History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Bachya and Other Moralists.

Now we are going to tell about another type of man who flourished during the Golden Era of Spain, Bachya Ibn Pakudah. We will call him a moral philosopher. We have said that little was known of the personal life of Gabirol; still less is there to tell of his contemporary, Bachya. We gather the meagre facts that he flourished in Saragossa around the year 1040 and that he was one of the three judges appointed by the synagogue to decide all questions for the community on Jewish law. They were called Dayanim. Their court was styled Beth Din (House of Law). They are maintained in Jewish communities to this day.

A Moral Philosopher.

But Bachya's chief concern was not to answer questions of law and ritual, but those of moral duty and life. His character, as far as we can gather, was consistent with the great task he set himself to do — to prepare a system of ethics for his people. He took life earnestly; he devoted himself to study as a sacred duty — for it was his feeling that every door of learning was an opening to a fuller knowledge of God. W^hile some ever fear that too much research into reals of wisdom might undermine faith — for him knowledge only strengthened its foundations. For his piety was unspoiled by narrowness — let us say he was too religious to be narrow. He learnt from all persons and from all things. Naturally he made grammatical and scientific study subordinate to moral culture. He studied not for intellectual pleasure nor for the power that knowledge brings nor for profit. He sat at the feet of the sages that he might learn the way of God and walk in it. Here was the true union of literature and life.

His piety took an ascetic turn. He regarded selfdenial as the highest human ideal and believed that it was well that a few at least should lead the abstemious life as models for the rest of mankind.

On the whole, Judaism as such has not encouraged asceticism though leaving a place for it. It preaches sobriety and moderation rather than rigid abstinence. None the less, asceticism, when gladly undertaken, is a legitimate expression of religious life, which we must not ignore — for our varied history offers many examples of the voluntary choice of the abstinent life, from the Nazarites and Essenes of antiquity down to certain groups of mystics nearer our own time. Rabbi Meier taught: "This is the path of the Torah: A morsel of salt shalt thou eat, thou shalt drink also water by measure and shalt sleep upon the ground and live a life of painfulness."

"Duties of the Heart."

Bachya's magnum opus, great work, written in Arabic, but best known in its Hebrew translation, is called "Chavoth Halevavoth" (Duties of the Heart.) Philosophically, he inclined towards the Neo-Platonic school like Ibn Gabirol. But while Gabirol's "Source of Life" was rather neglected by the Jews, Bachya's "Duties" was very popular and exercised a profound influence over Israel. It has not only been translated in many tongues and expanded in many commentaries, but special abridgements were compiled for private devotion.

This work, excepting perhaps that of his contemporary, Gabirol, was really the first system of Ethics in Jewish literature. Pirke Aboth ("Ethics of the Fathers," in the Mishna) did not formulate an ethical system any more than the bibhcal books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes or the Apocryphal books of "Wisdom of Solomon" and "Ecclesiasticus." All of these contain miscellaneous maxims and homilies.

Indeed Bachya felt "called" to write this book in answer to a sore need. He noticed that the rabbinical law was largely concerned with ceremonial, and with duties of the body, or at best with external measurements of right and wrong. He would lay stress on the internal motives of conduct. With such we may class—the tenth commandment: the phrase of Ps. xv, "Speaking the truth in one's heart:" and the sincere Pharisees—the highest class of the seven indicated in the Talmud—"those who do the will of their father because they love Him."

He bases Judaism on three pillars—Reason, Revelation and Tradition. Although he was versed in philosophy, his aim was not to evolve a philosophy of Judaism, to appeal to the intellect, but a work of exhortation to appeal to the heart — human duty in its widest application. He demonstrated earnestness of purpose and with great power of expression.

The work is divided into ten divisons that he calls "gates," corresponding to ten principles on which he based the spiritual life:

  • First Gate: God. The unity of God. God is to be realized first through the mind by profound thought, second through the heart by love. He argues from the created world that there is a First Cause, and, from the harmony of the universe, to that Cause being one.
  • Second Gate: Reflection. It is man's duty to ponder on God and His wisdom as displayed in the wonders of nature and man.
  • Third Gate: Worship of God. Who gives without asking return from man.
  • Fourth Gate: Trust in Divine Providence. This gives true content in this Hfe and confidence for the soul in the hereafter.
  • Fifth Gate: The Consecration of Work—in unity and sincerity of purpose.
  • Sixth Gate: Humility. This arises from contemplation of divine grandeur; it teaches patience and charitableness.
  • Seventh Gate: Repentance. This consists of the recognition of sin, confession, the resolution of reform, and change of heart.
  • Eighth Gate: Self-Examination. This section dwells on the exalted state of the soul that acquires spiritual knowledge by intuition.
  • Ninth Gate: The Ascetic Life, aloof from the world. Sanctioned by the biblical institution of the Nazarite, he regarded it is a most salutary discipline of the soul.
  • Tenth Gate: Love of God. Life's aim. The soul's longing for its Maker, whose service is contained in the Law, is not a burden but a joy.

Here are some extracts from the "Duties":—

Knowledge of the Unseen. — The wisdom of the Torah is divided into two parts: First: Wisdom of the visible, that enables us to know the duties of the body and its members. Second: Duties of the heart and. mind that concern thought and feeling and whose fulfilment is entirely in the hidden depths of the human heart and soul. . . . These form the inexhaustible sovirce of innumerable virtues and obligations.

The obligation to fulfil the duties of the heart and mind is greater than any other, for, whether they refer to the commands of Reason or to those of Scripture or Tradition, they are the foundation of all the precepts; and if there chance to be even the slightest failure in the ethics of the soul, there can be no proper fulfilment of any external ethical duty.

No act of any kind is done completely unless the soul delights in doing it. So with sinful conduct, it is not the act itself but the sinful intention by which one incurs guilt.

Humility. — The truly humble man will mourn for all the mistakes made by other men, and not triumph or rejoice over them.

Among the aids to the cultivation of humility are the contemplation of the greatness of man's obligation to the Creator. . . . and on the insignificance of man in comparison with even this earth; while in comparison with the greatness of the Creator the whole universe is as nothing.

When one of the Chassidim passed a dog's carcass, the disciples said "how ofifensively it smells!" The teacher said "how white are its teeth!" If it be wrong to speak disparagingly of a dead dog how much more so of a living man; and if it be merit to praise a dead dog for the whiteness of its teeth, how much more is it a duty tq find out and praise the least merit in an intellectual human being.

Humility brings content — for a humble man assigns no special rank to himself and is satisfied with whatever comes to him.

We must study the universe so as to understand the wisdom and goodness of the Creator, but we must study the human species — the nearest and most obvious evidence of divine wisdom. When you Ijave studied all that can be known of the universe do not think that you know all about the wisdom and powers of God. For here he has only manifested just so much as is necessary for the good of man.

Faith. — To serve God we must trust God. There should be no thought or intention in all one does except to do it for the sake of God alone, with no thought of human praise or the fear of man, or of advantage, or of the removal of dangers in this world or in a future state, Those who love God will do right without hope of reward, and will forsake evil without fear of punishment. A man should desire to be kept from both poverty and riches.

The Torah permits our swearing by the name of the Creator to what is true, but I counsel you not to take an oath by the holy name of God. Say simply "yes" or "no."


The following are some ethical teachings of Jewish moralists of Spain and also of other lands:

From Rokeach. R. Eleazar B. Jehuda, of Worms. (fl. 1238.)

Temptation.—There is no skill or cleverness to be compared to that which avoids temptation; there is no force, no strength that can equal piety.

If thou hadst lived in the dread days of martyrdom, and the peoples had fallen on thee to force thee to apostatize from thy faith, thou wouldst surely, as did so many, have given thy life in its defense. Well, then, fight now the fight laid on thee in the better days, the fight with evil desire.

From the Book of Pious Souls. Begun by R. Jehudah b. Samuel, of Regensburg.

Business Integrity.—Be not disputatious and quarrelsome with people, whatever be their faith. Be honorable in thy business dealings; do not say that such or such a price has been ofifered thee for thy wares when the thing is not true.

No blessing rests on the money of people who clip coin, make a practice of usury, use false weights and measures and are in general not honest in business.

Many things are permitted by the law, the doing of which may lay upon a man the rendering of a heavy account some day or other. Thou wouldst do better to live on charity than to abscond with money not thine, to the disgrace of the Jewish faith and name.

Duties to Non-Jews.—Mislead no one through thy actions designedly, be he Jew or non-Jew.

If a contract be made between Jews and non-Jews, binding to mutual observance and performance, the first must fulfil it even if the last fail to perform that to which they are bound.

If a Jew attempt to kill a non-Jew and the latter only wishes to defend himself, but not in return to kill, we are bound to help him in his self-defense.

In thy intercourse with non-Jews, be careful to be as wholly sincere as in that with Jews; needst not that thou obtrude on him who is no Jew argument as to his religious errors.

If one non-Jew seek counsel of thee, tell him where he will find a true man and not one who is a deceiver, in the place whither he repaireth.

If thou seest a strange man of another faith about to commit a sin, prevent its coming to pass if it be in thy power, and herein let the prophet Jonah be thy model.

Faith and Kindness.—If anyone offer thee an amulet, alleging it to be useful in helping to favor or wealth, carry it not, but place thine undivided confidence in God alone.

Let man in his solitary hours feel the same repugnant shame of evil in the sight of God, as he would be comn>it wrong in the sight of men.

If a rich man and a poor man be sick, and thou seest all the world going to see the rich man, go thou to the poor one, even though he be ignorant and unlettered.

Rather be intimate and work with an uneducated man of generous soul than a learned one close-fisted.

The ancients of our nation composed works and sent them forth without their names; they disclaimed to seek recompensing delight for their labor in this lower earthly life.

There was once a rich man who would build a beautiful synagogue at his own charge alone and suffered not the congregation to contribute to his pious work, because he would that the memorial should be of him and his posterity alone. But ere he died his children all were dead.

R. Eleazar B. Samuel Ha-Levi. (b. about 1250.)

I lay on my children my injunction or advice that at morning, immediately after prayer, they read some passages in the Pentateuch or Psalms, or do some work of mercy. In their intercourse with others, Jews or nonJews^ let them be conscientious and anxious to do right, amiable and accommodating, and never speak when speech is superfluous; so will they be guarded against uttering words of calumny or mockery against others.

From The Book of Morals (Fifteenth Century)

The thread on which the different good qualities of human beings are strung, as pearls, is — the fear of God. When the fastenings of this fear are unloosed, the pearls roll in all directions and are lost one by one.

A habit to be most especially inculcated and commended is that of cleanliness.

The sweeter self-love makes our own ignorance to us, the more bitter do we become towards others, the less accessible to all opportunity of reform.

From The Courage of Humility.—Let a man be never ashamed to execute the commands of religion, even though he be mocked therefor; never be ashamed to confess the truth, to set another man right, to put a question to a teacher when something is not well understood. But let a man be well on his guard against putting others to shame, or lay bare wantonly the failings of a neighbor.

When thou seest that men are not what they should be, do not rejoice over the fact, but grieve, for thou shouldst pray even on thy enemy's behalf that he serve God.

Be grateful for, not blind to, the many, many sufferings which thou art spared; thou art no better than those who have been searched out and racked bv them.

Berachja ha-Nakdan, Spain (About 1260). From The Book of Fables: — Miscellaneous Maxims.

  • Prefer the possession of one thing to the mere expectation of two.
  • A small certainty is better than a large peradventure.
  • Be a servant among noble-minded men, rather than a chieftain over the vulgar.
  • If thou bearest thyself in this world like a guest receiving its hospitality, men will try to find for thee a place of honor and a place of profit.
  • The proud cedar is felled, while the humble shrub is left alone; fire ascends and goes out, water descends and is not lost.
  • Prefer freedom and content to all luxury at the prison of a stranger's table.


Duties of the Heart:—The translated extracts are from Edward Collins, Orient Press, London.

For Bachya's endorsement of monasticism, see Graetz' History of the Jews (translation), vol. iii, chap. ix.

A Group of Moralists:—The selections in this chapter are from Zunz's Zur Geschiclite und Literatur. Translated for the American Jewish Publication Society, N. Y., 1875.

Theme for Discussion:—Bachya said knowledge deepens faith; others that it undermines it.