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. 




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/