Journaling and Cheshbon Hanefesh
Our Gemara on Amud Beis records an incident where a person sought an expert opinion from Rabbi Chiyyah who was appraising the quality and value of a certain coin. He appraised it incorrectly, causing her financial loss. The Talmud rules that experts are not strictly liable for errors made in good faith. Nonetheless, as an act of piety, Rabbi Chiyyah took financial responsibility. He made a cryptic notation in his record book, “Deyn Esek Bish, this was a bad exchange.”
Divrei Yoel (Yisro) says this was not a financial ledger, but rather a personal journal, that Rabbi Chiyyah used for self-assessment. He assumed that his being an instrument of loss and mishap indicates some sin on his part that he must remember to reflect upon, and correct.
The idea of journaling is well embraced by both practitioners of mussar, as well as psychology. According to Jeremy Sutton, PhD, journaling offers many benefits ( https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-journaling/ ):
While the exact mechanisms involved in journaling that confer physical and mental health benefits are not clear, the following psychological processes may be involved, to a greater or lesser degree (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):
- Emotional catharsis -An emotional release of unconscious conflicts through venting negative feelings.
- Increased cognitive processing – Time spent creating coherent narratives of what has happened.
- Repeated exposure – Increased and prolonged exposure to stressful events may lead to a reduction in harmful thoughts and feelings. Actively inhibiting negative emotions takes a considerable effort, further stressing the body and mind. Confronting them may support cognitive integration and further understanding.
There is a famous mussar sefer, “Cheshbon Hanefesh”, written by Rav Mendel Lapin (1749-1826) which was endorsed by Rav Yisroel Salanter. It was a systemic day by day system of goals and record keeping, which he disclosed not his own, but rather an adaptation from another wise person. (It was actually Benjamin Franklin’s system of character development described in his autobiography (Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Kenneth Silverman (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).
Rav Lapin borrowed Benjamin Franklin’s 13 character qualities and adapted them to Hebrew and Jewish sensibilities. Here is a link to a side by side comparison from Ben Franklin’s original to Rabbi Lapin’s version and then Rav Yisrael’s version:
To make matters more interesting, Rav Lapin was a Maskil – not just a haskala sympathizer, but the real thing. Ideologically, a sworn enemy of those in the mussar camp. (See https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Lefin_Menahem_Mendel ). However, despite this, Rav Lapin’s system was so erudite and supported by Jewish traditional sources which he spelled out, and written in a beautiful Hebrew, that it was endorsed by Rav YIsrael and the Mussar movement. Here is what Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZT’L reportedly said about this phenomenon:
(From the book ‘Shiurim of Avigdor’ on Torah and holidays – Edition of Derech HaChaim, 5780, page 365, Parashat Behar Bechukotai).
“One must seek advice on how to succeed…There is advice on this in the book ‘Cheshbon HaNefesh’ written by Rabbi Mendel Satanover, of blessed memory, who lived during the time of the GR”A. This book…is full of great wisdom about the various powers of the soul and advice on how to harness them for the good in the service of God – in this book, there is a path that we can follow to succeed and transform.
When I was in Slabodka, there was a ‘Mussar Committee,’ a group of Slabodka students, including heads of yeshivas, rabbis, and students from the yeshiva…They took it upon themselves to reprint one of the ethical works and bring it to light in a new edition for the benefit of the public. I attended one of the meetings, and there they considered whether to choose the commentary of Rabbi Yonah on Mishle. But in the end, despite Rabbi Yonah being a Rishon,’ it was decided to publish the book ‘Cheshbon HaNefesh.’
Do you understand the significance? The people there were experts in the matter of mussar, heads of yeshivas, scholars. And from all the ethical books, they chose ‘Cheshbon HaNefesh.’ Another interesting fact – Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, of blessed memory, in his book ‘Ohr Yisrael,’ does not mention any specific book, except in one place where he writes ‘see Cheshbon HaNefesh.’ This is a great, special recommendation worthy of note, regarding this unique book.
Of Course You Will…
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph derives the ethical directive to go beyond the letter of the law, Lifnim Mishuras Hadin, from the following verse (Shemos 18:20):
וְהִזְהַרְתָּ֣ה אֶתְהֶ֔ם אֶת־הַחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַתּוֹרֹ֑ת וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֣ לָהֶ֗ם אֶת־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔הּ וְאֶת־הַֽמַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲשֽׂוּן
“And you shall show them the way wherein they must walk, and the deeds that they shall do”
Says the Gemara, “The deeds that they shall do”; this is referring to conducting oneself beyond the letter of the law.
The commentaries (Malbim, Maharsha Bava Metzia 30b) have difficulty explaining what is the implication from the text. How does “The deeds that they shall do” connote going beyond the letter of the law?
Rav Yosef Engel (Gilyonei Hashas) explains that the Hebrew clause “asher”, which means something akin to “that is” or “that will be” has a connotation of something that is optionally done (see Gemara Makkos 8a, where they derive that the accidental death described in the verse came from an action that was not involved in an obligatory mitzvah (Devarim 19:5): “And whoever comes with his peer into the woods to chop trees…”, exempting someone who commits manslaughter when performing a mitzvah from exile.)
Therefore, Rav Yosef says the implication from the phrase “The deeds that they shall do”, is deeds that are to be done, but still undertaken voluntarily.
This is an important idea regarding taking on various extra chumros in life. If you can take it on out of a sense that this is something that you naturally want to do, and can do it without bitterness and resentment, go for it. However, even though it is a moral obligation to go beyond the letter of the law and not just extra credit, so to speak, (see Reshimos Shiurim, ibid), one must still not do it in a manner that feels to be a burden. As Yersushalmi (Nedarim 9:1) exhorts: “Is it not enough for you what the Torah already forbade?!”
The Shalah (Torah Shebiksav Sefer Vayikra Torah Ohr Kedoshim) says that each person has their own Torah. There are too many particulars and judgment calls about when to hold back from pleasures and when to indulge that the Torah cannot give custom and specific directions, rather each person must decide what works properly according to his or her temperament and inclinations.
Unkosher is Not What it Appears to Be
Our Gemara on amud beis discusses the halachic status of changes in appearance, such as dyes. This is known as חֲזוּתָא מִילְּתָא “A surface appearance has its own independent significance”. There are numerous halachic implications discussed in the poskim such as if the dye is stolen and is on an object, is returning the object like returning the dye? Some even relate this discussion to if it is permissible to dye a lulav or schach green, or is the dye considered an alien object, and therefore a separation which interferes with the mitzvah.
There is a well-known principle that when it comes to sacred objects there is a higher standard. Thus while one may not consume pork, one indeed may use a pork derivative to dye their shoes. However, one is not allowed to use unkosher animal products in the manufacture of tefillin, mezuzos and a sefer Torah (Shulchan Aruch OC 32:12). This leads to a discussion of how could techeles (the blue dye made from a chilazon) be used for the sacramental objects of the Mishkan, when it seems to be some kind of non-kosher sea urchin or snail? (See Chida Kedoshim and Noda Beyehuda (II:3)). One of the answers given is that we see from here that dye on the surface has no independent significance and therefore does not really exist.
Regardless of the halachic technicalities, one must wonder why would the Torah utilize a non-kosher animal for such sacred practices? The blue dye, which must have been a deep and rich color, symbolically was supposed to remind one of the Divine Throne (Menachos 43b). On a metaphysical level we simply cannot dismiss the significance of this.
I would like to suggest a provocative idea, supported by sources which I will cite: Really, there is no such thing as something impure or non-kosher. It is all a matter of timing and place. There is a Midrashic tradition that in the Messianic future, swine will be permitted to eat (see Ritva Kiddushin 49b, Midrash Tehilim 146, Ohr HaChayyim Vayikra 11:7, seemingly based on Koheles Rabbah 1:9 and Vayikra Rabbah 1:3).
Perhaps not coincidentally, our Gemara on amud aleph references the prohibition of Arlah, that is the ruke that first three years of a fruit bearing tree is taboo, and the fourth year is consecrated.
Mei Hashiloach (Kedoshim) quotes the following Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 25:2): “Adam could not wait for just one hour (to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), yet your children wait for the Arlah fruit for three years.” He explains that all the forbidden foods are only considered as foods whose time is not yet proper to eat. This means that a person cannot accept them in this current state, but at their root, they also have sanctity since they were created by the Almighty. As stated in Niddah (61a), “Commandments are nullified in the future” What is forbidden now because it is the wrong time. If Adam had waited, it would have been permissible for him to eat. This is as we have mentioned, for the essence of the prohibition is in that it occludes the heart of man and renders his mind and thoughts tied up, preventing him from returning to the Almighty as he did before consuming it. However, if he had waited, the Almighty would have granted him a broad understanding, allowing him to accept this matter without causing loss of connection to the Creator.
The Chilazon is not merely a forbidden material technically allowed in the Mishkan. Rather, it is an intrinsically valued material, which for some reason, at our point in time must be forbidden to us.
We can take this idea about techeles even further. There is a famous Talmudic story (Menachos 44a) which describes a rabbi who was saved from sin due to his tzitzis:
There was an incident involving a certain man who was diligent about the mitzva of ritual fringes. This man heard that there was a prostitute in one of the cities overseas who took four hundred gold coins as her payment. He sent her four hundred gold coins and fixed a time to meet with her.
When his time came, he came and sat at the entrance to her house. The maidservant of that prostitute entered and said to her: That man who sent you four hundred gold coins came and sat at the entrance. She said: Let him enter. He entered. She arranged seven beds for him, six of silver and one of gold. Between each and every one of them there was a ladder made of silver, and the top bed was the one that was made of gold. She went up and sat naked on the top bed, and he too went up in order to sit naked facing her. In the meantime, his four ritual fringes came and slapped him on his face. He dropped down and sat himself on the ground, and she also dropped down and sat on the ground.
She said to him: I take an oath by the gappa of Rome that I will not allow you to go until you tell me what defect you saw in me. He said to her: I take an oath by the Temple service that I never saw a woman as beautiful as you. But there is one mitzvah that the Lord, our God, commanded us, and its name is ritual fringes, and in the passage where it is commanded, it is written twice: “I am the Lord your God” (Numbers 15:41). The doubling of this phrase indicates: I am the one who will punish those who transgress My mitzvot, and I am the one who will reward those who fulfill them. Now, said the man, the four sets of ritual fringes appeared to me as if they were four witnesses who will testify against me. She said to him: I will not allow you to go until you tell me: What is your name, and what is the name of your city, and what is the name of your teacher, and what is the name of the study hall in which you studied Torah? He wrote the information and placed it in her hand. She arose and divided all of her property, giving one-third as a bribe to the government, one-third to the poor, and she took one-third with her in her possession, in addition to those beds of gold and silver.
She came to the study hall of Rabbi Ḥiyya and said to him: My teacher, instruct your students concerning me and have them make me a convert. Rabbi Ḥiyya said to her: My daughter, perhaps you set your sights on one of the students and that is why you want to convert? She took the note the student had given her from her hand and gave it to Rabbi Ḥiyya. He said to her: Go take possession of your purchase.
Those beds that she had arranged for him in a prohibited fashion, she now arranged for him in a permitted fashion. The Gemara completes its point about the reward of mitzvot and points out how this story illustrates the concept: This is the reward given to him in this world, and with regard to the World-to-Come, I do not know how much reward he will be given.
Aside from the obvious lessons in this story, I suggest that there was a hint of the power of techeles, reminding this man that what is forbidden might eventually become permitted, in the right way at the right time, just as indeed occurred for him.