The Bible, Talmud, and halakhic literature all focus on the practical aspects of Jewish life. For the most part, they do not address an individual’s spiritual and emotional experience; this is discussed in the literature of Musar, or moral conduct, beginning with the book of Proverbs. This branch of literature elucidates the moral principles according to which one should live, which apply even in circumstances that are not discussed in halakhic literature. These guidelines have been given a number of different names. They have been called “the way of the world [derekh eretz],”“the straight path,” and “the fifth section of Shulĥan Arukh1 .” Another objective of Musar literature is to cause the individual’s behavior to match his inherent desire to act with righteousness. This requires a person to examine his actions as well as his thoughts and feelings, to ensure that they give rise to the rectification of the soul and the enhancement of its strengths, rather than the reverse. On an even higher level, Musar aims to bring a person to perfect understanding and to the complete rectification of his actions, producing greater closeness and connection to God.

Musar writings are the part of the literature of Jewish thought that has developed a systematic approach to the principles of moral conduct. Musar is not only a moral theory; it sets a standard of behavior for both individuals and the congregation that goes beyond the letter of the law. Works of Musar frequently address Torah commandments such as loving God and repentance, considering them as practical commandments in all senses, and discussing all their particulars. Such works address the importance of having the correct mindset, and the spiritual significance of a person’s every action.

Rabbeinu Baĥya ibn Pekuda

Rabbeinu Baĥya ibn Pekuda (1050–1120) lived in Saragossa, Spain. His book Ĥovot HaLevavot was the first work dedicated exclusively to Musar. It distinguishes between the spiritual duties of the heart and the duties of the limbs, namely, the practical commandments that one fulfills with his body. Rabbeinu Baĥya believed that one’s spiritual obligations are limitless, because a person can always progress and enhance his spiritual strengths, directing them toward a more complete understanding of God.

The book outlines a gradual progression; the individual ascends from one spiritual level to the next, ultimately reaching the level of love of God. The book gained popularity, despite the rigorous religious demands it places on the individual, as a result of its literary style, which incorporates proverbs, parables, and folktales.

From Rabbeinu Baĥya ibn Pekuda:

One who trusts in God is he whose trust is strong that God will provide for him as He desires, and in the time and place He desires, just as He provides for the fetus in its mother’s womb; for the chick inside the egg, where there is no opening through which to bring anything in from the outside; for the bird in the sky; for the fish in the water; for the ant; and for the worm, despite their weakness.

(Ĥovot HaLevavot, Sha’ar HaBitaĥon, Introduction)

Rabbeinu Yona Gerondi

Rabbeinu Yona (1210–1263) was born in Girona, Spain, and died in Toledo. His most influential writings on the Talmud are He’arot Shel Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona al HaRif on tractate Berakhot, and Aliyot deRabbeinu Yona on tractate Bava Batra. He is known for his masterful scholarship. His books of Musar, Sefer HaYira and Sha’arei Teshuva, were apparently written as sections of one work on Musar topics, called Sha’arei Tzedek. Sha’arei Teshuva deals with the fundamentals of repentance and its various levels and processes, as well as ways of achieving atonement.

Legend has it (although this lacks historical basis) that Rabbeinu Yona wrote this work as penitence for the boycott that the rabbis of Spain placed on the works of Rambam and on his followers.

From Rabbeinu Yona Gerondi:

One of the greatest benefits that God provided for his creations is that He gave them a way to ascend from the pit of their actions and escape the snare of their transgressions, thereby enabling them to hold back their souls from destruction and dispel God’s anger. He cautions them to return to Him when they sin against Him, in His tremendous goodness and righteousness, for He knows their inclinations.

(Sha’arei Teshuva 1)

Rabbi Yehuda HeĤasid

Rabbi Yehuda HeĤasid (died 1217) was the leader of Hasidei Ashkenaz, a pietistic movement in Germany. He was born in Speyer and was the head of the yeshiva in Regensburg.

Although he did not claim authorship of any books, two well-known works are attributed to him. Sefer Ĥasidim is an influential book that describes supererogatory practices and behaviors both in interpersonal mitzvot and mitzvot between the individual and God. The book reveals particular sensitivity to social inequalities, perversion of justice, and intellectual pride among scholars who learn Torah without fear of Heaven.

Another work attributed to him is Tzava’at Rabbi Yehuda HeĤasid, Rabbi Yehuda HaĤasid’s ethical will, which contains a list of around seventy precepts concerning marriage, birth, death, and dwelling places. These were accepted as binding in some Jewish communities.

Hasidei Ashkenaz placed particular significance on the liturgy, and they established exact texts of the liturgy based on mystical considerations. The hymn Shir HaKavod, also known as Anim Zemirot, which became part of the liturgy in many Ashkenazic communities, is also attributed by some to Rabbi Yehuda HeĤasid.

There are many stories told about him. For example, legend has it that when he was young he was an excellent archer, and only at the age of eighteen did he decide to devote his life to Torah.

From Rabbi Yehuda HeĤasid:

Sefer Ĥasidim was written for this reason: So that those who fear God and all those who return to their Creator with full hearts will read it. They will understand what they must do and what they must be careful of. But it was not written for the wicked; if the wicked read it, some of it will appear ridiculous to them.

(Sefer Ĥasidim 1)

Sefer HaYashar

Sefer HaYashar is a thirteenth-century work of Musar of unknown authorship. Some attribute it to an otherwise unknown Rabbi Zeraĥya the Greek. It deals with the topics of Creation, faith, worship, love and fear of God, the performance of good deeds, and prayer.

From Sefer HaYashar:

One who loves must possess wisdom, for if he does not possess wisdom, he will not recognize the qualities of his beloved. He will not recognize the other’s intellect or other precious attributes, and if he does not know his attributes, then he will not know how to love him.

(Sefer HaYashar 3)

Rav Menaĥem HaMeiri

Meiri (1249–1315) lived in Perpignan, in the south of France. His major work is Beit HaBeĥira on the Talmud, which clearly reviews the views brought in the Mishna and the Talmud, and by Rashi and Tosafot, as well as the halakhic rulings of the Ashkenazic, Provençal, and Sephardic authorities including those of the author himself. He also wrote Kiryat Sefer on the halakhot of writing a Torah scroll, and Magen Avot on various halakhic topics.

He sought to reconcile the Torah with science and philosophy, and refused to take part in the boycott of the Rambam, arguing that his precious wisdom should not be lost.

Ĥibur HaTeshuva, which is concerned with repentance, includes sections on the Ten Days of Repentance, Rosh HaShana, fast days, and the halakhot of mourning. According to the introduction, Meiri wrote this work in response to a Christian scholar who claimed that the Jews do not engage in repentance.

From Rav Menaĥem HaMeiri:

“The testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the simpleton wise” (Psalms 19:8). “The testimony of the Lord is trustworthy,” namely, it is proper to believe in it even without examination. But once there is trust, it is proper to delve into its wisdom, and to reach ultimate perfection through inquiry. Matters that are incomprehensible to those who oppose them will be revealed through study.

(Beit HaBeĥira, Introduction)

Ran – Rabbeinu Nisim Gerondi

Rabbeinu Nisim (1315–1376) was born in Barcelona, and was the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Spain. His main works include a commentary on Rabbi Yitzĥak Alfasi’s Halakhot, novellae on the Talmud, many responsa, and a commentary on tractate Nedarim. These works reveal his ability to elucidate complex ideas clearly and logically. He also wrote Derashot HaRan, twelve sermons that address numerous topics in Jewish thought, including ethics, prophecy, and the proper system of government. His vast knowledge of science, medicine, and philosophy is evident in this work.

Ran would rebuke the wealthy members of his community for their laxity with regard to mitzva observance. Apparently, they made a false accusation against him as a result, and he spent around six months in a Spanish prison. Ran was also a scribe, and a Torah scroll purported to have been written by him has survived until the present day.

From Rav Nisim Gerondi:

Every nation requires government. A wise man once said that even thieves agree that there must be honesty among them. The Jewish people need this just like the other nations. Additionally, they need it in order to enforce the Torah’s laws.

(Derashot HaRan 11)

Rav Yitzĥak Abuhav

Little is known about the life of the fourteenthand fifteenth-century scholar Rav Yitzĥak Abuhav, although he was apparently of Spanish origin. His most influential work is Menorat HaMaor, which combines halakha, aggada, and Musar taken from the rabbinic literature and the biblical commentaries. The book is divided into seven sections, called “lamps.” These sections are: self-restraint, speech, mitzvot, Torah study, repentance, peace, and humility. The work emphasizes aggadic literature as a significant part of the development of good character traits and behavior. Menorat HaMaor is significant in that it is one of the first works of Musar intended for readers of all levels, men, women, and children, and is written in a style that is clear and accessible. For this reason, it continued to be popular in later generations as well.

From Rav Yitzĥak Abuhav:

Heaven is my witness that my only intention in writing this work was for the honor of God, and it was not for the honor of my name. For I know that there is no wisdom, knowledge, understanding, or intelligence within me, and I do not know how to express myself well.

(Menorat HaMaor, Introduction)

Orĥot Tzaddikim

This book was written in the fifteenth century by an unknown author. It is a compilation of adages, rebukes, and Musar taken from the writings of the Sages and others. It is based on earlier Musar works such as Sha’arei Teshuva by Rabbeinu Yona. The content of the book is organized in terms of opposing character traits, such as extravagance and miserliness. The writer instructs the reader to control his character traits, and advises when to apply each one. The book makes expert use of aggadic materials. It has been published in many editions and is considered one of the fundamental works of Musar due to the fact that it depicts human nature so well.

From Orĥot Tzaddikim:

One who has many different types of coins, both small and large, and does not know their value, does not know what he can buy with each one until he learns its value…. But the fool, who does not weigh them or consider their value…will certainly suffer considerable harm. My son, accept that this is a metaphor concerning the many traits within you, both large and small. Use your wisdom to assess each trait so that you know the value of each one, and so that you know which traits the great King has “put out of circulation.” Guard yourself against them so that they will not be found within you in a way that will cause you ruin or punishment. Through this, you will achieve perfection; you will be a craftsman with your tools at the ready.

(Orĥot Tzaddikim, Introduction)

Early Modern Musar

Topics related to Musar are scattered throughout the Bible and the literature of the Sages, often in the form of stories with an implicit moral lesson. The Musar literature systematized and ordered these concepts and produced a complete moral worldview. Musar literature illustrates, via the Torah’s commandments and stories, the positive and negative qualities of human beings, and defines proper and improper behavior. Close examination of the message of each story reveals what is proper and improper behavior.

This branch of literature became popular among all classes of the Jewish people because of its similarity to aggadic literature. It also addresses topics that are not well developed in aggadic literature but rather in mystical literature, such as the reward and punishment received for keeping or transgressing the mitzvot. This fits the biblical sense of the term musar, which means chastisement or punishment. These texts are today mainly learned by devotees of Musar. Some call such works“books of awe”due to the fear that they evoke in the reader.

Later Musar literature returned to the world of halakha, and applied Musar ideas to the dayto-day challenges of the Jew, whether in the synagogue or in the marketplace.

Rabbi Elazar Azikri

Rabbi Elazar Azikri (1533–1600) was born in Safed and is buried next to Rabbi Yitzĥak Luria (Arizal) in the old cemetery of Safed. He studied under the great halakhists and kabbalists of his generation. He wrote commentaries on several tractates of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. His most famous work is Sefer Ĥaredim, which arranges the mitzvot according to the parts of the body: hands, feet, nose, ears, eyes, trachea, esophagus, and heart. He emphasizes love of God as well as of humankind, and stresses the importance of harmony and fellowship between people. He established the Sukkat Shalom group, whose objective was to bring its members together and rouse them to devote themselves to God. The book is called Sefer Ĥaredim due to the great fear [harada] one should feel for improper behavior. The song Yedid Nefesh, which was later included in the prayer book, first appeared in Sefer Ĥaredim.

From Rabbi Elazar Azikri:

You must be aware that the mitzvot are all one. It is impossible to have one without another. This is like a woven garment; each thread is attached to another and participates in [the garment’s] existence.

(Sefer Ĥaredim, Introduction)

Rabbi Shmuel de Uçeda

Rabbi Shmuel de Uçeda (1545–1604) was born in Safed. He established a yeshiva where Talmud and halakha were studied alongside Kabbala. His book Midrash Shmuel is a collection of commentaries on tractate Avot, along with his own explanations of various topics in the tractate. He also wrote commentaries on the books of Ruth and Lamentations. He was a student of the Arizal, and he signed the letter recognizing Rabbi Ĥayyim Vital as the Arizal’s successor.

From Rabbi Shmuel de Uçeda:

Why is it the custom in all places to study tractate Avot between Passover and Shavuot, one chapter each Shabbat? Because at that time, the days become warmer. Physical desires are stirred up, and the evil inclination begins to rule over us. This tractate is full of words of rebuke. It encourages a person to pursue his good traits. This way, the good inclination overcomes the evil inclination. Therefore, it was decreed that tractate Avot should be studied at this time.

(Midrash Shmuel, Introduction)

Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas

Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (sixteenth century) was born in Safed and studied with Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. He apparently served as the chief rabbi of Hebron, which is where he died. His book Reshit Ĥokhma is a collection of passages and stories from the Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. The aim of the book is to instruct the individual on how to serve God. It is divided into five sections: fear, love, repentance, holiness, and humility. The book was published during the writer’s lifetime and has been printed in several editions.

A number of abridged versions have also been written, demonstrating the work’s popularity.

From Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas:

The essence of Torah for its own sake is learning Torah in order to fulfill it…that the wisdom of the Torah should impart understanding of fear of Heaven to the individual…. One’s wisdom will endure through this, as this wisdom was obtained only in the service of advancing fear of Heaven, which is the fulfillment of the Torah.

(Reshit Ĥokhma, Introduction)

Shelah – Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz

Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz (1558–1630) was born in Prague and served as the rabbi of Frankfurt, Poznan, and Krakow. He moved to Jerusalem at an advanced age. His major work, Shenei Luĥot HaBerit (abbreviated to Shelah), contains customs, Kabbala, halakha, Musar, sermons, biblical commentary, talmudic commentary, and an encyclopedia of talmudic terms. It is unique in its incorporation of such varied subjects in one work.

He had a significant influence on the hasidic movement. He also compiled a prayer book, called Siddur Sha’ar HaShamayim, and composed prayers to be recited on particular days. He suffered persecution at the hands of the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, and was even imprisoned for a short time. Subsequently, he was forced to flee to Safed. Later, he moved to Tiberias, where he died.

From Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz:

This was the wisdom of Adam the first man; he gave a name to each thing so that it would be known by that name…. Every creation in the lower realm has a source in the upper realm. If this were not so, how could the elements of this world connect [to the upper worlds], if their foundations have no source above? If creatures have no source above, how would the abundance and providence of the Master of everything spread over them? This was his wonderful insight; he perceived the source of each thing and named it in accordance with its true essence.

(Shenei Luĥot HaBerit, Toledot Adam, Bayit Aĥaron 14)

Rabbi Moshe Ĥayyim Luzzatto (Ramĥal)

Rabbi Moshe Ĥayyim Luzzatto (1707–1747) was born in Padua, Italy. He moved to Mantua and later to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and ultimately Akko. He is buried in Tiberias. He was a prolific writer. His best-known works of Kabbala are: 138 Pitĥei Ĥokhma, which discusses the foundations of Kabbala; Da’at Tevunot, written as a discussion between the mind and soul; and Ĥoker UMekubal, a proof of the truth of Kabbala.

His most famous works are Mesilat Yesharim, a book of Musar that teaches the reader how to progress from one level to the next in one’s service of God and ultimately attain divine revelation; and Derekh Hashem, which is about the foundations of faith. He also wrote books of logic, rhetoric, and grammar: Leshon Limudim and Sefer HaHigayon, as well as plays written in the Italian dramatic style: Migdal Oz and LaYesharim Tehila.

Some rabbis of his generation suspected him of heresy and Sabbateanism. He was excommunicated and made to take an oath that he would not study or teach Kabbala, and his works were even confiscated. He earned his living as a diamond cutter. He was eventually suspected of violating his oath, and he was compelled to immigrate to the Land of Israel. He settled in Akko, where he died in a plague.

From Ramĥal:

The foundation of piety, and the root of pure complete service of God, is that one clarifies and ascertains his obligation in this world and determines where his gaze and purpose need to be directed in all his life’s endeavors.

(Mesilat Yesharim 1)

Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen

Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen (1659–1729), who was born and lived in Izmir, Turkey, was a rabbinic judge and kabbalist. His most famous work is Shevet Musar, which discusses asceticism in this world, and reward and punishment in the World to Come. He was wealthy, and he strongly believed that the wealthy are obligated to care for the poor, rebuking the wealthy members of his congregation about this. His book was known to inspire fear and awe as a result of the castigations and punishments described in it. It is told that Rabbi Simĥa Bunim of Peshisĥa said that he once encountered someone who insulted and accused him, but Rabbi Simĥa Bunim then kissed him. When asked who it was, he explained that he was referring to the book Shevet Musar.

From Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen:

One must take to heart the fact that the Holy One, blessed be He, made him wealthy in order to make him a guardian of the poor…. One must place before his eyes the fact that by providing the poor with what he has, he can profit, by acquiring his place in the World to Come.

(Shevet Musar, Introduction)

Musar in the Sephardic World

Ĥida – Rabbi Ĥayyim Yosef David Azulai

Rabbi Ĥayyim Yosef David Azulai (1727–1806) was born in Hebron and traveled to Africa, Asia, and Europe to raise money for the poor and those learning Torah in the Land of Israel. He settled in Livorno, Italy, and died there, and in 1960 his remains were brought to the Mount of Olives for burial.

He was a prolific writer and wrote more than one hundred books, on a wide range of Torah subjects. His most significant halakhic works are a book of responsa called Ĥayyim Sha’al and Birkei Yosef on Shulĥan Arukh. He also wrote a historical work, Shem HaGedolim, which contains rabbinic biographies as well as a bibliography of rabbinic literature. In writing it, he became an expert at identifying manuscripts. He also wrote books of exegesis, Musar, Kabbala, biblical commentary, and novellae on the Talmud.

He recounts his journeys collecting charity as an emissary of the Jewish community in his autobiography, Ma’agal Tov. There he describes his encounters with kings and other prominent individuals, and his visits to famous sites such as Versailles, the British library in London, and the Amsterdam Zoo.

From Rabbi Ĥayyim Yosef David Azulai:

One who cheats everyone and steals from everyone is considered by the masses to be a sharp trader and is praised for knowing how to profit. His theft becomes permitted as it is called a profit…. One who fears God will open his eyes and mind to the fact that for a tiny trace of theft, one requires reincarnation in order to repay that which he stole.

(Lev David 19)

Rabbi Eliezer Papo

Rabbi Eliezer Papo (1786–1827) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and served as the head of the Jewish community of Silistra, on the border of Romania and Bulgaria. His book Peleh Yo’etz is concerned with subjects of Musar and faith. It is arranged alphabetically, advising the reader with regard to every area of life in a clear and accessible style. Rabbi Papo was also a kabbalist, and was known for his fasting and adoption of other ascetic practices.

He was greatly revered by his community as a miracle worker, and there are many legends about him. For example, it is told that he accepted upon himself death at the hand of Heaven in order to stop a plague in his city. Each day, he would pray, “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that You have mercy on every man and woman, both small and great, of Your people Israel.” He would consult his wife on Musar matters.

From Rabbi Eliezer Papo:

I beg all who are knowledgeable in matters of faith to read my work and teach my words in public, in synagogues and study halls. Perhaps God will reconsider with regard to me and bestow merit upon me because my words bear fruit, and through this my soul will rejoice in God.

(Peleh Yo’etz, Introduction)

Rabbi Ĥayyim Palagi

Rabbi Ĥayyim Palagi (1788–1869) was born in Izmir, Turkey, and was appointed the Ĥakham Bashi (chief rabbi) of Izmir. A prolific writer, he wrote around eighty books, on topics of Musar, Bible, halakha, and Kabbala. The title of each work contains his name, Ĥayyim. His book Tokheĥat Ĥayyim contains Musar insights derived from the Torah.

He worked tirelessly for the good of the community and enacted decrees benefiting the poor. For example, he ruled that the communal tax on kosher meat be distributed to the indigent. He also established compulsory education for children until they knew how to read and were proficient at using the prayer book. He endeavored to build a medical center for the Jewish community of Izmir with help from Baron Edmond James de Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore, and assisted in saving the Jews of Damascus during the “Damascus affair” blood libel.

He was popular with the Ottoman authorities and was buried in a state funeral attended by representatives of the army and government, and even by foreign diplomats.

From Rabbi Ĥayyim Palagi:

This is the character of [my wife,] the beauty of my home, who is blessed among women: Whenever there is any rejoicing or celebration in our home that involves making a meal for the poor, she does not give food to any of the invited guests until she has arranged the tables for the poor. After this, she prepares the tables of food for the invited guests.

(Tzedaka LeĤayyim, p. 55)

The Lithuanian Musar Movement

The Musar movement, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, proposes a way of serving God that emphasizes the shaping of a person’s character. It is a practical approach that spiritually prepares the individual to serve God.

Over time, the movement split into different schools of thought that emphasized particular foci: stringency and self-discipline (Kelm), the greatness and honor of humankind (Slabodka), emotional experience and spiritual refinement (Mir), and avoiding selfdeception (Novardok). The goal of all of these approaches is to be motivated by the fear of Heaven. They all emphasize caution with regard to the evil inclination, which tries to lead people astray. They teach that one must seek to understand his own character thoroughly and learn how to guide it. In practice, a follower of the Musar movement would periodically listen to Musar discourses to rouse his soul so that he would not sink into routine and neglect his moral obligations.

The Musar movement captured the hearts of many Lithuanian Jews because it constituted a clear stance against the Enlightenment, and because, like the discipline of psychology, which developed at the same time, it examines the mind of the individual with a critical and sensitive eye.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810–1883) established the Musar movement. Born in Zagare, Lithuania, he disseminated his ideas in Lithuanian cities such as Vilna and Kaunas, as well as in western Europe. Later in life he served as the rabbi of Konigsberg, Prussia, which is where he died. While he did not write any books, his students collected some of his letters and summarized some of his sermons in the book Or Yisrael. He spread his approach by establishing Musar study groups as well as small study halls where Musar was learned. Likewise, he spoke publicly about the importance of Musar. Later, he published the journal Tevuna. The essence of his approach is that the internalization of Musar ideals strengthens one’s service of God. In addition, one must work to subdue the evil inclination. It is important to know that there are times when the evil inclination obscures a person’s understanding. Therefore, one should be aware of his own nature, including his strengths and weaknesses. One must not deny or repress dark urges; rather, one must confront them with the belief that he can overcome them.

From Rabbi Yisrael Salanter:

In order to achieve fear [of God], one must study the books of Musar with enthusiasm, with a true heart, a sorrowful voice, and with lips aflame. The ideas must be expanded upon with clear imagery, because the imagination is invaluable to Musar. It awakens the soul with regard to the feelings of the limbs. It can draw imagery from matters that are known concerning the suffering of the body and soul. We see the power of the imagination with regard to the power of musical instruments and song, which transport the soul to joy or to sorrow.

(Or Yisrael, Sha’arei Or, p. 17, 3)

The Alter of Kelm – Rabbi Simĥa Zissel Ziv

Rabbi Simĥa Zissel Ziv (1827–1898) was one of the founders of the Musar movement. He was born in Kelm, Lithuania, and traveled to towns in Lithuania, Germany, and Russia to spread his teachings. He died in Kelm.

He established a yeshiva called Talmud Torah, and after it closed, he gathered his foremost students and formed a group called Devek Tov, whose members dedicated themselves to the study of Musar and to one another. His book Ĥokhma UMusar is a collection of letters written to the members of the group.

The Alter of Kelm advocated self-discipline, order, and meticulousness with regard to every detail of life. He strictly oversaw the course of study that was undertaken in the yeshiva. He taught his students never to act without prior thought, and to always behave with integrity.

From Rabbi Simĥa Zissel Ziv:

Socrates, the philosopher, said that there are some who believe that one must know the answer to every question they are asked, for if they do not, they are not wise. [Socrates continues,]“But I do not say so; rather, all my wisdom is in knowing that I know nothing”…. This is why the Sages of the Talmud were called, “students of Sages [talmidei hakhamim, they were like students, who ]”…. All their lives are still studying.

(Ĥokhma UMusar, Igeret Kevod Talmidei Ĥakhamim)

Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch

Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch (1860–1929) was born in Lithuania and was the rabbi of the city of Telz, as well as the head of the Telz yeshiva. Rabbi Bloch established numerous educational institutions in Telz, including a preparatory school for the yeshiva, a training college for teachers, a rabbinical college, and a girls’ secondary school.

The classes he taught in the yeshiva are compiled in the work Shiurei Da’at, in which he presents his outlook on numerous topics of Jewish thought, e.g., miracles and the laws of nature, prayer, and others. This work earned him a reputation as the philosopher of the Musar movement. He dealt with strong opposition to the study of Musar from some of the yeshiva heads and students.

From Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch:

The stature of a great person is great. He begins here, below, and he continues to rise until he reaches the higher, loftier realms. But the stature of a lowly person is lowly. He begins here and ends here, and even his head does not reach above his lowly world.

(Shiurei Da’at, Shiur Koma)

Rabbi Elĥanan Wasserman

Rabbi Elĥanan Wasserman (1874–1941) was born in Lithuania, was a close disciple of the Ĥafetz Ĥayyim, and was head of the Ohel Torah Yeshiva in Baranowicze. Some of his novellae on the Talmud were published in the book Kovetz Shiurim, and are still studied today. He was one of the leaders of Agudat Yisrael and opposed the Zionist movement because of the outspoken secularism of many of its leaders. When the Germans invaded Lithuania he was offered a chance to escape but chose to remain and continue to teach his students about the sanctification of God’s name. He was murdered in the Kovno Ghetto together with his students.

From Rabbi Elĥanan Wasserman:

After liberalism waned, people turned to democracy, socialism, communism, and the numerous other “isms” that have inundated our generation. Major sacrifices [korbanot shel damim], in both senses of this word [damim means both blood and money], were made to these objects of idol worship, i.e., both money and lives were sacrificed. But they all disappointed; none of these ideologies fulfilled the hopes that people hung on them.

(Ikveta deMeshiĥa, p. 18)

Rabbi Yeruĥam Levovitz

Rabbi Yeruĥam Levovitz (1876–1936) was born in Lyuban, Belarus, and served as the mashgiah, the spiritual guide, of the Radin Yeshiva and the Mir Yeshiva. He was responsible for establishing the Musar approach of the Mir Yeshiva. His sermons were compiled in the books Da’at Torah and Da’at Ĥokhma UMusar. He emphasized the uniqueness of each individual, and was known for his sensitivity toward every one of his students, even during the times when there were several hundred young men learning in the yeshiva. He exhorted people to free themselves from the shackles of society, which conceal the individual’s personality and unique virtues. He would chastise the yeshiva students for their behavior in order to help each one fulfill his personal potential.

From Rabbi Yeruĥam Levovitz:

A farmer who heals a sick person places cold water upon his head. But a doctor heals in a different manner. When one’s head hurts, he gives him drops for his heart. Because the doctor understands where the illness is coming from, this is what he heals. It is astounding how our holy Sages understood spiritual illness, and the prescriptions [i.e., spiritual advice] they gave to combat it.

(Ma’amarei HaMashgiaĥ 35, p. 72)

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892–1953), a descendant of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, was born in Homel, Belarus. He served as a rabbi in Gateshead, England, and later moved to the Land of Israel, where he served as the mashgiah of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. His writings were collected in the work Mikhtav MeEliyahu, which deals with various topics in Jewish thought such as free will, the place of God in this world, and gratitude. His thinking was influenced by Hasidism and Kabbala.

From Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler:

Every individual has free will at the point where his understanding of truth meets the apparent truth, which stems from falsehood. However, most of a person’s actions occur in a place where truth and falsehood do not come into contact with one another. For there are many things on the side of truth that an individual has been educated to do, and it would never enter his mind to do the opposite. Likewise, there are many things that one does on the side of evil and falsehood, and he does not perceive that it is not fitting to do them.

(Mikhtav MeEliyahu 1, p. 113)

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914–2005) was born in Berlin, studied at the Mir Yeshiva, taught in Stockholm, Sweden, and helped the Jews of Stockholm to establish educational institutions after the Holocaust. He moved to the Land of Israel and was appointed as the mashgiah of the Be’er Yaakov Yeshiva. Subsequently, he settled in Jerusalem.

His book Alei Shur deals with the guidance and education of yeshiva students, and also discusses Torah study and mitzva observance. The book was published anonymously and is written in an unusual style, perhaps related to the fact that the author became religious at a young age. It emphasizes individual growth. Later in life, Rabbi Wolbe did not hold an official position, but gave talks in numerous places and was the address for questions on educational matters.

From Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe:

He is like an entire world; this is the one-of-a-kind nature of the human being. There was never another like him, and there will never be another like him until the end of days. [Every individual must know:] I, with my unique combination of strengths, the child of these particular parents, born at that time and in that place, certainly have a special task and a special portion of the Torah. All of creation is waiting for me to fix that which I must fix. For I cannot exchange tasks with any other person in the world.

(Alei Shur 1, p. 168)