Daily Accounting of the Soul: Heshbon HaNefesh

Heshbon HaNefesh - A Daily "Accounting of the Soul" - A Mussar Practice (Jewish)
Heshbon HaNefesh – A Daily “Accounting of the Soul” – A Mussar Practice (Jewish)

Contributed by board member Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

In Judaism, Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.

The goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul. The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Mussar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.

One core practice is a daily “accounting of the soul” – Heshbon HaNefesh – that is conducted by reflecting on specific character traits (middot, pl; middah, sing.) like order, patience, equanimity, and humility (among many others).

We focus on specific interactions with other people and evaluate our behavior in regard to them through the lens of the one character trait that is our focus for that week.

The question we ask ourselves in this meditative process is: “How did our success or failure to realize this character trait – this middah – affect the other person?” not “How did this make me feel.”

We then note possible interactions for the coming day and contemplate how best to interact with others vis-à-vis this character trait.

From its origins in the 10th century, Mussar was a practice of the solitary seeker, until in the 19th century it became the basis for a popular social/spiritual movement originating in Lithuania, inspired by the leadership of Rabbi Israel Salanter, who, in an interesting side-note too long to detail here, came in contact with similar practices in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.

First appearing in Deuteronomy 11:2 and occurring many times later in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word Mussar means “rebuke.” In the Mussar movement the term acquired the related meaning of “discipline” as in a discipline of rebuking oneself.

The text above came in most part from intertwined quotes from Rabbi Ira Stone and from Alan Morinis. If you’re interested in exploring Mussar with them in print, these two books provide a good orientation: Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis and A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira Stone. 




Somber Jewish Summers

2016 17th of Tammuz Three Weeks Destruction and Renewal

Tammuz 17 and the Three Weeks: Destruction and Renewal

Submitted by board member, Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

Observance of the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz (July 24, 2016) begins The Three Weeks of Mourning leading to the most somber of fast days, the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av, August 14, 2016).

Included in The Three Weeks are The Nine Days – from the first day of Av until Tisha b’Av itself.  Both periods have increasingly focused mourning practices with a minimization of joy, celebration and even everyday comforts.

On the 9th of Av/Tisha b’Av we mourn the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews during the times of the destructive loss of our spiritual center, the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred not once, but twice: 586 BCE by the Babylonians and 70 CE by the Romans.

A full sundown to sundown, 24+ hour fast, extensive additions to the morning prayer service in the form of penitential prayers, chanting of the Book of Lamentations, and songs of lament/kinot are all a part of Tisha b’Av mourning practices.

We come out of the dark sorrow of The Three Weeks and Tisha b’Av into the hope of restoration expressed by our prophets. Each Shabbat/Sabbath between the end of Tisha b’Av and the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah brings words of comfort from the prophets as part of these seven Shabbat morning services.

MyJewishLearning.com is good source of information about the background and traditional observances of these commemorations. Click on the following items to learn more:

The 17th of Tammuz
The Three Weeks of Mourning
Tisha b’Av

In regards to spiritual practices over the centuries and into today’s Jewish world, Jay Michaelson “beat me to the punch” with his article on Fasting from a Functional Perspective.  I’m not as wise or articulate as he and am glad to have his insights to share with you.

Listed at the bottom are additional links, should you be interested in exploring more aspects of what makes Jewish mid-summers somber.

At the heart of the matter for me this year comes the intersection between the particular – my Jewish observance – and the universal – the state of the world today.

I want to encourage you not to suffer alone from the pain that national and international events bring, but to find a community of people with whom to mourn the now all-too-regular tragedies.

If you are out of words, I share these from my tradition, hoping they might prompt words of your own.  They come from one portion of the lengthy traditional prayers for fast days – Selichot – prayers asking not only for forgiveness, but for mercy and for a way back from the depths of despair – a mournful cry of a mythic-historic despair that remains real for me and many others.

As you start with the prayer pattern below, find a way to make the words your own. From my faith I can speak them. Maybe you cannot. Adjust them to voice your soul’s longing to be answered. Find your community. Make a community. Say them out loud. Sing them out loud. Hear one another. Share the pain to lessen the pain, then turn from the pain and move into the “what’s next.”

ANEINU – Answer Us

Answer us, Lord, answer us.
Answer us, our God, answer us.
Answer us, our Father, answer us.
Answer us, our Creator, answer us.
Answer us, our Redeemer, answer us.
Answer us, You who seek us, answer us.
Answer us, God who is faithful, answer us.
Answer us, You who are ancient and kind, answer us.
Answer us, You who are pure and upright, answer us.
Answer us, You who are alive and remain, answer us.
Answer us, You who are good and do good, answer us.
Answer us, You who know our impulses, answer us.
Answer us, You who conquer rage, answer us.
Answer us, You who clothe Yourself in righteousness, answer us.
Answer us, supreme King of kings, answer us.
Answer us, You are supreme and elevated, answer us.
Answer us, You who forgive and pardon, answer us.
Answer us, You who are righteous and straightforward, answer us.
Answer us, You who are close to those who call, answer us.
Answer us, You who are compassionate and gracious, answer us.
Answer us, You who listen to the destitute, answer us.
Answer us, You who support the innocent, answer us.
Answer us, God of our fathers, answer us.
Answer us, God of Abraham, answer us.
Answer us, Terror of Isaac, answer us.
Answer us, Champion of Jacob, answer us.
Answer us, Help of the tribes, answer us.
Answer us, Stronghold of the mothers, answer us.
Answer us, You who are slow to anger, answer us.
Answer us, You who are lightly appeased, answer us.
Answer us, You who answer at times of favor, answer us.
Answer us, Father of orphans, answer us.
Answer us, Justice of widows, answer us.

Additional lines follow in a new pattern – in the manner of “The One who answered *****, answer us” where the ***** represents historical figures from Abraham through Ezra to the “so many righteous, devoted, innocent and upright people.”  We conclude with

Loving God, who answers the oppressed: answer us.
Loving God, who answers the broken-hearted: answer us.
Loving God, who answers those of humbled spirit: answer us.
Loving God, answer us.
Loving God, spare; Loving God, release; Loving God, save us.
Loving God have compassion for us now, swiftly, at a time soon coming.

Kein yehi ratzon – Thus may it be so.

Additional Links with Information, Points of View and Practices

From the Meaningful Life Center 

Aspects of Jewish law related to the 17th of Tammuz and The Three Weeks

An adult education lesson plan related to Tisha b’Av from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles

About The Three Weeks, from the Velveteen Rabbi

A “passionate colorful totally imperfect mother of 8” – Rivka Malka writes of The Three Weeks and Healing the World Through Love

A journalist writing of her path through one year of Jewish holidays, festivals, memorials and commemorations.

Prayer translations taken from the Koren Sacks Siddur. Any typing errors are mine alone.

Counting the Omer

Lab B'Omer

Contributed by Board Chair, Rabbi Cantor Anne Heath


The “Counting of the Omer,” which is a mourning period of sorts between Passover and Shavuot, originated as an agricultural tradition but became associated with tragic memories in Jewish history. Jews suspend the mourning period for one day during the Omer. This day, the thirty-third day of the Omer, is the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. “Lag” is how to pronounce the abbreviation for the Hebrew word for “thirty-third.” In 2016, observance of Lag B’Omer will begin at sundown on May 25.

In the course of the long centuries of exile, the days between Passover and Shavuot have on many occasions been periods of distress and misfortune for the Jewish people. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Crusader massacre of the Jews of Jerusalem took place at this time. In Roman times, according to tradition, a great plague raged among the students of Rabbi Akiba during this period, coming to an end on the eighteenth of Iyar, which is Lag B’Omer. Another tradition concerns Shimon Bar Yochai, a distinguished disciple of Rabbi Akiba. Sentenced to death by the Romans for his participation in a revolt against them, he hid in a cave and did not come out until Lag B’Omer, when he learned that the enemy had been defeated. Because of the connection to Rabbi Akiba and his students, Lag B’Omer is known as the Scholar’s Festival, and Jewish children throughout the world hold special celebrations to mark the occasion.


Many synagogues hold picnics and outings on Lag B’Omer, with food, music, dance, sporting events (often in the form of the competitive Maccabiah), and other festivals. It is often the last social get-together before the summer vacation. Jewish weddings are often held on Lag B’Omer as well. Some synagogues hold a bonfire and cookout on Lag B’Omer which often includes Israeli singing and dancing.

In Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day for bonfire celebrations. The most famous is held at the village of Meron, near the northern city of Safed. Shimon Bar Yochai is said to be buried there, and huge crowds gather at his tomb for this very happy celebration. It is said that while Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was hiding in his cave he wrote a famous holy book of mysticism called the Zohar. On Lag B’Omer, many of the Hasidim study portions of the Zohar during the special celebrations at Meron.

Finally, some synagogue schools have turned Lag B’Omer into a day for honoring their religious school teachers. Special assemblies and parties are held, and awards are often given to the teachers.

The custom of children playing with a bow and arrow on Lag B’Omer is traced to the legend that rainbows did not appear during the lifetime of Shimon Bar Yochai because of his saintliness. A rainbow (“Keshet” in Hebrew) is a sign that the world would not be destroyed. Since Bar Yochai was so good, there was no need for the affirmation of the rainbow. The word for “bow” in Hebrew is the same as the word for “rainbow,” therefore children play with bows and arrows to remember Bar Yochai. Other people associate the custom with the traditions that the students of Rabbi Akiba deceived the Romans by carrying bows and arrows to pretend that they were hunting, when in fact they were studying Torah, which the Romans had forbidden.

Since the days preceding Lag B’Omer were traditionally considered days of mourning, and therefore haircutting and shaving were not permitted, Lag B’Omer became a time for youngsters to get their first haircut. Often their parents plied them with wine and sweets to celebrate this happy occasion. Since Lag B’Omer is a break from the mourning, people also choose to have weddings then, which are prohibited during the period from Pesach to Shavuot.

Some families use Lag B’Omer as the occasion for a family outing or picnic.


Source: Sacred Celebrations: A Jewish Holiday Handbook by Ronald H. Isaacs and Kerry M. Olitzky. Ktav Publishing House: Hoboken, New Jersey, 1994. From www.bigtentjudaism.org

Jewish Spiritual Practice


From board member Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

In Rabbi Rifat Sonsino’s book, 6 Jewish Paths: A Rationalist Looks at Spirituality (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), his guiding text comes from the Babylonian Talmud tractate, Berakhot (Blessings), page 63a:

Bar Kapparah expounded: Which is the brief biblical passage upon which all the basic principles of the Torah depend? “In all your ways, know the divine” – Proverbs 3:6

The book’s first chapter “Spirituality – What Is It?” ends with a brief story:

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his students, “Where does God dwell?” Thinking the answer obvious, one of them said, “God dwells everywhere!” “No,” said the Rabbi, “God dwells wherever we let God in.” Each person must do this according to his or her own personal needs and disposition.

Rabbi Sonsino then devotes a chapter to each of the six paths: (1) acts of transcendence, (2) study, (3) prayer, (4) meditation, (5) ritual and (6) relationship and good deeds. These paths encompass a variety of spiritual practices – some solitary and many communal.

Sonsino’s summary chapter “Finding Your Spiritual Path” reflects the Exodus 24:7 verse where the people Israel stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, affirming their acceptance of the Covenant, saying together, “na’aseh v’nishmah” – “we will do and we will hear.”

Our rabbis and sages throughout the generations have taught from this Torah verse that doing comes before understanding, before “hearing.”

This is the way of spiritual practices.  It is called “practice” because that’s what you’re doing, you’re practicing. And, you’re practicing in order to be able to practice more deeply and fully, not because there is some end point or some point of perfection.  Each practice is a unit in and of itself.  It may inform future moments, give you greater understanding, allow you to do more, but it is what it was in its own time. Each practice provides an opening to “know the divine” in all your ways and to do and then hear and do and hear, throughout all the days of your life.

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik – May you go from strength to strength, and may we all be strengthened.

More information here:

Talmud: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/talmud-101/ )

A more traditional translation is “in all your ways acknowledge Him”

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/mendel.html

Torah http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-torah/