Monday, December 12, 2016

Harav Ben Franklin?

In Benjamin Franklin's autobiography is an account of a system for self-improvement he had devised as a young man. The system drew on Enlightenment ideas and consisted of thirteen character traits that were to be worked on, one at a time, for a week each. Upon completing the list, one started again at the beginning, in this way working on each character trait for four weeks a year. He had intended to write a book about the system, but had never gotten around to it. Despite this, he had mentioned it in other works he had written, and the system gained some popularity. About twenty years after Franklin's death, Menachem Mendel Levin, an Eastern-European rabbi and early maskil, wrote a book based on Franklin's method called Cheshbon HaNefesh. He had gone to university in Germany and had lived in Berlin, and while there had read Franklin's writings.

R' Levin wrote in his sefer that while previous generations of rabbanim had extorted us to improve our characters, they had not provided a specific method of doing so. Thankfully, though, a new technique had been discovered. R' Levin modified Franklin's program, making it more flexible by allowing the person seeking self-improvement to choose any thirteen traits to work on rather than Franklin's prescribed list, and by allowing for the traits which one had mastered to be replaced by new traits that one felt he needed to work on. Still, Levin's and Franklin's lists of character traits largely overlap, and the method is the same.

Despite his open admission of its novelty, Levin's system became popular and was enthusiastically adopted by the mussar movement. R' Yisroel Salanter, the father of the mussar movement,  praised Cheshbon HaNefesh "as a truly practical book for ethical guidance" and had it reprinted.[1]

Cheshbon HaNefesh is still available for sale from frum publishers such as Feldheim. On their website, Feldheim describes the book as, "Far from pop-culture self-help books, this is a work developed over two hundred years ago by R' Menachem Mendel Levin, a prolific writer and Torah scholar whose breadth of knowledge is astonishing. Drawing from classic sources to form a step-by-step program for self-improvement and character refinement… this book is so important that R' Yisrael Salanter, recognizing its true worth, encouraged a group of students to republish it in 1845."[2]

High praise for a book that was the self-help equivalent of its day, whose author drew from the ideas of the enlightenment more heavily than he did from "classic sources" and whose method was invented by Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, not a Jewish sage from Babylonia. And high praise for a man who has been described as the "father of the Galician Haskalah."[3]

Today Franklin's chart can be found in frum classrooms and homes, regarded as an authentic Jewish method of self-improvement thanks to an eighteenth-century maskil and the frum world's delusion that everything it does in torah miSinai, uninfluenced by the wider world.

[1] Afsai, S. (2011). "The Prince, the Sage and the Rabbi." Philalethes: The Journal of Masonic Research & Letters 64: 101-109, 128.; Afsai, S. Benjamin Franklin's influence on Judaism. Retrieved from
[2] Feldheim, Description, Cheshbon ha-Nefesh. Retrieved from
[3] Rubinstein, A. (2007). "Levin (Lefin), Menahem Mendel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2nd ed. Vol. 12. p. 710-711.

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