In the beginning of Sha'ar Daled of Nefesh HaChaim, Rav Chaim of Volozhin criticises those people who do not engage in classical learning, but instead spend time studying "Sifrei Yirah U'Mussar." Which seforim might he be referring to? Were there particularly popular Seforim being learned during this time?

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If you continue to read to the end of that first chapter in Sha'ar 4, the intention of Reb Chaim is understood.

He refers to what he calls "Gufei HaTorah" (the bodies of the Torah) which he defines as the written Torah, the primary body upon which all else is built, and oral Torah, meaning Mishnah and final halacha, which is the second body.

He contrasts this category with those books which were written to help the individual refine themselves and their personal character traits, what he calls earlier the Sifrei Yirah and the Sifrei Musar.

At the time of Rabbi Chaim, a few of the popular books in these later categories were Mesillat Yasharim by Ramchal, Reshit Chochmah by Rabbi Eliyahu De Vidas, Chovot HaLevavot by Rabbi Bachya bar Yosef ibn Pakuda and Sha'arei Teshuva by Rabbi Yonah bar Avraham from Gerona.

What Rabbi Chaim was emphasizing is not that people were not engaged in classical learning, but that their emphasis had been reversed. That which was held classically to be ones primary area of emphasis in study was the written Torah and halacha l'maaseh. Character development is secondary to knowing the written Torah and what to do in actuality in regard to mitzvah fulfillment.

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    Do you have a source for your claim that those were the popular seforim he might be referring to?
    – Bochur613
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 14:49
  • You should mention explicitly that "what to do in actuality in regard to mitzvah fulfillment" includes some character development, because mitzvos include bein adam lachaveiro. A nasty person who makes others miserable is not just missing character development - he's missing mitzvah fulfillment mei'ikar hadin. This is obvious but can never be stressed enough.
    – Heshy
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 14:52
  • @Heshy I wouldn't argue with the idea that character development isn't necessary, nor does Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. He is only saying that in his day, the emphasis, where many people were placing the majority of the Torah learning time was on the character development, which is only a small part of proper Torah study in the classical sense. If you read Rabbeinu Bachaye's intro to Chovot HaLevavot, he brings out the same idea. He authored that book because the area of character development was largely ignored in favor of "Gufei HaTorah" in his day. Commented May 29, 2018 at 15:11
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    It seems odd to me that there would be an entire city full of the books you listed and with no Talmud (this was of course before Rabbi Yisra'el of Salant). My sense had been that he was referring to books of chasidut (such as Toldot Ya'akov Yosef), but I can't support the idea.
    – b a
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 16:34
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    In החפץ חיים חייו ופעלו – חלק ב, עמ' תעז, the author speaks of R' Chaim's encouragement of these seforim. They must not be the subject of his critique.
    – Bochur613
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 1:49

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