Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 13 Midos- #1

I had some time over Shabbos to read something I honestly hadn’t looked at for a number of years, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Iggeres HaMussar, most recently translated by Rabbi Zvi Miller. I didn’t get very far before I came across this:
Our Sages, of blessed memory, state (Yoma 9b): “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of the follow three sins that occurred there: idol worship, immorality, and murder. Yet, in the period of the Second Temple, they were involved in Torah study, mitzvos, and acts of kindness-so why was it destroyed? As a result of the baseless hatred that was there. Rebbi Yochanan and Rebbi Eliezer both said, ‘Since concerning the First Temple, their trangressions were revealed-their time of redemption was revealed. In the Second Temple, where their sins were not revealed-their time of redemption was not revealed.’”


I must admit, it got me thinking. With the three weeks approaching, where was I holding in terms of my bein adam le chaveiro? I know the answer, I’ve got room for improvement. Today I saw a rusty gear. I connected to it. I know that I need to be moving in a certain direction, but when one slacks off in midos managment, one gets rusty. I quickly thought of Yisrael Salanter’s 13 Midos (strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin). I thought it might do me some good to write a little about them. My goal is to have all the postings finished by Tisha B’Av. Heads Up: This is not directed at anyone, except myself. Like the intro to Mesillas Yesharim, I’m not writing anything that people don’t know. In fact, one of the amazing things about Rav Yisrael, was that the whole Mussar movement really was just to give emphasis to aspects of Yiddishkeit that had become commonplace for most people. That’s real the gadlus of his 13 Midos. Each one is directed toward the self, yet key for our relationship with others. I’ll start of briefly, with the first one:

Truth: Never speak a word unless your heart can testify to its truth
The first thought that comes to mind is how often do I put my heart into what I say? Rav Yisrael doesn’t say “never speak a word unless you can prove what you say”, he says that one’s heart has to be able to testify that what we say is emes. One must be passionate when one talks. I need to be alive when I say something and I need to give over that passion. Obviously the first step is to be truthful to yourself, then to others. Based on this first midah, our heart serves as a witness to what we say and who we say it to.

I know mussar isn’t a favorite topic for most of us, but comments are welcome.

9 thoughts on “Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 13 Midos- #1

  1. Rafi G

    does he mean being passionate about how you say things? maybe. But maybe he means that your heart really has to be behind your words. meaning you really have to believe you are saying the truth and not “fudging” it even a bit.
    The general facts you say might (or might not) be provable, but in your heart you really know whether what you are saying (and how you are conveying it and the messge of your words) is really truth or not.

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  2. socialworker/frustrated mom

    Beautiful I look forward to the rest. This is a real toughy. Our heart is emotion which masks our intellect sometimes from telling the truth. I think it is hard to go by the heart and not brain to seek truth. Sometimes our heart tells us the truth and it is our gut reaction but sometimes our heart is too passionate to rely on it and it is easier to go by our brain I think. Great thoughts for me to ponder during these 3 weeks thanks so much.

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  3. David Guttmann

    Truth is interesting. It is always a relative term except when applied to HKBH. See Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 1:2 –
    לפיכך אין אמיתתו כאמיתת אחד מהם. [ד] הוא שהנביא אומר “וה’ אלוהים אמת” (ירמיהו י,י)–הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו. והוא שהתורה אומרת “אין עוד, מלבדו” (דברים ד,לה), כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו.

    Just as a simple example if I say it is hot I am saying it is warmer than when it is cold, therefore what is hot to one can be cold to another. it goes much farther and is not for a comment.

    I wonder if R,Ysroel meant heart or in the original it was “Lev” which refers to intellect in classic Hebrew in that context. “Vayomer Hashem el Libo” is one examle.

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  4. FrumGirl

    I used to believe that any lie is bad. But then I was taught that sometimes its a mitzvah to lie. Like Aharon Hakohen used to sometimes tell white lies for bringing sholom between two people.

    I suppose the famous example would be – wife asks hubby – do I look fat – hubby says no = sholom bayis. So what I learn from your post is… his heart could testify to the truth – in his heart he loves her and didnt want her to feel bad and therefor that is the truth of his heart.

    Thanks, that is an important lesson!

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  5. Neil Harris

    SW/FM- You wrote: I think it is hard to go by the heart and not brain to seek truth. Very true. It wasn’t until I got out of high school that I learned that according to Judaism, the heart is where wisdom is. Often we try to cheshbon out stuff in our brains, and not listen to the logic of the heart.

    Reb David- Leave it to you to quote a Rambam! I agree. Hashem is the true emes, and “אין עוד, מלבדו”. Yet, emes can manifest itself in the world thru speech. Maybe that’s what Rav Yisrael was trying to say. The original hebrew I believe says “lev”. Great point, thanks.

    Frumgirl-What a great example. I read that there was actually a big disagreement b/t the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Yisrael. The CC said the if you speak Lashon Hora about someone without their knowledge, then you are obligated to tell them and appoligize. RYS said that you would do more harm than good by telling someone that you spoke Lashon Hora about them, b/c if they found out that you did it, it would hurt their feelings. Thanks for adding another view to our topic at hand.

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