What Is Mussar?

Rabbi Mendel of Satanov created a new approach to the practice called Heshbon HaNefesh, “Accounting of the Soul.” He encouraged keeping a journal on how you are doing in cultivating the following 18 attributes within yourself, and I would add, your students, children and grandchildren. After the list, are several ways to work with these concepts in your life. These are the core concepts of Mussar, one of many inspiring approaches to Jewish living.

1. Equanimity - מְנוּחַת הַנֶפֶשׁ.  Attaining skillful ability to live in balance.

2. Tolerance - סַבְלָנוּת. Growing pains lead to knowing gains, listen with an open mind.

3. Orderliness - סֵדֶר. Allocating time for living fully with integrity, including showing up on time.

4. Decisiveness - חָרִיצוּת. Acting promptly when your reasoning is sure and kindness is intelligently incorporated in necessary action.

5. Cleanliness - נְקְיוּת.  Modeling dignity and safety in your ways and space.

6. Humility - עֲנָוָה.  Focus on appreciating and exploring the mysteries of life, acting from recognizing how little you know for certain.

7. Righteousness - צֶדֶק. Conducting your life with generosity and integrity, such that you can be fully trusted and respected.

8. Economic Stability - קְמּוּץ. Safe guarding enough resources to live without debt while advocating social justice for others.

9. Zeal - זְרִיזוּת. Living with gusto focused on mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered living.

10. Silence - שְׁתִיקָה. Waiting for what comes from underneath hurts, hopes, knowledge and assumptions, then listening, experiencing, integrating and reflecting before possibly speaking.

11. Calmness - נִיחוּתָא. Relating your needs, thoughts and guidance gently while being respectful and clear.

12. Truth - אֱמֶת. Speaking only what is fully confirmed in fact and then only when there is a clearly ethical reason and need to know.

13. Separation - פְּרִישׁוּת. Focus on each strand in its own time, avoid multitasking and keep healthy boundaries.

14. Temperance - הִסְתַּפְּקוּת. Voluntary simplicity for health of self, community & environment.

15. Deliberation - מְתִינוּת. Pausing before acting, considering consequences, integrate heart and mind wisely.

16. Modest Ways - צְנִיעוּת. Eschewing crude, lewd and boastful mannerisms, events, and practices.

17. Trust - בִּטָּחוּן. Living in the spirit of knowing there is abundance in the universe and you are in the flow, a trustworthy point of connection.

18. Generosity - נְדִבוּת. Finding satisfaction in making much available and possible for others.

   (Bold type, concepts of Reb Mendel; Regular type=interpretations of Rabbi Goldie Milgram)

Here are a few more ways to utilize these middot, "character attributes."

1. Take any one of these qualities and reflect on its degree of presence and activity in your life.

2. Next, you might sit with a friend, partner, class or child and discuss the quality. What are examples for it? Flesh out its meaning to you, find as many nuances of the quality as you can.

3. Now, go into yourself and notice where in your body this quality resonates. The mind/body connection creates a short-cut to knowing. Is it lodged somewhere? Rather than thinking about the quality, listen to it, discover what your body knows about it. Then, take the information and gently set it before you and return to see if there is more, something new about this quality you can learn inside yourself.

4. What is your desire with regard to this quality? Sit quietly with this question until a clear image forms, til you imagine a real probability. Invite strength and support for this intention from the great dynamic flow of all possibilities in creation.

To read the original work of Reb Mendel seek out Cheshbon ha-Nefesh. (1812). Translated by Dovid Landesman. Feldheim Publishers, New York, 1995.

To learn more about developmental work in Jewish spirituality our anthology of articles by leading Jewish spiritual guides and clergy will be hlepful: Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction
and if you are a Jewish educator consider our distance learning certification program in Jewish Spiritual Education which includes Mussar as one of seven core areas of training.