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Mussar movement refers to a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement (a "Jewish Moralist Movement") that developed in 19th century Orthodox Eastern Europe, particularly among the Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term mussar (מוּסַר, properly transliterated as musar), is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning instruction, discipline, or conduct. The term was used by the Mussar movement to refer to disciplined efforts to further ethical and spiritual development. The study of Mussar is a part of the study of Jewish ethics.


The Mussar movement arose among the non-Hasidic Orthodox Lithuanian Jews, and became a trend in their yeshiva ("Talmudical schools"). Its founding is attributed to Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (1810-1883), who was inspired greatly by the teachings of Reb Zundel Salant, although the roots of the movements can be traced to earlier developments and rabbinic personalities and their writings.

Rabbi Zundel Salant

Rabbi Yosef Zundel Salant (1786-1866), or Zundel Salant, was a layman who had studied under Rabbis Chaim Volozhin and Akiva Eiger; he spent most of his life in Salantai, Lithuania. His profoundly ethical, good-hearted and humble behavior and simple lifestyle attracted the interest of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, then a promising young rabbi with exceptional knowledge of Jewish law. Rabbi Salanter absorbed the ways of Zundel Salant, and became the de facto founder of the Mussar movement. After tutoring Rabbi Salanter, Rabbi Yosef Zundel relocated to Jerusalem (then under Turkish rule), where he refused support from public funds and made a living in the vinegar business.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter

After establishing himself as a rabbi of exceptional talent early on, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter soon became head of a yeshivah in Vilna, where he quickly became well known in the community for his scholarship. He soon resigned this post to open up his own Yeshiva, where he emphasized moral teachings based on the ethics taught in traditional Jewish rabbinic works. He referred to his philosophy as mussar, Hebrew for ethics.

Despite the prohibition against doing work on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) Rabbi Salanter set an example for the Lithuanian Jewish community during the cholera epidemic of 1848. He made certain that any necessary relief work on Shabbat for Jews was done by Jews; some wanted such work to be done on Shabbat by non-Jews, but Rabbi Salanter held that both Jewish ethics and law mandated that the laws of the Torah must be put aside in order to save lives. During Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) Rabbi Salanter ordered that Jews that year must not abide by the traditional fast, but instead must eat in order to maintain their health; again for emergency health reasons. By 1850 he left Vilna for Kovno, where he founded a yeshiva based on Mussar, with a student body of 150.

In 1857 he moved to Germany, and by 1860 he began publication of a periodical entitled Tevunah dedicated to mussar. By 1877 he founded a Kovno kollel (adult education center of Jewish study). By this time his own students had begun to set up their own yeshivot in Volozhin, Kelme, Telz, and Slobodka.

Early works of Mussar

Many of Rabbi Salanter's articles from Tevunah were collected and published in lmrei Binah (1878). His Iggeret ha-Mussar ("ethical letter") was first published in 1858 and then repeatedly thereafter. Many of his letters were published in Or Yisrael, "The Light of Israel," in 1890 (edited by Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer). Many of his discourses were published in Even Yisrael (1883).

Origin of the movement

This movement began among non-Hasidic Jews as a response to the social changes brought about by The Enlightenment, and the corresponding Haskalah movement among many European Jews. In this period of history anti-Semitism, assimilation of many Jews into Christianity, poverty, and the poor living conditions of many Jews in the Pale of Settlement caused severe tension and disappointment. Many of the institutions of Lithuanian Jewry were beginning to break up. Many religious Jews felt that their way of life was slipping away from them, observance of traditional Jewish law and custom was on the decline, and what they felt was worst of all, many of those who remained loyal to the tradition were losing their emotional connection to the tradition's inner meaning and ethical core.

During this time Rabbi Lipkin wrote, "The busy man does evil wherever he turns. His business doing badly, his mind and strength become confounded and subject to the fetters of care and confusion. Therefore appoint a time on the Holy Sabbath to gather together at a fixed hour... the notables of the city, whom many will follow, for the study of morals. Speak quietly and deliberately without joking or irony, estimate the good traits of man and his faults, how he should be castigated to turn away from the latter and strengthen the former. Do not decide matters at a single glance, divide the good work among you-not taking up much time, not putting on too heavy a burden. Little by little, much will be gathered... In the quiet of reflection, in reasonable deliberation, each will strengthen his fellow and cure the foolishness of his heart and eliminate his lazy habits."

In later years some opposition to the Mussar Movement developed in large segments of the Orthodox community. Many opposed the new educational system that Lipkin set up, and others charged that deviations from traditional methods would lead to assimilation no less surely than the path of classic German Reform Judaism. However, by the end of the 19th century most opposition to Mussar withered away, and it was accepted within much of Orthodoxy.

Ethical sources for the Mussar movement

The teaching of Jewish ethics was based in a primary sense in the ethical teachings of the Torah and the books of the Prophets of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and was directly based on books written by authors such as Moses ben Jacob Cordovero and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.

Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.

The Orthodox Jewish community spawned the mussar movement to help people overcome the inner obstacles that hinder them from living up to the laws and commandments - the mitzvot - that form the code of life. That community tends to see mussar as inseparable from its own beliefs and practices, but the human reality mussar addresses is actually universal, and the gifts it offers can be used by all people.

The goal of mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul. The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Mussar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.

From its origins in the 10th century, mussar was a practice of the solitary seeker, until in the 19th century it became the basis for a popular social/spiritual movement.

Classical Jewish ethical literature

The classics of Mussar literature, works of moral instruction which were part of the curriculum of the 19th century Mussar movement, include:

  • Chovot ha-Levavot, by Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda (11th century). This work discusses ten moral virtues, each the subject of its own chapter.
  • Ma'alot ha-Middot, by Rabbi Yehiel ben Yekutiel Anav of Rome. This work discusses 24 moral virtues,
  • Kad ha-Kemah, by Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, a Spanish kabbalist.
  • Mesillat Yesharim, and Derech Hashem, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
  • Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous), by an anonymous author
  • Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah) by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero
  • Shaarei Teshuvah (The Gates of Repentance) by Rabbi Yonah Gerondi
  • Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
  • Hilchot Deot by Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam)
  • The Eight Chapters by Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam)
  • Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (Accounting of the Soul) by Rabbi Mendel of Satanov (based in part on Benjamin Franklin's idea of the thirteen virtues).
  • "The Mussar Letter" of the Vilna Gaon

Works produced by the rabbis of the Mussar movement which have themselves become "classics" of Mussar literature include:

  • Or Yisrael by Israel Salanter, which includes "The Mussar Letter"
  • Hokhmah U-Musar by Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm
  • Madregat Ha-Adam by Joseph Hurwitz, the Alter of Novardok
  • Strive for Truth (Michtav me Eliyahu) by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler

Contemporary Revival of the Mussar Movement

Many of the Jews involved in the Mussar movement were killed in the Shoah. Some, however, settled in the land of Israel and established Mussar yeshivas there. While many former students of the Mussar movement settled in the United States and were involved in a variety of Jewish institutions, they established no formal institutions dedicated to Mussar during the 20th century.

A recent revival of interest in the Mussar movement has been underway in America in various sectors of the Jewish world. The Mussar Institute, founded by Alan Morinis, and the Mussar Leadership Program, founded by Rabbi Ira Stone, are among the institutions which have sought to continue the legacy of the Mussar movement. Morinis' book Everyday Holiness and Stone's book A Responsible Life have been among the popular books which have sparked contemporary interest in the Mussar movement.

See also


The History of the Mussar Movement

  • Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement, Immanuel Etkes
  • MUSSAR MOVEMENT VOL. 1 PART 1, Rabbi D, (Dov) ; translated by Leonard Oschry Katz
  • The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Mussar Movement, Hillel Goldberg
  • Sparks of mussar: A treasury of the words and deeds of the mussar greats, Chaim Ephraim Zaichyk
  • Rabbi Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker, Menahem G. Glenn (1953, 2005)

Contemporary Works Adapting Mussar

  • The Business Bible: 10 New Commandments for Bringing Spirituality & ethical values into the workplace, Wayne Dosick, Jewish Lights Publishing
  • The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, Meir Tamari, Jason Aronson Inc., 1995
  • The Book of Jewish Values, Joseph Telushkin, Bell Tower, 2000.
  • Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Rediscovery of a Jewish Spiritual Tradition, Alan Morinis, Broadway Books, 2002.
  • A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar, Ira F. Stone, Aviv Press, 2006.
  • Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis, Trumpeter Books, 2007.

External links