Benjamin Franklin: Teaching Mussar (Ethics) to the Jews

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. [66] While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (p. 47)

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arrang'd them with that view, as they stand above.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (p. 48)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.


(Note that this one is not really parallel. Lefin means being gentle. He does not seem to have an exact parallel for temperance).

2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.


3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.


4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.


5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.


6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.


7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.


8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.


9. Moderation: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.


10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.


11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

מנוחת הנפש

12. Chastity.


13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.


Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (pp. 47-48)

For something, that pretended to be reason, was every now and then suggesting to me that such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (pp. 50-51).

It will be remark'd that, tho' my scheme was not wholly without religion, there was in it no mark of any of the distinguishing tenets of any particular sect. I had purposely avoided them; for, being fully persuaded of the utility and excellency of my method, and that it might be serviceable to people in all religions, and intending some time or other to publish it, I would not have anything in it that should prejudice anyone, of any sect, against it.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (p. 51). . Kindle Edition.

Cheshbon Hanefesh, Par. 20

20. A few years ago, a new strategy was developed — a strategy that is a wonderful innovation in this field [of cheshbon ha'nefesh]. It would seem that the method will spread quickly - - like the invention of the printing press which brought light to the world. This strategy ties together the four elements which we talked about: balancing one's personal ledgers before retiring and upon awakening, conditioning and cheshbon ha-nefesb. However, it spares the person much of the effort that these elements required when utilized alone as well as being far more effective. Instead of taking up all of a person's time, this method actually leaves the entire day open and orderly, with the mind clear for the Divine service. It clears the path so that a person can make his accounting, tempers the fires of mussar and facilitates character development. Moreover, the process of becoming accustomed to follow this method is sweetened by the knowledge that by acting according to it, one lessens the amount of sin of which one is guilty.

Nancy Sinkoff, Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe

Rejecting the implacable hostility of the later skeptical French Enlightenment to religion and clericalism, Lefin saw no inconsistency between the intellectual exploration of Western, non-Jewish ideas and fidelity to traditional rabbinic culture.

Benjamin Franklin typified the eighteenth-century natural philosopher; discoverer of the lightning rod and of the Pennsylvania fireplace, he believed in the practical application and moral utility of his experiments, maintaining that a heightened sense of God’s creative power could not but result from scientific observation....The eighteenth-century natural philosopher was not a specialist, but rather, like Lefin and Franklin, a man with catholic interests and passions.

Cheshbon Hanefesh, par. 49

Mussar without counsel is insufficient, for one can not expect the animal spirit to be consistently willing to obey the advice of the intellectual spirit — even when the latter's advice is as "clear as the sun at noon."

Even children know that all men are destined to die, that everything is in the hands of God, that God gives and God takes — thousands of such consoling remarks which are completely logical. Yet even wise and sagacious men find that the ears of their animal spirits are blocked and their intellect clouded when faced with death.
Everyone apprises the alcoholic of the shame he brings to himself and to his family, of the damages he causes his body and soul. He listens and agrees with all that they say, but he is powerless to change his ways and he therefore rejects all reproof, closes his ears and flees from all chastisement...
In the healing of the body there are also many parallels. Doctors must devise ingenious methods to sweeten bitter drugs, to make them less costly and more palatable so that they can be used to treat the delicate, children or the poor. Were they not to do so, then even the balms of Gilead would be of no avail if no one used them.

Cheshbon Hanefesh, par. 67, Equanimity (מנוחת הנפש)

Rise above events that are inconsequential — both bad and good — for they are not worth disturbing your equanitnity.

67. As long as a man's mind is settled, his intellectual spirit quietly stands guard, spreading its light upon his mind as if it were a torch atop the edifice of his body. The animal spirit is sent to spread this light of knowledge throughout the entire body via the conduits of the brain.* It apprises the limbs of the commands and will of the sublime soul, and returns their message to its sender through the feelings and sensations which are aroused in them. As the verse (MISHLEI 20:27) states: A man's soul is the lamp of God; it seeks out all the hidden recesses. At such times [i.e, when his mind is settled], man has free choice and the control over his spirit to take the time to focus hi thouhts upon exercising his sovereignty [over his animal spirit] and to devise strategies that activate or restrain his animal spirit for his personal benefit in this world and in the World to Come.

Section II--Patience (סבלנות)

When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.

[Lefin goes on to explain that the pain we feel after having committed wrongs spur us to repent. This is useful, constructive, pain. The pain that we feel naturally was given to us by God to direct us on the right path].

As concerns those serious incidents which come upon us unavoidably and which we were powerless to prepare for or which we could not deal with once they transpired, God has provided us with a remedial regimen — patience. Through this trait, one can dull the soul's pain much as physical pain can be dulled by drugs which harden the nerves that stem from the brain and its membranes. As the verse (ibid. 18:16) states: Man's spirit sustains him in sickness. Hence, we must fulfill God's will; i.e., at first we must exert ourselves, employing the wisdom and understanding which He has granted us, to guard our steps and use them [i.e., wisdom and understanding] as best we can. If, despite our efforts, we are faced with evil through His providence, we are still obligated to recognize this last favor of His — i.e., the trait of patience which He has given us. We are to utilize it as a means of lessening our pain and accept our wounds as those inflicted by our faithful lover, the exalted Benefactor, for beyond doubt, they [our pain] too were only created for our benefit.