The Mussar movement was a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Eastern Europe, particularly among Orthodox Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term Mussar (מוּסַר), is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning instruction, discipline, or conduct. The term was used by the Mussar movement to refer to efforts to further ethical and spiritual discipline. The Mussar Movement made significant contributions to Jewish ethics.
The history of Mussar begins here with a short history of a few divinely inspired men...
Early leaders of the Mussar Movement
The Mussar movement arose among the non-Hadisic Lithuanian Jews, and became a trend in their Talmudic schools. The founding is attributed to Rabbi Yisrael Lipkan Salanter (1810–1883); however, the roots of the movement was formed on ideas previously in classical Mussar literature and with ideas from such figures as the Gaon of Vilna (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon of Vilna) and Rabbi Yosef Zundel. Before the founding of the Mussar movement, Mussar was a practice of the solitary seeker. Thanks to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, it became the basis for a popular/ethical movement after this period of time through the diligent proliferation of this knowledge by his students.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter was a promising young rabbi with an incredible knowledge of Jewish law living in Salantai, Lithuania. He was initially inspired to dedicate his life to the cause of spreading Mussar by his teacher Rabbi Yosef Zundel Salant (1786–1866), who was a student of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin and Akiva Eiger.1 These rabbis were profoundly good-hearted and filled with humble behavior and simple lifestyle that attracted Rabbi Yisrael's interest. It was Rabbi Yosef Zundel who urged Salanter to focus himself on Mussar and continue in the study of Mussar.
Widely recognized as a rabbi of exceptional wisdom and teaching, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter became head of the yeshivah in Vilna (Vilnius) at the age of thirty, where he quickly became well known in the community for his tremendous scholarship.2 He soon gave this post to open up his own Yeshiva at the Nevyozer Kloiz where he emphasized moral teachings based on the ethics taught in traditional Jewish rabbinic works. He referred to his approach as the mussar approach, using the Hebrew word for ethics.
Despite the prohibition against doing work on Shabbat, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter set an example for the Lithuanian Jewish community during the cholera epidemic of 1848. He set up a system that any necessary relief work on Shabbat for Jews was done by Jews. While there were those who wanted such work to be done on Shabbat by non-Jews, Rabbi Salanter believed and maintained that both Jewish ethics and law mandated that pikuah nefesh, saving a life, was paramount to the laws of the Torah. During Yom Kippur, Rabbi Salanter ordered that Jews that year must not abide by the traditional fast, lest they make themselves vulnerable to the cholera epidemic and die.
Between 1844-46, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter began laying the foundation for his Mussar work around the age of 36 and departing from some traditional methods of his predecessors. He began initiatives in the printing of Mussar works, started giving shi’urs (lessons) on the subject of Mussar and created a special place to study Mussar works.3 By 1850 he left Vilna for Kovno where he founded a yeshiva based on Mussar and attempted to pass down information and teaching of Mussar to his students, who would serve as the basis cell of his movement.
His students numbered 150 and Mussar was well on its way to becoming a movement. His extraordinary work regarding the study of Torah and Jewish ethics have brought us an invaluable gift which, in many contemporary circles in Judaism today, is experiencing a revival.
1. Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth by I. Etkes, page 69
2. ibid.,page 79
3. ibid., page 86