People of the Book: The Ways of the Righteous

“When I speak, I regret what I say, but when I am silent, I do not regret. And if I may regret my silence once, I regret speaking many times over.”

—Gate 21: The Gate of Silence,
The Ways of the Righteous

Is it possible that The Ways of the Righteous, among the most influential works of Jewish ethics written over the past millennium, was secretly authored by a woman? Proponents of this controversial view advance three principal points to bolster their argument. First, the text was published anonymously. It was not unknown for authors in the mussar tradition to refrain from claiming authorship. It is also sadly true, even today, that women authors seeking publication are forced to hide their gender with a pseudonym, a single initial for their given name, or even pose behind a living male to have their work circulated. The 15th-century appearance of a deeply learned text like The Ways of the Righteous would certainly have aroused suspicion, even notoriety, with a woman’s name on the title page. Second, the text was first published in Yiddish, the vernacular of Eastern European Jewry, but Hebrew was common language of higher learning. Yiddish was known in some circles as der vayber sprach, the “women’s language,” because female literacy was usually limited to this Hebraized version of Middle High German. Third, and most tantalizingly, internal literary evidence reveals frequent use of domestic metaphors and similes. The author often makes reference to cooking, cleaning, and other home-based work that would have been readily grasped by homemakers. Thus if it were true that a woman authored Orchot Tzaddikim, then she would certainly represent the most learned woman since ancient times.

Tempting as this theory is, the arguments rest on relatively weak foundations. Much more likely is the probability that the author was a conventionally educated man with passing familiarity with domestic chores. Research into the several manuscript versions currently housed in the libraries of Oxford, Hamburg, and Budapest suggests strongly that the original version was written in Hebrew, and then translated into Yiddish for a broader, female audience of readers. The mystery surrounding the author, however, should not distract us from the fact that The Ways of the Righteous is a brilliant exposition of Jewish ethics, demonstrating a profound understanding of human psychology and infused with an abiding message of hope for self-improvement.

The book is divided into 28 “gates,” each of which is dedicated to a particular character trait. Versions of the text circulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries under the title The Book of Character Traits (Sefer HaMiddot). For each character trait, the author describes both the positive and negative aspects of this particular moral quality, and suggests development of the beneficial and avoidance of the deleterious factors. The influence of Maimonides’ Hilchot Dei’ot is prominent, although an analysis of the author’s source base reveals an exceptionally broad familiarity with the scope of rabbinic writings through the medieval period.

The Ways of the Righteous insists repeatedly that there is no such thing as a bad character trait, only a misdirected character strength. Misunderstood attributes like hatred, cruelty, worry, anger, jealousy, falsehood, flattery, and gossip are treated extensively. Similarly, the text also discusses many positive traits that can be misused, including humility, mercy, alacrity, and repentance. My personal favorites include the remarkably original chapter on silence, and I often turn to the chapter deceptively named “The Gate of Joy” for its moving discussion of faith (bitachon).

The Ways of the Righteous retains evergreen popularity in mussar-oriented yeshivos, especially the Chofetz Chaim movement. It has been adapted into a three-volume children’s book, and a new four-volume translation with commentary was recently completed by my Miami-based colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes.

This column originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on Thursday, January 21, 2016.

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