The Mussar movement, the formal study and program of ethical improvement, was developed in the mid-nineteenth century by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883). Rabbi Israel’s family name was Lipkin but he is generally known as Salanter in honor of the many years he studied in Salant, Lithuania.

Throughout his years of study, Rabbi Salanter felt that there was far too much cold intellectualism in the Jewish community and too little emphasis on ethics and self-improvement. While some Mussar texts already existed, such as the writings of Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto, Rabbi Salanter developed the study and practice of ethics into a full school of thought. The focus of the Mussar movement was the communal study of these existing texts, combined with constant self-examination of each person’s actions.

After serving as the head of the Vilna Yeshiva, Rabbi Salanter moved to Kovno in the 1840s in order to open his own yeshiva. At the same time, he also ran a special center dedicated to the study of ethical works and a kollel (an advanced study institute) for married men. After leaving Kovno in 1856, Rabbi Salanter took positions in several towns in Germany and France. The most renowned work of Rabbi Salanter is Iggeret ha-Mussar (The Ethical Letter), which was first published in 1858.

While the Mussar movement was successful within the world of the scholars, it was not a generally popular movement. (After all, how popular could sitting for an hour each day and criticizing yourself be?!)

Following Rabbi Salanter’s death on today’s date, the 25th of Shevat, 1883, his disciples worked diligently to integrate Mussar into mainstream traditional education. Eventually, it became part of the curriculum in most Lithuanian schools, where students would not only study Mussar, but would regularly hear Mussar Shmoozin (Mussar talks) from the school’s mashgiach ruchani (moral supervisor).

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