah Lo Maygis Libo B'Talmudo

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 complete phrase lo maygis libo b'talmudo translates as "not being arrogant with one's learning." In Hebrew lo means "not" or "no." Maygis comes from the Hebrew root gimel-vav-samech meaning "to be bold." Libo means "one's heart." Together, maygis libo is an idiom that means "to be arrogant." Talmudo refers to one's learning.

"The fruit of boasting is hatred." (Mivhar Hapeninim)

This week's text comes from a work called Mivhar Hapeninim, a book of proverbs attributed to Solomon Ibn Gabirol, a Spanish poet and philosopher of the 11th century. Clearly, Ibn Gabirol is warning us that being boastful or arrogant engenders hatred. In contemporary language, Ibn Gabirol is warning us not to "show-off." We can apply his advice to our learning, to our income and to our material possessions. We should not flaunt what we know, what we own or who we are, for this attitude will cause others to hate us. The Talmud teaches that even the members of his or her own household do not accept an arrogant person…at first they will show respect, but in the end the arrogant person becomes repugnant to them. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 47a )

In relation to learning, Judaism values humility and scorns arrogance. A scholar should refrain from boasting. This means one is not to feel superior because of what one has learned. According to Midrash Shmuel, this middah (virtue) encourages the Torah scholar to feel that whatever he or she knows is insignificant compared to what he or she should have learned. So this middah should serve as an inspiration to learn more.

This teaching is illustrated in a midrash about Rabbi Akiba, who was once publicly asked to read the Torah lesson, but refused. After he and his disciples left the synagogue, Rabbi Akiba began to apologize to them saying: May such-and-such befall me if it was out of arrogance that I did not rise to read the Torah. So they asked: Then why did Rabbi Akiba not rise up to read? He replied: Because I had not prepared myself. The disciples fell to wondering about what Rabbi Akiva had said. The disciples marveled that even Rabbi Akiva, who was so well versed, felt he needed special preparation to read and expound a lesson in Torah. (The Book of Legends - Sefer Ha-aggdah, Bialik and Ravnitzky, 235:160)

We live in a world that is competitive, rewards excellence and stresses individual self-esteem. The challenge we face is in balancing healthy pride and unhealthy prejudice, self-confidence and self-aggrandizement.

Jewish tradition offers a beautiful, compelling response to that challenge: Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Prysucha taught that we should keep two pieces of paper in our pockets, one saying, "For my sake the world was created," and the other, "I am nothing but dirt and ashes." Whenever we are overcome by feelings of pride, he said, we should read the paper with the words, "I am nothing but dirt and ashes." And when we feel as if our ego and sense of self have been decimated, reach into the other pocket and read, "For my sake, the world was created." (Striving Toward Virtue: A Contemporary Guide for Jewish Ethical Behavior, Olitzky and Sabath p.35)

To Talk About

  1. What do you think is the difference between being arrogant and having self-esteem? Or pride and prejudice? Explain.
  2. Do you think this middah, lo maygis libo b'talmudo, is a warning against achievement or public acclaim? Discuss.
  3. What can achievement or public acclaim inspire besides hatred? What positive outcomes may result from achievement and public acclaim? How do these help society?
  4. According to the Talmud piece from Sotah, what do you think initially attracts us to a boastful individual? Why would we eventually become disenchanted with this person?
  5. What message do you derive from the midrash about Rabbi Akiva, found in the Commentary section? How might you apply that to your own life? To the lives of those around you?

To Do
Consider carrying the two verses that Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Prysucha suggested we put into our pockets. Next Shabbat, reflect on the question, "What situations in your life called upon you to look at them?"