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 " ").
Talmud translates as "the study of Torah." The word Talmud comes from the Hebrew root lamed-mem-dalet meaning "to learn."
Talmud torah k'neged culam.
"And the study of Torah is greater than them all." (Mishneh Peah 1:1, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a)
After describing such duties as honoring parents and performing acts of loving kindness among the mitzvot for which there is reward both in this world and the next, the Talmud concludes that the mitzvah of talmud torah (study) is the greatest of all mitzvot. Because study leads to action and because understanding and information are prerequisites for performing mitzvot, talmud torah contains the potential for all the other mitzvot.
Text study (talmud Torah) has been an integral part of Jewish religious life for centuries. The rabbis of long ago recognized that the survival of Judaism depended upon study. A man once asked Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk to pray for him in order that his children might study the Torah diligently. The Rabbi replied:
"If your children see that you are a diligent student, they will imitate you. But if you neglect your own studies, and instead merely wish your children to study, the result will be that they will do likewise when they grow up. They will neglect the Torah themselves and desire that their children do the studying."
Whether in a classroom, a synagogue, or a home, by studying our sacred writings and traditions, we learn about Jewish values and responsibilities. These guide the decisions we make and the ways in which we behave on a daily basis.
To Talk About
- The Torah contains 613 mitzvot. Why do you think the Talmud considers the study of Torah to be the most important mitzvah?
- In the Talmud we read that "without Torah, a person stumbles...With Torah, one walks like a person in the dark with a lantern." (Exodus Rabbah 36:3) Why do you think the rabbis equated Talmud Torah (Jewish study) with a lantern? In what ways can Talmud Torah light our way?
- The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) records a debate that took place in the town of Lydda over 1,500 years ago as to which was greater, the study of the Torah or its practice. R. Tarfon insisted that practice was greater. R. Akiva replied that study is greater because it leads to practice. The rabbis concluded that R. Akiva was right. Why do you think the rabbis came to that conclusion? Do you agree? Why or why not? How does your own study of Torah influence your behavior?
- Every day of your life you will be called upon to make moral decisions. It is from the wisdom of Jewish heritage that you can find the answers you need to deal with life's challenges as a good Jew and a good person. Practicing middot or acting in a virtuous way gives us an opportunity to enrich, inspire, and help improve the lives of others. In what ways can study help you do that?
- Talmud Torah is a lifelong pursuit. Reread the story of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk in the Commentary Section. What advice does the Rabbi give to the parent who asked him to pray in order that his children might study? Do you think that was wise advice? Why or why not?
- The blessing for the study of Torah ends with the words "la'asok b'devrai Torah." Literally, we thank God for allowing us to engage in the "business" of Torah. The Rabbis considered the study of Torah as essential as any professional endeavor. How can you make Talmud Torah your business?
Talmud torah takes time and self-discipline—much like an exercise program—but for your mind rather than for your body! You have to do it regularly to make a difference. Set aside a fixed time each week when you will engage in Talmud Torah. Start with once a week and keep it short so you won't feel overwhelmed or get discouraged. Begin with the appropriate blessing as a reminder that the endeavor takes effort. Each time you learn something new, remember that you are fulfilling the most important mitzvah of them all!