Introduction to Mussar

What is Mussar?

Why is it hard to be good? It is a question Jewish thinkers have been asking for more than 1,000 years. While the commandments in the Torahand other Jewish texts are laid out pretty clearly, people often have a hard time following them.

Mussar (also spelled Musar), a Jewish spiritual practice that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life, arose as a response to this concern. Mussar is virtue-based ethics — based on the idea that by cultivating inner virtues, we improve ourselves. This is in contrast to most Jewish ethical teachings, which are rule-based. Today, a number of people who do not follow traditional Jewish rules and rituals are attracted to Mussar because it offers opportunities for personal transformation through a Jewish lens.

Mussar masters recognized that simply learning about kindness does not make us more kind. Moreover, they understood that our inner drives, wounds and appetites often manifest as the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination), actively preventing us from behaving as we know we should. One Mussar teacher, Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970), described Mussar as “teaching the heart what the mind already understands.”

--"What is Mussar," Greg Marcus, is

Every one of us is assigned to master something in our lives. You have already been given your assignment and you have already encountered it, though you may not be aware that what faces you is a curriculum, nor that this is the central task of your life… What I am calling your curriculum shows up most clearly in issues that repeatedly challenge you. I’m talking about the behaviors that dunk you in the same soup, time and time again. You probably can identify one or two of these patterns without much effort, in a string of soured or even broken relationships, in financial dreams that are never realized, in fulfillment that is forever elusive. But despite your experience, you may not have realized that there is a curriculum lying embedded within this personal history. The sooner you become familiar with your curriculum and got on with mastering it, the faster you’ll get free of these habitual patterns. Then you will suffer less. Then you will cause less suffering for others. Then you will make the contribution to the world that is your unique and highest potential…

--Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis (p.3)

Key Mussar Concepts

Through the centuries the Mussar masters evolved an accurate, insightful map of the interior world that has at its center the soul. We're not so familiar with the soul today, but Mussar teaches that in our essential nature, each of us is a soul. If we do talk about soul at all, we are more likely to say we "have" a soul. But that way of putting it implies that the soul is somehow a possession or appendage of the "I."

Mussar sees it differently. Identity is not the main feature of our inner being, despite the ego's insistent and noisy protests to the contrary. The ego claims to be king, but I liken its true role to that of valet. When it is put firmly in that role, serving the soul of infinite depth as its master, our lives become aligned in a profound way we could hardly previously imagine. Each of us is a soul. That's who we are.

With only limited exceptions, everything that exists in our inner world is an aspect of soul, including personality, emotions, talents, desires, conscience, wisdom, and so on. Even the faculties we ordinarily assign to the "mind," like thought, logic, memory and forgetting, are features of the soul.

But not all facets of the soul are accessible to conscious thought. Well before Freud introduced the notion of the unconscious, the Mussar teachers were working with an understanding that there is a dark inner region that is the source of all that appears in the daylight of our lives. These interior dimensions of the soul live within us at depths that are not accessible to the rational mind.

The Mussar teachers speak of different aspects of soul but they insist that in reality, the soul is an undivided whole. Their template is holistic and sees no divide between heart and mind, emotions and intellect. All are faculties of the soul.

This topography of the inner life has been developed for a practical purpose. Mussar's goal is to help us transform so that the light of holiness shines more brightly into our lives and through us into the world. Making that journey of change is how we fulfil the promise and also the charge of the Torah, "kiddoshim tihiyu" – you shall be holy.

All the holiness we could ever hope for already exists within us, at the core of the soul.

We don't have to go far to find the light of holiness we seek. All the holiness we could ever hope for already exists within us, at the core of the soul, called neshama. This deep inner kernel is inherently holy and pure and is the seat of the "image and likeness of God" in which we are created. The neshama cannot be tainted, not even by evil deeds. We acknowledge that reality in the daily liturgy when we recite, "God, the neshama you have given me is pure."

So what is it that blocks the light of our holy neshama from shining constantly in our lives and into the world? Mussar points here to another dimension of the soul called nefesh. While the neshama is always stainless, the nefesh is the dimension of the inner life that houses all our recognizable characteristics, named the middot ha'nefesh, the traits of the soul. The neshamais unchanging but in the nefesh we find traits that can be in or out of alignment in ways that can be helpful or obstructive.

Each of us has some inner traits that are perfectly aligned but we also have certain inner qualities that are not as refined as they could be. Maimonides says that each character trait that is out of alignment creates a veil that screens the light of holiness. It is these unbalanced soul-traits that obstruct the flow of inner light. These traits define our spiritual work.

The issue is never the inner qualities themselves – Mussar tells us that all human qualities, even anger, jealousy and desire, are not intrinsically "good" or "bad." It's when we have too much or too little of a trait that our spiritual problems arise. Everyone has some anger in his or her soul but only too much anger is a problem. Desire is natural and healthy, but lust is an excess of that soul-trait. And so on with all the traits.

The Mussar classic Orchos Tzaddikim was written in the 16th century but the people it describes are still with us today:

One man is wrathful and always angry, and another even-tempered and never angry. Or, if he is, it only very negligible over a period of many years. One man is exceedingly proud, and another exceedingly humble. One man is lustful, his lust never being sated, and another exceedingly pure-hearted not desiring even the few things that the body needs... One man afflicts himself with hunger and goes begging..., and another is wantonly extravagant with his money. And, along the same lines, the other traits are found, such as cheerfulness and depression, stinginess and generosity, cruelty and mercy, cowardliness and courage, and the like.

A soul-trait can be set at too high a level – like rage in the place of anger, and hatred in the place of judgment, or too low – like self-debasement in the place of humility, or indifference in the place of equanimity. A soul-trait that is out of alignment whether in excess or deficiency creates a veil in the nefesh that blocks the inner light of the neshama. Through introspection and self-examination each of us can identify the handful of traits that are operating as hindrances in our own inner lives, and thus we pinpoint the curriculum for our personal transformative work

Where does this route lead? Toward holiness, we are told, though that's a mysterious and ineffable notion. One thing I do know is that this can't mean that we all aspire to reform ourselves to come out looking and being identical, squeezing ourselves into a mould of ideal qualities. The goal of Mussar practice is not to take on pre-ordained characteristics, but to become the most refined, perfected, elevated version of the unique person you already are. To do that, we must first come to know and embrace our soul curriculum, which means tackling each one of our personal middot, traits, that hang as thick veils blocking the holy inner light from entering our lives.

Map of the Inner Life

“The soul fills the body, as God fills the world. The soul bears the body, as God bears the world. The Soul outlasts the body, as God outlasts the world. The soul is one in the body, as God is one in the body, as God is one in the world. The soul sees and is not seen, as God sees and is not seen. The soul is pure in the body, even as God is pure in the world…” Rabbi Simeon Ben Paz

The inner life that we experience, and the roots of thought that reach down into the darkness of the subconscious, are features of the life of the soul.


Neshama is the most elevated and purest aspect of soul and it shines at the deepest core of our being. “In my body he has kindled a lamp from his glory,” begins a poem by Moses ibn Ezra, referring to the light of the neshama. In the morning prayers it says “God, the soul [neshama] you have given me is pure”.


The next dimension of the soul that Mussar identifies is called ruach, that aspect of the soul that is the source of animation and vigor – no more, and no less, than the “spirit of life.”


Nefesh, the third level of the soul is the aspect that is most visible and accessible to us. It includes all those inner aspects that link us to our lives on earth, including the physical body, so that body and soul are, in fact, a single, indivisible whole. Without the soul, the body is dust. Without sensation and the play of physical forces, the soul has no connection to the earth. It is the union of body and soul that gives rise to human experience.

The nefesh is the seat of all our emotions and appetites, the realm of personality and identity. If our nefesh is clear and unblemished, the light of the neshama will shine through without obstruction; if it is foggy, the light will be obstructed. Just as clouds determine how much sunshine makes it to earth, the nefesh acts as the “atmosphere” of our lives. The features of the soul that connect us to this world – personality, character, appetites, aversions, strengths, weaknesses – determine whether the holiness that is there at our core shines out or not, or to what degree. The goal of Mussar is to help us build up, or reduce, or balance the features of our life that cause the light within to brighten or dim, and so it focuses our attention on the nefesh.

-Alan Morinis, The Mussar Institute

Tikkun/Improvement or Repair

Rabbi Zvi Miller in his translator's introduction to Yisrael Salanter's Ohr Yisrael, p.38

The Midrash teaches (Bereshit Rabbah 11:6), “Everything that came into being during the first six days of creation requires improvement – for example, the mustard seed needs to be sweetened … also humanity needs rectification.” Our world is a world of transformation. When we are improving and refining ourselves, we are in concert with the Divine plan – fulfilling our purpose for existing in this world … Not only is the human being created for this purpose, but he is also given the ability and capacity to attain this supreme goal.

Yetzer HaRa/The Evil Inclination

רַבִּי נַחְמָן בַּר שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן בְּשֵׁם רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן אָמַר, הִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, זֶה יֵצֶר טוֹב. וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, זֶה יֵצֶר רָע. וְכִי יֵצֶר הָרָע טוֹב מְאֹד, אֶתְמְהָא. אֶלָּא שֶׁאִלּוּלֵי יֵצֶר הָרָע לֹא בָּנָה אָדָם בַּיִת, וְלֹא נָשָׂא אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא הוֹלִיד, וְלֹא נָשָׂא וְנָתַן. וְכֵן שְׁלֹמֹה אוֹמֵר (קהלת ד, ד): כִּי הִיא קִנְאַת אִישׁ מֵרֵעֵהוּ.

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel's name: 'Behold, it was good' refers to the Good Desire; 'And behold, it was very good' refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says 'very good' after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says 'and God saw that it was good') Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: 'Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man's rivalry with his neighbour.' (Ecclesiastes 4:4).

רבי יהושע אומר עין הרע ויצר הרע ושנאת הבריות מוציאין את האדם מן העולם.

יצר הרע כיצד אמרו שלש עשרה שנה גדול יצר הרע מיצר טוב ממעי אמו של אדם היה גדל ובא עמו והתחיל מחלל שבתות אין ממחה בידו [הורג נפשות אין ממחה בידו הולך לדבר עבירה אין ממחה בידו] לאחר י״ג שנה נולד יצר טוב כיון שמחלל שבתות א״ל ריקה הרי הוא אומר (שמות ל״א:י״ד) מחלליה מות יומת. הורג נפשות א״ל ריקה הרי הוא אומר (בראשית ט׳:ו׳) שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך. הולך לדבר עבירה אומר לו ריקה הרי הוא אומר (ויקרא כ׳:י׳) מות יומת הנואף והנואפת. בזמן שאדם מחמם את עצמו והולך לדבר זימה כל אבריו נשמעין לו מפני שיצה״ר מלך הוא על מאתים וארבעים ושמונה אברים. כשהוא הולך לדבר מצוה התחילו מתענין (לו) כל אבריו מפני שיצר הרע שבמעיו מלך הוא על מאתים וארבעים ושמונה אברים שבאדם ויצר טוב אינו דומה אלא למי שהוא חבוש בבית האסורין שנאמר (קהלת ד׳:י״ד) [כי] מבית הסורים יצא למלוך זה יצר טוב

They say that for the first thirteen years [of a person’s life] the Evil Urge is greater than the Good Urge. There in his mother’s womb, a person’s Evil Urge grows with him. [After he emerges into the world,] he starts breaking the Sabbath, and nothing is there to stop him; [killing people, and nothing is there to stop him; going out to sin, and nothing is there to stop him.]

After thirteen years, the Good Urge is born. Then when he breaks the Sabbath, it says to him: Empty one! Isn’t it written (Exodus 31:14), “One who breaks it will surely die”? When he kills, it says to him: Empty one! Isn’t it written (Genesis 9:6), “One who spills the blood of a person, his own blood will be spilled”? When he goes out to sin, it says to him: Empty one! Isn’t it written (Leviticus 20:16), “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death”?

When a person heats himself up, and then goes to commit some act of lewdness, all of his limbs will obey him, because the Evil Urge rules over all 248 limbs. When he goes to perform a mitzvah, his limbs begin to grow lazy, because the Evil Urge in his stomach rules over all 248 of a person’s limbs. The Good Urge, meanwhile, is like someone trapped in a prison, as it says (Ecclesiastes 4:14), “From the prison, he comes forth to rule” – that is the Good Urge.

Rabbi David Jaffe

Hergesh: In order to begin directing our Yetzer Harah, we need to become aware of how our inclination works, so we need to be aware of our feelings, thoughts, triggers, and motivations, we need to be sensitive to our own emotions. What triggers us and why? We need to look for little moments of when we are feeling vulnerable and get triggered. This means slowing down to notice our feelings.

Kibbush: Once we are are able to notice our vulnerabilities and triggers, we can make a conscious decision whether to follow our inclinations. When something comes up, we use self-restraint, which is not an easy task always, to make a decision that lines up with what we know as the right thing to do rather than the decision that will fulfill the urges of our yetzer. This is about self-restraint in the face of the desire for some kind of instant gratification.

Tikkun: This is about using our desires and urges for the good. Unlike the Kibbush, it doesn't involve saying no, but instead it’s about putting that same inclination in the service of something productive. The classic rabbinic example is the person with a murderous instinct becomes a kosher butcher. Or someone who loves competition and winning competes with themselves to do more and more acts of Hesed or loving-kindness.

Mussar Practices

Practice is inherent in the Mussar tradition. In order to develop, change, or transform on a journey toward holiness, knowledge in itself, is inadequate. While the pathway starts with learning, knowledge needs to come to life. Practice is what embeds the learning in the heart so that it becomes the fabric of who you are. For example, the lazy person becomes energetic; the miserly person becomes generous.

Mussar students practice one trait for one or two weeks, often in a series of 13, moving through 4 cycles of 13 traits in a year.

Mussar practice involves three core practices.

In the morning, students focus on one selected soul trait or middah. They use a phrase, often in Hebrew, to recite in such a way as to enliven and energize the soul.

In the evening, the practice is to keep a journal. Students look back over the day and record the events of the day where the middah showed up. I would ask myself, if I were working on generosity, where did it show up? How did I react? I would write about the situation in an objective way. The journal is a way of highlighting the experience so that as time goes on one starts to see a pattern. Once you know you are going to be keeping a journal, as the day plays out, the thought of keeping a journal will “flag” your experience. It will help you build awareness. Journaling is an effective practice as long as it is done regularly.

Between the morning and the evening, the Mussar student gives himself or herself or is assigned an exercise, a kaballah. For example, you might do three generous acts today. One day, generosity with your money, another, your feelings, another, your possessions. You can be generous in so many ways. The goal is not the practice per se, it is to transform the inner being of the individual so that you move closer to the ideal of what a human being can be. For every quality, we know there are exercises from the 19th century and earlier.

Mussar Teachings

The following quotes from prominent Mussar leaders of past centuries present core Mussar concepts. The accompanying review questions will help you explore and discuss these Mussar ideas.

1. “The one stone on which the entire building rests is the concept that God wants each person to complete himself, body and soul.” – Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, author of the seminal work The Path of the Just(1740)

  • What do you think of the notion that each individual is meant to use this life in order to become more “whole”?
  • The Hebrew word for “wholeness” is shlemut, and an individual who is whole would be described ashalem. Both of these Hebrew words share a root with the word shalom (peace). What might be the connection between wholeness and peace?
  • What do you think wholeness might look like in a person, given that each human being has flaws and weaknesses? Have you ever encountered a person who impressed you as embodying a measure of wholeness? What was it about that person that made you perceive him or her as whole?
  • Can you begin to reframe your life, seeing everything you do in terms of bringing you closer to wholeness?

2. “The entire purpose of man’s existence is to purge every negative trait and character attribute from his heart.” – Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th-century founder of the Mussar movement

  • Of the list of traits below, which ones do you see as being relatively problematic in your life?
    • patience / impatience
    • generosity / stinginess
    • gratitude / deprivation
    • trust / worry or fear
    • honor / judgmental
    • enthusiasm / laziness
  • The Mussar teachers recognize that change requires practice. Which of the following actions could you commit to doing daily for one full week?:
    • patience [savlanut] – identify the specific situation in which your patience is most tried on a daily basis, and commit to “bearing the burden” of your impatience for the first 5 minutes you are in that situation
    • generosity [nedivut] – do 3 generous acts daily. Note that you can be generous not only with money but with possessions, time, emotions, physical assistance, etc.
    • gratitude [hakarat ha’tov] – say thank you to everyone who does the slightest thing to help you, including things like letting you change lanes on the freeway, doing their jobs, being in your life, cleaning public spaces, etc.
    • trust [bitachon] – whenever you feel worry or fear arising in you, recite to yourself the phrase, “I am in good hands.”
    • honor [kavod] – greet everyone you meet with a smile and a kind word. Go out of your way to do so.
    • enthusiasm [zerizut] – jump into action, from getting out of bed the moment you awaken to taking care of things you might otherwise put off.
  • At the end of each 7-day practice, do a personal stocktaking of your experience: What happened? How do you feel at the end of the week in contrast to how you would ordinarily feel about this “trait of your heart” you were addressing? Did any experiences bring to mind purity or impurity of heart?

C. Middot Discussion

To assist us on our personal spiritual curriculum, Mussar teaches us to strive toward the positive and strengthen the opposite of the trait with which we struggle. So, for example, if you tend to be miserly, generosity would be on your personal curriculum. A judgmental person (one who judges others) would work on the trait of honor (honoring every human being), and so on through the full range of middot.

--Alan Morinis, Mussar Discussion and Study Guide for Reform Judaism Magazine

We will be studying 5 middot/soul traits/character traits/Jewish values





Mindful Speech


Sa’adia Gaon – 933 – Sefer Deot v’Emunot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions)

R’ Bahya ibn Paquda – 1080 – Chovot Ha’Levavot (Duties of the Heart)

R’ Shlomo ibn Gabirol – 1045 – Tikkun Middot Ha’Nefesh (Improvement of the Traits of the Soul)

R’ Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam) – 1168 – Shmoneh Perakim (Eight Chapters)

Avraham ben HaRambam – 1230 – Ha’Maspik l’Ovdei HaShem (Guide to Serving God)

Rabenu Yonah Gerondi – 1250 – Shaarei Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance)

Yechiel ben Yekutiel – 1298 – Ma’alot ha-Middot (Book of Higher Virtues)

anonymous – 1540 – Orchot Tzaddikim (Ways of the Righteous)

R’ Moshe Cordovero – 1588 – Tomer Devorah (Palm Tree of Deborah)

R’ Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover – 1705 – Kav HaYashar (The Just Measure)

R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto – 1740 – Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just)

R’ Yosef Zundel – 1786-1865

R’ Menahem Mendel Leffin – 1811 – Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh (Accounting of the Soul)

R’ Eliezer Papo – 1824 – Pele Yoetz

***R’ Yisrael Salanter – 1890 – Ohr Yisrael

R. Simcha Zissel Ziv – 1824-1898 – Chochmah u’Mussar (Wisdom and Mussar)

R’ Nosson Zvi Finkel – 1849-1927 – Ohr Ha’Tzafon (The Hidden Light)

R’ Yosef Yozel Hurwitz – 1848 – 1919 Madregas ha’Adam (The Levels of Man)

R’ Yerucham 1875 – 1936 Levovitz Da’as, Chochmah u’Mussar (Knowledge, Wisdom and Mussar)

R’ Eliyahu Dessler – 1959-83 – Michtav mi’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth!)

R’ Shlomo Wolbe – 1968 – Alei Shur

R’ Elya Lopian – 1975 – Lev Eliyahu (Elijah’s Heart)

Contemporary Mussar:

Alan Morinis -- Every Day, Holy Day, Everyday Holiness, With Heart in Mind

Ira Stone -- A Responsible Life

Greg Marcus -- The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions