Friday, November 11, 2016

The new President -- Better than Alfred E Neuman?

Hail to the New Chief

It is truly a historic week: Donald J. Trump has been elected President of the United States.  Millions upon millions of words are being written about “perhaps the most stunning political story in American History” according to one pundit.  Nevertheless, I would like to share my “Middle of the Road” thoughts for what they are worth.

Briefly, I am not happy that Donald Trump won the presidency.  At the same time, I am thrilled that Hillary Clinton was defeated.  Seems contradictory, but I know that there are many people like me, who voted more against Clinton than for Trump.

I will not focus here on the great policy differences between them.  According to my colleague Rav Avrohom Gordimer, these differences are the only things that mattered since the deep flaws of both candidates cancelled each other out. But there was more at stake, and given the awesome power and responsibilities of the position, I could not discount the character of the candidates.

Donald Trump is a deeply substandard choice, in far too many ways.  He is arrogant, egocentric, and at times crass and vulgar.  He revels in chutzpah, blurts out foolish and hurtful things, and too often has placed his mouth in motion before his brain is fully in gear.  What scares me most about him, however, is his mercurial short temper and need to lash out at any critic, no matter how petty the issue.   It is truly frightening that he will be in a position to use the immense power of the federal government -- and even to send our soldiers off to war -- with few obstacles to make him stop to reconsider.  Needless to say, I found it very difficult to vote for such a man for President.

The other choice, however, was even more “deplorable”.   Hillary (and Bill) has a long history of corruption, lies, deceit, and telling the people what they want to hear, while at the same time actively promoting an opposite agenda.  She postured as a loving, caring, Godmother; sensitive to the needs of minorities, women, and the impoverished.  In actuality she engaged in an unprecedented amount of lies, corruption and deceit while doing little to actually help people.  The abuse inherent in the “pay to play” scheme selling access to the former President and to herself (and their vast network of powerful friends and ability to influence government) while enriching themselves to a shocking degree was only the latest in Clinton scandals.  This followed  decades of ever greater corruption and avarice, making her a lowly hypocrite, and completely unfit to be our country’s leader.  In fact, had she been elected, the imbroglio concerning the ongoing investigation into her corruption would have consumed our country far more than what followed the relatively small bungled burglary and subsequent cover-up that destroyed Richard Nixon in the Watergate years.

Given this Hobson’s choice, and the fact that it was clear that in the People’s Republic of New York State my vote was meaningless, I cast a write-in vote for Alfred E. Neuman, who ran on the slogan “There are even bigger idiots running”.  At the same time, I encouraged friends living in states that were in play to hold their nose and vote for Trump.




As we all know, despite all the predictions of the media, pollsters and pundits, Trump won.   Endless commentary  attributed it to Trump’s alleged pandering to the white males' hatred of political correctness and latent racism, xenophobia, hatred of women, bigotry and prejudice.  The intelligentsia and liberal elites are crying and lamenting, liberal professors are offering “triggered students” grief counseling to help them get through this terrible trauma, as mobs of “progressives” storm the streets cursing Trump and his supporters, vowing vengeance and assuring themselves that the “correct” values will re-assert themselves when America awakens from this “nightmare”. . . I feel confident that they have it very wrong.

The reasons Trump won were several.  First, millions of people were tired and offended by the snobbery and bias of the media elites who saw it as their role to tell the unwashed masses what and how to think.   When Trump railed about a “rigged” political system, it was primarily this issue that he was referencing.  He had to overcome not only his opponent and her policies, but also the overwhelming negativity that was spewed against him in virtually every news, media, and entertainment outlet.

Second, most people knew deep down that Trump is not a bigot, anti-Semite, or racist.   While he spoke foolishly and hurtfully about the qualifications of a Mexican judge, over-generalized about Muslims, and made crude and vulgar comments about women, most people understood that while shameful, they did not reflect his core values.  Rather, they shared his exasperation about illegal immigration, the way the border with Mexico has been handled, and the coddling of illegal foreign criminals in sanctuary cities – this does not make one a racist.   They agreed that Obama was very wrong in not naming and confronting Radical Islamic Terrorism, and that is a huge domestic threat, and that the United States would be foolhardy to follow the European example and allow hordes of un-vetted Muslim immigrants from radical countries to foment the same problems they are causing there – that does not make one a racist.   It is true that he has made crude and vulgar comments about women – as unfortunately many men do – that does not make him a hater of women.

And so on.

As Bill O’Reilly put it, “when left-wing zealots masquerading as journalists pounded Trump without mercy, the voters grew numb to it”. The People were smarter than the talking heads who tried to sell this narrative, and they rejected it.

Third, the People are tired and angry about the policies of the Obama administration, such as Obamacare, the bungled Iran deal, the economic hardship, the over-regulation by Executive Orders, the lessening of America’s stature in the world and the feebleness of our foreign policy, and particularly, for those of us who care deeply about Israel, the way in which the Israeli government has been treated.  They wanted a change, and Mrs. Clinton represented not only continuity but an intensification of those policies.

Finally, the People have had enough of the shenanigans of Hillary Clinton.   The unending lies, half-truths, corruption and permitting for herself what others would be incarcerated for simply became too much.

Given the Torah readings of this time of year, I cannot help but thinking of our father Avraham, the quintessence of Chessed (Lovingkindness) coupled with Emes (Truth) who had to try to further his mission among the power brokers of his day.   We find him confronting the Pharaoh, who pretended to be a person of integrity while personally corrupt; finding a way to protect his wife and survive while getting through the dangers of a society that destroyed anyone who was different.   We later find him standing up to the Great Powers of his time (the Four Kings), in order to save his morally and ethically challenged kinsman Lot, managing with the help of the Almighty to prevail while avoiding being tainted by taking graft from Sodom.  Later we see him deal with Avimelech, who presents himself as a saint and paragon of virtue, while hiding his corruption and abuse of women and of the poor.  In all of those cases Avraham recognized that – unlike Noach – he had to engage as best he could with a depraved, corrupt society, find the good in people, look beyond the way that they presented, focus on his mission of bringing light to the world while avoiding any hint of corruption, and ultimately was recognized as a Prince among men and the supreme citizen of his time.

We have no Avraham in our midst.  We have plenty of Pharaohs, Sodomite kings and Avimelechs.   Ultimately the greatest values that we must follow are those of Truth and Kindness, and in our very imperfect world, strive to live for those values and support and encourage those around us to do as well.

As we look towards the future, we see that perhaps this whole mess of an election has given the US a rare and great opportunity.  Assuming that Trump can keep a reign on his temper and mouth, and that he listens to wise people of experience in furthering the policy agenda that got him thus far with efficiency and dignity, great things can happen.  With the White House, Senate and Congress all in the hands of his party, he can:


  • Repeal and replace Obamacare with a good and workable system that will not punish those who work at the expense of those who do not, and provide all with affordable fair health care
  • Appoint Federal judges from the excellent list that he has already provided to replace not only the great Justice Scalia, but others who likely will be retiring soon as well
  • Abolish many of the Executive Orders that unfairly hampered businesses and allow fairer competition and economic growth
  • Control the damage from the terrible Iran nuclear deal and do what he can to limit the Ayatollah’s path to the bomb
  • Secure the border, and implement fair and sensible immigration policies
  • Clean up the mess at the IRS and Dept. of Justice and the FBI
  • Find a path to peace in the Middle East based not on demanding additional Israeli concessions, but rather on the Palestinians living up to the agreements that they signed, while "crushing" ISIS and Hamas


and many more objectives.  If he accomplishes just these, he will go down as one of the great Presidents in our history; if he does more he can be transformative.

He must also find a way to ensure that in a VERY non-partisan way (i.e. staying far away from any direct involvement) the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s email issues are given a full and fair investigation, and let the chips fall as they will with due process.  Too much has happened to allow this matter to simply slip away; the American public deserves that justice be served.

From an Alfred E Neuman voter, good wishes go to the new President that he succeed greatly in his duties.  I am confident that he will want to prove to the world that he can govern in a dignified way and make his family – especially the “First Aineklach” – proud. I fervently hope that I will be able to gladly vote for him with full confidence in 2020, with an absentee ballot from Israel.



Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A chance meeting in Wyoming leads to some interesting "Reunions"!

I had some interesting news this past week!

Several months ago, I submitted the following (excerpted) letter to HaModia magazine:

To the Editor,

I have been enjoying your newspaper for a few months, and look forward to receiving it every Wednesday – I don’t know where people have the time to read even that whole issue, let alone the daily!

Your feature, “A World That Was”, is particularly intriguing to me, and I think you might be interested in this story, and help get these pictures into the rightful hands.

Several years ago, when I was a Rav in Portland, OR, I drove cross-country several times with my family so that my kids could spend their summers in “the Mountains” in New York (Of course, after driving through the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and the Rockies I found that term laughable, but I digress).   After spending a few glorious days in Yellowstone National Park we headed east, and stayed overnight in Cody, Wyoming (a town named after Buffalo Bill, whose image is everywhere there).  I was on line at a supermarket when a man approached me and asked in a deep Texas drawl, “Are you a Rabbi”?   Somewhat disturbed that I was being drawn out of vacation mode, I replied in the affirmative.  After some “chit-chat”, he told me that he had been looking for a Rabbi for years.  Half a century earlier, young Max Krueger was a soldier in the American Army, and had been stationed in Shanghai China after the war.  Among his duties was taking photographs for potential immigrants to America and, you guessed it, among the applicants were a bunch of Rabbis who seemed oddly out of place in that city. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Krueger went about his business and took the photographs, which presumably led to US Visas, Passports, and lives lived happily thereafter.  Finding the subjects interesting, he retained copies of some of these photos, and reckoned that some Rabbi might come along some day who would also find them intersesting.   We exchanged information and our goodbyes, and some time later I received an envelope with a minyan of photos of young scholars, presumably Talmidim of the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai.

If anyone knows who theses individuals are, I would be happy to send them along to them or their families.

Thank you


Yehuda L. Oppenheimer




As it turns out, this article has spurred quite a bit of interest.   I received many phone calls and emails, trying to help me identify  the young Talmidim in the photos.

The first caller pointed out that they were probably Lubavitcher Talmidim, as the Mir Talmidim all were clean shaven (at least while in Shanghai).

Subsequently, I received many other messages, and virtually all the pictures have been identified, as all Lubavitch Talmidim in Shanghai.   

I knew before this that there were many, many more Jews besides the Talmidim of Mir Yeshiva who had been miraculously saved from the Churban in Shanghai, 23,000 by one count .  A huge portion of them were afforded this opportunity by the heroism of the Japanese consul in Vilna, Chiune Sugihara , true member of the  חסידי אומות העולם (Righteous Gentiles), who sacrificed his career and even life to save over 6,000 Jews.   What I assumed was unique about the Mir Tamidim is that almost a whole Yeshiva survived together there, the only such Yeshiva in Europe.

Turns out that a large group of Lubavitch Talmidim, between 50 and 100, were Baruch Hashem saved there as well, and that apparently all of the pictures were of these Talmidim.

I am in touch with Dovid Zalikowski of the Chabad Lubavitch Archives who has taken great interest in this, as well as other family members, and they have tentatively identified the pictures as:
R. Moshe Rubin
R. Shmuel Moshe Lederhandler
R. Chaim Ber Gulevsky
R. Yechezkel Deren
R. Leibish Probst
R. Mottel Bryski
R. Yosef Borenstein
R. Avraham Tzvi Landa
R. Gershon Chanowitz
R. Moshe feder or R. Hirshel Rubin


We are still working out possible other claims as well.

I am so grateful this is happening.  I had these pictures sitting in my drawer for years, but I had no idea how to publicize them, until I recently started receiving HaModia, and realized that their "A World That Was" feature was a perfect vehicle.

Unforrtunately, it appears that Mr. Krueger passed away . . .I wish that I could have let him know of the results of our "chance" meeting long ago.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Har HaBayit BiYadeinu! Reflections for Tisha B’Av

     The Nine Days are, unfortunately, here once again.  One more year of mourning for the lost Beit Hamikdash.  One more year of introspection into what we have not done to sufficiently merit its rebuilding after the coming of Moshiach, in keeping with the famous dictum of Chazal, "Every generation that does not merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, is considered as if it was destroyed in their time” (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1).   We will, in addition to reading Eicha, saying Kinos, and mourning, wait to be enlightened by the wonderful work of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and a great assortment of other sources as to what societal ills we might think about this year, in order to lessen unwarranted hatred (Sinat Chinam) and other personal sins.    This is important work, and in fact, as many have pointed out, perhaps the onset of the Teshuva process that continues with Elul and culminates on Yom Kippur. 

It is incumbent upon us to reflect on Tisha B’Av in light of the incredible gift that Hashem has given us in our time

     It strikes me, however, that there is another aspect of the Tisha B’Av experience that is too often missing from our commemoration of the day; particularly outside the Land of Israel, but there as well.   It believe that it is incumbent upon us to reflect on Tisha B’Av in light of the incredible gift that Hashem has given us in our time, on the unprecedented return of close to half of our people to Eretz Yisrael, and the return of sovereignty over it to the Jewish people, albeit in the far from perfect form that is Medinat Yisrael.

     It is (or ought to be) obvious that the Tisha B’Av mourning that we engage in today is in a very different context than that of the Jewish world just seventy years ago, when the overwhelming majority of  Jews lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, America ; i.e. places other than Eretz Yisrael.  To not do so, in my view, not only divorces the day from the real world, but makes much of the liturgy difficult to say with proper kavanah, as the literal meaning of many of the words seem incongruous in our reality . 

     Reading, for example, the words of Nacheim, that we recite at Mincha on Tisha B’Av, we refer to the city of Jerusalem as “ruined, scorned, and desolate: mournful without her children, ruined without her abodes, desolate without inhabitants”. It is quite difficult to square those statements with the vibrant bustling overcrowded populace of Jerusalem, that pulsates with Jewish life and Torah and holiness that we have come to know and love. 



     Of course, I am far from the first to comment on this. After the Six Day war, there was much debate about whether it was appropriate to change that Tefilla, with the majority of Poskim opting to leave it as is.  They pointed to the fact that the Beit HaMikdash is not yet rebuilt; that much of the city is controlled by non-Jews, including those who hate us; that the spiritual level of the Jewish people is not yet of the caliber that the city can feel that it has its true inhabitants back yet.  I suppose that most of us who bother to think about this have come to some of these same conclusions, or some combination of them.[1]  Thus while we do not change the actual text of what we say, surely one’s thoughts are, or should be, taking into account the reality in which we live.

     My sensitivity to this concern today stems from our general feelings about Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim not only on Tisha B’Av, but all the time.  Some Orthodox people see the State of Israel as a wonderful gift from Above, a matter of huge religious significance, as the Aschalta D’Geulah, (the beginning of the final great redemption) for which we have longed and prayed for thousands of years.  Imperfect as it may be from a religious and Halachic point of view, there is so much good — so much Torah being learned, so many people keeping mitzvos including mitzvos that were dormant for millennia, so many mekomos hakedoshim that we have become reacquainted with in the Holy Land —that we should bow our heads daily and thank the Ribbono Shel Olam for Medinat Yisrael.  Moreover, we ought to have great national pride that in our own country! It is an amazing place where any unbiased observer stands of awe of its economic, agricultural, technological, cultural and military accomplishments; we should feel constant gratitude about it.  

     Others see only problems.   They point to huge numbers led away from Torah observance by the rise of Zionism and the State of Israel.  The very anti-religious nature of many of its early leaders, the unfortunately true episodes of when impressionable Jews were intentionally and forcibly ripped away from Torah and observance are not only unforgivable, but to their mind, still a major part of the Zionist enterprise.  Even those who do not go as far as the Satmar Rav zt”l’s opinion that the Medina was the work of the Satan, refuse to grant any religious significance to the State, to recite the prayer for it or its soldiers on Shabbos, to not say Tahanun on Yom HaAtzma’ut, and in fact think of it as the latest — and perhaps most insidious ­— form of Golus, an Exile in our own land enforced by our own people. 

    These two groups see Tisha B’Av in very different ways.  The first mourn the lack of a Bet Hamikdash and the incomplete Geulah, while looking at much of the horror of the Churban and many episodes of Jewish History as something firmly in the past. The second pay little or no heed to anything that has happened in Eretz Yisrael over the past century; to the extent that modern times are considered it is largely regarding the Holocaust.

     Although it seems that more and more people are being drawn to one or the other camp, and are being indoctrinated from early age in one or the other opinion, I still want to believe that there is a Middle Road — one that is populated by many silent voices — that see a path somewhere between these positions.  There are those, like myself, who on the one hand are deeply appreciative of the gift of Medinat Yisrael; who see unlimited potential in this opportunity, who see the glory of the People coming back to their Homeland and marvel in its accomplishments and are fiercely proud of and supportive of the Israel Defense Forces and the enormous advances in religious life there; yet on the other hand feel deep pain when seeing the secular depravity in so much of the country and in hearing pronouncements of many of the State leaders and intelligentsia, and who shudder when seeing some of the causes that so many in Israel are devoted to and feel exasperated when religious life is mocked and ridiculed so openly in the media and the press.  It is the path of the Ponovezher Rav, who said neither Hallel nor Tachanun on Yom HaAtzma’ut while demanding that the Israeli flag be flown at the Yeshiva.  Those in the middle certainly have much to reflect upon on Tisha B’Av.

     In a future article I hope to convey the wonderful way in which Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch perfectly captured the situation in which we find ourselves, and gave us a very important way to think about it.  For now, I would like to conclude with one final reflection, having to do with the Har Habayit, the Temple Mount.

     There has been a recurring issue over the past several years in regard to Jewish Prayer on the Temple Mount, with strong feelings on both sides of the issue.  

     There are those who are certain that (after careful research in exact measurements that we are now privy to that were unavailable to previous generations) not only is it permissible to pray on certain areas of the Har Habayit, but it is important to do so.  One of the worst decisions of the Israeli government ever, they say, was Moshe Dayan’s decision in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, to publicly “hand the keys” of the Temple Mount back to the Waqf, giving the Arabs sole authority over the area at a time that Israel could have done whatever she wanted.  That a Jew can be arrested and imprisoned for moving his or her lips on the Temple Mount in a way that might be praying, is a self-inflicted insult and travesty, and one that every sense of Jewish pride must oppose.  

     Others, however, besides disagreeing on Halachic grounds about the propriety of going anywhere on the Har Habayit, see the “Temple Mount Faithful” as dangerous lunatics who are giving the Arabs a provocative excuse to attack and kill Jews, and “are directly responsible for bloodshed in Israel”.



     In the aforementioned future article, I would like to discuss this dilemma in greater detail.  But for our purposes now, in regard to Tisha B’Av, the realization of the reality of our helplessness  despite the fact that we are ostensibly in control of the very epicenter of our dreams and hopes, this sense of “so close and yet so far”, is surely yet another area for rumination on this national Day of Mourning.

     My Rebbe in Eretz Yisrael once said that in thinking about this, we should recognize that Gen. Motta Gur was, whether he knew it or not, speaking prophetically when triumphantly and famously declaring at the moment of victory “Har Habit Biyadeinu, Har Habit Biyadeinu!” (The Temple Mount is in our hands!).  He surely was speaking in the euphoria of victory in that glorious 1967 battle.   Nonetheless, what he said goes much deeper, and ought to be fodder for our thoughts, especially on Tisha B’Av. 




     Whether we will merit to have the Beit Hamikdash again, speedily in our days, is indeed largely in “our hands”.   It is up to us to correct the many interpersonal issues that plague us, the Lashon Hara, the Sinat Chinam, and all the other matters that draw us apart and prevent the Moshiach from coming.   At the same time, it seems to me that we need to tell the Ribbono Shel Olam that while we are so very grateful for His bringing us once again so close to Him in his Holy Land and Holy City, and to be living in a time that our grandparents could have only dreamed of, we still long so much for a Geulah Sheleima and Yerushalayim Habenuya Be’Emet, when there will be the peace and glory of Hashem’s serene presence in the Bet Hamikdash Bimheyra Beyameinu. 



Truly, Har Habayit Biyadeinu!




[1] On a personal note, when I had the privilege of being in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av in years past, I would go up to Har HaTzofim (Mt Scopus), where I could observe Shualim Hilchu Bo, the haters roaming over the Har Habayit (Temple Mount) as we were privileged only to pray on the outside of the Wall (Kotel).  I would intensify this feeling by then going for Mincha to the Kotel HaKatan, a strip of the Kotel deep in the Moslem quarter that looks and probably feels much as the Kotel did before 1948, and where I could more readily connect to the Tisha B’Av feeling of loss and mourning.



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Does Secular Wisdom Have Anything to Teach Us?


Looking through last week’s edition of the Queens Jewish Link, I came across the front page article by Gerald Harris, entitled “Was Benjamin Franklin Influenced by Torah Thinking”.  In this informative article, Mr. Harris cited many ideas regarding frugality and money management popularized by Franklin that are consistent with Torah values, leading him to speculate whether, in fact, Franklin had been exposed to Torah teachings.  It was taken as a matter of course that – given that Franklin lived long after the Torah had taught similar values – Franklin in all probability was “familiar with Jewish thinking . . . advice [was] strongly influenced by verses in Mishlei and various musar seforim.”  In other words, Franklin had, knowingly or not, probably received these values from Torah, directly or indirectly.

It is, of course, highly likely that Franklin, who was known as a man of uncertain religious beliefs (especially in regard to Christianity) but nevertheless a passionate pursuer of wisdom and virtue, studied the Book of Proverbs (Mishlei) closely; less likely that he had access to our musar seforim.  I am convinced that Franklin learned of Mishlei through Christian teachings, in keeping with the famous dictum of the Rambam in Hilchos Melachim 11:11-13, regarding the importance of Christianity and Islam in spreading Ethical Monotheism to the larger world.[1]  But perhaps Mr. Harris is correct, and Franklin did have direct exposure to Torah teachings.


Be that as it may, the implicit attitude -- not uncommon in the orthodox world -- that if we find wisdom in the secular, or non-Jewish world, it must have come from Torah sources[2], is what moved me to write this essay.  I have found that many seem to believe that the non-Torah world has little or nothing of value to teach us, and one should focus exclusively on Torah sources in seeking wisdom, guidance, and aids to self-improvement, or that of society.  There are, of course, many sources that could be cited to buttress this attitude; the most famous perhaps being the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:22

בן בג בג אומר: 
הפוך בה והפוך בה, דכולא בה. 
ובה תחזי, וסיב ובלה בה, ומנה לא תזוע, שאין לך מדה טובה הימנה.
Ben Bag Bag says: Search in it, and search in it, for everything is in it. In it you shall look and grow old and gray with it. From it do not move, for no characteristic is better than it.

Rav Ovadia of Bartenura comments: Do not say, “I have learned the wisdom of Israel, I will now go and learn Greek wisdom”, as it is not permissible to learn Greek wisdom except in a place that it is forbidden to contemplate words of Torah, e.g. in a bathhouse or in a bathroom. . .”


This fascinating topic, i.e. the propriety of accepting wisdom from non-Torah sources, is the subject of an enormous amount of debate and scholarship, and there are strongly held views on all sides.  The extent of the applicability of Ben Bag Bag’s statement is certainly viewed differently in Yeshiva University and in Lakewood (and within subgroups of those communities), although all claim to honor that Mishna, including the comment of Harav MiBartenura.[3]  I daresay that differences of opinion regarding this issue represents one of the great divides between the Hareidi and non-Hareidi communities today. It is a critically important topic for those of us who are not cloistered in New Square or Meah Shearim, but proudly live within the modern world and enjoy and appreciate the many wonderful advances that science, technology, and secular wisdom in general has brought to our lives, while at the same time are all too aware of the  depraved nature of much of modern culture.  As an avowed “middle of the roader” and a disciple of Rav Samson R Hirsch zt”l, the balance between the primacy of Torah and the benefits of worldly wisdom, i.e. the application of Torah Im Derech Eretz for individuals and society, could not be more important.


I thus found it fascinating that this article purported to show how Franklin derived his wisdom from Torah sources, including musar seforim, when, most paradoxically, the reverse may be true.   As I will describe below, there is a little-known but fascinating relationship between the work of Benjamin Franklin and none other than Rav Yisrael Lipkin, known as Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l, famed Tzaddik, Gaon, and father of the Mussar movement.

When perusing seforim stores in Yerushalayim or New York, one often sees posters that displayed the program of the famous Thirteen Middos Of Rav Yisroel Salanter .  These 13 principles, it is said, were formulated by the famous tzaddik as a program for growth and self-improvement.  By focusing on one of the middos for one week for each of 13 weeks, and then repeating the cycle, one would go through this process four times in the course of a year and be greatly enriched by it.  This program of 13 principles is one of  the most famous of all of Rav Yisrael’s many teachings.


What is less known, however, is that in all likelihood, the original source of the structure of these principles was not Mishlei, or another Torah source, but none other than Benjamin Franklin. 
Many know of Rav Yisroel's storied career as a Rosh Yeshiva and founder of the Mussar movement in Vilna and elsewhere in Lithuania.   It is less known that for almost the second half of his life, Rav Yisroel Salanter moved to Western Europe and spent decades devoted to Kiruv Rechokim, trying to combat the ravages that the Haskalah and Reform had caused turning masses of Jews away from the Mesorah.  It was during that period that he grew enamored of a sefer called “Cheshbon HaNefesh”, written by R. Mendel (Leffin) Satanover, who while being fully shomer Torah Umitzvos (observant), was in fact one of the early Maskilim.  Rav Yisrael felt that it was such an important and worthy primer on Mussar work that -- despite its origin -- he embraced and republished it, and encouraged his disciples to read and use it.
Germane to our discussion is that it seems true beyond a doubt that the book Cheshbon HaNefesh was based on the List of 13 Virtues that were written a generation before by Benjamin Franklin.  As Rabbi Berel Wein writes, “Menachem Mendel Lefin … read the writings of Benjamin Franklin, and became greatly influenced by them. He wrote a book of Jewish ethics based on Franklin’s ideas, almost quoting him verbatim but never mentioning his name. It was as though it was his book”.  Many other scholarly articles establish this fact beyond a reasonable doubt.
Franklin, for his part, attributed his amazing success and accomplishments to his constant focus on these principles that he authored at the age of 20, and which he worked on until his old age.  He formulated these principles when he realized that the “mere…conviction…to be…virtuous, was not sufficient” to effect behavioral change, because “habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason”  Towards the end of his life he wrote “It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow'd the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.”
Incredibly, these celebrated virtues, that have been much cited by thinkers and ethicists the world over, were undoubtedly what R Mendel Satanover used when adapting them for his “Cheshbon HaNefesh”, and it was these that were further adapted by Rav Yisrael Salanter.
In a wonderful article, Rabbi Rabbi Micha Berger discussed this anomaly more fully; I reference my readers to presentation of this issue.  He included in his discussion the version of Rav Baruch Epstein (author of Makor Baruch and Torah Temima) in his biographical notes on Rav Yisroel Salanter.  In that article, Rabbi Berger designed a table comparing the various versions of these virtues, that I have reproduced below.
I conclude this essay hoping that my readers enjoy the delicious irony that I felt when reading Mr. Harris’ article, and that we accept the dictum of Chazal that
אם יאמר לך אדם יש חכמה בגוים תאמן: –מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
“There is wisdom amongst the Nations”.   More importantly, I hope that we will be encouraged to use this wonderful and wise plan, whether of Rav Yisroel Salanter, or lehavdil Benjamin Franklin (or both), to pursue a virtuous life of self-improvement.



Benjamin Franklin
Cheshbon Hanefesh
Rav Yisrael Salanter
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
1. MENUCHAS HANEFESH. Rise above events that are inconsequential — both bad and good — for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.
5. MENUCHAH. Have a spirit that is at rest, without ever being hasty, so that you can do everything calmly

2. SAVLANUS. When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.
8. SAVLANUS. Bear with calm every happening and every event in life.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
3. SEDER. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly — each and every one in a set place and at a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.
9. SEDER. Do all of your deeds and all of your undertakings in an organized and disciplined manner.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
4. CHARITZUS. All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without hesitating.
3. CHARITZUS. Do what you decide to do with industriousness and enthusiasm.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
5. NEQIYUS. Let no stain or ugliness be found in your possessions or in your home, and surely not on your body or clothes.
7. NIQAYON. Keep your body and clothes clean and pure.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
6. ANAVAH. Always seek to learn wisdom from every man, to recognize your failings and correct them. In doing so you will learn to stop thinking about your virtues and you will take your mind off your friend’s faults.
10. ANAVAH. Recognize your own shortcomings and pay no attention to those of others.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.               
7. TZEDEQ. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
11. TZEDEQ. Do whatever Torah says is right, in its letter and spirit, and give in on what is rightfully yours.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
8. QIMUTZ. Be careful with your money. Do not spend even a penny needlessly.
12. QIMUTZ. Do not spend a penny that is not for a necessary purpose.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
9. ZERIZUS. Always find something to do — for yourself or for a friend and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.
2. ZERIZUS. Never waste a moment, to let it be for no positive purpose, and likewise actively do what you seek to accomplish.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
10. SHETIQAH. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: “What benefit will my speech bring to me or others?”
13. SHETIQAH. Consider the result that is to come out of your words before you speak.

11. NICHUSAH. The words of the wise are stated gently. In being good, do not be called ‘evil’.
6. NACHAS. The words of the wise are with gentleness heard, so therefore always strive to speak gently.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
12. EMES. Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.
1. EMES. Never let anything out of your mouth that your heart cannot testify as to its truth.


4. KAVOD. Be cautious in the honoring of every person, even anyone whose thinking you consider to be imperfect.
1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.


9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.


12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. PERISHUS. Strengthen yourself so that you can stop lewd thoughts. Draw close to your [spouse] only when your mind is free, [occupied only] by thoughts of fulfilling your conjugal duties [to your spouse] or procreating.







[1]  Briefly, the Rambam held that it is Hashem’s plan that the world become “filled with the mention of Moshiach, Torah, and mitzvot” through exposure to the "daughter religions" of Judaism, namely Christianity and Islam, both huge advances over paganism and primitive idolatry.  When Moshiach finally arrives, it will then be far easier for the whole world to come to the Ultimate Truth, at which time “all flesh will call in Your name”

 In fact, Franklin wrote shortly before his death "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this ... As for Jesus of Nazareth ... I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw ... but I have ... some Doubts to his Divinity”.   I believe that this is very much in keeping what the Rambam hoped would happen!

[2] As I do not know the author, I emphasize that this is a general comment, as I do not know his views on this issue.
[3] One way of understanding Ben Bag Bag is that although it is true that all wisdom is in the Torah, it may be close to impossible for anyone but the very greatest to access that wisdom.  So, for instance, it is true that the Chazon Ish had an uncanny understanding of the workings of the human body exclusively from Torah sources, most people would probably be well advised to seek medical advice from a medical profession who gained his knowledge from secular sources.