What is Musar?
There is no clear and simple answer to the question of what is meant by the Hebrew term musar. This is not only due to the fact that the linguistic use of the term looks back to a long history—from the Bible to the present—and has thus been used with many different connotations and in different contexts. It is also mainly because there is no consensus on what is understood as morally correct and what is understood as morally reprehensible.
The classification of musar as a distinct type of literature is a relatively young phenomenon, and it is only systematically applied from the outset of the early modern period, at a time when Hebrew book printing was on the rise. Viewed in this light, it reflects an attempt to classify a certain type of literature in order to enable the readership to easily identify the subject matter of a book. Accordingly, the paratexts of many title pages include references to “words of musar” (divrei musar) or “books of musar” (sifrei musar). In the nineteenth century, this ordering principle was adopted by scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, who interpreted the term as “Jewish ethics.” One century later, Israeli scholarship developed this classification further, utilising it as an umbrella term for a literary genre that they called “Jewish ethical literature.”
Limiting the rich tradition of musar to a single genre is problematic for several reasons, primarily because the materials identified as such do not share a common literary format, nor do they necessarily exhibit similarities in style. This qualification also applies to the solution of establishing several sub-genres, a method that is certainly more accurate. Most importantly, the identification of musar as a genre leaves aside the many textual layers dealing with moral concerns that can be found in a far greater number of works than those usually labelled as “ethical.”
The aim of "Jewish Moralistic Writings of the Early Modern Period" is to explore musar first and foremost as a mode of thinking, and “books of musar” very much like their verbal counterpart (“words of musar”) as literary expressions of what a particular author recommends as morally appropriate or inappropriate in a certain setting and for a certain target group. The ideals conveyed in sifrei musar are therefore strongly determined by particular geographical, socio-historical, linguistic, and aesthetic contexts.
Musar manifests itself in multiple genres, in multiple stylistic garbs, and in multiple languages. It can offer general principles for spiritual improvement or clear instructions for everyday conduct; it can provide strategies for change by deliberately triggering feelings of anxiety, and it can serve, in the biblical sense of the word, the function of an admonisher. In the words of the anonymous author of the thirteenth-century musar book Sefer ha-Yashar, it reminds the readers to stay on the “right” path in the event that they forget and “warns them in the event that they err.”