Benjamin Franklin and Judaism

In addition to his lasting contributions in the realms of science and government, the American founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) also managed to posthumously influence Jewish thought and practice by way of his famous Autobiography. In that work, Franklin briefly discussed a method he had devised in order to overcome his undesirable habits and become more virtuous. Inspired by this account, the early maskil (Jewish enlightener) Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow (1749-1826) decided to compose Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (The Book of Spiritual Accounting, 1808), a Hebrew self-improvement guide that is still studied in yeshivot today.

Franklin's Autobiography and Lefin's Spiritual Accounting both put forward year-long, quarterly-repeated self-reform programs that focus on thirteen character traits. Each trait is given a week of close attention, and daily journaling -- in a grid chart that has the seven days of the week running horizontally and the thirteen desired traits running vertically -- is used to monitor growth and progress. After thirteen weeks the cycle begins again, so that over the course of a year each trait is carefully worked on for four weeks. The traits outlined for improvement in both texts, though not identical, largely overlap, as does the emphasis on acquiring positive habits, and overcoming undesirable ones, gradually and systematically.

Franklin concentrated on the virtues of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Lefin offered a similar list by way of illustration, but urged his readers to select behavioral traits that were relevant to their unique circumstances and personalities.

 


Temperance.

Eat not to Dullness.

Drink not to Elevation.

 

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In addition to his lasting contributions in the realms of science and government, the American founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) also managed to posthumously influence Jewish thought and practice by way of his famous Autobiography. In that work, Franklin briefly discussed a method he had devised in order to overcome his undesirable habits and become more virtuous. Inspired by this account, the early maskil (Jewish enlightener) Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow (1749-1826) decided to compose Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (The Book of Spiritual Accounting, 1808), a Hebrew self-improvement guide that is still studied in yeshivot today.

Franklin's Autobiography and Lefin's Spiritual Accounting both put forward year-long, quarterly-repeated self-reform programs that focus on thirteen character traits. Each trait is given a week of close attention, and daily journaling -- in a grid chart that has the seven days of the week running horizontally and the thirteen desired traits running vertically -- is used to monitor growth and progress. After thirteen weeks the cycle begins again, so that over the course of a year each trait is carefully worked on for four weeks. The traits outlined for improvement in both texts, though not identical, largely overlap, as does the emphasis on acquiring positive habits, and overcoming undesirable ones, gradually and systematically.

Franklin concentrated on the virtues of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Lefin offered a similar list by way of illustration, but urged his readers to select behavioral traits that were relevant to their unique circumstances and personalities.

 


Temperance.

Eat not to Dullness.

Drink not to Elevation.

 

S

M

T

W

T

F

S

T

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S

**

*

 

*

 

*

 

O

*

*

*

 

*

*

*

R

 

 

*

 

 

*

 

F

 

*

 

 

*

 

 

I

 

 

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