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 " ").
Lomed al Manat La'asot can best be understood as "studying in order to perform mitzvot." Lomed is from the Hebrew root lamed-mem-daled meaning "to study." The phrase al manat means "in order to." La'asot means "to do," with the implied meaning "to do mitzvot"—commandments.
"The first virtue of wisdom is silence; the second hearing; the third memory; and the fourth action." (Moshe ben Ezra, 11th century Spanish poet and philosopher)
There are many statements in Scripture and other Jewish writings that compare study and action. Some say that action, actually doing the commandments, takes precedence over study of Torah, while others make the opposite claim, stating that the study of Torah is greater than practice.
Pirkei Avot maintains that 48 middot (qualities) are needed to acquire Torah, but Torah is not a thing to be possessed like a piece of clothing or a toy. It is not simply a body of knowledge to be held by an individual, but rather 'acquisition of Torah' means the doing of Torah, living out the mitzvot. A contemporary translation of mitzvot is "sacred obligations." Our 'sacred obligations' demonstrate our Jewish faith in action.
The teachings of the Torah are practical. The Torah provides the foundation of the actions we carry out as Jews. This concept is illustrated by a teaching of Elisha ben Abuyah, who used to say:
"To whom may an individual who has good deeds and has studied much Torah be compared? To a person who in building first lays stones for a foundation and then lays bricks over the foundation, so that however much water may collect at the side of the building it will not wash away. The individual who has no good deeds even though that person has studied much Torah."
To whom may that individual be compared?
"To a person who in building lays bricks first and then heaps stones over them, so that even if a little water collects, it at once undermines the structure." (Avot deRabbi Natan 24)
Montefiore and Loewe wrote in A Rabbinic Anthology:
"Keen as the Rabbis were on the study of the Law, they realized and taught that study without practice, and especially without moral practice was absurd. A sinful learned individual was an abomination. And a mere abstention from sin was not enough. The learned person must also be a good person, accomplishing deeds of charity and love." (p.174)
To Talk About
- Ben Ezra says there are four virtues to wisdom: silence, hearing, memory and action. Describe times in your life when you have either exercised or witnessed those four virtues.
- In your own words interpret the teaching of Elisha ben Abuyah found in this week's commentary section. What foundations form the basis of your life? For your actions? For your Judaism?
- How would you explain the relationship between study and practice in your life?
- Share the qualities you believe it takes to be a good person. What does it take to be a learned person?
- Why would Torah study without practice, and especially moral practice be absurd?
Rabbi Akiva taught that study is greater than practice for it leads to practice. Create an illustration of this idea and use it as part of your decorations for your sukkah or for your temple sukkah.