In its introduction, Chovos Halevavos places great emphasis on the importance of Chovos Halevavos. It also seems to have contradictory implications as to what should be learned first; in one place the author writes regarding Chazal: "Their efforts were first spent on determining the general principles of judgment, to make clear what is permitted and what is forbidden. Afterwards, they busied and strove to clarify their active obligations and inward duties...". Later, however, he writes: "The thinking, intelligent man, when he reads [the Torah] and understands it clearly, will divide it into three divisions. The first is the knowledge of fine spiritual themes, namely, the inner wisdom, such as the duties of the heart, the discipline of the soul and will obligate his soul on them always. Afterwards, he will select the second portion, namely, the practical duties of the limbs, doing each one in its proper time and place." (Translation from Sefaria) Is there a way to resolve this apparent contradiction? It seems that common practice in Orthodox Jewish circles is to study classical halacha first. Is that correct? Or, in practical terms, should I first study Shulchan Aruch or a Chovos Halevavos? If possible, please provide sources (those other R. Bachya ibn Paquda are welcome as well).

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    Which is better, the car body or the engine...
    – pcoz
    Dec 6, 2021 at 0:40
  • @pcoz thanks, great point. However, firstly: note that my question is directed at precedence with respect to study, which is not necessarily contingent upon importance (although it would seem to at first glance). Secondly, my two quotations from CH, although contradictory, do seem to value prioritization of study. Further, keep in mind that common practice in the Orthodox Jewish community is to devote little time to study of duties of the heart, despite its emphasis on halachic observance. If duties of the heart are indeed such a high priority, this would call this practice into question
    – Yehuda
    Dec 6, 2021 at 2:32
  • @Yehuda Wasn't that the objective of the mussar movement in the first place?
    – Yehuda
    Dec 6, 2021 at 2:38
  • @Yehuda Definitely somewhat. But I guess what struck me was that R. Bachya implies (in at least one place) that one should first study the duties of the heart. This, in turn, implies that one should complete (or at least make major headway into) the study of duties of the heart before he begins classical halacha. Before you disagree, look at the above language again (which is even more explicit in the Ibn Tibbon and Kafich translations).
    – Yehuda
    Dec 6, 2021 at 2:44
  • To clarify, I don't think anyone in the mussar movement would have been okay with someone studying CH (and similar seforim) for 10 years before he begins Shulchan Aruch.
    – Yehuda
    Dec 6, 2021 at 2:45

2 Answers 2


A Rosh Yeshiva was once asked by a Yid: Yid-“If I only have 10 minutes a day, should I learn Gemara or Mussar?” Rosh Yeshiva-“Learn the Mussar and you’ll find that you have more than 10 minutes available”

  • Rav Yisroel Salanter.
    – N.T.
    Dec 6, 2021 at 8:57
  • ופשיטא שהוא חוב גמור על כל אדם שילמוד בכל יום בספרי היראה אם מעט ואם הרבה שהו' יותר חיוב מכל למודו ואפי' אם יתבטל עי"ז מלימוד פרק משניו' או שאר לימוד כי מה ה' אלהיך מבקש ממך כי אם ליראה אותו וכדאיתא במשנה אם אין יראה אין תורה כי מה יועיל לו התורה אם אין דעתו לקיים ואמנם לא יספיק לו היראה לבד אם אינו לומד התורה כי אם אינו יודע מה לעשות מה יועיל לו היראה כדאית' שם במשנה אם אין תורה אין יראה ר"ל אין יראתו כלום הגם שבוודאי יותר טוב כאשר יהיה אדם ירא שמים אף שהוא עם הארץ יותר ויותר טוב מלמדן ואין לו יראה כמש"כ טוב איש רש הולך בתומו מעקש שפתים ר"ל טוב רש בתורה והולך בתומו ...
    – Yehuda
    Dec 7, 2021 at 5:13
  • That's from the Chayei Adam. I think the story from R' Yisroel Salanter is cute but I think the question is really a serious one. My point is not to criticize Kugelman, but to note that there are two types of mussar study. That is, even in Chayei Adam's view, mussar seems to be a means to enforcing the end of keeping halacha. However, in CH, it seems that his mussar is primarily a study of how to fulfill the biblical obligations of mitzvos deoraisa that are dependent on the heart. These two forms of mussar are quite different (though there is certainly overlap).
    – Yehuda
    Dec 7, 2021 at 5:19

Chovot HaLevavot is a Sephardic work. Even until those times Sepharadim were educating their children by teaching them the written Torah first, then the rest of Miqra, before devoting dedicated study to the Talmud as adults in accordance with a line from the Gemara.

Avodazh Zarah 19b

A person should always divide his years into thirds, as follows: One third for Bible, one third for Mishna and one third for Talmud.

I believe during the time Chovot HaLevavot this dictum was put into practice by teaching children miqrah until about 12, then 12 through teenage years was devoted to mishnah and adulthod to Gemara. But there's evidence that the Sephardic yeshivot also included the study of poetry and grammar before the dedicated study of Talmud.

Maminodies by Joel L. Kraemer page 58

Joseph ben Judah Ibn 'Aqnin and Judah ibn 'Abbas developed curricula reflecting Spanish practice. The student finished the basic program in the Bible and Talmud by the age of thirteen. Then he learned grammer and poetry and began studying the Talmud with commenteries and halakha in law codes such as Alfasi's work.

it's worth noting Kramer goes out of his way to contrast this to common Ashkenazi practice.

To appreciate the uniqueness of the Spanish syllabus, it is worth contrasting it with the core curriculum of the great Ashkenazi academies (yeshivot) of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centueries. These yeshivot stressed the Study of the Talmud, which a pupil started at age seven or eight, to the exclusion of the Prophets, the Writings, and the Mishnah. It was possible to become a rabbi even without studying the Bible, not to mention secular studies which were generally ignored. The aim of instruction in the yeshivot of Central and Eastern Europe was to train scholars in he Talmud and its commentaries and in the law codes.

Based on this I think the author of Chovot HaLevavot is putting mussar within the general framework listed above for the Sephardic curriculum. That a child will learn Torah and Mikra first and would be given additional education with philosophy, grammar, poetry and mussar to make sense of Mikra. It's during that phase that learning Chovot HaLevavot would come in. Then they would be taught Mishnah followed by Gemara.

Note: The OP is asking about the Shulchan Arukh but Chovot HaLevavot predates the Shulchan Arukh by hundreds of years, and predates the Rambam's Mishneh Torah as well. It would seem to me that if one wanted to put in the Shulchan Arukh as part of the study structure listed above then it would be using Alfasi's works as part of the dedicated Talmud study typically reserved for adulthood.

  • This doesn't answer the question, which doesn't mention Gemara.
    – Heshy
    Dec 6, 2021 at 18:29
  • @Heshy For my question, I am okay with interchanging Gemara with Halacha. Perhaps that is based on my assumption that the primary purpose of Talmud study is to know practical halacha.
    – Yehuda
    Dec 7, 2021 at 4:55
  • @Aaron My usage of Shulchan Arukh was just an example. So I think I agree with your final sentence.
    – Yehuda
    Dec 7, 2021 at 4:56
  • @Aaron Fascinating answer by the way! Can you point to any sources (Jewish or secular) for this historical information?
    – Yehuda
    Dec 7, 2021 at 4:57
  • @Yehuda Yes! Give me another day or so to get the source.
    – Aaron
    Dec 7, 2021 at 18:46

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