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Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014)

Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014)

Chovot Halevavot is the oldest systematic book on ethics that we have. It was written By Rabbeinu Bachya in the 11th century.

For previous classes please click here.(https://webyeshiva.org/class/?cid=1080)

October 26, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 1
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Welcome back to the shiurim on חובות הלבבות.

Today we began the study of the ninth section of חובות הלבבות which discusses פרישות which I translate as “asceticism.” Whether or not there is a place for asceticism in Jewish practice is an important question. Statements from Chazal  for and against asceticism can easily be found. It does not seem far-fetched to me to say that much of the tension that exists between the various factions of Orthodox Jewry reflects attitudes towards ascetic behavior.

Rabbeinu Bachya opens his discussion of asceticism by explaining the need for asceticism in society[1]. We were placed by God  in this world to earn a place in the world to come. We earn a place in the world to come by resisting the temptation to pursue the pleasures of this world and by focusing instead on the activities which lead to spiritual development. Humans, Rabbeinu Bachya explains, are hybrid creatures. Every human possesses a body which has needs particular to it and a soul with needs particular to it. The body has no interest in meeting the needs of the soul and likewise the soul has no interest in meeting the needs of the body. It is the task of the intellect[2] to manage the earthly affairs of the human in the wisest possible fashion. This means that the body receives what it needs to maintain its health while the soul is allowed to pursue spiritual development.

Ideally the intellect would rule over the hybrid organism which is the human being, but unfortunately, what usually happens is that the drive for pleasure[3] overrules the intellect and people sink into lives of over-indulgence.

This is why every society needs people who lead lives of asceticism. It is hoped that these people who have chosen not to pursue  pleasures will inspire their neighbors to restore the balance to their lives which would allow their spiritual sides to develop. Rabbeinu Bachya points out that it would not be desirable or even possible for an entire society to practice asceticism/פרישות since such a society would not be sustainable. Ascetics refrain not only from over-indulgence but from all normal activities. They do not engage in trade nor do they marry and have children. Society needs people who engage in the labors necessary for its existence. We need not only saints, but farmers as well.

Rabbeinu Bachya seems to believe that ascetics are incapable of engaging in mundane activities. He does not explain how he came to this conclusion; perhaps he arrived at it by observing Christian monastic communities. Be that as it may, he was certainly aware of an interesting passage in masechet Yoma which touches upon this idea.[4]

The Gemara tells a story that shortly after the Jews returned to Israel from exile in Babylonia they prayed to God that he should do away with the desire to worship idols. They feared that if this unbeatable desire is not done away with, they would succumb to it and be exiled again. Hashem received their prayer and allowed this particular desire to be destroyed. After the success of this endeavor the Jews decided to ask Hashem to allow them to do away with the desire for sexual promiscuity. Hashem accepted this request as well and handed this particular desire over to the sages as well.

But this development worried the sages. They were worried that the destruction of this desire would lead to the end of life on Earth. They chose to perform a test. The sages locked away  the desire for promiscuity for three days. At the end of the three days they did a survey and discovered that there were not even any freshly laid eggs to be found. They chose to blind this desire instead of killing it.

I mentioned in footnote number 3 that apparently Rabbeinu Bachya does not refer to desire as “evil” or what Chazal refer to as the יצר הרע. As humans we have needs which need to be met. We need to support our bodies and we need to develop our souls. There is nothing evil about eating, working or engaging in sexual activity. Apparently our souls are not interested in these activities, and that is why all sexual behavior stopped as soon as the desire for it was locked away. But that does not mean that sexual activity is evil. Non-Jewish ascetics do not understand this idea (and keep in mind that this chapter of Chovot Halevavot deals with asceticism for society as a whole as opposed to asceticism for the Jewish people) and this is why non-Jewish ascetics go to extreme lengths and abstain from all mundane activity. Judaism on the other hand teaches that desires need to be channeled and managed so that we can use them to serve Hashem. Rabbeinu Bachya ends this chapter with a quotations from Kohelet:

קהלת פרק ג פסוק יא

אֶת הַכֹּל עָשָׂה יָפֶה בְעִתּוֹ…

קהלת פרק ג פסוק א

לַכֹּל זְמָן וְעֵת לְכָל חֵפֶץ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם:

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur yesterday. Stuart Fischman

[1] As opposed to the role of asceticism in Judaism

[2] This is the translation of the word שכל which appears in the Hebrew translations of Rabbeinu Bachya who wrote in Judeo-Arabic.

[3] I think that it worth noting that the translators of חבות הלבבות do not use the phrase יצר הרע (“Evil Inclination”) to name this desire for pleasure. They use more neutral words such יצר or כח תאוה. I will return to this point in the main text.

[4] Yoma 69b. Rabbeinu Bachya makes sparing use of Chazal in Chovot Halevavot. This may be due to a wish to demonstrate that the Jewish ethical/philosophical system is founded upon logic and not only on received dogma.

November 2, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 2
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we studied the second chapter on the subject of asceticism in Chovot Halevavot. Last week’s session was devoted  to the first chapter, in which Rabbeinu Bachyah explains the need for ascetics in non-Jewish society. In today’s shiur we saw that Rabbeinu Bachya teaches that Jewish society has a different sort of need for asceticism.

In chapter one, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that a person’s task on Earth is to develop his or her spiritual personality which necessarily requires keeping one’s physical desires in check. Indulging in pleasure is not in keeping with the Divine plan. The role of the acetic in non-Jewish society is to serve as role model for his contemporaries so that they can learn how to lead lives which have spiritual worth.

This discussion of asceticism is relatively short.[1] Chapter two, which discusses asceticism in the Jewish community is almost 40% longer .[2] The discussion in chapter two has a long passage in which Rabbeinu Bachya describes the spiritual disasters that are caused by the pursuit of pleasures. Rabbeinu Bachya lived in a normative Jewish society. He describes his community as one of אנשי התורה . Nevertheless they lost  sight of the purpose of their Judaism. We saw that the Ramban says that the purpose of asceticism/פרישות is to lead us to fulfill the mitzvah to be holy-קדושים תהיו. Rabbeinu Bachya describes the state of affairs in his community as being one where the worship of the stomach and fashion has replaced the worship of God:

“…עושים בטניהם אלהיהם ותורתם מלבושיהם…”

How can this society be saved? That is the job of the ascetics/פרושים. The ascetics are the spiritual healers and leaders of the Jewish people. They have the wisdom[3] that is needed to help those whose lives are in a state of crisis. People who are mired in sin, people who despair of finding the way back to Hashem and people who simply need some encouragement in their service of Hashem turn to the פרוש and find the help that they need.

Rabbeinu Bachya’s description of the ascetic/פרוש is striking. Other religions can claim to have ascetics and holy men . However those ascetics either live in total isolation from other people or in closed societies. Rabbeiu Bachya’s פרוש  lives among his neighbors. He knows who is in need of help and those who need his assistance know where to find him. Asceticism, as Rabbeinu Bachya sees it, is not the individual’s path to personal spiritual growth but the individual’s path to developing into a servant of the Jewish people.

It seems to me that Rabbeunu Bachya’s פרוש  resembles the Chassidic model of the tzaddik. At the end of the shiur we saw the commentary (the work titled קדושת לוי) of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to the story of Noach.  Rav Levi Yitzchak who was one of the early leaders of Chassidut was renowned for his love of the Jewish people. Rav Levi Yitzchak comments on the difference between Noach and Avraham Avinu.  He wrote that there are two types of tzaddikim. Some tzaddikim are concerned only with their spiritual growth, and are indifferent to their neighbors. Other tzaddikim are concerned not only with their spiritual growth but try to aid their neighbors to grow closer to Hashem. Noach was the first type of tzaddik. Avraham Avinu was the second type of tzaddik. Avraham Avinu taught people about Hashem and brought them to His service.[4] Because of his concern for his contemporaries, Avraham Avinu is concerned to be a greater tzaddik than Noach.

This is a summary of today’s shiur. Thanks to everyone who participated today, Stuart Fischman

[1] It is 637 words  long.

[2] 825 words

[3] Chazal in Pirkei Avot wrote “לא עם הארץ חסיד” Asceticism which is not accompanied by knowledge of the Torah is not of very great value.

[4] Although Rav Levi Yitzchak does not discuss, other Chassidic thinkers note that Avraham Avinu prayed for the people of Sodom despite Hashem telling him of their wickedness, while there is no mention of Noach praying to Hashem not to bring the flood.

November 9, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 3
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we continued with our series of shiurim based on the Chovot Halevavot’s discussion of asceticism. In yesterday’s shiur we saw  Rabbeinu Bachya”s description of the ascetics and asceticism that he saw in his society.

Rabbeinu Bachya opens his discussion with a description of three types of ascetic practice which he observed. The first type of ascetic behavior is extreme asceticism. These ascetics profess to be absolutely enthralled by God and in order to be alone with God they flee human society. They run away to live in the wilderness, they subsist on any vegetation that they manage to find and wear rags. Rabbeinu Bachya says that these people have a totally incorrect conception of what God expects from us. We were told by the prophet Isaiah:

ישעיהו פרק מה

(יח) כִּי כֹה אָמַר ה’ בּוֹרֵא הַשָּׁמַיִם הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים יֹצֵר הָאָרֶץ וְעֹשָׂהּ הוּא כוֹנְנָהּ לֹא תֹהוּ בְרָאָהּ לָשֶׁבֶת יְצָרָהּ אֲנִי ה’ וְאֵין עוֹד:

Hashem created the world so that we should settle it and not leave it abandoned. The behavior of these extreme ascetics is completely against the Divine intention.

The second group of ascetics is less extreme in its behavior.   These ascetics reject all forms of luxury. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that there are two types of luxury, “external” luxuries and “internal” luxuries. External luxuries are material.  They include luxuries such as extravagant garments, foods and dwellings. Internal luxuries reflect a state of mind. They take the form of self-indulgent behavior with regard to speech, laughter and slothfulness. [1] The practitioners  of this type of asceticism do interact with other people in order to support themselves economically, but they have no other dealings with people . In the words of Rabbeinu Bachya ,  instead of seeking solitude in the wilderness they seek solitude inside their homes.

The members of the third group of ascetics are the least extreme of the three groups. They have absolutely no interest in the things of this world. They view this world as a place which exists to test them, and by resisting its temptations they are making themselves worthy of earning a place in the World to Come. They simultaneously fear and look forward to death, since it is only when they die that their souls will live in the world of spirits. Despite their loathing for this world, these ascetics have more interaction with other people than the second group. These ascetics have occupations and marry. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that this group of ascetics comes closest to the Torah’s idea of proper asceticism (which he will describe in coming chapters).

What is common to all the ascetic ideologies is the conviction that this world is a sort of spiritual obstacle course that needs to be run in order to earn the tranquility that is to found in Heaven. All three of the ascetic groups described by Rabbeinu Bachya share this belief to a greater or lesser extent.  We saw that this belief was addressed and rejected by Rabbeinu Yehudah Halevi in his ספר הכוזרי and by Rav Soloveitchik zt”l in his essay איש ההלכה.

In ספר הכוזרי Rabbeinu Yehuda Halevi has the king of the Khazars say to the Sage that pious Jews must look forward to death since this will bring them to Heaven. The Sage replies to the king that this is not what Jews look forward to at all. The worthiest Jew is the prophet who merits a relationship with Hashem in this world. The great wish of the Jewish people is to return to the Land of Israel and to have Hashem watch over us in that land. All of the Torah’s promises relate to our being blessed with prosperity in the Land of Israel. The reason for this is that when we observe the Torah in the Land of Israel we will be blessed with unending prosperity while the rest of the world will function according to the usual laws of nature. Our prosperity will cause the rest of humanity to realize that the Hashem’s Torah and His promises are true. Our destiny is to bear witness to Hashem on Earth, not in Heaven.

Rav Soloveitchik zt”l  wrote that while other religions have a fixation with Heaven, Judaism does not. Judaism is centered on the Halacha and the Halacha is concerned with human activity. Focusing on the Heavenly reward for the performance of mitzvoth cheapens the mitzvot. The ideal is to perform mitzvoth simply because we are Hashem’s servants. Rav Soloveitchik relates in his essay a story about the Gaon of Vilna. Once, on the holiday of Sukkot, the Gaon could not obtain fresh הדסים for his lulav set. He finally met a wealthy woman who grew הדסים on her estate. She offered to give the Gaon a set of   הדסים but she demanded that in exchange for the הדסים she be given the Gaon’s reward for the mitzvah of lulav. The Gaon readily agreed to this exchange and on that Sukkot he was full of joy. The Gaon’s students asked him why he was so happy. He replied that for his entire life he looked forward to the opportunity to perform a mitzvah purely for the sake of serving Hashem and now that he “sold” his reward he was able to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav without any ulterior motive.

This story about the Gaon of Vilna teaches us how Judaism views Heaven. Heaven is a wonderful place. It is tranquil and good. But there is no “mitzvah” to be in Heaven. Creative activity does not exist there and as long as a Jew lives, he or she should prefer the pursuit of mitzvoth in this world over dreams of resting in the World to Come.

This is a summary of the shiur. Thanks to everyone who participated. Stuart Fischman

[1] Among other bad habits.

November 16, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 4
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we continued our discussion of פרישות based on Chovot Halevavot by Rabbeinu Bachya.

Having discussed misguided attempts at practicing פרישות in the previous chapter today we saw Rabbeinu Bachya’s discussions of proper פרישות. In chapter four, Rabbeinu Bachya discussed the פרישות espoused by “certain pious people.” The פרישות practiced by these “certain pious people” was totally focused on human relationships. The wrong-headed פרושים about whom we read last week did not see any spiritual value in cultivating relationships with other people. The most extreme of last week’s פרושים actually fled society to live in the desert. The most moderate of them would interact with other people in order to support themselves, but their main interest was in the World to Come. They spared no time to care about their neighbors.

The פרישות   of the “certain pious people” is radically different from anything that we read about until now.  These people were not ascetics in the usual sense of the word. Their lives were dedicated to helping others. They spent their time with the poor, the bereft and the lonely. They spread happiness. Their spiritual goal was to make the lives of other people better. They did not practice the self-centered asceticism about which we read until now. If פרישות does mean asceticism, then these פרושים were simply busy helping others and did not have the time to indulge in physical pleasures. Other פרושים saw people as a hindrance to spiritual growth. These פרושים understood that meeting spiritual goals does not excuse us from fulfilling our social obligations[1].

In the next chapter, Rabbeinu Bachya begins his discussion of the Torah’s ideal of פרישות. He writes that פרישות relates to three areas of our lives:

1) how we relate to other people

2) how we enjoy the things of this world

3) how we develop our minds.

With regard to the first item on the list, the “Torah פרוש ” resembles the פרושים of the previous chapter. The true פרוש seeks to help others when they have troubles and he avoids being a burden to his neighbors. When the   פרושis faced with a crisis, he reaches out to God and not to other people.[2] However, inasmuch as he seeks to be a good neighbor he does not go to gatherings where the other guests are celebrating in ways which are incompatible with the Torah.

With regard to abstaining from pleasure, Rabbeinu Bachya explains this issue as follows. He writes that all of the pleasurable items in the world fall into one of these two categories:

  1. a) items that the Torah forbids
  2. b) items that the Torah permits.

The category of items forbidden by the Torah can be divided into a further three categories:

  1. a) items that are desirable (e.g.  stolen property and certain forbidden foods)
  2. b) items towards which we have no particular feeling (e.g. garments made from wool and linen which are forbidden because of the laws of שעטנז)
  3. c) items which arouse feelings of revulsion ( e.g. rodents).

Rabbeinu Bachya says that the פרוש should train himself to loathe all forbidden items, in the same fashion that he loathes rodents.  The פרוש should have absolutely no yearning for anything forbidden by the Torah. When the פרוש is able to purge himself of any desire for the forbidden he will be safe from sin, as is written:

משלי פרק יב


(כא) לֹא יְאֻנֶּה לַצַּדִּיק כָּל אָוֶן וּרְשָׁעִים מָלְאוּ רָע:

Rabbeinu Bachya is very definite about this goal for the פרוש. It raises the question if the Rambam would agree with him. In his introduction to Pirkei Avot ( known as שמונה פרקים)the Rambam presents the views of “the philosophers” and of חז”ל on this question.

The philosophers compared the “inherently good” person to the person who has to exercise self-control in order to be good. The philosophers concluded that the inherently good person who has no desire to do evil is superior to the person who does desire to do bad, but is able to hold himself in check. The fact that a person desires to do bad makes him inferior to the person who has no such desires.

With regard to the Jewish attitude towards this question, the Rambam sees two approaches. On the one hand there are several verses in Tanach which seem to support the view of the philosophers. On the other hand there is a well-known saying of Chazal which seems to say the opposite:

שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ו

“רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר, לא יאמר אדם אי אפשי לאכול בשר בחלב, אי אפשי ללבוש שעטנז, אי אפשי לבוא על הערוה, אלא אפשי, ומה אעשה ואבי שבשמים גזר עלי”.

The Rambam resolves this apparent contradiction by saying that there are two types of prohibitions. There are prohibitions which agree with our innate sense of morality. There are also prohibitions which have no connection to human morality  The Torah forbids theft and the Torah prohibits the consumption of pork. If a person has the desire to rob a bank we could agree that this is bad, but is there anything bad about the desire to eat ham? When the Tanach ( and, l’havdil, the philosophers) praise the person who has no desire to do bad, they are referring to the desire commit the immoral. On the other hand the philosophers would of course see nothing wrong with the desire to eat pork, and even Chazal saw nothing immoral about violating the laws of kashrut. Therefore, if a person abstains from eating pork he is demonstrating that his behavior is regulated by God and not by his own sense of what is proper or improper.

Do the Rambam and Rabbeinu Bachya disagree? Rav Kaffach zt”l, in his notes to חובות הלבבות wrote that Rabbeinu Bachya’s advocacy of viewing all prohibited items with revulsion is not in agreement with the Rambam who quotes רבן  שמעון בן גמליאל approvingly.

I am not worthy of disagreeing with Rav Kaffach zt” of course, but it may be that Rabbeinu Bachya is not addressing the issue which the Rambam was addressing. The Rambam was discussing a value system; which type of person is more admirable, the person who is innately good or the person who struggles to be good? Rabbeinu Bachya is not addressing that point. Rabbeinu Bachya is discussing asceticism, specifically what sort of ascetic practice should be practiced by Jews. Since asceticism is ultimately about spiritual development, and spiritual development requires avoidance of sin, Rabbeinu Bachya is telling us how to avoid sin. It seems clear to me that the person who trains himself to loathe pork is less likely to eat pork, and that is what concerns Rabbeinu Bachya in this chapter.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman.

[1]  We read a passage from Rav Kook’s עין איה who explained why so many people who engage in spiritual activity make the mistake of seeing other people as obstacles to their own development.

[2] During the shiur, I mentioned that the Gemarah in Shabbat (67a) says that if a person has troubles he should tell his neighbors about them so that they know to pray for him. It may be that when Rabbeinu Bachya says that a פרוש  does not speak of his troubles to other people it is because the פרוש does not seek their material assistance.

November 23, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 5
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we continued with our study of the role of asceticism in the system of Rabbeinu Bachya in his חובות הלבבות.

Rabbeinu Bachya  writes that there are three ways in which a person can use the items of this world.

The first way is to make use of the most basic, simple and unrefined necessities of life without deriving any pleasure from them at all.

Another way to make use of the things of this world is to avail oneself of the “finer things in life” but in moderation. We all need to eat, but instead of subsiding on bread, water and uncooked vegetables a person could eat roasted meats and drink wine.

A third way would be to indulge in luxuries to the point of gluttony.

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that we should strive to live the lives of the first type, in other words, we should strive to be ascetics in our lifestyles. We should train ourselves to look at luxuries as items which are forbidden by the Torah. The reason for this is that the pursuit of pleasures leads people to ignore their religious obligations. Rabbeinu Bachya cites the example of King Solomon in order to prove this idea. The Torah forbids the king to accumulate great wealth, large stables of horses and a multitude of wives since these pursuits can lead a king away from the service of Hashem. The story of King Solomon is one of the most well-known of all the stories in the Bible. When inherited the throne Hashem asked him what wish He should grant him, King Solomon asked for the wisdom needed to be a just king and Hashem granted him that wish along with great wealth and honors. The Biblical story goes on to describe that despite his wisdom, King  Solomon allowed his wives to lead him astray. Chazal ask, how could this have happened to a person who was the wisest person of his time? They explained[1] pithily: King Solomon read the verse, “…lest he turn his heart away” and said ,”I won’t turn my heart away.”

If a person as wise as King Solomon could be carried away by the pursuit of pleasures how much more so could we be carried away by the pursuit of pleaure.

Despite his endorsement of asceticism Rabbeinu Bachya allows that asceticism needs to be adapted to the demands of life. We learned several months ago that Rabbeinu Bachya holds that Hashem expects to work to earn our livings. We learned two weeks ago that Rabbeinu Bachya holds that people who practice an asceticism that is so extreme that they withdraw from human society are totally wrong. What we do to earn our living is one aspect of serving Hashem. So if we need to take clients out to dinner there is nothing wrong with taking them to a fine restaurant or to wear an expensive suit to the meeting. Asceticism means to abstain from pursuing “idle” pleasures. Asceticism does not require us to behave in a self-defeating fashion.

Rabbeinu Bachya then went on to explain that asceticism should govern our actions and not just our appetites. He began by describing “ascetic speech.” It is a commonplace that sometimes we are tired of hearing about that we can all cause tremendous harm with careless speech. Rabbeinu Bachya reviews all the פסוקים that discuss the need to be careful about what we say and then proposes a technique  that can help us to speak wisely . He proposes that we make an effort to remember what we say during the course of a day and review it at night. By reviewing everything that we say we will become aware of how much work we need to do to. We will become aware of all the lashon hara, half-truths (if not outright lies) and insults that we say. This honest confrontation with our verbal shortcomings will motivate us to take more care with our speech so that we will become “verbal ascetics.”

This is a summary of yesterday’s shiur. Thanks to everyone who took part in it. Stuart Fischman


[1] תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף כא עמוד ב


מפני מה לא נתגלו טעמי תורה שהרי שתי מקראות נתגלו טעמן נכשל בהן גדול העולם כתיב לא ירבה לו נשים אמר שלמה אני ארבה ולא אסור וכתיב ויהי לעת זקנת שלמה נשיו הטו את לבבו וכתיב לא ירבה לו סוסים ואמר שלמה אני ארבה ולא אשיב וכתיב ותצא מרכבה ממצרים בשש וגו’

Rabbeinu Bachya does not cite this Gemarah. I only mention it because I think it helps to make the point clear.




November 30, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 6
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we continued the discussion of asceticism (פרישות) in Rabbeinu Bachya’s Chovot Halevavot.

Rabbeinu Bachya  holds that asceticism does not only mean exercising self-control in the matter of physical pleasures but it includes self-control over our behavior as well. פרישות is a matter of using all of our senses in the service of Hashem. We live in a world in which we are bombarded with messages which encourage us to consume and enjoy whatever it is that is being sold. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the development of the Internet and portable devices such as smart-phones has brought about a generation of people who cannot stand to be alone with themselves. People seem to need the constant stimulation that these devices provide.

I therefore believe that Rabbeinu Bachya’s emphasis on “sensory”פרישות  is essential for everyone and not just for the spiritually ambitious. We all need to take a step back from the electronic media and its corporate sponsors. We need to filter the messages, both overt and subliminal , to which we are constantly exposed.  It would be tragic if we only existed in order to buy whatever it is that some conglomerate wants to sell. Rabbeinu Bachya says that we need to control what we see, hear and touch. As Jews this message is not new to us since we say twice a day in קריאת שמע the words  ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם . Usually, when this subject is studied, it is in the context of the laws of צניעות. However I think that for our generation this advice transcends those laws. The incessant commercial noise which accompanies electronic entertainment stifles independent critical thought. Why else would American culture encourage and celebrate the barbaric behavior of people at “Black Friday Sales?” The first step that we need to reclaim our individuality is to close our minds to the incessant chatter of the media by paying attention to what we allow ourselves to see and hear.

Rabbeinu Bachya sees פרישות as something essential in a Jew’s spiritual growth. He endorses fasting for those who are capable of doing so, in as much as in the Gemarah  one can find opinions both for and against this practice. פרישות is not an end in itself, it is the means by which a person can free himself from becoming too attached to the pleasures of this world and consequently distracted from the service of Hashem.

In the course of the shiur someone asked in the chat-box why should we ignore the good things in this world? This is a good question and gets to the heart of פרישות. Rabbeinu Bachya himself says that פרישות needs to be practiced as a form of serving Hashem. Asceticism in the limited sense of “making do with less” does not define the concept accurately. We already saw that Rabbeinu Bachya himself writes that if a person’s livelihood depends on making attracting and keeping clients then the normal strictures of asceticism would not apply to him. The Gemarah says that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi always served delicacies at his meals[1] but at the same time he was able to say about himself that he derived only the barest of pleasure from this world. פרישות has no “rules” because it is an attitude. It is the attitude that in this world we are meant to work. The world of pleasure is the World-to-Come where Hashem rewards us according to what we achieved on Earth.

As humans we have needs which the Torah requires that we satisfy. However needs can develop into wants and that is where פרישות enters the picture. פרישות is the development of an awareness that allows a person to resist the slide into the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

PS- We are almost finished with חובות הלבבות and I would appreciate hearing suggestions for the next text that we study.

[1] He needed to host Roman officials at his home.

December 7, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Fall2014): Lesson 7
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we compared the Chovot Halevavot’s idea of  mitzvoth to the Rambam’s.

Rabbeinu Bachya raises the point that when we look at the תנ”ך we see that there were saintly people prior to the giving of the Torah. This raises the question of how they could achieve spiritual greatness without the guidance of the Torah or having been told about the mitzvoth which are God’s will.

Rabbeinu Bachya answers that these great figures (such as the Patriarchs) were able to rule on their own over their desires with their intellects. Therefore they did not need the guidance of the Torah in order to know how to become close to Hashem via פרישות. It was only when the Jews went to Egypt and sank into the quagmire of that society that Hashem saw that we needed a system of rules which will teach us פרישות and that was why we were given the Torah. And ever since then, as people have become more obsessed with pleasures the need for evermore demanding forms of פרישות has only grown.

This explanation of the Torah seems very striking to me ( and I may be wrong about what Rabbeinu Bachya  means to say). It seems that according to Rabbeinu Bachya the mitzvoth do have not intrinsic worth. The mitzvoth are collectively the Divine tool for guiding us to avoid seeking physical pleasure since pleasures only distract us from our task which is to become close to God.

The Rambam apparently has a different view of the purpose of the mitzvoth.[1] The Rambam quotes a famous statement in the Midrash:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מד

וכי מה איכפת ליה להקב”ה למי ששוחט מן הצואר, או מי ששוחט מן העורף, הוי לא נתנו המצות אלא לצרף בהם את הבריות

The Rambam writes that there are many people who feel that there is no reason to explore the mitzvoth for meaning. Citing this Midrash they hold that the mitzvoth were only given to teach us obedience to God. The Rambam emphatically rejects this opinion. He explains that that the Torah has meaning and that each and every mitzvah is directed to teach us important lessons. The lessons of some mitzvot are easier to find than others but we can find the meaning of all mitzvoth if we work hard enough. It may be that when the Rambam mentions that there are  people who do not seek meaning in the mitzvoth he was writing about Rabbeinu Bachya.

There are certainly statements in Chazal which would seem to go against Rabbeinu Bachya’s views about the state of affairs prior to the giving of the Torah. There is a Midrash that  אברהם אבינו observed the entire Torah, even Rabbinic mitzvoth such as Eiruvin. I don’t know how Rabbeinu Bachya would have explained those statements. The Ramban however was bothered by this assertion of Chazal because we see clearly that Yakov Avinu married two sisters and Amram married his aunt so it seems that the Avot did not observe the Torah. The Ramban explains that perhaps the Avot only observed the Torah when they resided in Eretz Yisrael but when outside of the land they did not. Yakov Avinu married Rachel and Leah while he was in Haran and Amram married Yochevd in Egypt. This explanation of the Ramban is part of his broader idea about the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to the observance of the Torah.

Interestingly, the Ramban provides an alternative interpretation of the verse which Chazal say teaches that the Avraham Avinu observed the entire Torah. He suggests that the pasuk means that Avraham Avinu was loyal to Hashem and obeyed the commands given to him, such the command to travel to Eretz Yisrael and to perform circumcision. The Ramban does not mention Rabbeinu Bachya, but it seems to me that he would agree with this interpretation of the pasuk.

Many great commentators and thinkers wrote about the meaning of mitzvoth, but if I am correct ( and I may be wrong) Rabbeinu Bachya is alone in saying that the mitzvoth are a system for spiritual training and that their purpose is not realized in the acts themselves but in the growth that they enable.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

[1] Since Rav Kaffach zt”l in his edition of חובות הלבבות in footnote 1 to this chapter directs us to the מורה הנבוכים I am inclined to think that he felt that indeed Rabbeinu Bachya and the Rambam disagree about the important issue.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman graduated from Yeshiva University in 1980 and the dental school of Columbia University in 1985. In 1989 he began studying and teaching at Yeshivat Hamivtar and now studies and teaches at Yeshivat Machanaim in Efrat. He has rabbinic ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.