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Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014)

Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014)

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=1036)

May 18, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 1
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Welcome to the new session of  shiurim on Chovot Halevavot. Chovot Halevavot is an interesting hybrid of ethics and  philosophy. We have already studied the first six chapters of Chovot Halevavot and this coming Sunday we will begin the seventh chapter which discusses תשובה (repentance). Even though we will be starting from the middle of the book, this should not dissuade new students from joining the shiur. Each chapter of Chovot Halevavot is dedicated to a distinct concept and can be studied on its own. If someone is interested in studying the book from the beginning the previous shiurim are available at the WebYeshiva’s archives.[1]

I would like to extend a welcome to people who are new to Web Yeshiva. Web Yeshiva is a wonderful platform that allows people from all over the world to learn together. If you are new to WebYeshiva it is of course different from a shiur where we all sit together in the same  room. As a teacher my concern is that everyone is following the discussion, and since I can’t see anyone I don’t get the immediate feedback that I do in a classroom. So it is very important for me to hear from you about the shiur. If anyone has a question or suggestion please feel free to contact me. Your feedback is the way for me to know what to change in order to improve the shiur.  My e-mail address is fish9999@gmail.com

I look forward to meeting with all of you Sunday.

Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] Please contact the WebYeshiva’s office for instructions on accessing the archives.

May 25, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 2
Class description

Dear Everyone,

Here is a summary of today’s shiur in Chovot Halevavot.

Rabbeinu Bachyah writes that there are three types of בעלי תשובה .The first type is the person who, when there is no opportunity to sin, goes through the motions of penance. However, as soon as the opportunity to sin presents itself the penitent returns to his or her old ways. This penance was obviously insincere and Hashem will not forgive this person for his or her transgressions.

The next type of penitent is engaged in a struggle. He is aware of his obligations and desires to repent but his successes in resisting temptation are only occasional. According to Rabbeinu Bachyah this type of penance is incomplete. Forgiveness for past transgressions is only given when the בעל תשובה no longer sins at all.

The third type of penitent is the one who earns forgiveness from Hashem. This person has worked so that his intellect has overcome his desires. He no longer has any internal struggle. He also realizes the greatness of God and accordingly he is aware of the significance of his past misdeeds. He is constantly aware of those misdeeds, he regrets them and ceaselessly seeks God’s forgiveness for them. To a person who undergoes this transformation Hashem grants full forgiveness.

Rabbeinu Bachyah certainly places a great deal of responsibility on the בעל תשובה  to remake his personality. In the seminal work על התשובה   Rav Soloveitchik זצ”ל contrasts Rav Sadiah Gaon ‘s parameter for repentance with that of the Rambam. And even though the Rav zt”l does not mention Rabbeinu Bachyah, it seems to me that the Rambam’s view[1] is also Rabbeinu Bachya’s.

Rav Sadiah Gaon discusses repentance in his work on Jewish thought which is known as אמונות ודעות.  Rav Sadiah also discusses the penitent who relapses. Unlike Rabbeinu Bachyah, Rav Sadiah Gaon writes that as long as the desire for penance is sincere, Hashem will forgive the בעל תשובה. And even if the penitent despite his honest desire to change should sin again, Hashem will not withdraw His pardon for past transgressions. No matter how many times the penitent slips back to his old ways, Hashem will continue to forgive him and erase the past sins.

Rav Soloveitchik zt”l wonders if the Rambam agrees with Rav Sadiah. In הלכות תשובה  the Rambam writes:

רמבם הלכות תשובה פרק ב

הלכה ב

ומה היא התשובה הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו ויסירו ממחשבתו ויגמור בלבו שלא יעשהו עוד שנאמר יעזוב רשע דרכו וגו’, וכן יתנחם על שעבר שנאמר כי אחרי שובי נחמתי, ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם שנאמר ולא נאמר עוד אלהינו למעשה ידינו וגו’, וצריך להתודות בשפתיו ולומר עניינות אלו שגמר בלבו.

The phrase which is highlighted in red is very difficult to understand. Literally, it could mean that God Himself testifies that the penitent will not sin again. If this is what the Rambam means, then only the absolutely greatest degree of certainty as regards the penitent’s transformation suffices to guarantee forgiveness. This clearly is not the view of Rav Sadiah (and this seems to reflect the standard set by Rabbeinu Bachyah).

But there is another way to understand the Rambam. The verb ויעיד does not necessarily mean “and He will testify.” It could mean “and he will call upon to testify.” According to this translation, the Rambam says that the בעל תשובה, as a sign of his sincerity, will call upon God to be witness to his commitment to starting a new life. This explanation places the Rambam in the same camp as Rav Sadiah Gaon (as opposed to Rabbeinu Bachya). As soon as a person makes a sincere resolution to abandon sin Hashem will forgive his past transgressions. And if this person should revert to his old ways, Hashem will nevertheless not hold him accountable for those past transgressions.

This discussion obviously leaves us to ponder the meaning of terms like “sincerity,” “resolve” and “commitment.” The Rambam, who wrote ever-so-precisely described God as “the Knower of mysteries” in that passage from Hilchot Teshuvah which I quoted above. Only Hashem knows when we are sincere. Forgiveness is a great gift and it needs to be earned.

Thanks to everyone who participated in today’s shiur. Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] Or, to be precise, an interpretation of the Rambam’s view

June 1, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 3
Class description

Dear Everyone,

Here is a summary of today’s shiur on תשובה from the חובות הלבבות.

We learned today that רבנו בחיי writes that תשובה   is the outcome of a process which requires seven steps. The repentant sinner needs to recognize and acknowledge that his behavior was simply wrong. Only this realization can lead to honest regret and confession. The repentant sinner must also acknowledge that God does not ignore or “forget about” our misdeeds. God is aware of everything and punishes all misdeeds. And if Divine retribution does not happen immediately we believe that God punishes at the time that He sees fit to do so. Penitents also need to believe that God accepts and yearns for the sinner to repent. Finally penitents need to acquire the trait of self-control in order to make the necessary changes inhis behavior.[1]

When a penitent has undergone this transformation then Hashem will accept his penance.

The process of teshuvah described by Rabbeinu Bachya is a long one. It is not easy for a person who has behaved in a certain way his entire life to admit that his behavior was wrong. It would take a long time to develop the self-control necessary to deny oneself a particular pleasure in which he indulged for many years. It seems that Rabbeinu Bachya does not believe that תשובה  based on bursts of inspiration have any validity. It may be that Rabbeinu Bachya sees precedents for his doubt in the תנ”ך. When our ancestors left Egypt they received the תורה at הר סיני with great enthusiasm but a mere 40 days later they made the Golden Calf. אליהו הנביא attempted to cure the people of idolatry by arranging a public duel with the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel.[2] אליהו  defeated the prophets of Ba’al and the people proclaimed  ה’ הוא הא-להים but their תשובה was short-lived and as we all know the Jews went back to their old ways and were finally exiled because of their sins. We learned last week that unlike Rav Sadiah Gaon, Rabbeinu Bachya holds that if a penitent relapses his penance is incomplete. It is only when a person completely and absolutely abandons his former way of life that Hashem forgives his sins. If this sort of total transformation is demanded of a בעל תשובה  it really is not a surprise that Rabbeinu Bachya sees teshuvah as the culmination of a long process of self-examination.

The Gemara however tells the story of a lightning-like transformation of a sinner. There was a man named אלעזר בן דודרדיא. The Gemara says that there was not a single brothel in the world that אלעזר בן דודרדיא did not patronize. Once he heard of a brothel on an island where the fee was a sackful of coins. Elazar got the money together and travelled to this brothel. When he arrived and met the woman for their assignation, the woman burped. She then remarked that just as a burp does not return, so too Elazar ben Durdaya  cannot return as a penitent.

Amazingly, Elazar ben Durdaya took the woman’s words to heart. He cried out to the mountains, the Earth and the stars to pray for him but they all refused. He then realized that his penitence depends on his own efforts. He knelt down and cried. He died in the midst of his tears. At that moment a voice came from the heavens and announced that Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya has a place in the World to Come. When the great Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi heard of this he cried as well. He said that while some people toil their entire lives to earn a place in the World to Come, others acquire their place in an hour. Furthermore, penitents are not only forgiven for their sins, they are even granted the title of “Rabbi.”

Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya’s penance was the result of a sudden insight,[3] nevertheless his תשובה was accepted. It may be that in the space of an hour he achieved all of the insights demanded by Rabbeinu Bachya. It may be that the fact that he literally cried himself to death is the proof of his sincere regret for a wasted life.

There is another way to look at Rabbeinu Bachya and the story of רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא. Rav Kook wrote a small work called אורות התשובה. In this extended essay[4] Rav Kook distinguishes between two types of תשובה: “sudden teshuvah”[5]  and “gradual teshuvah.”[6] “Sudden teshuvah” is brought about by a sudden realization or insight of the penitent. “Gradual teshuvah” is a process (not unlike the process of Rabbeinu Bachya) in which the penitent learns how to live a life of holiness. Despite the suddenness of Rabbi Elazar’s transformation I do not know if it fits the criteria of Rav Kook’s “sudden teshuvah.” Rav Kook writes:

הפתאומית באה מתוך איזה ברק רוחני הנכנס בנשמה, בפעם אחת מכיר הוא את הרע ואת הכעור של החטא ונהפך לאיש אחר, וכבר מרגיש הוא בקרבו השתנות גמורה לטובה…..

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא repented when he suddenly realized that he was cut off from God with no way back. תשובה means to return, and he heard from the woman that even if he would try to return, he would not be received. The woman’s pronouncement did not cause Rabbi Elazar to despair of ever finding his way back to God.[7] On the contrary, Rabbi Elazar cried out to God until he died and then he was received into the World to Come. One could say that Rabbi Elazar achieved his goal. But I am not certain that he realized all the potential that can be found in תשובה. Rav Kook writes that the “sudden penitent” will discover within himself “a complete change for the better.” It seems to me (and I may be totally wrong) that even if the “sudden penitent” begins his תשובה by crying out to Hashem, once he feels the “complete change for the better” within himself he would stop crying and re-enter the world with a new attitude. Penance for Rav Kook  means to discover God in the world:

נשמת כל האצילית מצטירת לפנינו בהודה וקדושתה כמה שהלב יכול לספוג…..

It seems to me ( and I may be totally wrong) that had רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא  achieved the teshuvah described by Rav Kook, his life would not have ended as it did.

Thanks to everyone who attended today’s shiur. A happy Shavuot to all, and may our friend חיים יואל בן חנה הניא, Joel Nowicki have a רפואה שלמה. Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] This is a summary of the seven traits that the penitent needs to adopt.

[2] מלכים א’ פרק יח

[3] It is amazing that the prostitute said what she said and it is more amazing that he took the words of that prostitute so seriously.

[4] פרק ב’

[5] תשובה פתאומית

[6] תשובה הדרגית

[7] And in this he differed from Elisha ben Avuyah/אחר as we learned.

June 8, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 4
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Hello Everyone,

I think that today we studied one of the most striking passages in חובות הלבבות . Rabbeinu Bachya professes a Judaism which demands sincerity and totally honest self-examination. We have already seen examples of his ideas (especially in the third chapter on עבודת ה’), but today we saw an exceptionally sharp reminder of this call for honesty.

In the passage which we studied today, Rabbeinu Bachya listed things which negate or prevent teshuvah. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that a person who repents from some but not all of his sins has not done teshuvah. Citing a well-known metaphor from Chazal, Rabbei Bachya writes that a person who repents partially can be compared to a person who immerses himself in a מקווה while holding on to a rodent.

Rabbeinu Bachya clearly sets a very difficult target for a בעל תשובה to reach.  Divine forgiveness is not given out for partial effort. Only when a person has completed the task of remaking his or her personality will Hashem acknowledge this act of “re-creation” by erasing the person’s past misdeeds .

It seems that Rabbeinu Bachya is alone in setting this high bar for teshuvah. The Gemarah cited by Rabbeinu Bachya reads as follows:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף טז עמוד א

אמר רב אדא בר אהבה: אדם שיש בידו עבירה, ומתודה ואינו חוזר בה למה הוא דומה – לאדם שתופס שרץ בידו, שאפילו טובל בכל מימות שבעולם – לא עלתה לו טבילה. זרקו מידו, כיון שטבל בארבעים סאה – מיד עלתה לו טבילה, שנאמר ומודה ועזב ירחם, ואומר נשא לבבנו אל כפים אל אל בשמים.

It would seem from the use of the word “בה” that the Gemara is criticizing a person who performs the actions of penance (such as confessing ) for a particular sin but is insincere about it.  For that matter, when we read the passages in the Torah which discuss the various sin-offerings we see examples of penance and atonement for individual sins. The position of Rabbeinu Bachya seems to be excessively demanding. Why wouldn’t Hashem acknowledge a step-by-step progression from a life of sin to a life devoted to observance of the Torah?

We saw a discussion of Rabbeinu Bachya’s position in the work “.ברכת מועדיך”[1] The author of   ברכת מועדיך first cites the 16th  century בית א-להים who in his discussion of תשובה  writes that teshuvah is different from all other mitzvoth. In other mitzvoth (e.g. the mitzvah of tzitzit) there is no validity or merit accrued to partial fulfillment of the mitzvah. Putting 3 sets of strings on a garment (instead of the required four) does not mean you have fulfilled 75% of the mitzvah. The three sets of strings are totally without significance. On the other hand, by teshuvah, even though ideally one would completely repent from one’s sins, if one partially repents that partial penance is rewarded with a degree of forgiveness by Hashem.

So how does Rabbeinu Bachya understand תשובה? The author of ברכת מועדיך offers two explanations. One possibility is that Rabbeinu Bachya feels that if a person chooses not to repent from certain sins then his תשובה is not honest. If a person changes his behavior because of an awareness of God’s will then how could that person choose to continue with any sins? If a person picks and chooses which mitzvoth to observe and which to ignore this person has not accepted the Torah as the guide for living. If a person ceases to violate the Sabbath, but continues to cheat his employees then he does not see God’s presence in his life.  Partial penance may be admirable in other value systems and it may be a sign of spiritual growth. However as Rabbeinu Bachya explains, the essence of Judaism is the absolute acknowledgement of Hashem’s sovereignty. It is of course good when a Jew ceases to violate the Sabbath, but until he accepts the obligation to observe the entire Torah he is not a בעל תשובה.

The author of ברכת מועדיך then offers another explanation for Rabbeinu Bachya’s position.[2] Based on Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanation of the teshuvah of Yom Kippur, we can say that teshuvah achieves two goals. Teshuvah is the process which leads to forgiveness for our sins and this is certainly important. But teshuvah can lead to another goal. Teshuvah can lead to the purification of the sinner. The paradigm of purification is immersion in the mikveh and for immersion in a mikveh to be effective the immersion must be total. Hence the metaphor of the Gemarah that insincere penance is analogous to immersion in a mikveh while grasping a rodent. When Rabbeinu Bachya writes that partial penance is ineffective he is writing about the penance which leads to the purification of the sinner. Purification requires that the penitent be totally committed to תשובה. There is no such thing as being semi-pure or a semi-penitent.

Thanks to everyone who participated in today’s shiur. I wish refuah shleimah to our friends Yoel Chaim ben Chana Henya and Tehila Leah. Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] Many thanks to Rabbi Dovid Fink for sending me this text.

[2] I would like to point out that Rabbeinu Bachya himself explains his position quite clearly with quotes from the תנ”ך and חז”ל  and Rabbeinu Bachya certainly has every right to interpret the sources as he sees fit.

June 15, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 5
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we saw three interpretations of a saying by Chazal:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לד עמוד ב

מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין – צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that this statement is not a description of the rewards due to בעלי תשובה as opposed to those owed to צדיקים גמורים (which is what appears to be the meaning of this statement in its context). According to Rabbeinu Bachya it is a description of the spiritual  state of בעלי תשובה when compared to צדיקים גמורים. Penitents may[1] occupy a higher spiritual plane than totally righteous people. The reason for this is that penitents know failure. They have sinned and have no illusions about their self-worth. Honest penance demands honest self-examination and this leaves no room for arrogance. On the other hand totally righteous people can easily fall into the traps of vanity, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy. Rabbeinu Bachya quotes a sage who told his students that now that they sinned he is less worried about their committing a far more serious sin. When they asked their teacher what he meant, he replied that now that they sinned he no longer needs to be worried about their becoming arrogant. In a similar vein he quotes a proverb which says that there are מצוות which lead to greater harm than עבירות.

The Rambam has a different interpretation of what Chazal said. He writes in Hilchot Teshuvah:

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק ז הלכה ד

ואל ידמה אדם בעל תשובה שהוא מרוחק ממעלת הצדיקים מפני העונות והחטאות שעשה, אין הדבר כן אלא אהוב ונחמד הוא לפני הבורא כאילו לא חטא מעולם, ולא עוד אלא ששכרו הרבה שהרי טעם טעם החטא ופירש ממנו וכבש יצרו, אמרו חכמים מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין אין צדיקים גמורין יכולין לעמוד בו, כלומר מעלתן גדולה ממעלת אלו שלא חטאו מעולם מפני שהן כובשים יצרם יותר מהם.

The Rambam explains that the “מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין”  is the place where they will be rewarded for overcoming their desire to sin. During the shiur today we studied the Rambam’s examination of two personality types (taken from his introduction to פרקי אבות known as שמונה פרקים ). The Rambam (based on both “the philosophers” and חז”ל ) writes that some people are “naturally” righteous and never feel tempted to sin while other people live deeply conflicted lives and continuously fight the urge to sin. “The philosophers” feel that the “naturally righteous” are superior to people who need to continuously struggle to remain righteous. The Rambam says that the issue is not so simple. The Rambam writes that   nobody should feel tempted to commit crimes against another person. A person who is tempted to steal is not at a high level even if he never actually steals. On the other hand the Torah contains many commandments of a purely “dogmatic” character, e.g. the prohibition against eating pork. If a person is sorely tempted to eat pork but conquers that urge then he is superior to the person who never had to overcome such an urge. The Rambam’s appreciation for the successful בעל תשובה seems to me to be a natural extension of this analysis.

Finally we saw Rav Soloveitchik’s זצ”ל  explanation (taken from the book על התשובה). Rav Soloveitchik זצ”ל said that the בעל תשובה  is not superior to the צדיק גמור because of what he had accomplished. The בעל תשובה is superior because of what he is capable of achieving. Rav Soloveitchik  זצ”לwrites that righteousness, as opposed to evil, is a “passive” quality.  People motivated by hate or envy pursue their goals with more energy than people motivated by love or kindness. When an evil person does תשובה  he must of course abandon his evil-deeds. But what about all of his ability to act? Should he transform himself into someone who is willing to be a passive bystander to life? The Rav explained that the בעל תשובה can take all of his abilities and apply them to new, worthy goals. This is the difference between “eliminating evil” and “elevating evil.” When the בעל תשובה can channel all of his talents to building a better future he will achieve greater things than the צדיק גמור who simply lacks the  energy needed to build on a grand scale.

This is the essence of today’s shiur. Thanks to everyone who participated and aרפואה שלימה  to our friend Joel Nowicki.Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] Their actual spiritual level depends on the sins which they committed.

June 22, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 6
Class description

Hello Everyone,

I apologize for rescheduling today’s shiur but I had an important appointment that I needed to keep.

Today we saw the demands of teshuvah. Rabbeinu Bachya contrasted the teshuvah process for the two broad categories of mitzvoth; בין אדם למקום and בין אדם לחברו .

When a person sins only against Hashem (בין אדם למקום) then teshuvah is solely dependent on the person’s will. It can be very difficult to change ingrained habits but a person can make such a decision and put it into effect.

The situation is different when a person sins against another person (בין אדם לחברו). The efficacy of the penance depends not only upon the penitent’s sincerity but upon making restitution to the sinner’s victim(s) and being forgiven by him/them. If a person steals from a community how does he find all of those victims and make restitution to all of them? If a person slanders someone how does he go about restoring his reputation?

Rabbeinu Bachya, at the end of the ninth chapter concludes on the somewhat ominous note that teshuvah can be very difficult (and perhaps Rabbeinu Bachya is writing to warn us against these pitfalls and obstacles). But he opens the tenth chapter of the section on teshuvah with the promise that Hashem will help us to succeed in our quest for forgiveness. If a person tries honestly to find the victims of his depredations Hashem will  help to track them down. If a criminal does not have the resources to repay those victims then Hashem will supply him with the needed funds. Hashem wants us to succeed.

We closed with a ruling by Rav Zilberstein שליט”א . He was asked by a smoker how to תשובה  for smoking. Rav Zilberstein notes that smokers do harm by tempting other people to smoke and by raising the chances of people in their environment will contract lung cancer  ר”ל by inhaling their “second-hand smoke.” Therefore the smoker’s תשובה needs to address those two sins. First, the ex-smoker needs to transform himself into a positive role model. Instead of tempting people to adopt bad habits he will inspire them to do good things. Second, to atone for the cancer that he may have caused he needs to contribute funds to clinics which treat lung cancer victims in order to alleviate their suffering.

Thanks to everyone who attended today’s shiur. May the zechut of our learning be accepted by Hashem and aid in the speedy release of the kidnapped young people.

June 29, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 7
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we started the eighth chapter of חובות הלבבות which is devoted to self-assessment, חשבון הנפש.

We have seen throughout these shiurim that רבנו בחיי advocates a form of Judaism that is based on clear and cogent sense of the individual’s obligation to Hahsem. רבנו בחיי explains in his preface to this chapter that having discussed repentance he needs to discuss חשבון הנפש because without an honest evaluation of one’s spiritual state תשובה is impossible.

רבנו בחיי as he explains the necessity for חשבון נפש constantly quotes verses from the תנ”ך  which contain the words “know” and “remember.” Accurate knowledge of what Hashem has done for us, what we have done with our lives and what we need to do is what enables us to map our road towards spiritual growth.

רבנו בחיי teaches us something important about accountability. Every one of us needs to make a חשבון הנפש but no two people’s “account” will be identical. Every one of us has been given a particular set of talents and we have met with different life experiences. In one sense we are all identical in that we are indebted to Hashem. We differ in how we can go about repaying that debt. Some of us can do more and some can do less. But we all have room for improvement and it is the honest חשבון נפש which demonstrates the areas in which we need to try harder.

Any examination of an individual’s performance will point out defects and shortcomings as well as areas in which the person has succeeded.  Since the purpose of חשבון הנפש is to get us to a higher level of עבודת ה’ it would be fair to say that the חשבון הנפש is to “accentuate the negative” in our lives. There is a danger inherent in the חשבון הנפש. Since it is a search for failures and no one is perfect this pursuit of shortcomings can lead to a sense of hopelessness and futility. רבנו בחיי seems aware of this risk and he writes that when a person sees that he has not achieved a worthy goal he should pray to Hashem to give him the means to achieve that goal.[1]

רבנו בחיי does not address the risk of חשבון הנפש leading to spiritual despair. This risk was one of the factors which led to a rift within the world of Lithuanian yeshivot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This rift is known as the “mussar controversy.” During those years Jewish society was rocked by waves of secular movements which led to a breakdown in the traditional values which held society together. The yeshivot were not immune to this upheaval and many students even while they were immersed in advanced Talmud study read revolutionary political literature as well and eventually left religious observance behind.

At this time the great Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l led a movement to change the yeshivot’s curricula. The exclusive pursuit of excellence in Talmud is not enough to meet the needs of the students’ souls. To address the soul a person needs to study מוסר which is the “science” of spirituality. This movement  to include מוסר in the yeshivot’s programs of study led to outbreaks of violent opposition. Yeshiva students led relatively free lives in their yeshivot and מוסר would lead to tightened supervision of their behavior. Also (at least in its early stages) the study of מוסר with its emphasis on חשבון הנפש could lead to a sense of pessimism which is inimical with the almost aggressive sense of confidence needed to study Talmud.[2] The proponents of מוסר felt obviously that מוסר and חשבון הנפש are necessary and together with the study of Talmud can help a person to lead a balanced life.

This series of shiurim is not the forum for an examination of the claims of the pro- and anti- mussar camps. I only mention the debate because I think it is important to know that חשבון הנפש needs to be done properly. As I noted, even the demanding רבנו בחיי wrote that the חשבון הנפש  does not require us to achieve the impossible.

At the end of the shiur I mentioned רבי נחמן  and his ideas on התבודדות. התבודדות means “being alone” and Rabbi Nachman wrote at length about the need to find at least an hour each day to speak freely, alone, with God. It seems to me that רבנו בחיי is also speaking about a form of התבודדות since the חשבון הנפש needs to be done alone and could easily take an hour. But I think that רבנו בחיי and רבי נחמן for all that they were both saintly individuals who only wished to lead their readers to a better relationship with ה’ have different ideas about the goal of the daily hour with God- be it called חשבון הנפש or התבודדות.

Here is an excerpt from ליקוטי מוהר”ן (כה):

וּבִלְשׁוֹן אַשְׁכְּנַז יָכוֹל לְפָרֵשׁ כָּל שִׂיחָתוֹ וְ אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עִם לְבָבוֹ יָשִׂיחַ וִיסַפֵּר לְפָנָיו יִתְבָּרַך הֵן חֲרָטָה וּתְשׁוּבָה עַל הֶעָבָר וְהֵן בַּקָּשַׁת תַחֲנוּנִים לִזְכּוֹת לְהִתְקָרֵב אֵלָיו יִתְבָּרַך מֵהַיּוֹם וּלְהָלְאָה בֶּאֱמֶת וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּזֶה כָּל חַד לְפוּם דַּרְגֵּהּ וְ יִזָּהֵר מְאד לְהַרְגִּיל עַצְמוֹ לְהַתְמִיד בָּזֶה מִדֵּי יוֹם בְּיוֹם שָׁעָה מְיֻחֶדֶת כַּנַּ”ל

Rabbi Nachman  holds that this special hour should be a free conversation with God about a person’s regrets, and a plea for Hashem to be brought closer to Him. This is in essence a חשבון נפש but with an important distinction. Rabbi Nachman writes:

וּשְׁאָר הַיּוֹם יִהְיֶה בְּשִׂמְחָה

I don’t want to dwell on the cliché of  מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה but on the importance ofשמחה  in this context. רבנו בחיי presents his חשבון הנפש as a serious review of one’s life with should lead to serious resolutions for self-improvement.שמחה  may come, but only when the goals have been met. Unfounded or premature שמחה could be mistaken for spiritual complacency.

Rabbi Nachman’s התבודדות  is a different sort of experience. Rabbi Nachma says that the התבודדות  should be about חרטה and תשובה which per force require חשבון הנפש. The התבודדות involves a plea for ה’ to bring the petitioner closer and the חשבון הנפש of רבנו בחיי includes a plea for ה’ to enable the person to succeed in עבודת ה’

ומה שלא יוכל להשיגו במעשה, ישיגהו בידיעה ויתאוהו בלשונו ויכסף אליו בלבו, כמ”ש דוד ע”ה: אחלי יכונו דרכי לשמר חקיך, ואמר: הנחמדים מזהב ומפז רב וגו’. והבורא ידינהו לזכות, והוא חייב לצפות לעתות, אשר תשיג ידו ויוכל בהם לשלם מה שיתכן לו מחובות הבורא יתברך.

So why does ר’ נחמן write that theהתבודדות  should lead to a feeling of שמחה? It’s not that  רבנו בחיי was against שמחה . It’s only that the חשבון הנפש endorsed by the בעלי מוסר was seen as tool by which a person could work towards a relationship with ה’. We have seen all along that רבנו בחיי is fighting  complacency and the route performance of מצוות . People thought that if they mechanically perform the mitzvoth then they have done what Hahsem wants. That is why Rabbeinu Bachya titled his book חובות הלבבות- The Duties of the Heart . We need to think continuously about what we are doing. After we examine how we observe the Torah we need to improve the situation. שמחה  about the performance this examination is truly premature.

Rabbi Nachman describes a different sort of self-examination. חשבון הנפש is a private process while התבודדות  , despite its literal meaning is not private since Hashem is invited to listen. התבודדות is actually unscripted, spontaneous prayer. Its content may resemble חשבון הנפש but since it is spoken to God it should lead to שמחה. What could be more משמח than an opportunity to share one’s burdens with God?

Thanks to everyone who participated in today’s shiur. I also wish to thank Rabbi Yedidya Rausman of the WebYeshiva  staff for coming to the rescue today when the system was acting up. Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] I will return to this point later in the summary.

[2] Rav Soloveitchik zt”l describes this In  איש ההלכה , pages 68-9

July 6, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 8
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we continued with Rabbeinu Bachya’s discussion of חשבון הנפש. חשבון הנפש has two components. It is the honest examination of how we perform mitzvoth in order to find the areas which need improvement. It also involves an analysis of our beliefs and if we are “practicing what we preach.” Rabbeinu Bachya says that חשבון הנפש  encompasses numerous areas of our lives, but that he will limit the discussion to thirty points.

For the purpose of our shiur I will not discuss all thirty points raised by Rabbeinu Bachya. I will limit the shiurim to points that I think are unique to Rabbeinu Bachya’s approach to Judaism and mussar.

In today’s shiur we studied the ninth point raised by Rabbeinu Bachya. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that חשבון הנפש requires us to examine if we perform mitzvoth with the same zeal that we would perform a task commanded by a king.

I think that most of us would acknowledge that we would come up short in such an examination, and if Rabbeinu Bachya would have left the ninth point with only this observation we would simply nod in agreement and move on to the next point. But Rabbeinu Bachya chose this point to begin a discussion on prayer and his interpretation of the Halachic concept of מצוות צריכות כוונה. This discussion is not only interesting but presents the uniqueness of Rabbeinu Bachya’s thought on the proper performance of mitzvoth.

The discussion on prayer opens with a review of the classification of mitzvoth into three categories:

א) חובות הלבבות

ב) חובות האברים

ג)חובות הלבבות והגופות ביחד.

This classification is of much more than a system for making order out of the 613 mitzvot. Rabbeinu Bachya says that each category indicates a particular requirement for the performance of its mitzvoth.

The requirement in question is     “.כוונה” “כוונה” in the view of most commentators means “intention” and when the Gemarah explores the necessity for performing mitzvoth with כוונה  /intention the Gemarah is asking if for a mitzvah to be valid it needs to be done with conscious will to fulfill a particular religious duty. To take one example: There is a mitzvah   hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. If as I walk to my usual synagogue on Rosh Hashnah I pass by another synagogue where the shofar is being blown and I hear the all shofar-blasts required by the Halacha, have I fulfilled the mitzvah? Have I discharged my obligation? According to the opinion of מצוות אין צריכות כוונה I have indeed performed the mitzvah, and I don’t need to hear the shofar a second time. According to the opinion מצוות אין צריכות כוונה I have not fulfilled the mitzvah. Even though I heard all that I need to hear, since I did not intend to fulfill the mitzvah at that moment an essential component of the mitzvah was lacking, and that component is called כוונה  .The ruling in Shulcahn Aruch is that מצוות צריכות כוונה.

The כוונה of the Shulcahn Aruch is a momentary decision. The person chooses to perform a mitzvah at this time via this act. During the actual performance of the mitzvah, though it is certainly not ideal, his or her mind can be “a million miles away.” Great tzaddikim certainly are focused on their mitzvoth, be it eating matzah at the Seder Pesach or hearing the shofar. However, for the rest of us, as long as we perform the mitzvah for the purpose of discharging the particular obligation we have successfully executed the mitzvah.

Rabbeinu Bachya takes  מצוות צריכות כוונהin a different direction. There are mitzvoth which require conscious engagement throughout their performance and there are mitzvoth which require us to “enter” the mitzvah in a state of spiritual elevation, full of thanks for Hashem for allowing us to serve Him via the mitzvah. When the mitzvoth require a state of conscious, continuous engagement this is because they are in the category of the mitzvoth which require כוונה. When the mitzvoth “only” require an initial state of religious exultation it is because they do not require כוונה. Rabbeinu Bachya who dedicates his work to shaking us out of our complacency and to jolting us out of the rote performance of mitzvoth apparently could not abide a fleeting moment of intention as meeting the criterion for  כוונה in mitzvoth.

Which mitzvoth require כוונה? Rabbeinu Bachya says that they are the חובות הלבבות, such as the mitzvah to believe in God. There is of course a mitzvah to believe in God, and in theory it is a mitzvah that a person could (and should) perform continuously. In theory every Jew believes in God all the time, 24/7. But are we really fulfilling the mitzvah? If while I am reading a newspaper, someone would ask me, “Stu, do you believe in God?” I would answer, “Of course.”  This answer to such an important question mocks the mitzvah of Belief in God. Belief in God needs to dominate one’s consciousness. If my attention is focused on the newspaper it certainly is not focused on God. Therefore, in order to fulfill the mitzvoth of the mind, the חובות הלבבות, a person needs to be totally involved in those thoughts, and those are the mitzvoth which require כוונה.

Prayer requires a similar level of concentration. As Rabbeinu Bachya explains, prayer is a mitzvah which involves both the mind and the body. A person who is distracted while praying and allows his mind to wander is squandering his opportunity to speak with God and certainly is not fulfilling the mitzvah of prayer.

Again, Rabbeinu Bachya challenges us to raise the level of our observance. The Halacha does not reflect this demand. Ideally we would concentrate on every word of our Shmoneh Esrei, but the Halacha rules that as long as we concentrate on the words of the first bracha our prayer is valid. Similarly we should concentrate on every word of the Shma, but as long as we say the opening verse with כוונה we fulfill the mitzvah.

We ended the shiur with a teshuvah of the Noda BeYehudah. When the Chassidic movement took hold in Eastern Europe many communities adopted the Chassidic prayer-book which was influence by the Kabalistic teachings of the Ari z”l. One innovation of this siddur was the recital of the prayer לשם ייחוד קוב”ה before the performance of a mitzvah. This prayer has deep Kabbalistic meaning which not everyone understands and the Noda BeYehudah was asked to explain it. The Noda BeYehudah wrote a blistering reply saying that there is no need to introduce changes into the prayer book, and there is certainly no reason to introduce esoteric Kabbalistic formulae into the siddur.

The proponents of saying לשם ייחווד קוב”ה claimed that this prayer links the כוונה of the mitzvah to the act of the mitzvah. I would add that what Chassidim and mystics mean by כוונה is entirely different from even Rabbeinu Bachyas כוונה which entirely exoteric in nature.

To this claim the Noda BeYehudah replied that as far as כוונה is concerned it is dealt with by saying a bracha before performing the mitzvah. When we say the words of the bracha we are thanking Hashem and praising Him for allowing us to serve him via His mitzvoth. And this indeed is the כוונה  demanded by Rabbeinu Bachya (if only we would pay attention to what we say dozens of times a day). If a mitzvah has no bracha, it is enough to say that one is performing this act to fulfill God’s will. And if the mystics are worried about the mystical ramifications our mitzvoth, then we rest assured that these mystical mechanisms go into motion automatically without the need to say Kabbalistic prayers.

So that was yesterday’s shiur. There is a tension between the ideal and the “enough” in all walks of life and religious life is no exception. The Gemarah says that there were pious people who would meditate for an hour before and after their prayers , but the Halacha says it’s enough if we concentrate on the first verse of Shma and the first blessing of Shmoneh Esrei. Rabbeinu Bachya tries to re-energize our lives with his form of mussar and the Chassidic movement tried to accomplish the same thing by introducing Kabbalistic ideas to the masses. In my own lifetime I saw the rise (and demise) of a Jewish renewal movement espoused in a book called The First Jewish Catalogue . Rote and routine may be viewed as signs of a dead spirit but the Halacha recognizes that we are human with very real and spirit-crushing obligations. The Halacha therefore values our admittedly meager efforts and rules:

אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוון לבו לשמים

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur, Stuart Fischman

July 13, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 9
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we continued with the discussion of Rabbeinu Bachya’s chapter on חשבון הנפש.

In chapter five Rabbeinu Bachya asks (rhetorically) how often do we need to perform the self-examination of חשבון הנפש .He answers that ideally it should be done with every breath that we take.

We need to think about what it means to be constantly performing a self-examination. To someone unfamiliar with the חובות הלבבות this would suggest that a life lived by its ideals would not be a life at all. Rabbeinu Bachya’s ideal Jew would be paralyzed with doubt and constantly falling prey to fears that even if she succeeds in actually performing a mitzvah, that mitzvah may be tainted by her religious flaws. It is sad but true that this image of mussar (and חובות הלבבות is one of the gems of mussar literature) is accepted as true. Whether out of ignorance or malice Orthodox Judaism (and mussar when it is mentioned at all) is depicted as an ideology that stifles the individual in the name of adherence to the Torah.

But this is not what Rabbeinu Bachya means at all. Rabbeinu Bachya does view life as something to be taken seriously. When we fly in airplanes we expect the pilots to take their jobs seriously and if we are sick we certainly hope that our doctors take their work seriously. The lesson that we are meant to be learning from חובות הלבבות is that our most important job is our lives. God, who gives us life, gave us the Torah to tell us how to live, or in other words, how to do the job that God gave each and every one of us. To take this “job” analogy further, we can compare the חשבון הנפש to what various professionals do as they prepare for their work. Pilots go through pre-flight checks before taking off, actors rehearse their lines before going on stage and surgeons review their patients’ records before performing surgery. It makes perfect sense for a person to ask himself, “Is this what God wants me to do?” throughout the day.

The question, “What does Hashem want me to do?” is oppressive only to the person who does not want live with God. Accepting the Torah means understanding that one’s actions are not insignificant. God is paying attention, and nobody is insignificant in God’s view. Rabbeinu Bachya emphasizes:

ואל תמעט בעיניך שום טובה שתעשנה לשמו אפילו במלה או בראיה, כי המעט ממך רב אצלו

Far from being a cause of paralysis, the idea of the חשבון הנפש should remind that every act that we perform on this Earth is of stupendous significance to Hashem.

Rabbeinu Bachya describes the spiritual growth that results from חשבון הנפש in remarkably vivid language. He asks that you imagine yourself standing at the base of a wondrous statue. It is impossible to see this statue with the unaided eye. However you then meet someone who explains that if you take a piece of steel, and grind it carefully and then apply special polishes to it carefully you can fashion it into a mirror. Then if you hold the mirror up to the statue you can see its reflection in the mirror and feast on its beauty.

People travel thousands of miles and endure all sorts of hardships to see amazing wonders of Nature. Hashem is more wondrous than any waterfall or any statue. How do we gain greater insights into Hashem’s wonders? It is by refining our souls via חשבון הנפש. If polishing steel can transform it into a mirror, refining your soul can transform it into a medium which allows Hashem’s light to shine into you. This enlightenment will lead to the most magnificent revelations.

This description of the spiritual growth to be had from following mussar seems to me to be incredibly important. As I mentioned above many people think of the Torah as being emotionally stifling. It may be that I am excessively sensitive to these accusations because I am drawn to that most “deadly” of texts, the Gemarah and I feel a need to defend it. It may also be that I am writing with a sense of loss due to the passing of R’ Zalman Shachter-Shalomi and I am feeling pensive about the people who felt the need to travel to India to find an “enlightenment” that they could not find in Judaism (I am thinking about R Zalman’s colleague, Richard Alpert, who became better known as Baba Ram Dass. Mr. Dass’s father, George Alpert, was one of the founders of Brandeis University).

I don’t know what sort of enlightenment Hindus and Buddhists claim to enjoy and I don’t know how they go about getting it. All I know is what Rabbeinu Bachya tells us and I am inclined to trust him. We learned about enlightenment today, in the middle of the eighth chapter of חובות הלבבות, whose title is, as we know, חשבון הנפש. This means, that enlightenment is the outcome of not only observing mitzvoth but of having accepted the necessity of living with the awareness of Hashem’s expectations. This awareness which may seem to be oppressive is the key to enlightenment.

Mitzvot at first glance probably are a burden, especially to a בעל תשובה. It is a great sacrifice to start keeping Shabbat in one’s 20’s or 30’s. The challenge is to find the joy in mitzvoth which means to understand the connection that we have with Hashem. Rabbenu Bachya was one of the great teachers that the Jewish people were blessed to have. חובות הלבבות has some of the most scathing attacks on a Jewish community that I have ever read. He looked around 11th century Spain and saw a spiritually inert Jewish community. He saw the motions of Judaism but no spirit of Judaism.  His criticism is not what makes him a great teacher, since anyone can be a critic. What sets Rabbeinu Bachya apart is his ability to guide.  Instead of abandoning his community in disgust he decided to lead them (and us) back to Hashem. חובות הלבבות is the book that tells us how to lead a Jewish life, how to find a path to Hashem.

I hope that we can all find the way to live the life that Rabbeinu Bachya says we can lead.


July 20, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 10
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today, instead of a shiur based on the חובות הלבבות we had a shiur based on some passages from the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, known as ליקוטי מוהר”ן  .

I thought that ליקוטי מוהר”ן would provide a sort of counterweight to the subject of חשבון הנפש which we have been studying in חובות הלבבות. חשבון הנפש  is self-examination, and examinations are as a rule anxiety-producing, all the more so when the examination is being done before God. דוד המלך wrote in ספר תהלים:

תהלים פרק קמג

אַל תָּבוֹא בְמִשְׁפָּט אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי לֹא יִצְדַּק לְפָנֶיךָ כָל חָי:

חשבון הנפש poses two challenges. The first challenge is to perform an honest examination our actions. The second challenge is to “get past” the self-examination and not to be discouraged by its results. As I mentioned last week, the study of mussar has been (wrongfully, in my opinion) associated with sadness, so I thought it would be a good idea to study some of Rabbi Nachmans writings on this subject.

Rabbi Nachman has become something of a cliché, especially in Israel. In many cities you can find people singing the מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה  and גשר צר מאד songs in the street, but there is a level of thought that is lost in the frenzy of the נ-נח-נחמ-נחמן hysterics. So I gave today’s shiur with the hope that we could all find something meaningful in Rabbi Nachman’s writings on the importance of maintaining happiness.

Rabbi Nachman gives a very sober description of the difficulty of achieving holiness. Contrary to the popular view that Chassidut provides an easier path to holiness than the cold and demanding Judaism of the Mitnagdim, Rabbi Nachman writes that the path to holiness is a tortuous one, full of frustration, doubt and confusion. The closer one gets to holiness the worse the doubts become. This is why Rabbi Nachman emphasizes the importance of happiness. Rabbi Nachman does not deny the importance of חשבון הנפש  and he acknowledges the value of a broken heart.[1] What Rabbi Nachman emphasizes [2] is that a person should limit the time for חשבון הנפש and its accompanying feeling of לב נשבר  to an hour a day. The rest of the day should be spent with a positive, empowering feeling of שמחה. After all, if a person allows himself to be trapped in the morose state of לב נשבר  how will he progress spiritually to קדושה? Everyone needs to cherish deep inside the knowledge that he has done one mitzvah, and even if all he can find within himself is one mitzvah, that can be the starting point for spiritual growth towards קדושה. And whenever a person is overcome with inevitable[3] feelings of doubt and despair, the knowledge that he has indeed done one mitzvah should cheer him up and bring him to שמחה. Rabbi Nachman writes that the risks posed by שמחה  degenerating to frivolity are much less than the risks posed by sadness leading to depression.

חובות הלבבות certainly “sounds” different than ליקוטי מוהר”ן  but I don’t know if רבנו בחיי had a different view of the ultimate goal, קדושה, than  רבי נחמן. Rabbeinu Bachya and Rabbi Nachman were both great leaders and teachers and they wrote classic books which are still sources of inspiration. When חז”ל were faced with stark disagreements between authorities they said אלו ואלו דברי א-להים חיים  and I think this applies to the teachers of mussar and Rabbi Nachman. Neither Rabbeinu Bachya nor Rabbi Nachman describe an easy path to holiness, they both write that we should avoid disparaging our good deeds during חשבון הנפש .They both say that Hahsem is waiting for us to complete the journey to holiness. So why do the books “sound” so different? I think it is because the audiences for these two books were so different. Rabbeinu Bachya was writing for a complacent Jewish community which needed to hear its shortcomings spelled out and to be told how to discover holiness. I think this is clear from the 30 point list that Rabbeinu Bachya gives us for performing an adequate חשבון הנפש.

Rabbi Nachman’s audience was different. Rabbi Nachman told his lessons (תורות) to people who acknowledged him as their spiritual leader. I don’t know if Rabbeinu Bachya even had an audience.[4]The people who went hear Rabbi Nachman were interested in achieving holiness, they were motivated, all that they needed was encouragement to finish a job that they began on their own.

We don’t live in a society that appreciates the values of the Torah and I think that we all need the encouragement of Rabbi Nachman. Bye, Stuart Fischman

[1] תהלים פרק נא

(יט) זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה לֵב נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה אֱלֹהִים לֹא תִבְזֶה:

[2] And here he may disagree with רבנו בחיי who writes that if possible a person should live in a continual state of חשבון הנפש, but I have no definite opinion about this issue.

[3] Rabbi Nachman emphasizes the inevitability and even the necessity of these feelings.

[4] The impression that I received from his introduction is that he did not., but I may be wrong. Little, if, anything, is known about Rabbeinu Bachya.

July 27, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 11
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we had our last shiur of the z’man on Chovot Halevavot, and we completed the chapter on חשבון הנפש.

In his conclusion to חשבון הנפש Rabbeinu Bachya takes an unusually poetic turn. Rabbeinu Bachya describes the spiritual state which can be reached after completing the process of חשבון הנפש . Rabbeinu Bachya writes  that the person who changes his life by performing חשבון הנפש will earn clarity of vision and Divine enlightenment. Mundane affairs that cause confusion in other people won’t have that effect on the person who has completed חשבון הנפש .  A person who possesses this Divinely bestowed clarity will perform mitzvoth with alacrity because he or she will realize that performing Hashem’s will is the right thing to do. He or she will even be aided by God to perform mizvot. Mitzvot won’t seem like work or a burden anymore, and this hard-earned insight is the source of the wisdom which provides joy.

Perhaps I did not convey the poetry in Rabbeinu Bachya’s words, but I found his language strikingly different from what he wrote in earlier passages. Rabbeinu Bachya repeatedly uses words like “light” and joy” which are hard to come by in the book’s earlier chapters. Rabbeinu Bachya is clearly enthralled by the promise of חשבון הנפש.

The state of enlightenment achieved through חשבון הנפש is curious. What does Rabbeinu Bachya mean when he writes that Hashem will “help” a person to do mitzvoth? What does the Divine light provide? How does this “enlightenment” mesh with the principle of free-will which the Rambam lists as one of the cornerstones of Jewish belief?

I think the explanation of the spiritual ideal which can be reached via חשבון הנפש can be understood by studying the Rambam’s and Rav Dessler’s explanation of the story of Adam before his sin.

In the beginning of מורה נבוכים tells us about a question which he was asked. A person told the Rambam that he could not understand the story of Adam and Eve. It seemed to him that before they ate from the  עץ הדעת they were little better than animals. It was only after they sinned that they acquired the ability to distinguish between good and bad; in other words, they acquired intellect. Isn’t it preposterous that by sinning Adam and Eve acquired the greatest of human abilities?

The Rambam explained that this person completely misunderstood the story of Adam and Eve. Adam was God’s creation and he was created perfectly, so of course he possessed an intellect. However his intellect functioned in a way which cannot understand without difficulty. Before his sin Adam approached all questions and situations as if they required an analysis of their truth or falsehood. All questions were questions of “fact.” Adam did not recognize subjective values such as “good” or “bad.” [1] Adam was capable of choosing between possible actions but he would make his choice on the basis of deciding which action would be a fulfillment of Hashem’s will. The proper choice then would be, in our language, not the “good” choice but the “correct” choice. The concept of “good” contains within it the preferences of the person who describes the action (or object) as “good.” But the word “correct” reflects a truth independent of the person who describes the action (or object) as correct. As the Rambam writes, to describe the Earth as round is not “good,” it is “true.” The standard of truth which Adam applied to his choices was Hashem’s will.

As long as Adam would have used only Hashem’s will to make choices, he would have remained in his state of pure intellect. However, he, along with Eve, allowed himself to be beguiled by the fruit of the עץ הדעת. The Torah emphasizes that the fruit was  טוב- good, and by allowing himself to be seduced by “good” he lost the ability to make decisions based solely on the truth of the matters under examination.

Rav Dessler wrote that we think that our ability to choose is the highest expression of our intellectual capability, but we are fooling ourselves. The fact that we need to choose is a sign of our moral blindness. We need to strive to reach the level of Adam before his sin. If someone would ask us the solution to the problem 2+2=? we would not feel any “temptation” to answer, “5.” Likewise if someone would ask us our opinion regarding robbing old-ladies, we would say it is “wrong” and not that it is “bad.” We should similarly feel that it is “right” when we perform a mitzvah without any of the self-satisfaction implied in saying we did a “good” act.

So how did Adam get the “wrong” answer to the question about עץ הדעת? Rav Dessler, explained that, as the Rambam wrote, Adam was attracted by the “good” of the tree. The pasuk of the sin is as follows:

בראשית פרק ג

(ו) וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּתֵּן גַּם לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ וַיֹּאכַל:

The pasuk has a progression of words which describe a steadily growing fascination with the forbidden fruit before it is actually eaten. Originally Adam had no desire whatsoever to eat the forbidden fruit. He did permit himself to be intrigued by the concept of “good.” His curiosity was piqued by this unexplored aspect of both the world around him and of his personality. But that was the crack that he allowed to develop in his soul. Instead of viewing the world only as a means of performing Hashem’s will, he chose to treat the world as a source of gratification. And even though the only gratification which he sought was intellectual, it was nonetheless a pursuit which could not lead to a greater ability to serve Hashem. So from the original attraction to “good” as a concept to be explored “good” became a desire which needed to be fulfilled and so Adam sinned.

חשבון הנפש    and the study of musar are not meant to turn us into robots. What they are meant to do is to teach us how to understand our roles in the world as Jews who serve Hashem. Gradually we will make better choices and meet greater challenges successfully. Ultimately, after much hard work, our ability to discern good from bad will de so refined that we will recoil automatically from bad and then we will have reached the ideal described by Rabbeinu Bachya.

Thanks to everyone who attended these shiurim and making them a success.

Have wonderful and peaceful summer. Stuart Fischman

[1] Many people have written about this Rambam and I am presenting this passage  as I understand I think Rav Dessler zt”l explains it in the second volume of מכתב מאליהו.


December 14, 2014 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chovot Halevavot: Duties of the Heart (Summer 2014): Lesson 8
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we began the final section of Chovot Halevavot, the section on the love for Hashem.

When we began studying חובות הלבבות we saw the core of Rabbeinu Bachya’s belief system. Rabbeinu Bachyah writes that if the “physical” mitzvoth (e.g. eating matzah on Pesach) are not accompanied by the mitzvoth of the heart, the חובות הלבבות, then those physical mitzvoth are without value. Rabbeinu Bachyah took upon himself the task to warn us against falling into the trap of rote performance of our religious duties. If we have succeeded in living according to the guidelines of Chvot Halevaot then now, at the final section, we are ready to reach the summit of spiritual development, the love of God. Rabbeinu Bachya is emphatic about this point. He writes that, “you need to know that each mitzvah and each positive trait, whether it is known logically or known through tradition, is only a step and way-station by which we ascend and reach this level.”

What is “love of God?” It is the absolute, obsessive yearning of the soul to cling to God. Rabbeinu Bachya explains how this yearning develops within the person. People are hybrid beings, we have a soul and a body. The soul is attracted to activities which will aid in its development. However, the soul is aware that Hashem placed it in a body which has its own decidedly non-spiritual needs, and the task of the soul is to address the needs of the body while not ignoring its own spiritual progress.

The sad fact is that the body is insatiable. The body endlessly craves more and more and never leaves the soul time to pursue its spiritual goals.  This state of affairs continues until the person realizes intellectually that he is indulging his body at the expense of his soul.[1] When the person realizes that he has ignored his soul he will realize that all the pleasures of this world are worthless and he will turn towards the service of Hashem. He will acknowledge the greatness of God and he will be seized with awe as he becomes more and more ware of God’s presence in his life. The person will become interested only in doing what Hashem desires. If his life is proceeding smoothly he will thank Hashem for this. If his life is full of pain he will continue to serve Hashem despite these troubles. This absolute devotion to Hashem is love of Hashem.

Several people during the shiur wrote in the chat-box that love for Hashem needs to be differentiated from romantic love. I don’t quite understand what they meant. Romantic love is, as I understand it, an apparently irrational, tremendously powerful, interest by one person in another person. The one who feels romantic love wants to spend all of his her time with his (or her) beloved. This is the feeling that the soul feels towards God. Chazal say that שיר השירים[2] describes the relationship between God and the Jewish people[3]. So it seems to me that the intensity of love that a person feels towards Hashem could and should be as intense as the feelings that Romeo felt for Juliet. I don’t think that there is anything blasphemous in this.

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that love can only arise after the person feels awe towards Hashem. It seems that the Rambam disagrees with this sequence. He writes:

רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ב

הלכה א

האל הנכבד והנורא הזה מצוה לאהבו וליראה אותו שנאמר ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך, ונאמר את ה’ אלהיך תירא.

הלכה ב

והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו, בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים ויראה מהן חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאוה תאוה גדולה לידע השם הגדול כמו שאמר דוד צמאה נפשי לאלהים לאל חי, וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו ויפחד ויודע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה עומדת בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דוד כי אראה שמיך מעשה אצבעותיך מה אנוש כי תזכרנו, ולפי הדברים האלו אני מבאר כללים גדולים ממעשה רבון העולמים כדי שיהיו פתח למבין לאהוב את השם, כמו שאמרו חכמים בענין אהבה שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את מי שאמר והיה העולם.

According to the Rambam love for Hashem is the result of our contemplating Nature. When a person studies the wonders of nature (for example when he sees photographs from the Hubble telescope or sees the complexity of microscopic life) he will be seized with wonder for the Creator who brought all of this into being. He will want to know all that he can about the Creator and his adoration of the Creator will lead to love for the Creator. But as soon as the person realizes how great the Creator is, he will realize how tiny and insignificant he is . This will lead to fear and awe before the Creator.

So while  Rabbeinu Bachya ( and others) see love as following awe, the Rambam feels that love comes before awe. It seems to me that Rabbeinu Bachya and the Rambam are describing different spiritual paths as opposed to differing over a matter of principle. In Chovot Halevavot, Rabbeinu Bachya wrote a guide to spiritual growth. The book does not start from “zero.” Rabbeinu Bachya’s audience was not unaware of the  mitzvoth. His readers were observant but emotionally uninvolved in what they were doing. The process of becoming spiritually involved is a personal one. Rabbeinu Bachya sees it as a process of changing one’s relationship with the material world from being over-involved to being minimally involved. The mindless pursuit of pleasure needs to be stopped and this can only happen when the person becomes aware of God. The awareness of God which can shock a person into changing his way of life is necessarily the experience of awe. Awe causes the necessary change in behavior and can lead to love.

The Rambam is describing a different experience. While Rabbeinu Bachya is describing away journey from spiritual numbness, the Rambam is describing how a person should experience life. We all live in the world of Nature. We see the sun, the moon and the stars . We have all seen the miracle of life. The Rambam says that instead of taking it for granted we should step back and appreciate its grandeur. This appreciation can lead us to God. But the realization of God’s presence in our world creates conflicting feelings within us. We adore the God who created this amazing world but we are also forced to acknowledge our insignificance in His presence. Rabbeinu Bachya is guiding us to a goal, and since the goal is more significant than any of the stops along the journey, love is greater than awe. The Rambam is not describing a journey towards the love of God, he is describing how we should perceive the Creation. The proper perception of the world leads to love and awe but (it seems to me) the Rambam does not say that either love or awe are “better” than the other. Both feelings towards God are correct and the challenge is to live with both feelings .[4]

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur

חנוכה שמח

Stuart Fischman

[1] In Rav Kaffach’s translation the word נפש is used to label the spiritual component of the human. The נפש is forced to live in and to tend to the body until the שכל (which I translate as the intellect) realizes that the soul is being ignored.

[2] Which freely uses romantic imagery

[3] Some commentators write that it describes the relationship of God to the indvidual

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.