The Wisdom of the Inner Life – Part 1

“Counsel in a man’s heart is deep water; but a man of understanding can draw it out” (Mishlei 20:5).

Spanish rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda wrote Duties of the Heart in the latter half of the 11th century. In his book, he identifies what he considers to be spiritually obligatory. He writes, “Wisdom is the life of man’s spirit and the light of his intellect; it leads him to the will of God….” Because we can’t see God, we can only come to know God through observation of the world, and through the study of science, mathematics, and theology. To understand Torah and religion, we need an open mind, free of the obstructions of ego.

Paquda divides the wisdom of the Torah into what he calls “knowledge of the duties of the limbs,” and “knowledge of the duties of the heart.”  The duties of the limbs include the rituals which have been passed down by tradition. R’ Paquda argues that the duties of the heart, which “belong to the hidden, private realm” are no less obligatory than the ritual commandments, and in fact must precede them as the foundation of a religious life. “Since the very basis for an act, and what it revolves around, depend on the intention and inner life of the heart, the knowledge of the duties of the heart should come before the knowledge of the duties of the limbs.”

He finds five spiritual commandments in the Shema:  1) Ha Shem exists; 2) Ha Shem is our God; 3) God is one; 4) we should love God with all our hearts; 5) we should serve God wholeheartedly. Five physical ones: 1) teach them to your children; 2) speak of them; 3) bind them as a sign on your hand; 4) let them be a frontlet in the center of your head; 5) write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. The physical commandments are intended to serve as reminders to perform the spiritual commandments. Ritual performed for its own sake, without kavenah, true spiritual intention, is empty.

Other examples of spiritual commandments:

“Love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words which I command you today must be on your heart (Devarim 6:5-6); To love Hashem your God, to obey His voice, and to attach yourself to Him (ibid 11:13); After Hashem your God should you walk, and Him should you fear (ibid. 13:5); Love your neighbor like yourself (Vayikra 19:18); And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God ask of you? Only that you fear God (Devarim 10:12); You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (ibid. 10:19.) Do not desire your neighbor’s wife. Do not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (ibid. 5:18.) Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people (Vayikra 19:18); Do not hate your brother in your heart (ibid. 19:17); Do not stray after your heart and eyes (Bemidbar 15:39); Do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted (Devarim 15:7).”

From the Talmud:

  • “The Merciful One wants the heart.” Sandhedrin 106b.
  • “The heart and the eye are the two agents of sin.” Yerushalmi, Berachos 1:8.
  • Throughout Pirkei Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers, found in the tractate on Damages)
  • Responses of the Sages to the question “On what merit have you reached such a ripe old age?” Megillah 27b.

The duties of the heart are binding at all times, unlike the duties of the limbs which are schedule-dependent.


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