Mussar movement

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The Hebrew term mussar, while literally derived from a word meaning "tradition", usually refers to Jewish ethics in general, or (and more commonly) refers to the Jewish ethics education movement that developed in the 19th century Orthodox Jewish European community, particularly in Lithuania.

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 Mussar 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.



The Mussar movement arose among the non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews of Lithuania, and became a trend in Orthodox yeshivot (schools of Jewish learning). Its founder was Rabbi Israel ben Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin, the Salanter (1810-1883), who was inspired greatly by the teachings and Reb Zundel Salant.

Zundel Salant

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

Yisrael Lipkin

After establishing himself as a rabbi of exceptional talent early on, Rabbi Israel Lipkin 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 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) Lipkin set an example of 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 Lipkin held that both Jewish ethics and law mandated that the laws of the Sabbath must be put aside in order to save lives. During Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) Lipkin ordered that Jews must not abide by the traditional fast, but instead must eat in order to maintain their health; again this was done 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-ed center of Jewish study). By this time his own students had begun to set up their own yeshivot in Volozhin, Kelme, Telz, and Slobodka.

He is widely known as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.

Early works of Mussar

Many of his 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 1990 (Edited by Isaac Blaser.) 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, may of those who remained the loyal to tradition were losing their emotional connection to the tradition's inner meaning and ethical core.

During this time the 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.

Classical Jewish ethical literature

The classical rabbinic Jewish works of ethics and moral instruction, still studied today, include:

Other classic works that show the Mussar Way:

  1. "Orchos Tzaddikim" anonymous
  2. "Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (Accounting of the Soul)" by Rabbi Menahem Mendel Leffin
  3. "Strive for Truth (Michtav me Eliyahu)" by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler

These too are essential Mussar texts available on-line in the English language:

  • "Tomer Devorah" ( (The Palm Tree of Deborah) by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero
  • "Shaarei Teshuvah" (Igeret HaTeshuva)  ( (The Gates of Repentance) by Rabbi Yonah Gerondi
  • "Mesilat Yesharim" ( (The Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
  • "The Mussar Letter" ( of the Vilna Gaon
  • "Hilchot Deot" ( by Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam; Maimonides)
  • "Iggeret ha'Mussar" ( (The Mussar Letter) of Rabbi Israel Salanter (trans. Rabbi Zvi Miller)

Other books:

  • Derech Hashem

See also: Judaism, Ethics


  • Contemporary Jewish Ethics: a Bibliographical Survey, S. D. Breslauer (1985)
  • Modern Jewish Morality: a Bibliographical Survey, S. D. Breslauer (1986)
  • Werblowsky, in: Annual of Jewish Studies, 1 (1964), 95-139;
  • Hebrew Ethical Wills, 2 vols., I. Abrahams (ed.) (1948)
  • Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, Ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman. Oxford University Press, 1995
  • 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.


Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz ZT"L The Alter of Novardok attended mussar shiurim given by Rav Blazer and Rav Shenker in Kovno.

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