Chovot HaLevavot: Duties of the Hearts

Intro

Chovot HaLevavot (Arabic: كتاب الهداية إلى فرائض القلوب; Hebrew: חובות הלבבות; English: The Duties of the Hearts), is the main work of the Jewish Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, a master of spirituality who lived in Zaragoza, Spain in the 11th century.
It was written in the Hebrew-Arabic alphabet circa 1080 sometimes titled “Guide to the Duties of the Heart,” and translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon during 1161-80 under the title Torat Chovot HaLevavot. In 1973, Rabbi Yosef Kafih published his Hebrew translation from the original Arabic.

Organization and influences

The Duties of the Heart is divided into ten sections called “doors” (Hebrew: שערים) corresponding to the ten basic principles that, according to Bahya’s vision, constitute human spiritual life. This treatise on the inner spiritual life makes numerous references to Biblical and Talmudic texts, also drawing on Sufi influences from al-Andalus, as well as Greco-Roman classics translated by the school of Hunayn ibn Ishaq.

Content and message

The essence of all spirituality being the recognition of GOD as the sole Creator of all things, Bahya makes the “Sha’ar HaYihud” (Gate of Divine Unity) the first and main section. Taking as its starting point the Hebrew Confession of the Shemà: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our GOD, the LORD is One.” Believing in the One GOD without necessarily relying on blind faith, the Torah appeals to reason and knowledge as evidence for the existence of GOD, it is therefore a duty for every believer to seek GOD and strive to elevate their human condition.
Bahya, like other Arab philosophers before him, bases his arguments on Creation from the following three premises:

  1. Nothing creates itself by itself, since already the act of creating necessitates its existence (see also Saadia, “Emunot,” i. 2)
  2. the causes of things are necessarily limited in number, and lead to the presupposition of a primary cause that is necessarily self-existent, having neither beginning nor end, because everything that has an end must have a beginning
  3. all compound beings have a beginning; and a cause must necessarily be created.

The world is beautifully arranged and furnished as a great house, of which the sky forms the ceiling, the earth the floor, the stars the lamps, and man is the owner, to whom the three kingdoms are subject: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Each is composed of four elements, but the exception is the celestial sphere, composed of a fifth element, the “Quinta Essentia” according to Aristotle, and fire according to other thinkers. These four elements themselves are composed of matter and form, substance and accidental qualities, such as heat and cold, state of motion and rest, and so on. Consequently, the universe, being a combination of many forces, must have a creative power as its cause. Nor can the existence of the world be due to mere chance, for where a purpose is manifested, there must have been wisdom at that work. Ink accidentally spilled on a sheet of paper cannot produce legible writing.

Unity of GOD

Bahya proceeds following mainly Saadia Gaon and the Mutakallimin (“Kalamists”) to demonstrate the unity of GOD (Arabic tawhid) by showing:

  1. All classes, causes and principles of things lead back to one main cause.
  2. The harmony of all things in nature, the interdependence of all creatures, the marvelous plan and wisdom shown in the structure of the largest and smallest of animal beings, from the elephant to the ant, all point to one great designer: Aristotle’s physical-theological argument.
  3. There is no reason to suppose more than one creator, for the world manifests but one plan and one order everywhere. No one, without sufficient reason, would attribute a letter written all in the same style and handwriting to more than one writer.
  4. The hypothesis of many creators would require either a plurality of identical beings who, having nothing to distinguish them, could only be one and the same, i.e. GOD, or of different beings who having different qualities and lacking some qualities that others possess, can no longer be infinite and perfect, and therefore must be themselves created, not self-existent.
  5. Every plurality, being a combination of units, presupposes an original unity; therefore, even those who assume a plurality of gods must logically admit the prior existence of a divine Unity, a Neoplatonic argument borrowed by Baḥya from the Brothers of Purity.
  6. The Creator cannot share accidents and substance with creatures. The assumption of a plurality, which is accident and not substance, would lower GOD, the Creator, to the level of creatures.
  7. The assumption of two creators would necessitate the insufficiency of one or the interference of one with the power of the other; and since limitation deprives the Creator of His power, only unity establishes divine omnipotence.

Attributes of GOD

Adopting this neo-Platonic idea of GOD as the one who can be felt only by the longing Soul, but not grasped by reason, Bahya finds it superfluous to demonstrate the incorporeality of GOD. Rather, the question for him is: how can we know a being who is so far removed from our mental understanding that we cannot even define him? In answering this, Bahya distinguishes between two different types of attributes, namely, essential attributes and those that are derived from activity.

Three attributes of GOD are essential, although we derive them from creation:

  1. the existence of GOD; since a non-existent being cannot create things
  2. the unity of GOD
  3. the eternity of GOD, since the ultimate cause of all things is necessarily one and eternal.

But Bahya argues that these three attributes are one and inseparable from the nature of GOD; in fact, they are only negative attributes: GOD cannot be non-existent, or a non-eternal or a non-unity, otherwise he is not GOD.

The second class of attributes, those that derive from activity, are most frequently applied to GOD in the Bible, and apply just as well to creatures as to the Creator. These anthropomorphisms, however, whether spoken of GOD as having a form similar to that of man or as displaying an activity similar to that of man, are used in the Bible only for the purpose of imparting in plain language the knowledge of GOD to men who otherwise would not understand Him; while the intelligent thinker will gradually strip the Creator of every quality which makes Him similar to man or to any creature. The true essence of GOD being inaccessible to our understanding, the Bible offers the name of GOD as a substitute, making Him the object of human reverence and the center of ancestral tradition. And precisely because the wisest of men eventually learn only of their inability to name GOD properly, the appellation “GOD of our Fathers” will strike all men with particular force in the same way. All attempts to express in terms of praise all the qualities of GOD are doomed to failure.

Man’s inability to know GOD finds its parallel in his inability to know his own Soul, whose existence is manifested in his every act. Just as each of the five senses has its natural limits, the sound that the ear hears, for example, is not perceptible to the eye, so human reason has its limits in understanding GOD. The insistence on knowing the Sun beyond what is possible to the human eye causes blindness in man; so the insistence on knowing Him who is unknowable, not only through the study of His work, but through attempts to ascertain His very essence, disorients and confuses the mind, so as to impair man’s reason.
Reflecting on the greatness and goodness of GOD, as manifested in all creation, is consequently man’s highest duty; and to this is dedicated the second section of the book, entitled “Sha’ar ha-Behinah” (Door of Reflection).

His natural philosophy

Bahya indicates a manifestation for creative wisdom in seven parts:

  1. the combination of the elements of which the earth forms the center, with water and air surrounding it and fire placed above it
  2. the perfection of man as a microcosm
  3. the physiology and intellectual faculties of man
  4. the order of the animal kingdom
  5. that of the vegetable kingdom the sciences
  6. the arts and industries of man
  7. divine revelation and the moral and social welfare of all nations.

Bahya maintained that man should think of his own wonderful formation in order to recognize the wisdom of his Creator, he therefore examines the physiology and psychology of mankind, showing the wisdom demonstrated in the creation of every organ and faculty and disposition of the Soul; even in such contrasts as memory and forgetfulness, the latter being as necessary for man’s peace and enjoyment as the former for his intellectual progress. Even in nature, the consideration of the sublimity of the heavens and the movement of all things, the interchange of light and darkness, the variety of colors in the realm of creation, the awe with which the sight of living man inspires the brute, the wonderful fertility of every grain of wheat in the earth, the great supply of those elements which are essential to organic life, such as air and water, and the lesser frequency of those things which form the objects of industry and commerce in the form of nourishment and clothing. All these and similar observations tend to fill the Soul of man with gratitude and praise for the providential love and wisdom of the Creator.

Worship of GOD

In this view, such an understanding necessarily leads man to the worship of GOD, to which the third section, “Sha’ar Avodat Elohim” (Gate of divine worship). Every benefit received by man, says Bahya, will evoke his gratitude to the same extent that it is prompted by intentions to do good, even if a portion of self-love is mixed in, as in the case of what the parent does for his child, who is but a part of himself, and on whom his hope for the future is built; still more so with what the master does for his slave, who is his property.

Even the charity of the rich man towards the poor is more or less motivated by commiseration, because the sight of misfortune causes a pain of which the act of charity relieves the giver; likewise all helpfulness has its origin in that feeling of communion which is the consciousness of mutual need. The benefits of GOD, however, rest on love without any consideration of self. On the other hand, no creature is so dependent on the love and mercy of help as man from cradle to grave.

Pedagogical value of Jewish law

The worship of GOD however, in obedience to the Commandments of the Law, has in itself certainly an unequivocal value, for it affirms the higher claims of human life against the lower desires awakened and fostered by animal man. It is not, however, the highest way of worship, for it may be prompted by fear of divine punishment or desire for reward; or it may be entirely formal, outward, and lacking in that spirit which strengthens the soul against all temptation and trial.

Jewish law is necessary as a guide for man, says Bahya, for there exists in man a tendency to lead only a sensual life and to indulge in worldly passions. There is another tendency to despise the world of the senses altogether and to devote oneself only to the life of the Spirit. From his point of view, both paths are abnormal and harmful: the one is destructive of society; the other, of human life in either direction. Thus, the Jewish law shows the correct way to serve GOD by following “a middle way,” equally far from sensuality and worldly contempt.

The mode of worship prescribed by the law thus has primarily a pedagogical value, Bahya asserts. It educates all the people, immature as well as mature intellects, to the true service of GOD, which must be that of the heart.

There follows a long dialogue between the Soul and the Intellect, on Worship, and on the relation of Free Will with Divine Predestination; Bahya insists on human reason as the supreme ruler of action and inclination, and therefore constitutes the power of self-determination as a privilege of man.

Another topic of the dialogue is the physiology and psychology of man with particular regard to the contrasts of joy and sorrow, fear and hope, fortitude and cowardice, shame and insolence, anger and meekness, compassion and cruelty, pride and modesty, love and hate, generosity and avarice, idleness and industry.

Divine Providence

Only those who trust in GOD are independent and satisfied with what they have, and enjoy rest and peace without envying anyone

Trust in GOD forms the title and subject of the fourth “door,” “Sha’ar HaBitachon.” Greater than the magical power of the alchemist who creates golden treasures with his art is the power of trust in GOD, says Bahya; for only those who trust in GOD are independent and satisfied with what they have, and enjoy rest and peace without envying anyone. However, only in the Creator can one trust, for He provides for all His creatures out of true love and with full knowledge of what is good for each.
In particular, GOD provides for man in such a way as to unfold his faculties more and more with new needs and concerns, with trials and difficulties that test and strengthen his strength of body and soul. Trust in GOD, however, should not prevent man from seeking the means of livelihood through the exercise of a trade; nor should it lead him to expose his life to dangers. In particular, suicide is a crime that often results from a lack of confidence in an omnipotent Providence. Likewise, it is folly to place too much trust in wealth and in those who possess great fortunes. In fact, all that the world offers will eventually disappoint man; and for this reason the Saints and Prophets of old often fled their family circles and comfortable homes to lead cloistered lives dedicated only to GOD.

The Immortality of the Soul

Bahya here dwells at length on the hope of immortality, which, in contradistinction to the popular belief in bodily resurrection, he finds intentionally mentioned only here and there in the Holy Scriptures.

For Bahya, the belief in immortality is purely spiritual, as expressed in Zech. iii. 7, “I give you a place among those who stand.”

Hypocrisy and skepticism

Sincerity of purpose is the theme addressed in the fifth “door,” called “Yihud ha-Ma’aseh” (Consecration of action to GOD); literally, “Unification of action.”

According to Bahya, nothing is more repugnant to the pious Soul than the hypocrite. Bahya considered skepticism to be the primary means of seducing people into hypocrisy and all other sins. At first, says Bahya, the seducer will cast doubt on immortality into the heart of man, in order to offer a welcome excuse for sensualism; and, should he fail, he will awaken doubt about GOD and divine worship or revelation. Failing to do so, he will endeavor to show the lack of righteousness in this world, and deny the existence of an afterlife; and, finally, he will deny the value of any thought that does not refer to bodily well-being. Therefore, man must exercise continual vigilance over the purity of his actions.

Humility

The sixth “door,” “Sha’ar HaKeni’ah,” concerns humility. Humility is said to manifest itself in kind conduct toward one’s neighbor, whether of equal or superior status, but especially in one’s attitude toward GOD. Humility springs from the consideration of man’s low origin, the vicissitudes of life and one’s own failures and shortcomings with respect to man’s duties and the greatness of GOD; so that all pride even with respect to one’s own merits is banished.

Pride in outward possessions is incompatible with humility and must be suppressed; even more so is pride arising from the humiliation of others. There is, however, pride that stimulates nobler ambitions, such as pride in being able to acquire knowledge or achieve good: this is compatible with humility, and can improve it.

Repentance

The practical tendency of the book is particularly demonstrated in the seventh section, Shaar HaTeshuvah, the Door of Repentance. The majority of even the pious, Bahya says, are not those who have been free of sins, but rather those who have sinned once, but then repented of doing so. Since there are sins of both omission and commission, man’s repentance should be directed so as to stimulate good action where it had been neglected, or to train him to abstain from evil desires where these had led to evil actions.

Repentance consists in:

  1. a full consciousness of the shameful act and a deep regret for having committed it;
  2. a determination to change conduct;
  3. a candid confession of the sin and a sincere plea to GOD for His forgiveness;
  4. in a perfect change of heart.

True repentance is manifested in fear of GOD’s justice, in contrition of the soul, in tears, in outward signs of sorrow (such as moderation of sensual enjoyment and display, and renunciation of otherwise legitimate pleasures), and in a humble spirit of prayer and earnest contemplation of the Soul’s future.
The most essential thing is the interruption of sinful habits, for the longer one adheres to them, the more difficult it is to put an end to them.
A particular obstacle to repentance is procrastination, waiting for a tomorrow that may never come. After quoting sayings of the rabbis to the effect that the sinner who repents may be higher than the one who has never sinned, Bahya quotes the words of one of the teachers to his disciples, “If you were entirely free from sin, I should fear that which is far greater than sin, namely pride and hypocrisy.”

Seeing GOD

The next “door”, entitled Shaar Heshbon HaNefesh, Door of Self-Examination, contains an exhortation to consider life, its obligations and opportunities for the refinement of the Soul as seriously as possible, in order to reach a state of purity in which the higher faculty of the Soul is unfolded, which sees the deeper mysteries of GOD, the sublime wisdom and beauty of a higher world inaccessible to other men.

Bahya dedicates Shaar HaPerishut, Gate of Isolation from the World, to the relation of true religiosity to asceticism. A certain amount of abstinence is, according to Bahya, a necessary discipline to restrain man’s passion and to turn the soul toward its highest destiny. However, human life requires the cultivation of a world that GOD has formed to be inhabited, and the perpetuation of the race. As such, asceticism can only be the virtue of a few who stand as exemplars.

An ascetic life

There are several ways to seclude oneself from the world. Some, in order to lead a life dedicated to the higher world, flee from this world and live as hermits, contrary to the Creator’s design. Others withdraw from the turmoil of the world and live a secluded life in their homes. A third class, which comes closest to the precepts of Jewish law, participates in the struggles and occupations of the world, but leads a life of abstinence and moderation, viewing this world as a preparation for a higher one.

According to Bahya, the object of religious practice is the exercise of self-control, restraint of passions, and placing all personal possessions and organs of life in the service of the Most High.

Love for GOD

The purpose of ethical self-discipline is the love of GOD, which constitutes the content of the tenth and final section of the work, Shaar Ahavat Elohim, The Door of GOD’s Love. This is explained as the yearning of the Soul, amidst all the attractions and enjoyments that bind it to the earth, for the source of its life, in which it alone finds joy and peace, even if the greatest pains and sufferings are imposed upon it. Those who are imbued with this love find it easy to make any sacrifice that is asked of them for their GOD; and no selfish motive mars the purity of their love.

Bahya is not so one-sided as to recommend the practice of the recluse, who has only the welfare of his own soul at heart. A man may be as holy as an angel, but he will not equal in merit the one who leads his fellow men to righteousness and love of GOD.

Quotes

When we contemplate the world, it will become apparent that – it is the design of one Thinker, and the work of one Creator. We find its roots and foundations to be similar in its derivatives and uniform in its parts. The signs of wisdom manifested in the smallest of the creatures as well as the biggest testify that they are the work of one wise Creator. If this world had more than one Creator, the form of wisdom would exhibit different forms in the different parts of the world, and vary in its general character and divisions.
(Chapter 1)

 

 

They (the Divine attributes) divide into two divisions: Essential (in essence) and Active (i.e. from His deeds).
The reason we call them Essential (in essence) is because they are permanent traits of GOD, belonging to Him before the creations were created, and after their creation these attributes continue to apply to Him and to His glorious essence.
These attributes are three:
1. That He (permanently) exists
2. That He is One
3. That He is Eternal, without beginning.
(Chapter 1)

 

 

If a slave has more than one master, and each one has the power to help him, it is not possible for him to put his trust in only one of them, since he hopes to benefit from each master. And if one master can benefit him more than the others, he should trust proportionally more in him, even though he also trusts in the others. And if only one of the masters can benefit him or harm him, certainly he should put his trust only on that master, since he does not hope for benefit from the other masters. Similarly, when a human being will realize that no created being can benefit him or harm him without the permission of the Creator, he will stop being afraid of them or of hoping for anything from them, and he will place his trust in the Creator alone, as written “Put not your trust in princes, nor in mortal man who has no help” (Tehilim 146:3).
(Chapter 4)

 

 

Since we have completed in this gate, to the best of our ability, a fitting amount of discussion on the themes of trust, it is now proper to clarify the things detrimental to trust in the Al-mighty. I say that the detrimental things mentioned in the 3 preceding gates of this book are all likewise detrimental to trust [in GOD].
Additional things which cause a loss of trust:
(1) Ignorance with regard to the Creator, and His good attributes, because one who does not realize the Creator’s mercy towards His creations, His guidance, providence and rule over them, and that they are bound by His chains, under His total control – he will not be at peace and will not rely on Him.
(2) Another, ignorance of the Creator’s commandments, namely His torah, where He instructed us in it to rely on Him and trust in Him, as written “test Me in this…” (Malachi 3:10), and “trust in GOD forever” (Yeshaya 26:4).
(Chapter 4)

 

 

But if we examine what there is in the books of the other prophets (besides Moshe Rabeinu) on this matter [which is mentioned explicitly], for example “[And the dust returns to the earth as it was,] and the spirit returns to GOD, Who gave it” (Koheles 12:7), and “I will give you a place among these who stand here” (Zecharia 3:7), and “How great is Your goodness that You have laid away for those who fear You” (Tehilim 31:20), and “no eye has seen O GOD besides you, who prepares for those who wait for Him” (Yeshaya 64:3), “your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the L-rd shall gather you in” (Yeshaya 58:8). When we study these and many more other similar verses in addition to what our Sages taught us in this, and with what our reason tells us, our souls will be at peace, and will be assured of the inevitability of reward and punishment in the afterlife.
(Chapter 5)

 

 

10. One who habituated his tongue to lie and to speak of the faults of others, and to denigrate them. For he cannot remember all of what he said and all those who he spoke about due to the countless words, and forgetting the people he spoke against. It is all guarded against him and recorded in the book of his sins. On him it is said: “And if he comes to see me, he speaks vanity: his heart gathers iniquity to itself; when he goes abroad, he tells it” (Tehilim 41:7), and “When you saw a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers” (Tehilim 50:18), and the rest of the matter. Behold, the verse equated evil speech with theft and adultery. So too, it is said “they deceive (corrupt) one another and do not speak the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies, they commit iniquity until they are weary” (Yirmiya 9:4).
(Chapter 7)

 

 

(obligation to not disobey GOD)
To make an accounting with oneself, when one feels that his tendencies are to rebel against the Creator and to break His covenant. Let him take account with himself and put to heart that all of what he perceives in the world with his senses – whether the foundations of the earth and its branches, or its elements and compounds, its higher (stars, planets) and its lower creations (i.e. physical creatures) – all of them exist by the word of GOD and guard His covenant (follow the laws of physics, etc).
(Chapter 8)

 

 

Then he will see and feel that his thoughts for matters of this world are the highest of his thoughts, and his aspiration for this world is the higher of his aspirations, because all the various types of possessions will never be enough for him in the least, on the contrary he is like a fire, the more wood is added, the more it increases flames, and all of his heart and intent will be drawn to it day and night. He will not consider anyone a close friend except one who helps him in them, and no one a friend except he who leads him to them. His eye will be to the times it is good to buy, and the times it is good to sell. And he will observe matters of the selling rates for the whole world. He investigates where they are cheap and where they are expensive, and when they go up and when they go down. He will not refrain from travelling to faraway places. Neither heat, nor cold, nor stormy sea, nor long desert roads – all this out of his hope to reach the end of his desire but there is no end to it.
(Chapter 8)

 

 

Begin at first by restraining your tongue and clamping down your lips. Refrain from idle words, until you will regard moving your heaviest limb to be easier than moving your tongue. For the tongue sins more quickly than all of the other limbs, and its sins are more numerous than the sins committed by all of them. Because it moves easily and swiftly, it easily completes its deed, and has the power to do good or evil without any intermediary.
(Chapter 9)

 

 

Look at the difference between them and the men with pure interiors (who serve GOD) – their eyes are at rest, their hearts are secure, and in their solitude, they delight in remembering GOD, thank Him for His goodness in all their situations. They quickly grasp all forms of deep wisdom. They ripped off the veil from their eyes which prevents seeing the interior ways. They reached the true tranquility through their toil. Their tranquility led them to delight, their desire does not distract them, nor does their long life make them procrastinate. They are zealous to prepare for the day of death, and from what is after it. They prepare, call to GOD, seek Him, hope to Him, and serve Him, They speak truth, converse righteousness, without fear of the Sultan, and without being ruled by the Satan. They are more precious (to GOD) than any man, and more guarded than any nation. Their splendor and grandeur is greater than all of them, honored in the houses of GOD, and great in the eyes of men. Nothing distracts them away from remembering GOD, and nothing prevents them from thanking Him. Their tongue is habituated in praises and thanksgivings, and their hearts are full of purity and unity.
(Chapter 9)

 

 

What is love of GOD? It is the longing of the soul – and its turning, on its own, to the Creator, so that it can cleave to His supernal light. For the soul is of an essence which is pure and spiritual, it tends towards spiritual things similar to itself. By nature, it removes itself from what is opposite to its nature, namely the coarse physical bodies.
When the Creator, blessed be He, bound the soul to this coarse physical body in order to test it, how it would guide the body. GOD aroused the soul to care for the body, and further its welfare, through the partnership and companionship which was naturally ingrained between them from the beginning of the development (of the body).
(Chapter 10)

 

 

May GOD teach us and you the way to His service in His mercy and greatness, Amen.
These are the ten stanzas:
Which include the topics of the gates of this book. One stanza per gate.
(Meter: Yated, two Tenuot, Yated, two Tenuot, Yated and Tenuah in the first half of the stanza, and likewise repeated in the second half.)
(Unity of GOD) – My son, devote your unique soul wholly to its Rock, when you declare the Unity of the One GOD who formed you.
(Reflection) – Examine, investigate, and contemplate His wonders, and let understanding and the law of righteousness be your girdle.
(Service) – Fear GOD, and guard His testimonies and laws always, so that your steps shall not stray.
(Trust) – Let your heart be confident and assured, trusting in GOD, the Rock, that He will be your help.
(Devotion) – With a pure heart do His laws for His sake, and exalt no human being in your generation.
(Submission) – See, that the end of a creature is to the dust, be lowly for sand, and dirt will be your dwelling place.
(Repentance) – Let the speech of your understanding contend against your folly, and repent from the brazen of your heart and [evil] inclination.
(Accounting to GOD) – The ways of GOD, in just and proper judgment, search with wisdom in your thoughts and inner being.
(Abstinence) – Remove from your heart the childish and adolescent, and do not desire the desires of your youth
(Love of GOD) – In your yearning, you will see the face of the everlasting G-d, and your unique soul will commune with your Rock
(Chapter 10)

 


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