Monday, September 15, 2008

Question & Answer With Moshe David Tokayer - Sfas Emes & Rebbe Nachman

A Simple Jew asks:

The Imrei Emes related that his father, the Sfas Emes, often learned Likutey Moharan and Likutey Halachos. After consistently reading your blog Sfas Emes for some time now, I am struck by the numerous similarities between the teachings of the Sfas Emes and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Have you also noticed this as well?

Moshe David Tokayer answers:

I posed your question to some of my children who are more knowledgeable about Rebbe Nachman's seforim than me. They said that there are close similarities between Rebbe Nachman's ideas and the Sfas Emes. In fact, many times when I say a Sfas Emes at the Shabbos table, they embellish with quotes from Likutey Moharan or Likutey Halachos.

I know that the Sfas Emes quotes the Tanya a few times and some Chabad friends have told me of the historically close relationship between Gerer Chassidus and Chabad.

The most surprising discovery I've made, though, are the similarities between the Sfas Emes and the Nefesh HaChaim. Coming from a background that stresses the differences between Chassidic thought and practice and non-Chassidic thought and practice, the similarities between these two classics from opposite poles came as a complete surprise, one that demanded a re-think and resulted in a new way of approaching both Chassidic and non-Chassidic classics.

First I must apologize because I'm a bit off the topic of the question. However, to find similarities between Breslever thought and the Sfas Emes is not really all that surprising. Regardless of the bad rap that Breslever Chassidus may have gotten over the years, we find Rebbe Nachman's seforim and ideas surfacing in other Chassidic courts. For example, not long ago I read a quote from the Klausenberger Rebbe encouraging the saying of the 10 chapters that comprise the Tikkun HaKlali. He said that whoever says these 10 chapters of Tehillim with kavannah, can break through metal barriers.

To find close similarities between a Chassidic master and Reb Chaim Volozhiner, one of the standard bearers of hisnagdus, came as as complete surprise to me and makes me wonder whether the gap between Chassidic and non-Chassidic thought is all that great. To be sure, Reb Chaim rails against what he saw as a breach in the keeping of halachah. He writes particularly against the practice of not saying Krias Shma and davening in the proper time. Other than that though, to the best of my knowledge he does not complain in the Nefesh haChaim about anything else that can be attributed to Chassidus. If someone could point to some other complaint, I'd be grateful.

Here, though, is the major difference that I noticed between the two. Reb Chaim Volozhiner stresses the overriding importance of learning Torah and fulfilling the mitzvos whereas the Sfas Emes stresses the intent and preparations that must precede the mitzva. Reb Chaim was concerned, because of the stress on intent etc, that people would think that learning Torah shelo lishma, for example, is worthless and would refrain from learning altogether. Although he states clearly the importance of proper intent and its benefits, still, he stresses the importance and great benefits of kiyum hamitzvos even without proper intent.

And perhaps therein lies the big difference between Chassidus and non-Chassidus. The Chassidic movement enabled people to dedicate their lives to serving HaShem with the tools they had at their disposal. A Gerrer Chassid who was working long hours in order to support his family, could nevertheless experience closeness with HaShem by fulfilling the mitzvos with intense kavannah. Those long hours of work themselves could be turned into mitzvos "simply" by intending to fulfill HaShem's will through them, instead of feeling guilty his whole life that he was not learning during most of his day.

Although this is no doubt an oversimplification, with the proper qualifications, I believe it is true that the Jewish world is in the midst of a process of synthesis wherein halacha is given its proper status and importance and, at the same time, people are more open to imbuing meaning into their daily activities and trying to serve HaShem by all means at ones disposal. This type of synthesis is a beautiful thing and, to my mind, is a strong indication that the geula shleima is right around the corner.


At September 15, 2008 at 11:22:00 AM EDT, Blogger Akiva Ben Canaan said...

On this issue, of different approaches to work:

I went to hear Rav Itamar Shwartz, author of the sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, speak yesterday. Essentially, he said that we should all have the desire to be learning Torah 24/7; while G-d understands that we need to work, He demands that our hearts be filled with a desire to study Torah all day. But Rav Shwartz also made clear that this desire is really only step 1; ideally, we should fulfill this desire in practice - ideally, we would all be learning 24/7 in actuality as well.

So I asked him - doesn't that mean that we working Jews, people who sit in an office all day long, lead bedieved lives? Should we all go through life feeling like second class, bedieved Jews? How can one have this approach and not be depressed?

Basically, he responded that we should feel upset - the angst we feel about not learning all day, which is part of the punishment of "b'zaiat apecha tochal lechem", should push us to desire to learn more than we already do. The unhappiness we feel about workin will create a greater desire to learn Torah.

I found this a very difficult answer to swallow, and to live by - and certainly NOT a chassidic approach. I thought the Bilvavi sefer was pretty chassidic in thought, with its central focus on deveikus. But his talk yesterday appeared quite Rav Chaim Volozhiner to me.

"instead of feeling guilty his whole life that he was not learning during most of his day."

This seems to be what Rav Shwartz is advocating. Did I misunderstand?

At September 15, 2008 at 11:50:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I have a geshmak from learning Sefer Nefesh Hachaim and also from learning Likutei Moharan.

However, if I'm not mistaken, Reb Chaim Volozhiner does take a few swipes against Chassidim in the sefer. In particular, when speaking about kiyum hamitzvois versus hachonoh l'kiyum hamitzvois, he mentions that there are such people who wait until they can see stars in the sky before they daven minchah. And he provides a moshol of a person who thinks about eating matzah the entire night of the Seder, but he doesn't actually eat the matzah until the night is over.

There is a Breslever sefer named Chayei Hanefesh, which was written to refute the sefer Nefesh Hachaim.

At September 15, 2008 at 12:25:00 PM EDT, Blogger Yosef said...

Chayei Nefesh was not written to refute the Nefesh HaChayim in general, but rather specifically relating to the concept of hiskashrus to tzadikim helping in Avodas Hashem, and specifically in Tefilla (see Likutei Moharan Torah 2).
The sefer addresses that one specific point in Nefesh HaChayim.

At September 15, 2008 at 12:36:00 PM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


You were at Englewood or Boro Park? (Incidently, those should be online at dixieyid very soon.)

There is an aspect of this idea in Chassidus as well. The ga'aguim for more kedusha than one has is seen as very precious to Hashem. And to the extent that those ga'aguim motivate a person to do more than he currently is, they have a good practical effect as well.

But this perspective should be balanced with another idea that I doubt Rav Shwartz would dispute. If it indeed is Ratzon Hashem that I be working, then my situation is lechatchila from Hashem's perspective (though from my perspective, I may want and daven for more access to kedusha). Having bitachon in Hashem's decision in this regard is also part of one's avodah.

-Dixie Yid

At September 15, 2008 at 1:03:00 PM EDT, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

The Nefesh HaChaim does not say anywhere that one should be learning 24/7 and not working. However, he does say that the small amount of time that one works, he should think only in Torah. (Sha'ar 1, Perek 8)

I don't see how this is possible if someone has a job that requires his mind, but that's what he says.

At September 15, 2008 at 1:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger Akiva Ben Canaan said...

I was at the Englewood shiur.

Having read through the first volume of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, which does not focus all that much on studying Torah, I was surprised by the overall message of the shiur.

In the sefer (volume 1), Rav Shwartz clearly statesthat the point of our lives is achieving closeness to G-d - in all that we do, be it buying a table or any other mundane activity. Performance of the mitzvos, even Talmud Taorah, are a means of achieving this closeness, not the goal in and of themselves.

In the shiur, however, Rav Shwartz never once mention Deveikus. Rather, he explained that both before birth and after death, one's soul spends all of its time studying Torah. COnsequently, our job in this world is to increase our desire to learn, as well as increase our actual learning - so that when we reach the next world, learning all day will be a joy, not a burden.

I found the completely different emphasis (as I understood it) to be somewhat jarring.

Over the long term, over decades of working as a lawyer, is it really possible to consistenly be inspired by Rav Shwartz's approach - that I should feel upset over the fact that I am not learning more? Is "negative inspiration" feasible and/or healthy for most Jews?

At September 15, 2008 at 1:27:00 PM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Though he may not have said it in that shiur, it's no less true because of that. I think that on this trip, a lot of his emphasis was on adapting our lifestyle greatly so that we shouldn't have to be in a position of living a lifetime of regret about not learning enough. Of course the Deveikus is still the point, but I think he was going back to something more basic than that, kind of as a way of focusing on things which enable that Deveikus. Because if we don't do enough of the things which enable deveikus, we won't have the deveikus either.

My approach would be this. I heard what he said. Now let me ask myself if I can change or make a relistic plan to put into action to change my lifestyle and work part-time and live more simply or whatever, in order to have more time for focusing on learning, Hisbonenus, etc. If I can change my lifestyle, then let me put that plan into action (whether it's a one year plan or a five year plan or whatever).

And if I can't do it, (truly), then this is the Ratzon Hashem and it would be depressing to constantly focus on my "bidieved" lifestyle. Rather I can instead focus on using the methods in hisbonenus throughout the day and for an hour a day to focus myself on bringing Hashem into all of those things, as you were saying.

-Dixie Yid

At September 15, 2008 at 1:31:00 PM EDT, Blogger Akiva Ben Canaan said...

I hear your point. Rav Shwartz certainly succeeded in making us reevaluate!

At September 15, 2008 at 2:24:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering if someone can advise me on how to get in touch with the "simple jew"? I have a question I would like to ask him.

Please respond via email

Toda Rabba,

At September 15, 2008 at 2:36:00 PM EDT, Blogger Yosef said...

Thanks to you guys for discussing this. I really appreciated how this issue of guilt over a "bdiavad" lifestlye was articulated by Akiva.
Since I left yeshiva and have started working (out of financial need), this is something that I keep coming back to myself. I also really appreciated your comments about it, Dixie Yid. Yasher koach to both of you.

At September 15, 2008 at 6:34:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oming from a background that stresses the differences between Chassidic thought and practice and non-Chassidic thought and practice, the similarities between these two classics from opposite poles came as a complete surprise,

This is really not surprising, because actually Nefesh haChaim quotes numerous chasidic ideas from early chasidic sources like Toldoys Yakov Yosef and Baal haTania almost verbatim, however without mentioning any names. There is a whole article about in in one of the issues of "Heichal haBaal Shem Tov".

At September 15, 2008 at 6:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yosed: In Chayey Nefesh, Reb Gedalya states, that he received a tradition from Reb Avrohom Shternhartz that there was no machloykes between chasdim and misnagdim regarding ikrey hoemuno.

May be you know, how does the issue of tzimtzum kepshotoy / loy kepshutoy fits into this statement, and what does it mean in detail? (I didn't get clear answers on that from talmidim of Reb Gedalya so far).

At September 15, 2008 at 6:40:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yosef: Sorry, the last post was addressed to you.

At September 15, 2008 at 6:43:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Yid said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At September 15, 2008 at 6:44:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yosef: BTW, are you familiar with material that was skipped from Chayey Nefesh? I've heard it was done because of haskomoys (i.e. some statements about the tzaddik either seemed too strong or something the like). Do you know what was there and why was it skipped?

At September 15, 2008 at 11:58:00 PM EDT, Blogger Menashe said...


ASAIK this was the main point of the original machloikis between chassidim and misnagdim. It all started from this issue. Tzimtzum kpshuto or aino pshuto. Almost every single difference can be traced back to this machloikis in one way or another.

The politics are not even worth discussing though. And sadly that's all that most people know today.

By the way regarding davening, it is a din in shulchan oruch that a yid MUST be misbonen on the gadlus of Hashem and the katnus of adam. Forget chassidic seforim - this is the halacha. You have actually not been mkayim the mitzvah of tefilah al pi halacha if this has not happened. You can daven hashkama if you like but it will do no good if you are half awake the whole davening. If you wake up with your chabad and midos on fire with yiras shomayim and ahavas Hashem than you are ready to daven. If not then what good does it do if you are finished by zman tefilah?? Tefilah is an avodah, not something to "get out of the way before diving into tosfos."

At September 16, 2008 at 1:55:00 AM EDT, Blogger Rambler said...

There is a yeshiva that considers itself a continuation of the path of Volozhin and the Rosh Yeshiva is a direct descendant of the Netziv, the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. He told me that the Nefesh Hachaim was written because of a concern that everyone was being drawn to learn Tanya and chassidus. So he took the Tanya and changed it just enough to make it his own, and published that to lure people back from Tanya. Most of the ideas in the sefer remained the same as in Tanya. Later, when he met the Tzemech Tzedek of Lubavitch to work together to stop a government decree against the Jews, he regretted his opposition because he saw that all the bad things he had heard about chassidim were lies.

He became good friends with the Tzemech Tzedek. There is a famous story about the two of them davening at the shul of a group of Cantonists for Yom Kippur while they were traveling to intercede with the government. They are both given the honor of leading services and they switch off until for kol nidrei, an amputee is brought forward. He stops to say a few words before beginning. He points out that having wasted their whole lives in forced conscription in the army they have nothing left to live for, so what are they praying for? Then in answer he begins the kaddish, "May His Great Name be made great and holy..."

I heard all of this from a proud direct descendant of the Volozhin dynasty.

At September 16, 2008 at 2:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger Rambler said...

The fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shalom Dovber, had to travel frequently for health reasons. There was just one sefer he always took with him wherever he went: Likkutei Maharan.

At September 16, 2008 at 9:31:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Menashe: The so called difference regarding Tzimtzum is an issue of semantics. Everyone admits that worshiping a stone for the "dvine" is idolatry or that you can't do an act prohibited by the Torah to "raise the sparks." On the other hand, no one argues against the fact that you can find Hashem while engaged in any physical act as outlined in Shulchan Aruch.(There are exceptions such as the bathroom which according to most authorities require unusual strategies such as contemplating humility.)
The real machlokes stemmed from the fear that Chasidim would mistakenly take these deep kabalistic concepts too literally and permit the prohibited based on specious rationalizations. Of course history shows that they did not.If you disagree please provide sources demonstrating actual differences.
The best argument I have heard to explain the hisnagdus was that the opposition actually served to keep the chasidim on the straight and narrow path. "If not for the cherem they would have done all sorts of terrible things."
But this cannot be proven (or disputed for that matter.)

At September 16, 2008 at 9:39:00 AM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Yes indeed he did!


Thank you very much for what you said. When it comes to the past & my present circumstances, or future circumstances that are Ratzon Hashem, nothing is bidieved.

-Dixie Yid

At September 16, 2008 at 12:14:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He told me that the Nefesh Hachaim was written because of a concern that everyone was being drawn to learn Tanya and chassidus. So he took the Tanya and changed it just enough to make it his own, and published that to lure people back from Tanya.

This is exactly the impression I got, that R' Chaim Volozhiner wanted to show that these profound ideas can be found in misnagdic camp, sho why bother going to Chasdidim? (Though he openly writes against some chasidic practices which he didn't accept). You are saying it is supported by descendants of R' Chaim Volozhiner.

Just to add - he didn't only use Tania, but actually several chasidic sources including the Maggid, Toldoys Yakov Yoysef and others. So quite a number of places Nefesh haChaim is simply quoting the Baal Shem Tov without mentioning his name.

At September 16, 2008 at 12:52:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bahaltener: Can you quote one source that is only in the Ba'al Shem Tov and not in the Maharal, Shelah, Ramchal etc etc, on which Chasidus is based and which the Tanya himself writes that he is summarizing? When the Gra says the same thing as the Ba'al Shem Tov does that mean he copied it?
The Nefesh Hachaim, zt"l, did not need the masters of Chasidus --k'vodam bmikomo munach-- to write a deep sefer. Was it a reaction to Tanya? Quite possibly. Did he need to copy from Tanya or the Ba'al Shem Tov; absolutely not.
If you think otherwise please provide quotes from Nefesh Hachaim as requested.

At September 16, 2008 at 1:09:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Textual analysis can prove that he quotes chasidic sources. Now you see that this is even supported by descendants of R' Chaim Volozhiner.

There is an article on this subject in one of the issues of Heichal haBaal Shem Tov which provides this textual analysis and shows this obvious similarities. (Highly improbable, that such lengthy quotes could be accidentally said by different people as an original hasogoys). I don't have it with me, I can give you the issue number later (if you don't have an access to this magazine, may be I'll scan it somewhere).

At September 16, 2008 at 2:20:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bahaltener: Thank you for responding.
I do not have access but you need not scan it.
I would very much appreciate precisely where a so called quote (or several) which is a carbon copy of the Ba'al Shem Tov etc and is not from an earlier source (Ramchal etc.)

At September 16, 2008 at 7:49:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as per the talk in englewood. to say that after trying to learn for x ammount of years and not succeeding it is l'chatchila if you have to keep working is far from what he seemed to be saying. let's call a spade a spade. if we disagree we disagree. this is not encouraging for baalei batim and is a dangerous path and is not the path of Chassidus.

At September 17, 2008 at 9:32:00 AM EDT, Blogger Yosef said...

Anonymous: I didn't see anything mentioned about trying to learn for a number of years, not succeeding, and working instead. The question asked was about an ehrliche working person who is kovea itim. Some people have to work. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to learn all day, even if they had the ability and desire to do so.

Bahaltener: As far as Chayei Nefesh is concerned, you may know more about it than I do. I have learned parts of it, but not the whole thing. I don't know so much more than the basic contents of the sefer itself, although I would certainly be interested in knowing more.
Regarding the issue of tzimtum k'phuto or lo k'phuto, this is just a hypothesis, but I always understood the "machlokes" of just a choice of what we should emphasize in terms of Avodah. As Rabbi Nachman writes in Torah 64, the issue of Tzimtzum itself is really intrinsically paradoxical, and can't be grasped by the human mind at this stage in history.

At September 17, 2008 at 12:36:00 PM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

anon 7:49:

The fact that he wasn't actually talking about it being hashgacha pratis that many have to work doesn't mean that he denies the idea either. It is doubtful that he would suddenly, without even saying so, uproot the whole concept which he has often written about that Hashem's hashgacha is on everything. If one has made a true cheshbon that it is the Ratzon Hashem that he must work and learn for as much time as he can, then this is lechatchila. If Hashem decreed that, and it is not Ratzon Hashem for him to change it (which a person can know through honest cheshbon hanefesh & consulting his Rav), then that matzav for him is lechatchila, since it is Hashem's plan from the beginning of creation for him to live that life.

Now just because it is Hashem's will that he work, and it is Hashem's Lechatchila plan for him to work, doesn't mean that it's not still good for the person to have ga'aguim for a life of greater manifest ruchnius. Such feelings and the tefilos that flow from them may cause Hashem to cause the person's situation to change in the future such that he will be able to live a life of greater "revealed ruchnius." And if and when that time comes, then *that* will be the lechatchila life that Hashem has planned for the person at *that* time.

-Dixie Yid

At September 17, 2008 at 12:42:00 PM EDT, Blogger Yosef said...

Thanks again Dixie Yid. I think that this is really such an important hashkafic issue for us today, both for people who are blessed to be able to learn all day as well as those that can't. It doesn't make sense that a person who's really doing the best they can do should have this inferiority complex because of it. It's presumptuous to assume we can know Hashem's intentions in such matters, and all the more so to judge someone else's circumstances in this area.

At September 17, 2008 at 3:28:00 PM EDT, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

People are different. Some are meant to be spending all there time in daled amos of halacha. Others would be wasting their lives if they did that. They need to be out with people doing things. It's the way we're made. Everyone can be a sheliach HaShem in whatever life path his shoresh neshama dictates.

The Chiddushei HaRim says that there are different types of tzadikim. There's the kind that stays in his daled amos and there's the kind who goes out to the people. See here: for the details.

Even the Nefesh HaChaim does not disagree with a gemara meforeshes: many did like R' Shimon bar Yochai (only learning, no work) and were unsuccessful. For most people it is practically impossible to learn without working even a little bit of time for parnassa.

If a person can though, the Nefesh HaChaim says that he is required to learn and not work for a living.

Clearly some can, most can't. This is straightforward, clear, and back by Chazal.

The point that is implied is that the majority who cannot sit and learn all day, should not be doing so because, as the Gemara says, many tried and were unsuccessful.

The bottom line is that each of us are here to accomplish something unique. Feeling comfortable with what a person is spending his life doing is, to my mind, key in avodas haShem.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the commentors. I did learned new things about the Nefesh HaChaim. I particularly want to thank anon and Yosef for mentioning the sefer Chayei Nefesh.

Menashe, as you write, the Rema says that we should think about the gadlus of HaShem and the katnus of man before beginning to daven. Nowhere does he or anyone else say that if you don't your not mekayeim the mitzvah of tefilla al pi halacha.

Zman tefilla, on the other hand, is a clearcut halacha. You can be misbonen until you reach the level of nevuah but if you davened after the zman you missed the boat, so to speak, sort of like blowing shofar with a lot of kavanna on Pesach. Nice perhaps, but no mitzvah there. This is exactly what the Nefesh HaChayim rails against, exactly your point. Thank you. I could not have said it more clearly.

At September 17, 2008 at 11:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea that a man should only study Torah and not work is very problematic. As Rabban Gamliel said, "All Torah not accompanied by work will ultimately be futile and will cause sin." (Avot 2:1)

Many important figures, including the Rambam, have opposed the idea of making a career of full time learning while supported by others.

This is a contentious issue today, and a case can be made for full-time study of those who can (eg in kollel) while living off charity, because of the lowliness of our generation, needing these individuals. However I do not believe it to be the true Jewish ideal. The ideal would be a person fully engaged in life, including a livelihood, and making it all holy.

No one should feel guilty because they must accompany their Torah with work.

At September 19, 2008 at 12:23:00 AM EDT, Blogger Rambler said...

I agree with Anonymous regarding the fact that everything that the Baal Shem Tov said and everything written in Tanya is found in earlier Torah sources. In fact, the author of Tanya named it Likkutey Amarim, as is explained in the introduction, because it is merely a compilation of Torah teachings from other sources. One of the disputes the Baal Shem Tov had with misnagdim was about Divine providence. He argued that even for every blade of grass there is an angel telling it to grow. This is a quote from the Gemora.

It is therefore not the slightest trace of plagiarism or dishonor for Reb Chaim of Volozhin to write the same things. I'm sure that for every paragraph that he read of Tanya, he recognized right away where it's source was.

At September 19, 2008 at 7:57:00 AM EDT, Blogger Yosef said...

Yasher Koach to Rambler, for giving shevach to both great tzadikim involved in this "debate" :-).


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