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The three basic texts that R' Yisroel Salanter wanted people to learn were Chovos HaLevavos, Mesilas Yesharim and Cheshbon HaNefesh. (source: here)

what is the difference between Chovos Halevavos and Mesilas Yesharim

which book should a beginner focus on first and why?

what about someone more advanced?

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This question would be a great deal more compelling if you'd include some information about why you think that anyone should learn either of these works, why a beginner should, and why a beginner and a more advanced student may have different needs here. – Isaac Moses Feb 18 '13 at 14:44
...and what you're considering a "beginner". – msh210 Feb 18 '13 at 18:25
Also perhaps allow for studying any other book. As it is now, everyone has to choose between only these two. – Double AA Feb 18 '13 at 18:29
@R.Sebag Then perhaps include some explanation as to why the user is being forced to learn one and exactly one of these two books. – Double AA Feb 18 '13 at 19:19
"Chovos Halevavos vs. Mesilas Yesharim" sounds like a frum action movie satire. – Seth J Feb 19 '13 at 14:33

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner suggests that Mesilas Yesharim (MY) be studied before Chovos Halevavos (CH) since MY is a written in a more accessible style and the topics are more basic. CH is deeper and the language is harder.

THinking about it some more with MY you will come away with more actionable tasks. i.e zerisus, zehiros, etc.. with CH the take aways are more in the realm of thought and contemplation (i.e Bitachon, Belief in Gods' unity, etc... )The author of CH calls those things which are actionable "Duties of the limbs" whereas he writes that his sefer (CH) focuses on those traits that are dependent on contemplation - "Duties of the heart" hence the name of the sefer.

I feel that they are both great and you should get yourself a teacher and start right away. you wont lose with either and understanding one book is not dependent on understand the other.

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Thanks for clearly explaining what was said at that site. Welcome to mi.yodeya and I hope to see you around. – Gershon Gold Feb 19 '13 at 13:58
Some secular people seem to grab on to the ordered lifestyle that the Torah offers so in that case MY is a good choice. Most Mussar teachers did not learn SHaar HaYichud and Shaar HaBechina. If Kiruv is the goal you may want to consider Derech HaShem as well – eramm Feb 20 '13 at 15:23
See this question for a discussion of whether one should study the philosophical proofs of God's existance in Chovot HaLevavot's Sha'ar HaYichud or not. – Chanoch Aug 15 '13 at 13:27
but you can read lev tov translation which is modern hebrew much easier than original language of Mesilat Yeshorim – havarka Jan 3 '15 at 18:04
I realize this is an old answer, but your link is dead. It's a great answer, regardless. – Shokhet Jan 4 '15 at 6:00

Mesilat Yesharim is short and straight to the point while Chovos Halevavos is much longer and gives alot of background such as trusting in God.

The trait of Zehirus (watchfulness) starts immediately after the introduction in Mesilat Yesharim.

In Chovos Halevavos, the trait of zehirus (watchfulness) starts in Gate #3 after many introductions.

So bottom line I think is that it depends on the needs of the person.

The Mesilas Yesharim is a kind of concise road map to set a person straight on the correct path of ascending the spiritual ladder. It is good for people who already want to grow but they are confused as to the correct path to follow (or they know but want to be reminded).

The Chovos Halevavos on the other hand is also a comprehensive work on Jewish philosophy and laying down foundations to inspire the reader to want to grow.

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