The word “mussar” appears only once in that form in the Torah, in Deuteronomy 11:2. Millennia later, that word will be applied to the practice of developing character traits such as “patience,” “order,” “kindness,” and even “faith.” Mussar as a Jewish practice has had many renaissances, from the early middle ages in Spain, to the 1800s in Eastern Europe, to the current decades in the United States.
However, the word in its biblical context has a slightly different connotation than we who practice mussar today like to think.
Deuteronomy 11:2 reads: “Take thought this day that it was not your children, who neither experienced nor witnessed the mussar of Adonai your God – His majesty, His mighty hand, His outstretched arm… -[but rather it was you].” (NJPS Translation)
Interestingly, Rashbam is one of the few medieval commentators who even comments on the word in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 11:2 THE DISCIPLINE (mussar) [OF THE LORD YOUR GOD]: [The word mussar means “discipline,”] as in the phrase (Deut. 8:5), “just as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Translation Martin Lockshin)
Rashbam seems to be right on in his plain-sense interpretation. The root for mussar has the sense of discipline, encompassing a way of being (a disciplined person…) and the perhaps painful punishing that creates such character (to discipline someone is to punish them…).
In context, God is described as doing mussar when God plays strongman against Pharaoh in Egypt. God, the superior power, disciplines Pharaoh, who only thinks he is the superior power. The New JPS translation offers instead of discipline the word “lesson.” To discipline can be to teach a lesson. And we see the link when we say “I’ll teach you a lesson” in a threatening manner.
The word mussar as meaning a teaching or a lesson goes further back. The Aramaic translation of the 2nd century CE Targum Onqelos uses the Aramaic word ulpana (teaching) to interpret mussar. Modern students of Hebrew will recognize this root in the word used for intensive Hebrew courses, “Ulpan.”
Jumping forward a few centuries after the Rashbam, the 15th century Spanish commentator Yitzchak Arama offers a beautiful understanding which adopts Rashbam’s translation of mussar as discipline while also putting it in the larger context of Jewish practice.
Since it is the Torah’s purpose to warn against all these temptations, Torah-as-antidote is known by three names corresponding to the three types of temptation. “Chayim,” life, “Torah,” teaching, “mussar“, discipline.
Inasmuch as Torah is the antidote against all dangers, it is called “life.” “For she is your life.” (Deut. 32:47 et al) Inasmuch as Torah is the antidote to all deceptions and misrepresentations, it is called “a teaching”, “instruction”, something that teaches true values. Inasmuch as Torah is the antidote against bad habits and a tendency to indulge oneself, it is called “a discipline.” “Know this day that just as a father disciplines his son, so your God disciplines you.” (Deut. 8:5 et al) Solomon sums it up in Proverbs 6:23, “for the commandment is a lamp, the law is light itself, and reproofs are the way of life.” Only the pursuit of all three aspects of Torah will guarantee man the proper exercise of free choice granted him by his Maker. (Akeidat Yitzchak 93.1.6, translated by Eliyahu Munk)
For Yitzchak Arama, Torah has three names – chayim, torah, mussar. Life, teaching, and discipline. This threefold nature helps us survive, learn, and live well. Although the roots of mussar are associated with reproof, punishment, and discipline, mussar‘s ultimate goal is to allow for a life of dignity and wisdom, a way to practice what the Torah teaches elsewhere, “choose life that you may live.”
For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.