Do Not Be Overly Righteous – OpEd


The wise king Solomon warned us “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” Ecclesiastes 7:16. What does this mean and why should we think about it?

The Baal Shem Tov taught “You should not be overly strict in any observance. Excessive strictness is the advice of the Yetzer HaRa (the untamed, anxious, self-centered impulse). It makes a person fear that he has not done things just right and so brings him into depression- the greatest obstacle to serving God.”

Rabbi Nachman taught ‘It is impossible for a mortal human being to fulfill all his duties perfectly. You should not be overly strict and stringent.”

The Al hait list of one’s own sins prayer originally had only 6 verses and still does in Sephardic and Yemenite rites. It then grew to: 22 in Italian, and 44 in Ashkenazi (European) rites. Al hait was originally recited once in each of the 5 services of Yom Kippur, and then doubled to 10. This is a good example of seeking to be overly self-righteous and pious.

A longer religious service is not better than a shorter service; just as eating or drinking more is not better than eating or drinking less. Do not make yourself too wise: by thinking more is always better. 

For example: the Avinu Malkaynu prayer started with 7 verses and now has up to 44 verses. The prayer book of Rabbi Amram Gaon (9th century) had 25 verses. Today the Yemenites have 27 verses, the Sephardic tradition has 29 verses, among the Mizrahim (Jews living in Muslim countries) the Syrian tradition has 31 verses, and the Ashkenazic (European Jews) has 38 verses, the Polish tradition has 44. and the Greek prayer books have the perfectionist wisdom of  58 verses.

Ecclesiastes 7:16 asks: Why should you ruin yourself?”: The Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2 and Deuteronomy 13:1) says” do not add to and do not subtract from” God’s commandments. This is an excellent principle. Since the generations are always changing, some change is always needed, but we are commanded to maintain the original balance. Thus, “do not add to” unless you also subtract from, and “do not subtract from” unless you also add to, is the answer.

Unfortunately, since the destruction of Jerusalem, most rabbis have continually added prohibitions and restrictions and rarely permitted subtracting. The book of Proverbs (4:27) also advises us, “Do not swerve to the right (always forbidding) or to the left (always permitting)”. Maintaining the original balance is excellent advice.

In our own religious, political and personal life we must also avoid excessive criticism of others as well as excessive criticism of ourselves. These habits ruin ourselves and lead to bad and disturbed personal and family relationships. These habits are also harmful to society. 

Of course, even saints have their shortcomings. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin died in a most tragic manner. A Cossack shot him in the leg while he was saying the Shabbat morning prayers. His disciple Rabbi Asher wanted the bullet removed right away but Rabbi Shlomo refused and said he would wait until after Shabbat was over, arguing “should we forget God the creator of the universe for such a small thing?”  After Shabbat was over they went to a doctor but by then the leg was infected. The infection spread and five days later Rabbi Shlomo died. He was 56. 

Perhaps with this in mind Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt pious people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.” 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *