Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ofeq Institute and the New (English) Version of the Messilat Yesharim

Ofeq Institute and the New (English) Version of the Messilat Yesharim
by Eliezer Brodt

The Messilat Yesharim, by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal), is one of the foundational works of mussar. [1] The Gra, among others, praise the Messilat Yesharim.[2] As such, any addition to its oeuvre is important in its own right. The Ofeq Institute* has recently published an English translation of an alternative version of the Messilat Yesharim. This version is fundamentally different than the standard edition of Messilat Yesharim. The standard edition is divided into chapters based upon various character traits. The second, this new version, eschews the chapter divisions and instead is arranged in a conversation or dialogue format. Specifically, a dialogue between a "wise man" and a "pious person" is the format of this version. This second version comes from a manuscript in the Baron Ginzburg collection in the St. Petersberg Library. The manuscript is in the Ramchal's own hand and is substantially larger than the other version. Although the Hebrew edition of the dialogue version has been available for a bit (also from Ofeq),[3] this version has now been published in an English edition and this edition will be the focus of this post.

First a word about the Ofeq Institute. Over the past twenty years Mechon Ofeq has released many editions of the works of the geonim, rishonim and achronim covering all genres of Jewish literature. All these works are critical editions with extensive notes and introductions. Almost all their editions include extensive footnotes. (One of the only complaints some have is that there's simply too much information in the footnotes). Much like the novel version of Ofeq's Messilat Yesharim, many of the works are based on manuscripts from the Ginzburg collection, a collection that was only recently released to the public.

To highlight but a few of their other titles. A work on Iyov from the bet midrash of Rashi and a commentary on Yecheskel from R. Yosef Heyun. They begun to publish a critical edition of the rishonim on Torat Kohanim as well as a commentary on Tosefta. They have printed works from geonim like R. Natronai Goan. Many works of rishonim on shas, most well-known being the Tosafas HaRosh on Pesachim and Haggigah, and Tosafos Yeshanim on Yevomos. A facsimile edition of Rambam on Madda and Ahava in the Rambam's own hand. They have printed hagadahs from rishonim an excellent critical edition of the Seder Hakabalah of the Meriei. Another work of note is Meah Shaearim a two volume edition on hilchos kibud av v'em.

Ofeq, run by R. Avraham Shoshana and based in Cleavland Ohio utilizes not only Torah scholars (read products of Yeshiva education) but experts who are academics as well. For their editon of the R. Natronai Goan they used Professor Brody a leading expert of the geonim period. For other works of rishonim they have used Professors Emanuel, Hevlin and Speigel all experts in their respective fields. Or, in the case of the Messilat Yesharim, Professor Septimus was involved. That is, Ofeq ensures that the works they put out are of a high caliber. To some, this is an anathema. They view the inclusion of non-Torah scholars to be unconscionable. Most recently objections of this nature were expressed by R. Yehuda Liba ben Dovid in Bes HaVaad (see post here ). As I pointed out, however, R. ben Dovid's position is in the minority.

Aside from Ofeq's Hebrew publications they also have published some books in English. The Messilat Yesharim, however, is their most ambitious English translation to-date.

This English translation includes an introduction discussing the Messilat Yesharim, the two versions, and the English translation employed. The translation does not skimp in the sense that it is annotated with English notes - something that does not appear in all English translation. Instead, many English translations provide the footnotes in Hebrew. While this seems counter-intuitive as if the person wants to read the work in English, they would like to read the whole work including the footnotes. This edition does not suffer from that and instead, almost everything is in English. Additionally, although Ofeq has published the "dialogue" edition, they also include the original version in translation as well. There are, however, two parts that remain in Hebrew. The first are citations to verses, talmudic passages and the like, the second is the final work included which compares the dialogue version with the standard chapter version. This last section, titled Bein HaMesilot, is in Hebrew.

When it comes to English translations, there are typically two options. The first are academic presses which are typically expensive and not aimed at a popular audience. The second, are the traditional Orthodox presses, while these are typically more readable, they (although not always) don't provide some of the scholarly detail. Ofeq's translation of the Messilat Yesharim
strikes a nice balance between these two - they have produced a highly readable yet include the scholarly detail as well.

As mentioned above, what is unique about this copy of the Mesilat Yesharim is that is is written in a completely different style than the current Mesilat Yesharim. This new version is written in a debate form. The Ramchal wrote other works in debate form as well. For example, his work on defending kabbala. For whatever reason, he chose to print the other, standard, version and the debate version remained in manuscript. It's unclear, however, why the Ramchal chose to do so. Many feel that a debate version is much better for 2 reasons: One, it keeps the reader much more interested and two, it brings out the various points much better as is always in a debate form.

For many years, the sefer Messilat Yesharim was learned as a mussar sefer, becoming one of the classics. Many people used to take it into a dark room and learn it in special tunes saying the words again and again until they penetrated. However, many people have a fear of mussar, having bad memories from yeshiva, forcing themselves to read mussar sefarim during mussar seder that they felt did not talk to them. I would like to suggest a new way to read this sefer. Read it as a regular sefer. Concentrate on the ideas discussed in it, not only focused on the mussar, but rather on the pshatim, aggada and statements throughout the sefer. Just to list a few of these lesser appreciate portions of the Messilat Yesharim:

והנה ודאי שיעזרהו לזה רוב התמדה והעיון במזמורי דוד המלך והתבונוות בם במאמריהם וענינים כי בהיותם כולם מלאים אהבה ויראה וכל מיני חסידות. הבנה בהתבוננו בם. לא ימנע מהתעורר בו התעוררות גדול לצאת בעקבותיו וללכתב בדרכיו. (פרק כא)

Or highlighting the value of reading gedolim books or at least the aggadic section of the gemarah

וכן תועיל הקריאה בסיפור מעשה החסידים באגדות אשר באו שם. כי כל אלה מעוררים את השכל להתיעץ ולעשות כמעשיהם הנחמדים... (פרק כא)

In this passage, the Ramchal takes a positive view vis-a-vis working at least if learning remains a main focus

כי הנה העסק מוכרח הוא לאדם לצרוך פרנסתו, אך ריבו העסק אינו מוכרח שיהיה כל כך גדול עד שלא יניח לו מקום אל עבודותו. על כן נצטוינו לקבוע עתים לתורה. (פרק ה וראה פרק כא)

And, on keeping chumros he has an intresting point

הוא להחמיר בהם תמיד לחוש אפילו לדברי יחיד במחלקות אם טעמו נראה אפילו שאין הלכה כמותו(פרק יד)

Elsewhere he expands on this thought a bit more

באשר כבר יחשבו שהחסידות תלוי בדברי הבל או דברים נגד השכל והדיעה הנכונה. ויאמינו היות כל החסידות תלוי רק באמירת בקשות רבות ווידוים גדולים ובכיות והשתחויות גדולות ובסיגופים הזרים שימית בהם אדם את עצמו כטיבלת הקרא והשלג וכיוצא בדברים אלה... אך מציאות החסידות עצמו הוא דבר עמוק... כי הנה המצות המוטלת על כל ישראל כבר ידועות הן וחובתן ידועה עד היכן היא מגעת. אמנם מי שאוהב את הבוראית"ש אהבה אמתית לא ישתדל ויכון לפטור עצמו במה שכבר מפורסם מן החובה אשר על כל ישראל בכלל... אלא אדרבא... יהיה לי לעינים להרבות בזה הענין ולהרחיב אותו בכל הצדדין שאוכל לדון שרצונו יתברך חפץ בו... נמצא כלל החסידות הרחבת קיום כל המצות בכל הצדדין והתנאים שראוי ושאפשר... (פרק יח)

In the introduction the Ramchal has a puzzling remark, that many have taken issue with, but, in reality, the Ramchal was following in the path of Chovos haLevovvos

היתכן שיגע ויעמול שכלנו בחקירות אשר לא נתחייבו בם, בפלפולים אשר לא יצא לנו שום פרי מהם, ודינים אשר אינם שייכם לנו.

Here R Shoshanah has a nice comment (p. 18) of sources discussing this point.

When he wrote this work the Ramchal wrote a puzzling remark in the beginning showing his humility he writes

אמר המחבר החיבור הזה לא חיברתיו ללמוד לבני אדם את אשר לא ידעו אלא להזכירם את הידוע להם כבר ומפורסם אצלם פרסום גדול

R. Sarna writes in his notes on Messilat Yesharim that this statement is the most puzzling statement in the entire sefer to him.

One more nice piece from Messilat Yesharim is:

והפרישות... הוא התבודדות וההבדל מן החברה המדינית לפנות לבו אל העבודה והתבוננות בה כראוי ובתנאי שלא יטה גם בזה אל הקצה האחר שכבר אמר ז"ל לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורב עם הבריות... (פרק יד)

Turning back to the Ofeq edition in particular, it is important to highlight the footnotes included. While much has been written on the Messilat Yesharim before this edition, especially worthy of mention is the edition of R Sarna. This edition that includes notes by R. Shoshana has included that aside from explaining the text and the concepts therein and providing sources that the Ramchal's comments are based on in Hazel and the rishonim (as R. Shoshana notes that he has spent many years learning this sefer very carefully) also offers historical info such as on page 6 when dealing with learning pilpul or on page 127 about a custom in those days in Italy where there were large plays and comics played before Jewish audiences.

The end section, Bein HaMessilot, is a great section discussing at length a few topics of the Messilat Yesharim and comparing and contrasting how the two different versions with them. This shows, that at times, the debate version is much lengthier than the current version we have. Another thing that was done in this edition is that they fixed up the original version of Messilat Yesharim from all the mistakes that crept in since its printing. This sefer, which the author was subject to much opposition in his lifetime by many great gedolim, as is documented in the Iggeres Ramchal, was zoche that one of his works became a classic until today.

The only criticism I can think of on this edition is that they should have included all their appendices and introductions that they printed in the Hebrew edition previously printed by them. But, with this new edition it should be much easier to learn And I am sure one will enjoy this all time classic even today.

As Ofeq has extensively utilized manuscripts in both this edition of the Messilat Yesharim as well as in the rest of their publications. We should highlight another book, published by Ofeq, that is on the topic of Hebrew manuscripts. Benjamin Richler's book, Hebrew Manuscripts: a Treasured Legacy, (this is available to readers of the Seforim blog for a special price of $24.95 including postage - please contact Ofeq their information is provided below) is a great introduction to the world of manuscripts for anyone. The book contains a lot of information and pictures of all types of handwriting. The book traces and describes briefly many manuscript collections, both private and public including the Ginzburg collection - the collection where the dialogue version of MessilatYesharim as well as other important manuscripts were found. It even lists the numbers that some of these seforim have in the very big collections. Besides for this, the book contains some nice descriptions with pictures of many manuscripts. Of interest is on page 50, a picture of a manuscript of a machzor from 1290 that has pictures of malachim with faces of dogs. The book also includes a bit of a history of the various catalogs of manuscripts that have been written until today. Interestingly enough, Richler writes that the JTS and Hebrew University collections are not completely cataloged. (maybe by now, they are - for an update on the JNUL collection see Richler's post here). He has a chapter discussing the importance of manuscripts besides for ones not printed, which there are many. It also is to check the accuracy of previous editions. This book was written before the Ginzburg collection was released (p. 110). In addition, there's a excellent chapter on the Cairo Geniza from one of the biggest experts on the geonic era, Professor Robert Brody. Here too, Brody discusses many of the basic questions one has about this topic, such as why all this is in the geniza in the first place. He also discusses where all the documents are location today and the progress of the study of these documents.


[1] In an earlier post discussing the content and censorship of the sefer Menuchah u-Kedushah, and I note that according to the author of Menucah u-Kedushah, the Messilat Yesharim was written with ruach ha-kodesh.

[2] For a discussion about the Gra and his views towards R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzato and the Messilat Yesharim, see Y. Eliach, HaGra, vol. 1 pp. 240-45, where Eliach devotes a chapter to this issue. There is even a statement attributed to the Gra that there are no extra words in the sefer Messilat Yesharim, until chapter 11. This statement sparked a discussion as to exactly which word in chapter 11 is the extra one that the Gra was referring to. Additionally, it seems that the Gra even had some of the Ramchal's works in manuscript.

[3] The Hebrew edition includes an extensive introduction enumerating all the differences between the versions by R. Yosef Avivi, an expert on kaballah and especially the Ramchal's writings.

*As Ofeq's website is a bit dated, those wishing to obtain a catalogue of Ofeq's publications should contact them at: Ofeq Institute, 27801 Euclid Ave., Suite 430, Euclid, OH 44132, fax (216) 731-5567; email

Their contact information in Israel is 02-653-5920, or e-mail:


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