Mishlei 4:23:

מִֽכׇּל־מִ֭שְׁמָר נְצֹ֣ר לִבֶּ֑ךָ כִּֽי־מִ֝מֶּ֗נּוּ תּוֹצְא֥וֹת חַיִּֽים׃

More than all that you guard, guard your heart*, For it is the source of life.

The basic understanding of this is one should protect one's heart. Physically, look after it because a healthy heart is vital for a long life. Spiritually, one's heart is the seat of one's emotions and thoughts, which is the centre of a person, and therefore in this sense too, the heart is one's life.

On the latter, I wondered if it could be interpreted two opposite ways. Either it means "protect your heart" i.e. don't open your heart to people unless you really trust them (which is something I believe personally to be a very bedi'eved (non-ideal) solution to preventing damage to one's emotional core, with a lot of negative consequences outside the scope of this question), or it could mean the opposite: don't develop trust issues, as these create barriers around the heart and thus a person will lose their connection to their heart, and therefore they haven't protected it at all. This latter point is my general understanding of how we should treat our heart from my learning.

Either way, best to turn to the commentaries and not only did they go in a different direction, but they also confused me.

The commentaries effectively equate the heart to one's Mitzvot. The message is, treat the easy Mitzvot the same as you would the hard ones, because we see that both the easiest Mitzva (sending away the mother bird), and the hardest Mitzva (honouring one's parents) are both rewarded with "life", which implies every Mitzva is life (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Teitze).

The gemara Yerushalmi states:

רִבִּי אָחָא בְשֵׁם רִבִּי יִצְחָק. כְּתִיב מִכָּל־מִשְׁמָר נְצוֹר לִבֶּךָ כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תוֹצְאוֹת חַיִּים. מִכָּל־מַה שֶׁאָמַרְתִּי לָךְ בַּתּוֹרָה תִּשְׁמוֹר. שֶׁאֵין אַתְּ יוֹדֵעַ מֵאֵי זֶה מֵהֶן יוֹצֵא לְךָ חַיִּים

Rebbi Acha in the name of Rebbi Isaac: It is written: "More than all that you guard, guard your heart, For it is the source of life." observe carefully all the things you were told in the Torah, for you do not know from which of them life will come to you.

Rashi on the pasuk:

מכל מה שאמרה תורה השמר נצור לבך (מעבור עליו) בין עבירה קלה בין עבירה חמורה:

From whatever the Torah commanded to beware of, guard your heart (from transgressing), regardless whether it is a minor sin or a grave sin.

Guard your heart from transgressing.

See also this fascinating Midrash Tanchuma.

Can someone help me sort out all of the above? What is the connection between guarding one's heart and transgressing, and/or doing Mitzvot**? Why do we say that "we don't know which Mitzva one's life will come from"? Why did King Shlomo use this lashon to teach these messages? Are there any connections between any of this (or any other commentaries) with my initial thoughts in the first and second paragraphs?

* translated sometimes as "thoughts" as according to Kabbalah/Chassidut, thoughts take place in the heart. However, the heart is also a reference to the emotional centre of a person, so both interpretations are correct (and connected - outside the scope of this question)
** I don't generally have any issue with this connection itself, as it goes with my learning that sin causes us emotional damage (and converse), but this connection doesn't seem to be explained here, just assumed. I would like it to be spelled out to me.

  • 1
    "For it is the source of life" - The Alter Rebbe in Igeres HaKodesh (Epistle 4) explains that the flame of the element of the Divine Fire resides in our heart.
    – Shmuel
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 17:43
  • On a side note as to what the Alter Rebbe explains, Rashi seems to explain that the heart has a different function as to what Chassidus says: The heart and eyes are the spies of the body, finding it sins. The eye sees, then the heart desires, and then the body performs the sins. (Bamidbar 15:39 with Rashi)
    – Shmuel
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 10:10

1 Answer 1


Your confusion here comes from the fact that the way we speak of the heart in contemporary society and the way it was spoken of the Bible are very different.

In modern society the heart usually refers to love, especially between people. More broadly, it is the seat of emotion; as opposed to the mind, which is the seat of reason.

In Judaism, the heart can refer to both desire and the seat of reason. Broadly, it can refer to one's neshama, as the Ibn Ezra teaches on the first passuk in the Torah:

We know from the study of logic that speech is called safah because it is seen to come from the lips. Similarly man’s highest soul is called heart (lev) even though the soul itself is incorporeal while the heart is corporeal. It is referred to in this manner because the heart is its first resting place.

To give one example of Lev meaning intellect, when Hashem promises wisdom to Shlomo Hamelech He says

הִנֵּה עָשִׂיתִי כִּדְבָרֶיךָ הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לְךָ לֵב חָכָם וְנָבוֹן אֲשֶׁר כָּמוֹךָ לֹא־הָיָה לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַחֲרֶיךָ לֹא־יָקוּם כָּמוֹךָ׃
Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there has been none like thee before thee, nor after thee shall any arise like thee.

(You will also see many examples in the upcoming parshiyos that deal with building the Mishkan.)

There are also numerous examples of the heart referring to desire. From the description of humanity before the flood:

וַיַּרְא יְהוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וְכָל־יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל־הַיּוֹם׃
And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Another from the book of Mishlei:

לֵב חֹרֵשׁ מַחְשְׁבוֹת אָוֶן רַגְלַיִם מְמַהֲרוֹת לָרוּץ לָרָעָה׃
a heart that devises wicked thoughts, feet that are swift in running to mischief,

This is why we are specifically warned, and must repeat twice a day in reciting the Shema, to guard our hearts. As Rashi there explains

AND YE SHALL NOT SEARCH AFTER YOUR OWN HEART. The heart and the eyes are the “spies” of the body — they act as its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the sin (Midrash Tanchuma, Sh'lach 15; cf. Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:8).

The Gemara also describes this verse as referring to one's intellect

As it was taught: “After your hearts” refers to following opinions of heresy that may arise in one’s heart. The Gemara offers a proof, as it is stated: “The fool said in his heart: ‘There is no God’ (Psalms 14:1)

(See also Kings I 11:2.)

So in the original verse you quoted, when it warns about the importance of guarding your heart, it means guarding your desires and your thoughts, because these will be the determining factors in a person's life. The classic Mussar sefer Pele Yoetz applies this verse to avoiding all bad character traits:

לב טוב זה כולל כל המדות הטובות כמו שאמרו זכרונם לברכה, וכתיב (משלי ד כג) מכל משמר נצר לבך, רצונו לומר מכל דבר רע, מגאוה וקנאה ושנאה וחמדה רעה ומתאות הבלי העולם הזה ומאהבות וראיות רעות וכעס ועצבות והתפארות ואכזריות וכילות, ומכל דבר שהוא בכללא דרע, ישמר את לבבו כאישון בת עין, שלא ידבק בו אבק רע מהמדות רעות הנ''ל.

  • There is no proof from the pessukim you quote that the lev refers to intellect or desire. Rather the translation "your heart" fits neatly into these pessukim. One can have a wise heart or one can have a desirous heart.
    – The GRAPKE
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 8:54

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