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In a number of places, the Mishnah Berurah writes that a ba'al nefesh (lit. 'one with a soul' i.e. a pious person) ought to be stringent in a certain matter.

For example, a ba'al nefesh ought to teach his friends how to correctly lay tefillin, should not use a city-wide eruv, and should observe the strictures of Tish'ah B'Av on the minor fasts.

Are there any sources (either from the Mishnah Berurah himself or later) which clarify what a ba'al nefesh is and how a person can decide whether he or she is one? Is it possible to be a ba'al nefesh for certain stringencies that the Mishnah Berurah mentions, but not others?

Please limit answers to sources specifically explaining the Mishnah Berurah's view of a ba'al nefesh. This question is not a duplicate of this one which asks for a simple translation of the term. Here, I specifically want to know what kind of person the Mishnah Berurah has in mind when he uses the term.

  • Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/92491/14850 – Joel K May 23 '18 at 13:18
  • I think it's more interesting if we can find any difference between a ba'al nefesh and a Hassid. In trems of halacha, both seem to go beyond the halachic requirement. There may be a difference in nuance, and I wonder if there's a reason as to why MB used this term. – DanF May 23 '18 at 16:21
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    @DanF I don’t believe that it’s a duplicate and have edited to explain why not. Your question about the difference between a ba’al nefesh and a hassid is interesting. Why not go ahead and ask if? – Joel K May 23 '18 at 16:44
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    @DanF I don't think it's a duplicate. That question is asking about the general meaning of the term whereas this question is asking about a halachic category. – Alex May 23 '18 at 16:44
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    I heard in the name if R. Ruderman that a ba'al nefesh is someone who keeps all the ba'al nefesh yachmirs. – Alex May 23 '18 at 16:46
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First thing... The Mishnah Berurah (including the Be'ur Halakhah) has a number of idioms for soft stringency, ie for presenting a stringency as a desired objective but not as baseline law. Some statistics from Benjamin Brown's article in Contemporary Jewry (table on pg 2 of the PDF):

  • Yeish/tov/nachon/raui lehachmir: 458 times
  • ... lachush: 223
  • ... lizaheir / lehizaheir: 104
  • ... limnoa' / lehimana: 36
  • Yarei Shamayim yir'eh (or another verb) lehachmir: 35

and the oft-quoted baal nefesh yachmir being used the fewest (!):

  • Ba'al Nefesh Yachmir: 24

Total is 885 soft stringencies. By Comparison, the Shulchan Arukh with Rama invoke these soft stringency terms a total of 104 times. The Mishnah Berurah's contemporary, the Arukh haShulchan (most of which predates the MB, but Arukh Chaim does not), uses them 274 times, in roughly the same proportions.

Oliver's answer addresses the soft stringency concept in general, and I would have posted something similar about Rav Amital, citing a sichah of his that was emailed out by Yeshivat Har Etzion's (Gush's) Virtual Beis Medrash.

So, I will just add something about "ba'al nefesh yachmir" in particular.


The first usage in the major codes is the Beis Yoseif. It's not in the Rif, Rambam or Tur. The Beis Yoseif was written by Rav Yosef Caro (who later wrote the Shulchan Arukh), who was among the Qabbalists of Tzefas. So when he says "nefesh", he means "soul" with the connotations particular to the word "nefesh" in Qabbalistic use. In contrast to other possible terms for soul, such as ruach or neshamah.

Nefesh connotes the soul in its basest, most animalistic form. Animals too have nefashos -- which is why the Torah explains (?) the prohibition against consuming meat with circulatory blood in it by saying "ki hadam hu hanefesh -- because the circulatory blood is [of?] the soul" of the animal whose flesh one is eating. (Devarim 12:23, c.f. Vayiqra 17:11 for different wording.) Soul as life-force, the impact of living in a body and the power to do that living.

A ba'al nefesh is not everyone who is spiritually inclined. That would likely be the yarei shamayim. Nor is it someone who is worried about legal concerns regarding rejected theory, as there are numerous other terms for that. It is someone trying to overcome their physicality, meaning their bodily desires and laziness.

And this is consistent with the Mishnah Berurah's usages. For example, the first usage: The Shulchan Arukh says that David did not to take a nap during the day that is than the time it takes to make 60 breaths (Orach Chaim 4:16). The Be'ur Halakhah says it's either 3 hours (based on narrative about the Ari's Shabbos nap), a little over 30 min, or 3 min. And then he says the ba'al nefesh should try to minimize according to his abilities.

Mishnah Berurah 299:40 (on OC 299:10) says that a ba'al nefesh should not be lighting a lamp immediately after Shabbos (with a "Barukh haMavdil) but should wait until after UVa leTzion. (Although the gabbai of the shul should not be stringent in this way, so that he can light the lamps before Borkhu so that people can see their siddurim.) For the ba'al nefesh, wanting more light isn't reason to skimp on holding onto Shabbos.

So it would seem to me that "ba'al nefesh yachmir" means "someone who is trying to overcome / who has overcome their physical side, should be stringent" and not give it a foothold on this issue.

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R. Herschel Schachter quotes an informative anecdote (in this essay):

Rabbi Yehuda Amital (shlit”a) relates that when he was a teenager learning in yeshiva, when the students learned Mishna Berura and came across a statement that “one who is a ba'al nefesh should act on accordance with the stringent view”, they thought to themselves that this certainly refers to a few outstanding tzadikim who they knew of. Whereas today, he further commented, many of the yeshiva students instinctively assume that it refers to them!!

R. Schachter himself continues and comments:

Even one who does belong in the category of ba'alei nefesh must be careful that his middas chasidus not turn into a public demonstration of his piety.

And in conclusion, posits:

The style of the ba'al nefesh, following the stringent approach, was clearly not intended for the masses. Those who are able to should certainly strive to attain the state of chassidus, but this must be done step by step, as spelled out in the Talmud (Avoda Zara 20) and elaborated in Mesilas Yesharim.

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R. Avrohom G. Yachnes addresses this in his commentary to Orchos Tzadikim.

A Treasure for Life Vol. I p. 62

On the other hand: Years ago, while in kollel, I had the unusual privilege of engaging in conversation with HaGaon R' Yaakov Kamenetsky zt"l, during a visit to our yeshiva. I said to R' Yaakov that after stating the halacha, the Mishnah Berurah often says: ובעל נפש יחמיר – "One who seeks a higher standard should be more strict." Meaning that although the average person may conduct himself one way, someone who considers himself as being more careful with halachic issues should be more stringent. I asked him whether the average kollel avreich fits into the Chofetz Chaim's category of בעל נפש – in other words, whether I should conduct myself with strictness in those cases. R' Yaakov said, "Yes, you should."

"But," I said, "I'm not on such a madreigah (level)."

R' Yaakov looked me straight in the eye and said the unforgettable words: "So put yourself on that madreigah. Many people go through life saying to themselves, 'I'm not on that level, that's for the gedolim, for the roshei yeshivos, and for the rabbanim, but not for me.' At the end of their lives, they remain on the same level as they were at the beginning of their lives, never growing to a higher level."

R' Yaakov's mesage was clear. There are times when a person must reach up and accept a more strict approach for the sake of growth. A note of caution however – be wise and always seek advice in advance.

  • In Slabodka, one is taught to aspire to the level of the Avos. Not surprised by this attitude by R' Yaakov. (Although the MB doesn't really say the words ba'al nefesh yachmir all that often.) However, note the contradiction between the quote and the conclusion. R' Yaakov talks about considering oneself a ba'al nefesh. Seems to mean "so, try to do all of them". But R' Yachnes talks about "There are times", as though R Yaakov was saying that one "only" need to stretch to reach some of them. – Micha Berger May 24 '18 at 21:02
  • @MichaBerger The immediately preceding discussion was about "al tehi tzaddik harbeh", and the story with R. Yaakov was brought as a sort of contrast. I think R. Yachnes may have been trying to temper R. Yaakov's position to make everything seem smooth. – Alex May 24 '18 at 21:10

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