Text & Translation

מיקווה און מיצווה

Mikvah and Mitzvah: Melancholia and the Spiritual Life

R. Aaron of Karlin

Translation by Ariel Evan Mayse and Daniel Reiser


Hasidic homilies were delivered in Yiddish, but most of these sermons were transcribed and printed only in Hebrew. It is quite rare to find an entire Hasidic sermon (known as droshe or toyre) preserved in the original vernacular, particularly from the movement’s early period, in the eighteenth century. Therefore texts like the one below are of great value to scholars of Yiddish language and Hasidic thought alike. This Yiddish homily is attributed to R. Aaron ben Jacob of Karlin (1736–1772), an important student of R. Dov Baer (the Maggid) of Mezhirech (?–1772) and founder the first Hasidic community in Lithuania. The difficult syntax, repetition, and digressions are more characteristic of oral speech than a written text, and it seems likely that the teaching was written down by one of his disciples. We have attempted to retain this oral quality in our translation of the piece into idiomatic English.

R. Aaron’s relatively simple message reflects core Hasidic values: sadness may have some limited utility, but depression is always a destructive force that inhibits spiritual growth. Furthermore, he calls for a mode of piety which exceeds the requirements of halacha, emphasizing that supererogatory practices like ritual immersion for men and remaining in a constant state of joy are even more important than formal commandments. This quest for new ways to express religious devotion within the mandated praxis of Jewish law, the observance of which is taken for granted, was a foundation of Hasidic spirituality in its earliest stages.

A note on manuscript history: This teaching was first published from a manuscript in Keneses yisroel (Warsaw, 1906, pp. 73a-b), a late compendium of Hasidic stories and homilies. It does not appear in Beys Aharon (Brody, 1875), the first volume to present the teachings of R. Aaron ben Jacob of Karlin, although this volume has preserved a number of other interesting pieces in Yiddish. In 1929 a slightly different version was printed in Khashavah le-tovah (Piotrków), which claimed that it actually belongs to R. Chanokh of Aleksandrow. This contention is ultimately unsupported, and is further threatened by the existence of a manuscript in the Karliner archive (JER KARLIN 123), which matches the 1906 printing nearly word-for-word. This single handwritten page, which belonged to a certain R. Mordkhe Yankev ben R. Yitskhok, explicitly attributes the teaching to R. Aaron. A Yiddish version is found in Hillel Zeitlin’s Araynfir in khsides, un der veg fun khabad (New York: 1957, 261-62), and Hebrew translations appeared in 1926 (Matisyahu Yekhezkel Guttman, Migiborey ha-asidus) and 1943 (Yisroel Ya’akov Orten, Toras ha-mides), but the teaching appears here for the first time in English. Our translation is based on the original 1906 printing, checked against the Karlin manuscript.

עצבֿות איז דאָך קיין עבֿירה. אָבער דעם טימטום־הלבֿ וואָס עצבֿות פֿאַרשטעלט קען ניט פֿאַרשטעלן די גראָבסטע עבֿירה. מיקווה איז דאָך ניט קיין מיצווה עס איז דאָך בטלוהו לטבֿילותא אָבער וואָס מיקווה ברענגט צו גוטן קען דאָס די גרעסטע מיצווה ניט ברענגען. וואָס מיר שמועסן אַז מען ברויכט שׂימחה, מיינען מיר ניט שׂימחה־של־מיצווה, וואָרעם שׂימחה־של־מיצווה איז דאָך אַ מדרגה – קען מען ניט פֿאַרלאַנגען אַז יעדער ייִד זאָל זײַן אַ בעל־מדרגה. נאָר מיר מיינען ניט קיין עצבֿות, פּשוט אַ ייִד וואָס גייט ניט אַרום מיט שׂימחה מיט דעם וואָס ער איז אַ ייִד, איז ער אַ כּפֿוי־טובֿה דעם הימל. עס איז אַ סימן אַז ער האָט קיין מאָל ניט דערהערט די ברכה „שלא עשׂני גוי“ און וואָס ער טאַפּט זיך, צי בין איך אַ חסיד צי ניט – איז דאָס גאות. וואָס עפּעס אַ חסיד אַ ייִד –

עצבֿות איז שאול־תּחתּית, ר[חמנא־]ל[צלן], וואָס איז דער עצם ענין פֿון עצבֿות? עצבֿות איז טײַטש עס קומט מיר עס פֿעלט מיר הן בגשמיות הן ברוחניות איז דאָס אַלץ זיך. וואָס עפּעס מיר פֿעלט אַבי אין דעם הימל זאָל ניט פֿעלן – אַבֿרהם אָבֿינו זאָל זיך וועלן מיט מיר בײַטן וועל איך ניט וועלן. וואָס אַבֿרהם אָבֿינו אַ צדיק מיט מדרגות און איך בין אַ פּראָסטער מענטש און אַז איך וועל מיר בײַטן מיט אַבֿרהם אָבֿינו ער וועט זײַן אַ פּראָסטער מענטש און איך וועל ווערן אַ בעל־מדרגה. אָבער אין הימל וועט גאָר ניט צוקומען נאָר מיר וואָס איך וועל ווערן אַ בעל־מדרגה איז דאָס ווידער מיר און זיך. און וואָס מיר וויל מען ניט דאָס ברויכן מיר און מע דאַרף ניט וועלן.

Depression (atsves) 1 1 The term atsves has a specifically negative meaning in Hasidic literature. It denotes a type of problematic and debilitating sadness, pessimism, and even apathy, emotions that lead the Hasid to becoming distanced from God and alienated from his spiritual community of fellow seekers. We have chosen to translate atsves as “depression” because of this word’s connotations of a harmful, paralyzing sadness that constricts one’s point of view and impedes religious development. is obviously not a sin (aveyre), 2 2 The word sin (aveyre) here carries the implication of an act that is explicitly prohibited by the Bible or the rabbinic tradition. Depression obviously cannot rightly be described as a transgression in this sense, but, as R. Aaron will explain at length over the course of the homily, the spiritual torpor caused by depression is far more damaging than even the greatest sin. but the dullness of heart (timtum halev) brought about by depression cannot be caused by even the most vulgar of sins. Mikvah is obviously not a mitzvah, since the requirement for most immersion has been annulled, 3 3 b. Berakhot 22a, referring to the obligation of men to immerse themselves before certain religious activities after having experienced a seminal emission. but the goodness bestowed by the mikvah cannot be granted by even the greatest mitzvah. Now when we say that one must be joyful (men broykht simkhe), we’re not talking about the joy that comes from doing a mitzvah. That sort of joy is high-rung, and we can’t expect every Jew to be a on such a high level. Neither do we mean [only] depression—a Jew who doesn’t walk around joyful simply with the knowledge that he is a Jew is acting ungratefully toward heaven. This is a sign that he’s never understood the blessing, “ … Who has not made me a gentile.” 4 4 Recited in the morning liturgy. All this groping about, [asking yourself] whether or not I am [truly] a Hasid is just arrogance! It makes no difference if you are a Hasid or a [regular] Jew.

Depression is the depths of hell (shol-takhtes), may heaven save us! And what is the essential nature of depression? It means [thinking] about what you deserve and what you are lacking, whether in physical or in spiritual matters. But this is just self-obsession! What does it matter what we are missing—as long as heaven (i.e. God) isn’t lacking. Our father Abraham might long to trade places with me, but I would have no desire to do so. Now Abraham was a righteous man with so many spiritual accomplishments, and I am a simple person. Yet if I wished to switch places with Abraham, he would become a simple man and I would then be the hero. Heaven gains nothing from this—only I, the one who wishes to become spiritually accomplished. This is still just self-obsession. We must not desire these things, and we should not long for them.

מרירות איז טײַטש שבֿירות־הלבֿ. אַז איך האָב גאָר ניט אָנגעהויבן, וואָרן אַן ערלעכע האָר קען מען ניט האָבן אָן מס[ירת]־נ[פֿש]. האָב איך דען געהאַט מסירת־נפֿש, איז דאָס טײַטש אַז איך האָב גאָר ניט אָנגעהויבן איז דאָס היפּוך פֿון עצבֿות, אַז איך האָב גאָר ניט אָנגעהויבן איז דאָך ניט שײַך אַז עס זאָל קומען אָדער עז זאָל פֿעלן, פֿונדעסטוועגן שעפּ איך דעם אוויר און איך האָב מײַן הצטרכות איז דאָך אַ שׂימחה אַז מיר קומט גאָר ניט. על כּן איז מרירות טאַקע גוט –

נאָר פֿון עצבֿות ביז מרירות איז כּחוט השׂערה און די גאַנצע תּורה איז כּחוט השׂערה, והאָ ראַיה נשחט רובו כּשרה מחצה טריפֿה וויפֿל איז פֿון מחצה ביז אַ רובֿ אַ משהו – יונגע לײַט יעלו שמים ירדו תּהומות. ער האָט צעבראָכנקייט עס קיין גאָר זײַן ירדו תּהומות עס איז גאָר עצבֿות הגם יונגע־לײַט דאַרפֿן געוואָר ווערן אין עבֿודה דעם חילוק.

נאָר איך וועל אײַך זאָגן. אַז איז געווען אַ חשבון פֿון עצבֿות איז דער סימן אַז נאָך דעם לייגט מען זיך שלאָפֿן מע קען זיך ניט לײַדן און דעם אַנדערן קען מען געוויס ניט לײַדן מע איז בייז מע איז בײַ זיך שאַרף, דאָס איז אַ סימן אַז איז געווען אַ חשבון של עצבֿות – אָבער נאָך מרירות לאָזט ניט שלאָפֿן. וואָרעם וואָס איז מרירות אַז איך האָב גאָר ניט אָנגעהויבן צו טאָן כאַפּט מען לערנען דאַווענען מע שפּירט אַ ייִד, און מע איז נהנה אַז מע זעט אַ ייִדן און מע איז ניט שאַרף מע איז בײַ זיך אַ נישט.

נאָר פֿונדעסטוועגן די איידלסטע מרירות האָט פֿאָרט אַ נגיעה מיט עצבֿות און די געמיינסטע שׂימחה וואַקסט פֿון קדושה.

Melancholia (merires) means being brokenhearted (shvires halev), 5 5Merires and shvires halev refer to positive expressions of sadness, and thus occupy a very different place in Hasidic vocabulary than the negatively-inflected atsves. These terms may describe feelings of contrition, inadequacy, or even an overwhelming sense of humility, which derive from the earnest confrontation with one’s spiritual shortcomings. These emotional states are difficult to navigate, but they are crucial because they prevent the Hasid from becoming prideful or haughty and thereby from falling into a type of self-satisfied complacency. As opposed to the despondency and immobility that accompany atsves, merires and shvires halev actually function as important and positive catalysts for spiritual growth. We have thus chosen to render these terms as “melancholia” and “brokenheartedness,” respectively, which capture the unique mixture of bitterness and optimism found in the original. In doing so we also intend to invoke the long and complex association between melancholy and creativity. [understanding] that I have not yet even begun. You cannot advance a single hair’s breadth without total self-sacrifice [and devotion] (mesires-nefesh). [Ask yourself,] “Did I have self-sacrifice?” This means that the opposite of depression is [thinking] I haven’t begun at all! If I haven’t started yet, it’s irrelevant to say that I deserve something or that I am lacking it. Above all I’m alive, and I have what I need; true joy comes from [feeling] bereft of nothing. Therefore melancholia is actually good.

However, [the line] between depression and melancholia is but a hair’s breadth. The entire Torah depends on a hair’s breadth. [What is] the proof? [If an animal] is slaughtered and the majority [of its throat is cut], it is kosher. [If it is only] a portion, it is unkosher. 6 6 Paraphrase of b. Hullin 27a. What’s the difference between a portion and the majority? A tiny amount! Young people “ascend to the heavens and fall into the depths.” 7 7 Ps. 107:26. When one has a broken heart, it can cause him to “fall into the depths”—this is truly depression. Young people must discover the difference between them through [their own] toil.

But I will tell you [the distinction between negative depression and positive melancholia]: if you take an accounting of your soul from a place of depression, it will become clear after you lie down to sleep. You won’t be able to stand yourself, and you certainly won’t be able to stand other people. You’ll be angry and quite irritable toward everyone. This is an indication that your reflection was performed out of sadness. Yet when you are melancholy, it will be impossible to sleep [because of your great desire]. What is melancholia? Feeling that I have not begun to do anything—I long to learn, to pray. I feel like I am a Jew and derive satisfaction from seeing another Jew. I’m not irritated, and regard myself with utmost humility.

But at the end of the day even the most innocent melancholia still shares a connection with depression, and [even] the most common of joys blossoms forth out of holiness.

R. Aaron of Karlin. “Mikvah and Mitzvah: Melancholia and the Spiritual Life.” In geveb, August 2015: Trans. Ariel Evan Mayse and Daniel Reiser. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/mikvah-and-mitzvah-melancholia-and-the-spiritual-life.
R. Aaron of Karlin. “Mikvah and Mitzvah: Melancholia and the Spiritual Life.” Translated by Ariel Evan Mayse and Daniel Reiser. In geveb (August 2015): Accessed Aug 12, 2020.


R. Aaron of Karlin


Ariel Evan Mayse

Ariel Evan Mayse is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies of Stanford University.

Daniel Reiser

Dr. Daniel Reiser is a senior lecturer in Zefat Academic College and Herzog Academic College.