ETHICAL LITERATURE (Heb. סִפְרוּת הַמּוּסָר, sifrut ha-musar). There is no specific ethical literature as such in the biblical and talmudic period insofar as a systematic formulation of Jewish *ethics is concerned. Even the Wisdom *literature of the Bible, though entirely ethical in content, does not aim at giving a systematic exposition of this science of morals and human duties, but confines itself to apothegms and unconnected moral sayings. The same is true of the tractate *Avot, the only wholly ethical tractate of the Mishnah, which consists largely of the favorite ethical maxims of individual rabbis, and later works, such as *Derekh Ereẓ and *Kallah. The ethical principles and concepts of Judaism are scattered throughout the vast area of rabbinic literature and it was only in the Middle Ages that this data was used as the basis of ethical works and from this time ethical literature becomes a specific genre of Jewish literature.

The term "ethical literature," applied to a type of Hebrew literature, has two different meanings. Both refer to an important part of Hebrew literature in medieval and early modern times, but while one denotes a literary form which encompasses a group of works closely resembling each other structurally, the other denotes a literary purpose expressed in various literary forms. Traditional authors generally use the term in the first sense, while the latter sense is preferred by modern scholars.

Literary Form


These writings are in book form and aim at instructing the Jew in religious and moral behavior. Structurally, the books are uniform: each is divided according to the component parts of the ideal righteous way of life; the material is treated methodically – analyzing, explaining, and demonstrating how to achieve each moral virtue (usually treated in a separate chapter or section) in the author's ethical system.

The first major work in "classical" ethical literature, Ḥovot ha-Levavot, by Baḥya b. Joseph ibn *Paquda (written in the 11th century), postulates ten religious and moral virtues, each forming the subject of a separate chapter. In Ma'alot ha-Middot, Jehiel b. Jekuthiel *Anav of Rome expounds 24 ethical principles of perfect moral conduct (positive and negative – the latter to be avoided). Bahya b. Asher, one of the most prominent kabbalists in Spain, lists and analyzes the components of moral perfection in alphabetical order in Kad ha-Kemaḥ, while Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto's major ethical work Mesillat Yesharim, constructed in the tradition of the baraita of R. *Phinehas b. Jair, enumerates the main steps to perfection and holiness. Writings falling into this structural category form the main body of the traditional ethical literature.


Closely following the formalistic pattern of "classical" ethical literature, ethical monographs concentrate on one particular stage in the journey to religious perfection. The first major work of this kind was the Sha'arei Teshuvah by *Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi. In this work the author analyzes every situation and problem that might possibly confront a repentant sinner and advises him how to purge himself completely of the effects of sin. Jonah Gerondi paved the way for what was to become one of the major literary forms in medieval Hebrew literature.

Literary Purpose

The second meaning of the term ethical literature includes, besides the two categories mentioned (the classical ethical writing and the ethical monograph), nine literary forms, which, though structurally very different, have the same objective – to posit ethical and religious principles. The search for moral and spiritual perfection is the purpose of ethical literature just as practical observance of mitzvot is the purpose of halakhic literature.


Hebrew medieval *homiletic literature is didactic and, in this sense, does not differ from "classical" ethical writings. The difference between the two is in their methods. Homiletic literature forms the bulk of ethical literature and for centuries influenced Jewish life more than any of the other ethical literary writings. Except for halakhic literature, no other type of Hebrew literature has achieved such a variety in content and form, has inspired authors over such a long period, and has reached such wide audiences.


Developed in Germany, France, and Spain from the 11th to the 13th centuries, writers have used this literary form until modern times. *Ethical "wills" usually refer to short, concise works in which the main principles of moral behavior are expounded and which are written in the form of a father's last words to his children. Frequently, the "will" is nothing but a literary cliché, and quite often was applied to short ethical works not really intended as "wills." Many of the works in this category are pseudepigraphic and are later compilations attributed to early scholars.


This form includes actual letters in which the writer instructs either his son or another person, who was far away, to live a moral life; and short ethical treatises, called "a letter" ("iggeret"), which is also the conventional name applied to any short work. *Naḥmanides' letters to his sons belong to the first category, whereas the work "Iggeret ha-Musar" by R. Shem Tov *Falaquera is typical of the second.


One of the earliest literary forms used by writers of ethical literature, the first moralistic storybook, *Midrash Aseret ha-Dibberot, a collection of moralistic tales in the form of exempla and short homilies, was probably written in the geonic period. Structurally, the work is a series of stories which exemplify the way to achieve complete devotion to each one of the Ten Commandments. *Nissim b. Jacob b. Nissim ibn Shahin's Sefer ha-Ma'asiyyot ("Book of Tales"), better known as Ḥibbur Yafeh me-ha-Yeshu'ah, is also an early work (11th century) expressed in this form. Originally written in Arabic, it was translated into Hebrew and as such influenced later Jewish writers. After the 15th century, moralistic-storybook writing became more common in Yiddish literature than in Hebrew.


Unlike the genres described above, which usually strive to teach the most basic and essential principles of ethical behavior, hanhagot literature concentrates on small practical details and not on general spiritual fundaments. The objective – to instruct the individual in the minutest details of daily behavior – makes use both of halakhic laws and of ethical principles. Hanhagot literature began to develop in the 13th-century Sefer ha-Yirah by R. Jonah Gerondi, and later Ẓeidah la-Derekh by *Menahem b. Aaron ibn Zeraẓ, but it was still popular, mainly in Eastern Europe, in the 17th and 18th centuries.


This type of ethical literature belongs to homiletics because eulogies – written obituaries at least – were considered homilies. Eulogies are usually didactic with the virtues of the mourned dead serving as emulative qualities. Hundreds were printed, either as separate booklets or forming parts of a more general homiletic work.


The first collections were influenced by Arabic works; sometimes these compilations were translations from the Arabic (e.g., Musrei ha-Pilosofim, attributed to Isḥaq ibn Hunayn or *Mivhar ha-Peninim, attributed to R. Solomon b. Judah ibn *Gabirol, or *Kalila and Dimna).


Ethical treatises were sometimes written in verse. Structurally, many of them follow biblical examples, especially the Proverbs, and list the commandments in poetical form. One of the earliest works in this literary form, Shirei Musar Haskel (1505), was attributed to *Hai Gaon. Some of the maqāma literature should also be included (Beḥinat Olam by *Jedaiah ha-Penini, and Iggeret ha-Musar and Sefer Mevakkesh by Falaquera).


The Book of Proverbs and Avot, mainly concerned with ethics, formed the basis of many medieval ethical writings. The interpretation served as a vehicle for the author's own concepts of Jewish ethics. Popular in medieval literature, these commentaries were usually regarded as independent works of ethics, and not part of the literature of exegesis and interpretation.

The objective of all these literary forms is to give workable and practical answers to the moral problems of the times. Their answers however were derived from theological considerations which lie outside the scope of ethical literature. Conceptually, ethical literature is not original in any of the disciplines it draws upon: theology, anthropology, philosophy, or psychology. The new concepts which originated in theological and theosophical literature were adapted to everyday religious life by ethical literature. It expressed them in different literary forms to make them acceptable to the public at large and it is thus, in form rather than in content, that ethical literature was original. Forms of expression usually do not interest theological innovators who mainly address themselves to the intellectual elite of the community, but a writer of an ethical work cannot disregard them. Since his main objective is to influence the life and religious behavior of the community as a whole, the ethical writer cannot afford to address only a segment of the public; consequently structural considerations play an important role.

Two unrelated processes have thus shaped the history of ethical literature: (a) the development of the literary forms as such; (b) the general development of Jewish religious thought on which ethical literature drew for its content and which it popularized. The merger of these two processes is the reason why ethical literature tends to be more conservative, less radical and innovative, than the theological movements in which the concepts it used originated. This phenomenon is apparent at every stage of the history of ethical literature, excluding perhaps the first period in Spain (see below). Ethical literature, in adapting new ideas, couched them in traditional literary genres for which it drew on aggadic lore. All the ethical writers used the aggadic form. The fusion of the old and the new, in form and content, made ethical literature the catalytic agent that preserved the new ideas and introduced them into the bloodstream of Judaism. Ethical literature modified the more radical implications of these concepts, and made them acceptable to the traditional community at large.

Since the ideas that ethical literature propounded originated with the ideological and theological movements in medieval Judaism, its history also reflects the development of these movements. Consequently there are four types of Hebrew medieval ethical literature: philosophical, rabbinic, Ashkenazi-ḥasidic (see *Hasidei Ashkenaz), and kabbalistic; the last greatly influenced modern ḥasidic ethical literature. These testify to four distinct ideological movements. The development of each of these types will be briefly studied.

Philosophical-Ethical Literature

The beginnings of Jewish ethical literature in the Middle Ages are rooted in the development of Jewish philosophy of that period. The last chapter of Emunot ve-De'ot by Saadiah Gaon (ninth century), which is on human behavior, may be regarded as the first Jewish medieval work in ethics. Distinct from the body of the book, both because of its form and because of its contents, it seems to be a separate work on ethics. The philosophical basis of Saadiah's ethical concepts did not develop out of earlier Jewish thought, and this might be the reason why this part of his work did not have a lasting influence on later Jewish ethical writings. Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh (11th century) by Solomon ibn Gabirol suffered a similar fate, probably because the ethical system developed in the work was also alien to Jewish thought and did not fit into the accepted morals and ethics of the talmudic aggadah. Ibn Gabirol tried to show that the fusion of the four essential elements in medieval thought and the five senses formed the bases of all human characteristics.

Both works are written in Arabic, and both were translated (early 12th century) into Hebrew by R. Judah ibn Tibbon. They are an attempt at introducing a "pure ethic" into Jewish philosophy – a direct application of alien philosophical ideas to the field of Jewish ethics, without either blending them with, or using, the wealth of random ethical material already existing in Jewish tradition. In Sefer ha-Ma'asiyyot, a book of ethics which appeared at about the same time (11th century), also written in Arabic, but which was early translated into Hebrew, the author, R. Nissim b. Jacob b. Nissim ibn Shahin, used the opposite approach to that of Saadiah Gaon's and Ibn Gabirol's.

He collected ethical stories and sayings from the Talmud to which he added medieval tales and concepts scarcely using philosophical ideas and applying no ethical system. It came to be widely used and accepted in its Hebrew version by all later writers of the ethical tale.

These works were precursory to the body of Jewish philosophical writings and it was Ḥovot ha-Levavot of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the most penetrating works in medieval literature, which gave impetus to this literature. The first medieval Jewish work to evolve an ethical system rooted in Jewish thought, it tried to come to grips with the fundamental spiritual problems that troubled the medieval Jewish mind. While the influence of contemporary medieval philosophy can easily be detected, especially in the first section which is a philosophical treatise on the unity of God, Baḥya ibn Paquda also culled from such sources as biblical and rabbinic literatures, and Arabic proverbs, tales, and epigrams to create what is primarily an ethical guide. The most influential single Jewish work in ethics in a period of over 600 years, its impact may be partly attributed to the author's profound and fundamental treatment of what was probably the most challenging question to Judaism at the time – the inner quality of religious life.

All major medieval ethical works came to grapple with this basic and crucial problem which essentially grew out of an age that had adopted the Platonic concept of matter and spirit being antagonistic elements and consequently creating a rift within man. The ethical and spiritual teachings in the Talmud had come to be relegated to a secondary position and Judaism thus came to be seen as a materialistic religion, based on practical deeds and actions, and not on spiritual attitudes which, to the medieval scholars, seemed the essence of religious life. Jewish moralists were therefore confronted with the problem of reconciling the contemporary Jewish concept of religious life which was practically orientated and consequently seen as inferior, with the new ideas which saw religion almost exclusively in a spiritual light. While this question was also considered from a purely philosophical point of view, and thus formed the basis of many medieval philosophical writings, it most needed to be answered in the sphere of morals and ethics to which the community at large turned for guidance.

The conflict was resolved in ethical literature through a reinterpretation of the ancient Jewish heritage in which its spiritual values were stressed in the light of the moral and ethical concepts of the age. Nowhere was the problem more sharply and clearly stated than in the introduction to Ḥovot ha-Levavot. Baḥya ibn Paquda's ethical system, except for minor changes and variations, was generally accepted by philosophical-ethical literature. He stressed: (a) the idea of kavvanah – any ritual act as such does not represent spiritual fulfillment, unless it is performed with the right kavvanah (awareness and intention); the deed becomes a means in the fulfillment of a religious duty. Religious value thus also came to be attached to the spiritual attitude of the doer, and not to the deed alone; (b) a whole system of purely spiritual commandments – the ḥovot ha-levavot, which gave the title to the work. Spiritual commandments, according to Baḥya ibn Paquda, are those that are completely detached from any physical act, and they, therefore, do not include the traditionally "spiritual" religious acts of prayer and study, because the mouth or the eyes (physical organs) are required in their performance. These commandments he set out as: reaffirmation of God's unity, recognition of His workings in the world, divine worship, trust in God, sincerity of purpose, humanity, repentance, self-examination, asceticism, and the love of God.

With variations in emphasis, this double or triple system of commandments (practical commandments, kavvanah, and Ḥovot ha-levavot) is found in other philosophical-ethical writings: Hegyon ha-Nefesh by *Abraham b. Ḥiyya ha-Nasi of Barcelona, in which the spiritual meaning of repentance is described; Yesod Mora in which Abraham *Ibn Ezra gave a spiritual foundation to the commandments; and especially in the works of *Maimonides. The latter, sometimes orientated toward "purely philosophical ethics" as in Shemonah Perakim, are also invested with philosophical and spiritual-moral commandments which complement the practical laws, as in Sefer ha-Madda of the Mishneh Torah. These works ushered in a new period in ethical literature: writings were now in Hebrew and the need to establish a link between the new philosophical-ethical ideas, directed toward the spiritualization and immanence of religious life, and the older more traditional Jewish concepts, became more pronounced. For the Jewish philosophers it had been easier to express "pure philosophy" in Arabic rather than in Hebrew. Henceforth however, even philosophers based their ethical works on biblical passages and talmudic sayings, and thus integrated more closely the ancient Jewish ethical teachings with the new philosophical-ethical ideas.

The relationship between moral perfection and maximum religious fulfillment was one of the main problems that confronted Hebrew philosophers. Maximum fulfillment was usually understood as philosophical contemplation, which had nothing to do with social life and ethical behavior. Was ethics, therefore, to be considered only as a means toward attaining this religious fulfillment, or was ethics an end in itself? Maimonides' writings contain both contradictory concepts; in most places Maimonides subordinates ethics to philosophy but there are places where he sees ethical behavior as the best possible approach to God which man can achieve. Most of the followers of Maimonides tended to see ethics as a means and not as a religious end, e.g., Shem Tov Falaquera's Sefer ha-Ma'alot. This approach to ethics possibly contributed to the fact that philosophical-ethical literature after the 13th century ceased to be a vehicle of expression of the ethician.

The search for the inner religious quality of life had found expression in ethical literature before Maimonides, but especially after him philosophers tried to give rational and spiritual reasons for the practical commandments. The commandments were thus considered only seemingly materialistic, and their true essence was seen as spiritual. During the 13th century Jewish thought used allegorization as a means to reveal the hidden spiritual meaning of the commandments and the Torah, thus breaking with the Maimonidean rationale. Malmad ha-Talmidim, by Jacob b. Abba Mari b. Samson *Anatoli, and the polemic and exegetic writings of Zerahiah b. Isaac b. Shealtiel *Gracian (Ḥen) demonstrate this trend. This development within philosophical-ethical literature was later blamed for the conversion of so many Jews during the Spanish persecutions of the late 14th and the 15th centuries: the contention of these Jews had been that if the true meaning of the commandments was a hidden spiritual one, why sacrifice one's life in order to preserve the outer meaningless, material shell?

Rabbinic-Ethical Literature

The rise of rabbinic-ethical literature, especially in 13th-century Spain, Provence, and Italy, came as a reaction to such trends and was a revolt against Jewish philosophy influenced by Aristotelian concepts. Rabbinic-ethical literature was receptive to organized ethical thought; its aim, however, was to show that a moral system was already existent in the aggadah and in the Talmud. Jonah Gerondi, one of the first Hebrew ethicians, dedicated his major ethical work Sha'arei Teshuvah ("The Gates of Repentance") to the problem of repentance, much as Abraham b. Hiyya had done a hundred years earlier. According to him, a systematic arrangement of the old talmudic sayings together with a suitable exegetical commentary would present a complete and satisfactory system. Jonah and the other writers of this literature tried especially to emphasize the spiritual dicta found in older Jewish tradition, thus minimizing and possibly reconciling the antithesis between medieval beliefs and this older tradition.

It is significant that many of the writers of rabbinic-ethical literature were kabbalists, though they did not reveal their mystic ideas in their popular ethical works. Naḥmanides' ethical treatise, Sha'ar ha-Gemul, discusses the various categories of the just and the wicked and their retribution in the world to come. Baḥya b. Asher wrote a very popular rabbinic-ethical work, Kad ha-Kemaḥ, in which, following the rabbinic-spiritualistic method, he enumerates alphabetically and studies different ethical problems. These and other ethicians (some modern scholars even maintain that Jonah Gerondi had been a kabbalist) presented the public with a rabbinic-ethical system, while in their closed mystical circles they resolved the antithesis between the spirituality of religion and the material aspect of the Torah through mystic speculation.

There were, however, some rabbinic-ethical writers who merely tried to compile and systematize the different talmudic-ethical writings. Thus, most of Ma'alot ha-Middot by Jehiel b. Jekuthiel Anav is a collection of talmudic and midrashic sayings arranged according to theme and content. The objective of later works, e.g., the two versions of Menorat ha-Ma'or, one by Israel *Al-Nakawa b. Joseph of Toledo, the other by Isaac *Aboab, was similar. Rabbinic-ethical literature, therefore, did not try to innovate, but to apply traditional Jewish ethics to the medieval world. In the process, it even revived some of the old forms of aggadic literature which came to serve as vehicles of expression.

Ashkenazi-Ḥasidic Literature

The creative verve of the Hasidei Ashkenaz movement in Germany expressed itself in a body of ethical writings (see Sefer *Ḥasidim (first published 1538, Bologna), *Judah b. Samuel he-Ḥasid of Regensburg, *Samuel b. Kalonymus he-Ḥasid of Speyer, and *Eleazar b. Judah b. Kalonymus of Worms) that deviate in character from the philosophical-ethical literature and rabbinic-ethical literature of the time. (The former, however, had already reached its zenith when Ashkenazi ḥasidic literature started to develop, while the latter began at the same time.) While Sefer Ḥasidim, a work of major scope, epitomizes Ashkenazi-ḥasidic literature, writings of lesser range and reputation are equally representative, e.g., the introductory chapters to the halakhic work Sefer ha-Roke'ah by *Eleazar of Worms and the ethical works Sefer ha-Gan (1899) by Isaac b. Eliezer and Sefer Ḥasidim Katan (1866) by Moses b. Eleazar ha-Kohen (14th and 15th centuries) are almost exclusively based on Ashkenazi-ḥasidic moral teachings. The problems which faced the Ashkenazi ethician, essentially the same as those that confronted the Hebrew thinkers of Spain, Italy, and Provence, were approached differently and were expressed neither in the variety of forms nor given the systematic treatment of the philosophical-ethical and rabbinic-ethical literatures of the south. The teachings of Greco-Arabic philosophy had not reached and therefore had not influenced the Jewish communities in Germany and in northern France. Thus while medieval European thinkers were essentially confronted by the same challenge, their response grew out of their immediate cultural environment.

Ashkenazi-ḥasidic literature is basically less abstract (less consideration is given to principles and fundamentals and more attention is paid to actual situations and concrete problems) than the literatures of the south. Structurally, the two types of literary writings also differ widely. Sefer Ḥasidim is not patterned on the methodical division of Ḥovot ha-Levavot. It is comprised of 2,000 short random passages in which every situation and every phase of moral and religious life is discussed. Thus Ashkenazi-ethical thinking was much more concerned with the specific problems to which local historical conditions gave rise than were their southern counterparts.

The approach of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz to the concept of the spiritual essence of religious and moral behavior and their interpretation of the practical commandments of the old teachings became the classical solution to all such questions in rabbinic literature. They contended that all commandments and ethical demands made upon man by God are a test in order to examine man's devotion to his creator. The religious value of certain deeds therefore does not lie in the actual performance but in the spiritual and religious effort that constitutes the action, e.g., a rich man who paid the ransom for a captured Jew and released him does not attain the spiritual height of the poor man who, with much effort, collected the ransom from many people, but upon paying the money found that the Jew had already been released. It is not the deed alone that counts, but the effort and devotion which God expects of man in following His will. Thus the reasons for (and even the meaning of) the commandments become negligible and even irrelevant: God in His infinite wisdom chose certain deeds by which to try man; they could be any deeds. What is important is that God's will was revealed through certain commandments and through certain ethical standards; it is not for man to ask why.

Ashkenazi Ḥasidim thus arrived at a certain scale of religious and ethical values and of commandments which ranged from the most difficult and trying precepts to acts which everybody could easily perform; the latter were therefore considered secondary. The religious value in the study of the talmudic tractate Mo'ed Katan, which deals with death and mourning, is higher than that of the study of other tractates. The more a commandment contradicts average human desires and instincts, the more religious value is attached to it. Thus, the greatest sacrifice that man can possibly make – to die for *kiddush ha-Shem (be martyred in the sanctification of God's name) – is man's supreme religious fulfillment. This view, prevalent during the times of the *Crusades, was able to take root in an age when thousands of Jews in Germany and northern France died for kiddush ha-Shem.

The Ashkenazi-ḥasidic movement thus gave new relevance and new spiritual meaning even to the simplest and most practical of the religious and moral commandments. A more radical principle which also directly affected a whole pattern of behavior was the distinction made between din Torah (the "earthly law") and din shamayim (the "heavenly law"). Strict observance of the Torah precepts does not necessarily lead to the highest religious fulfillment; for this a higher moral law – din shamayim, the law of conscience – is necessary. According to the Torah, a thief is a thief; but according to din shamayim a clear distinction must be made between a man who steals bread out of hunger and a rich man who steals in order to further enrich himself. This does not mean that the laws of the Torah should be abandoned; a pious man however should try to transcend them and follow a higher spiritual and moral law.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, when Ashkenazi-ḥasidic theology and ethics flourished, Jewish life and thought of southern and northern Europe were clearly distinct: they were almost two separate cultures. The 13th century saw the slow bridging of the gulf – Ashkenazi ideas spread to southern Europe where they influenced rabbinic-ethical writers, and after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Ashkenazi-ḥasidic ethics were a bulwark on which Judaism drew, to reorientate itself ideologically after the great tragedy.

Creativity in philosophical-ethical thought came to an end with the expulsion from Spain, mainly because philosophy was seen as a contributory factor to the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews. Writers like Joseph b. Ḥayyim *Jabez and Isaac Abrabanel clearly denounced current Jewish philosophical thinking. It was a time when Judaism seemed to have fallen into a theological void – the old beliefs were shattered by the tragedy, and for a time nothing, at least nothing systematic and of embracing scope, seemed to replace philosophical thinking. A new theological outlook, the *Kabbalah, which came to form the largest body of ethical writings in Jewish literature, finally gave literary expression to Jewish life and its aspirations in the aftermath of the expulsion. Ashkenazi-ḥasidic ethical thought had been only a temporary moral and spiritual support to the Jews of southern Europe and it was integrated into the *Kabbalah which began to develop during the 16th century.

Kabbalistic-Ethical Literature

The early European kabbalists usually tended to confine themselves to their closed circles and did not want to turn the Kabbalah into a popular literature. The center of kabbalistic learning established in Safed during the 16th century, however, created a body of moral writings which were directed toward the Jewish community at large and which started the 300-year period of kabbalistic-ethical literature.

This literature drew on earlier kabbalistic works, especially the *Zohar, as well as on Ashkenazi-ḥasidic ethics and rabbinic-ethical thought. Using the Kabbalah and its mystical system as a basis, kabbalistic-ethical teachings were formulated along the same strong systematic lines. Central to kabbalistic-ethical literature are two closely related concepts: (1) an ethical dogma in which the commandments are conceived symbolically; (2) the idea that the temporal world reflects the eternal world and vice versa and that there is an interdependence between the performance of deeds on this earth and processes in the divine mystical world. The symbolic approach to the commandments demanded of man to adhere to them with all his might because they reflect divine mystical actions. Through the idea of reflective worlds, man's deeds formed part of the divine drama, and enabled man by means of his action to influence the mystical powers. Moses b. Jacob *Cordovero's Tomer Devorah, one of the first kabbalistic ethical works of this period, is a detailed guide to moral behavior and how such conduct could and should reflect divine essences and satisfy divine requirements. His pupil and follower, *Elijah b. Moses de Vidas, the author of Reshit Ḥokhmah, developed the idea that man's moral deeds are reflected in the heavenly struggle between good and evil. The *Kabbalah of Isaac *Luria, which developed in the last part of the 16th century, strengthened this concept by stressing even more man's responsibility in the war raging in the mystical spheres.

The kabbalistic-ethical literature, which, from the 17th century onward continued to develop in Eastern Europe, was based almost exclusively on Lurianic teachings. It emphasized more strongly the power of Satan and the consequences that sin has in the divine world. Works like Ẓevi Hirsch *Koidonover's Kav ha-Yashar, which was very popular, used kabbalistic-Lurianic teachings to warn the reader against the havoc which sin might wreak on the sinner as such, and on the world as a whole.

Kabbalistic theosophy firmly rooted this literature in systematic mystical reasoning and gave it a theological structure. The actual teachings, the positive and negative precepts, did not, however (with a few exceptions, like the custom of tikkun, see *Kabbalah), originate with the kabbalist but were culled from older ethical literature: rabbinic and Ashkenazi-ḥasidic.

The Shabbatean movement, which deeply influenced all of Judaism in the second half of the 17th century, did not use ethical literature as a vehicle of expression (see *Shabbetai Zevi). Despite the ethical work Tikkunei Teshuvah (published by I. Tishby) by *Nathan of Gaza, most of the Shabbatean literature was theosophical in nature. Some of the Shabbateans who wrote popular ethical works tended to conceal their theological views and only occasional allusions can be found.

During the 18th century two converging trends in Jewish thought – kabbalism and messianism – gave rise to the kabbalistic-ethical works of Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto: Mesillat Yesharim, Da'at Tevunot, and Derekh ha-Shem. The controversy that raged around Luzzatto, one of the major ethicians in Jewish literature, forced him to conceal the kabbalistic elements in his works through the use of pseudo-philosophical language and terms. His works, which became popular toward the end of the century, are read to this day.

Ḥasidic literature of the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century is almost exclusively ethical. Most of it is comprised of homilies in which moral behavior is strongly stressed; some of the writings, however, are purely ethical in nature, e.g., Sefer ha-Middot by R. *Naḥman of Bratslav or Tanya by R. *Shneur Zalman of Lyady. The collections of ḥasidic stories and fables are usually didactic and have an ethical theme. The Mitnaggedim, opponents of Ḥasidism, also based their teachings on Lurianic ethical literature. From their ranks sprang the *Musar movement which tried to introduce the study of major ethical works into the yeshivot and for whom moral behavior became the greatest religious fulfillment man could aspire to. Haskalah literature at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries also used the traditions of ethical literature in its didactic endeavors.

Hebrew ethical literature, a diversified corpus of writings, is characterized by an underlying unity which cuts across not only the divergent ideological movements out of which the literature grew and which it represents, but also subsumes the various vehicles of expression used by ethicians. Hebrew ethical writers were primarily concerned with a number of elemental universal problems. The solutions they presented, while reflecting the various ideologies, are basically a response to the most crucial point at hand – man and the human condition, his position in the cosmos, and his attitude to the ways of God. They thus transcended the specific dogma to which they adhered and considered the dilemma of man in its universal aspects. Fundamental to this literature are such questions as: the ill fate suffered by the just and the success enjoyed by the wicked in this life; the ways of divine judgment; God's knowledge and active management of the temporal world; why the wicked were created; freedom of choice in ethical and religious matters and the boundaries of that freedom; the meaning of sin and in what relation does the repentant sinner stand to the just who has never sinned; the relation between fear of God motivated by the thought of retributive justice and fear of God aroused by God's greatness; the relationship between the worship of God through fear and the worship of God through love; the meaning of devekut (communion with God) and the ways to achieve it; the essence of kavvanah and its place in ethical life; the right attitude to Gentiles; the fate of the just and the wicked after death; the essence of the soul; existence after the resurrection; social behavior in and toward the family; and similar questions which transcend time and space to create one unifying body of literary writings. Some of the answers are dictated by the special character and inclinations of the writer more so than by the movement to which he belonged.

Unlike the philosopher and theologian, the ethician is faced with concrete situations, actual people; his responses are therefore more pragmatic and less dogmatic – he tackles the questions practically and in human terms. Ethical literature thus, through the uniqueness of this aspect of its character – the specific moral confrontation with man's universal dilemma – has carved out for itself an independent place in Hebrew literature and it is not merely another branch of theological literature.

Form as much as content was a unifying factor in the corpus of ethical writings that classified it into a literature. Ethicians were obliged to use different literary means in order that their works might be accepted by a wide and sometimes uneducated public. This unavoidable emphasis on form, and not only on content, placed ethical literature into a separate category and set it apart from the other branches of religious thinking. The constant use of fables, stories, epigrams, jokes, and hagiography as vehicles of expression created a distinct literature which was read not only for didactic purposes but also to be enjoyed. The literary and didactic role played by literature during the Middle Ages is comparable to that of fiction in modern times.


S.D. Breslauer, Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Bibliographical Survey (1985); S.D. Breslauer, Modern Jewish Morality: A Bibliographical Survey (1986); I. Bettan, Studies in Jewish Preaching (1939); Werblowsky, in: Annual of Jewish Studies, 1 (1964), 95–139; L. Roth (ed.), Likkut ha-De'ot ve-ha-Middot … (19462); I. Heinemann, Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot be-Sifrut Yisrael, 1 (1959); idem, in HUCA, 23 pt. 1 (1950/51), 611–43; I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 (1961), 247–362, 581–606, 655–761; idem, Mivhar Sifrut ha-Musar (in press); G. Scholem, On Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965), passim; idem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit (1962), passim; G. Vajda, La Théologie ascétique de Baḥya Ibn Paquda (1947); idem, L'amour de Dieu dans la théologie juive du Moyen Age (1957); Dan, in: Molad, 22 (1964), 82–84; S. Shalem, Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh (1966); I. Abrahams (ed.), Hebrew Ethical Wills, 2 vols. (1948), includes bibl.; Waxman, Literature, 1 (19602), 355–71, 459–62; 2 (19602), 271–300, 643–49; 3 (19602), 640–704; 4 (19602) sects. 121–7, and index.

[Joseph Dan]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.