Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kotzk (1787-1859) was a legendary reclusive and acerbic leader of Polish Chassidic Jewry. He never wished to become a leader of the masses, yet, the more he shied away from fame, the more people flocked to him, eager to glean from his greatness. A brilliant and insightful scholar who valued the truth above all, he couched many of his teachings in witty exegetical lessons on Scripture and the writings of the sages. Here, we have collected 48 sayings that have been attributed to the Rebbe of Kotzk.1

1. A horse walks down the middle of the road. A human being, on the other hand, sticks to one extreme or the other.

2. People tend to look upwards, contemplating the mysteries of the heavens. They would do well to look inward and examine what’s happening within themselves.

3. When people ask me what not to do, I can tell them. But to know what they should do, that’s something they need to ask themselves.

4. I’ve never wanted to serve a G‑d whose ways would be understandable to mere mortals.

5. He who doesn’t see G‑d everywhere isn’t capable of seeing Him anywhere.

6. Where is G‑d? Wherever He is allowed in.

7. The way of the world is such that parents feel the pain of their children, but the children are oblivious to the suffering of their parents. Likewise, G‑d feels our pain, but we are blind to His misery.

8. “I” is a thief, which must be banished from the heart.

9. Serving yourself is a form of idolatry.

10. If you say something you don’t truly believe, even if you emit a sigh that does not come from the depth of your heart, any motion that is not entirely true—you are guilty of perjury.

11. If you need to hide something—something is wrong.

12. If a person maintains his faith when he is in trouble and sees no solution, is his faith true? What choice did he have? But if a person has all that he needs and still chooses to place his trust in G‑d—that’s true faith.

13. I never regretted telling the truth.

14. I never feared getting sick, but I dreaded the coddling that follows.

15. The loftier the soul, the greater the challenges and darkness surrounding it, like the most valuable pearl which is set in the largest encasement.

16. The body finds it easier to accept all kinds of suffering than to accept the yoke of Heaven.

17. G‑d made the human upright, unlike the animal who walks on all fours. While the beast sees only the earth, man can also look up toward the heavens.

18. The heavens will always remain heavens. But the earth we can elevate and make heavenly.

19. Why do you call out to G‑d and beseech that He have mercy on Israel? Better to call out to the people that they have mercy on G‑d!

20. Elijah the Prophet will not enter through the door or even the window. He will come by way of your heart and your mind.

21. Silence is the most beautiful of all sounds.

22. When a person has reason to cry, and he wants to cry, but is not able to cry—that’s the greatest cry of all.

23. A great generation can make do with petty leaders. But a lowly generation needs great leaders.

24. Even a wagon driver is a leader. And woe is to the wagoner whose horses take control.

25. The most dangerous thing of all is habit.

26. Not every thought should be said. Not every speech should be written down. And not all writings are fit for print.

27. If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you—then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I—then I am not I and you are not you.

28. Death is but a change of circumstances, like moving homes. But a wise person sees to it that the new home is better and nicer than the old one.

29. Don’t fool yourself and don’t imitate your fellow.

30. So and so, he is amazing, he learns so much. When does he have time to know anything?

31. In Torah scholarship, there are geniuses. But there are no geniuses in Chassidism. To become a chassid, one must toil.

32. There are rebbes who are so great that they can revive the dead. But reviving the dead is G‑d’s business. A rebbe needs to be able to revive the living.

33. There are not enough sacks in the world to contain the wily arguments of the evil inclination.

34. I want people to refrain from wrongdoing, not because they fear sin, but because they don’t have the time.

35. There is nothing more complete than a broken heart, and there is nothing more upright than a crooked ladder.

36. “I will”—this is bad
“I want to”—this is neither here nor there.
“I am”—this is good.

37. Poverty and hunger are nothing to fear, for they come from G‑d. I fear only the callousness and cruelty that come along with hunger.

38. Through money, even the incorruptible can become corrupted.

39. Joy is wonderful. Through it, one can escape the worst of circumstances.

40. Something that can be acquired in a single hour can be lost in half an hour.

41. A person has two eyes—one to see the greatness of G‑d and the other to see his own smallness.

42. A person isn’t a goat, whose every movement is heralded by the bell on his neck.

43. Even the greatest person—who has never sinned—must pray to G‑d that he not come to believe in himself, for self-aggrandizement is worse than the worst sin.

44. There are three inns that a person visits during his earthly journey: The Inn of Jealousy, the Inn of Desire, and the Inn of Glory. I managed to leave the first two fairly quickly and have never returned. But the third, the Inn of Glory, I struggled mightily to leave, until I felt that my very veins were snapping.

45. Blaze your own path. You can be sure that it has not been sullied by others.

46. More important than writing is erasing.

47. Some people speak words of Torah in order to climb to the seventh heaven. I sought words of Torah in order to crawl into the innards of the listener.

48. If you have no tallit, wrap yourself in the four corners of the earth and pray.