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The Mitzva to be Happy


This week’s parasha describes the terrible curses that will befall our nation. But they don’t come randomly, but rather, “Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid happiness and goodness of the heart when everything was abundant” (Devarim 28:47). Why is joy so crucial in service of G-d? Why is the punishment for failing to serve Him joyfully so severe? Is being happy really a “mitzva gedola” as the popular song claims it is? Must we always be happy, or are there times happiness is unwarranted? How do we achieve a spiritual and emotional equilibrium? What is the golden path between happiness and taking life seriously? Why do people assume the two contradict each other? How does one discriminate between appropriate joy and inappropriate frivolousness? Of this and more in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha we read: “All these curses shall befall you; they shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are wiped out, because you did not heed your G-d and keep the commandments and laws that were enjoined upon you” (Devarim 28:45) Here, it seems, the reason for the curses is because we fail to keep the mitzvos. But the next pasuk reads: “Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart when everything was abundant” (Devarim 28:47). This pasuk teaches that it was not performing the mitzvos per se – it was the way the mitzvos are performed. Even those who keep the mitzvos scrupulously – if they perform them in a lackluster, dour attitude, are subject to a horrible fate.

The Shem M’Shmuel (Ki Savo) points out that nowhere in Chazal do we find the obligation to serve G-d joyfully, and even if there is such a mitzva, why would transgressing it be punished so dreadfully? Furthermore, when the curses were realized, after the Temples’ destruction, the reasons stated in the Gemara for the destructions were not those noted in the above-mentioned psukim: The First Temple was destroyed due to the three cardinal sins, and the second – for baseless hatred. Although the psukim seem to indicate that lack of joy is the reason for exile, where does this concept appear in Chazal?

In this week’s article we will focus on the mitzva of simcha – joy or happiness. Does such a mitzva even exist? Does it have specific times? And how is it fulfilled?

Mitzva or Attitude

“Mitzva G’dola” is a popular Jewish song, but the words are not just a slogan – they appear in the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. This mitzva goes beyond a song – it plays a central role in Jewish life, and has many details and sub-mitzvos, warranting in-depth study. In rabbinic writing we find differences in the approach to this mitzva, the times it is performed, and how to employ it.

The Gemara points at a contradiction (Shabbos 30b): On the one hand Shlomo Hamelech writes: “Of laughter, I said, ‘[It is] mingled’; and concerning joy, ‘What does this accomplish?’” (Koheles 2:2), while on the other hand he writes: “And I praised joy, for there is nothing better for man under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry, and that will accompany him in his toil the days of his life that God gave him under the sun” (Koheles 8:15). Are happiness and rejoicing positive or negative?

The Gemara answers that baseless, senseless rejoicing is just that – pointless. And of that sort of happiness Shlomo Hamelech writes: “What does this accomplish?”. However, rejoicing when performing a mitzva is a very praiseworthy attribute. The Gemara concludes with the passage: “To teach you that the Shechinah does not rest neither through sadness, nor through laziness, nor in laughter, frivolity or idle conversation, but through rejoicing with a mitzva. As it is written: ‘’And now fetch me a musician’ And it was that when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him’ (Melachim II, 3:15).”

This Gemara seems to teach us that rejoicing is confined to mitzva performance. At other times, happiness is simply foolishness. How, then, can we say that we must always rejoice?

It is important to note the Gemara’s list of items that counter happiness: while the first two are obvious – sadness and laziness – the others might be surprising: laughter, frivolity, chattiness also run counter to real happiness. Not only sadness and laziness breed depression and kill joy, but also shooting the breeze and wasting our lives lead to the opposite of happiness. Addictions to pleasurable escapes – just like their counterpart, depression – are not manifestations of true inner happiness.

And what brings on real, inner, true joy? Closeness with Hashem, achieved through observing His mitzvos and connecting with Him gives birth to true simcha. No material pleasures can bring true happiness. While they may be pleasant and relaxing, true happiness only comes as a result of connection with the A-lmighty.

So is happiness an end, a means, or a mitzva in itself?

Breslov and Simcha

“Mitzva gedola” is a popular slogan that appears in Likkutei Moharan (Torah 24):

“It is a great mitzvah to always be happy, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay. All the illnesses that afflict people are due only to flawed joy…Eminent physicians, too, have spoken at length about this—that all illness are the product of gloom and depression. And joy is a great healer!…The rule is that a person has to be very determined and put all his strength into being nothing but happy at all times. For it is human nature to succumb to gloom and depression on account of life’s vicissitudes and misfortunes. And every human being is filled with suffering. Therefore, a person has to exercise great effort in forcing himself to be happy at all times, and to bring himself to joy in any way he can—even with silliness.”

Rabbi Nachman notes the world’s natural tendency towards depression and finally, death. All organic matter exists in a cycle that ends with death. And as the saying goes – “We’re all born with a terminal illness – it’s called ‘Life’.” The only antidote to cure this illness, to break away from the death march, is to invest in happiness as much as humanly possible – even employing silliness, if need be. Depression and sadness are so potently poisonous that Rabbi Nachman requires us to go to the opposite extreme, even at the cost of becoming silly, because a silly person can grow since he is still alive. A depressed one is dead, and a lifeless body can advance nowhere.

On the other hand, Rabbi Nachman continues:

“And though contrition, too, is very good, nevertheless, that is only for a brief period. It is right to set aside for oneself sometime in the day for feeling remorse and speaking one’s piece in the presence of the Blessed One, as is brought in our works. But the entire [rest] of the day one needs to be happy. For contrition more easily leads to depression, than erring through joy, God forbid, leads to some sort of frivolity, God forbid. For this is the more likely: that contrition will lead to gloom.”

This passage affords us insight into the human psyche – two contradicting forces struggle to lead us: rejoicing, and sorrow. Happiness cancels out depression — the root and source for all laziness and laxity in keeping mitzvos. While sorrow and regret can bring one closer to G-d and uproot pride and negative attributes, one who breaks his heart too much can come to depression. Therefore, Rabbi Nachman suggests taking the polar opposite direction – rejoicing, frivolous as it may be, is always preferable to the dangers of depression.

The Nesivos’ Approach

On the other hand, the Nesivos directs his descendants in his will (Derech Chaim footnote 8):

“My sons, distance yourselves from the happiness and laughter, because how can one rejoice when he sins every day… and don’t listen to those who say it is proper to rejoice for his entire life, it is all the Yetzer Hara’s ideas, because laughter and lightheartedness accustom one to licentiousness… Only in doing a mitzva should one do so with gladness of heart, however not with laughter, because laughter is a very negative attribute.”

Hence, we see an opposite approach. While Rabbi Nachman sees depression as Torah life’s greatest enemy, the Nesivos sees the culprit in frivolity and irresponsibility. Therefore, while the Nesivos demands rejoicing be restricted to times of mitzva performance, Rabbi Nachman requires the exact opposite – to engage in acts that express joy in order to enabl it to permeate the emotional state.

Both agree that those two states describe human emotions, but they disagree as for which one should dominate.

This argument continues today as well. Rabbi Yerucham Brodiansky shlita (Siach Yitzchak Vayigash p. 480) writes: “If there are those who say there is a mitzva to always be happy, there are those who say the opposite, for who is he who has unpaid debts to G-d and can rejoice? As the Nesivos writes in his will. But trust in Hashem gives a person inner joy which is certainly a mitzva, according to all opinions, always. For joy born of bitachon in Hashem does not cause one to forget his obligations, but on the contrary – it brings him closer to paying them, in knowing that everything is in His hands.”

This apparent contradiction, as we see here, is really not a contradiction at all. While on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we do not recite Hallel, and excessive rejoicing in inappropriate due to it being a time of judgement, we dress in holiday attire, and eat festive meals to express our faith in G-d’s salvation who will see our merits and find us innocent of all wrongdoings.

Another way to settle this, and realize joy every second of our life, is to focus on the constant mitzvos we should perform– the Six Constant Mitzvos when sitting idle; Torah study; chessed. Every other action we are engaged in, when properly defined and with proper intention, can also be a mitzva to rejoice with, relish, and bring us to happiness. Even sleep, as the Vilna Gaon writes, can be a mitzva when intended to revive one so he has the energy to perform more mitzvos.

Individual Approaches

As with all middos, every person must use his good judgment and self-awareness to carve out his own goals and path in building his character. There are different approaches as to how far to go. Obviously, one with depressive, negative tendencies should follow the diametric opposite even if he might reach frivolity, and one with a joyful personality might need to tone it down a bit.


The Gemara (Niddah 23a) describes the tactics Rabbi Yirmaya employed to try, unsuccessfully, to cause Rabbi Zeira to smile. Rashi explains that laughing in this world is forbidden, and Rabbi Zeira was very stringent with this halacha.

The Aruch L’Ner explains (23a) that Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Yirmiya disagreed on the correct approach to happiness. Rabbi Zeira was concerned of the Zohar’s instructions (Achri Mos 40a) forbidding excessive rejoicing in This World as the pasuk in Tehilim writes “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with quaking” (2:11), and the only rejoicing should be with Torah, as it is written, “Serve the Lord with joy, come before Him with praise” (Tehilim 100:2). Therefore, Rabbi Zeira didn’t want to rejoice, even in Torah. But Rabbi Yirmiya opined that rejoicing is very important. Therefore, he tried to cause him to laugh.

The Chavos Yair (152) explains a similar Gemara (Sanhedrin 59b) along the same lines: Rabbi Abahu answered Rabbi Zeira’s halachic question and called him a ‘yarod nali’. Rashi explains the nickname refers to ‘a foolish flying dragon who cries and laments’. Why would Rabbi Abahu use such a terrible degrading epithet?

The Chavos Yair explains that they disagreed on the general approach to life. Rabbi Abahu was a handsome man who enjoyed pleasurable things, while Rabbi Zeira was an ascetic – he would often fast and abstain from pleasurable physical activities. As a result, they also disagreed regarding fasting (Tanis 11a): Rabbi Abahu considers one who fasts a sinner because only through pleasure and rejoicing can one reach full understanding of the depth of the Torah’s concepts, but Rabbi Zeira opined that fasting makes one holier, and demands people to be serious. The above-mentioned Gemara in Niddah illustrates his approach — he would not even smile at ridiculous questions.

Rabbi Abahu saw Rabbi Zeira’s approach as one of a “chasid shote” (misdirected piety) and attributes his failing to understanding a particular halacha to the cruelty he showed his body.

It is important to note that according to Rabbenu Yona (Brachos 21a) even Rabbi Zeira agrees that one must not be purposely be sad because sadness causes physical illness, and the ill cannot serve G-d at all. He only means to avoid excessive rejoicing and strike out a balance between the two.

To summarize this point: the difference in approach has been debated in the Gemara, without reaching a conclusion, and for one to retain his close connection with Hashem he must search and find the correct personal balance between rejoicing and seriousness.

Punishment for Lack of Joy

The Rambam (Shofar, Succah, Lulav 8:15) writes: “The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfilment of the mitzvot and the love of G-d who commanded them is a great service. Whoever holds himself back from this rejoicing is worthy of retribution, as (Devarim 28:47) states: “…Because you did not serve G-d, your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart.”

Apparently, according to the Rambam, the punishment is for not rejoicing when performing a mitzva.

The Chayei Adam writes (volume I, chapter 68:13, based on the Arizal) that “rejoicing with a mitzva should be greater than finding all the pleasures and treasures of the world.”

Rejoicing with a mitzva expresses our appreciation of the mitzva. The spiritual growth one receives from a mitzva is closely related to his appreciation of it. Chazal tell us that during the first Temple period Torah study didn’t protect the Jewish People because they didn’t “bless the Torah first” — they lacked appreciation for the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein tells of the families who came to American shores and held onto to the Shabbos with tremendous Mesirus Nefesh. However, in the next generation many were not impressed and dropped their Shabbos observance. “Why were there families in which the children continued keeping Shabbos while others’ dropped it?” asked Rav Moshe, and answered that it all depended upon the parent’s attitude to Shabbos. “In the families where the father would complain how hard it is to be a Jew, the children dropped their Yiddishkeit, whereas if the father came home and rejoiced with his family for the zechus to merit keeping Shabbos and giving up a job for it, those children continued observing Shabbos.”

The key to instilling Jewish value in our children is only with joy – expressing happiness and pleasure with the Torah and its mitzvos.

Joy and Frivolity

The Rambam differentiates starkly between the two terms we pointed out before, what each stems from and where it leads (Yom Tov 6:20):

“When a person eats, drinks, and celebrates on a festival, he should not let himself become overly drawn to drinking wine, mirth, and levity, saying, ‘whoever indulges in these activities more is increasing [his observance of] the mitzvah of rejoicing.’ For drunkenness, profuse mirth, and levity are not rejoicing; they are frivolity and foolishness.

“And we were not commanded to indulge in frivolity or foolishness, but rather in rejoicing that involves the service of the Creator of all existence. Thus, (Devarim 28:47) states, ‘Because you did not serve G-d, Your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart with an abundance of prosperity’, to teach us that service of G-d involves joy. And it is impossible to serve G-d while in the midst of levity, frivolity, or drunkenness.

The bottom line determining what path to take is where it leads – if it brings one closer to Hashem, it is good, and a mitzva. But, if it leads its followers astray it must be avoided.


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1 Comment

  1. Beautiful article! Thank you for all the details and taking the time to source them as well. This is such a relevant topic and one we can all take a lesson from.

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