“I am a worm and not a man,” Psalms 22:7
There is an old joke among those who are familiar with the Mussar
Movement: A new student comes to a Novardok yeshiva and during the first
mussar session begins to cry, “I am a nothing! I am a nobody!” An older
student whispers to a friend, “He’s here for one day and already he
thinks he’s a nobody!” It’s a strange joke until one learns more about
the Novardok brand of mussar.
The first Novardok yeshiva was built by Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, “the
Alter” (Elder) of Novardok in 1896 in Nahvardok, Russia. After the
Bolshevik Revolution, the Alter ordered all Novardok students (there
were by then several branches of the school) to flee to Poland - about
600 made it across the border. The Novardok movement re-established
itself in Poland, where its yeshivot were all named Beit Yosef (House of Yosef).
In addition to studying the usual sacred texts, the students of Novardok
had daily mussar sessions. The goal of mussar is self-improvement,
ridding oneself of negative traits such as jealousy, lust and the desire
for honor. Mussar encourages a daily review of one’s behavior and an
assessment of how one might improve. Novardok yeshivot often housed a
special beis hamussar, house of mussar, where this exercise was the focus.
Novardok’s unique mussar atmosphere was its intense renunciation of
“self.” Novardok students deliberately humiliated themselves, wearing
ratty clothes and ridding themselves of personal possessions. The
yeshivot were small and bare of any material luxuries.
Another unique aspect of the Novardok Beis Yosef yeshiva students was
that they did not avoid service in the Polish army (1.5 years). This was
in keeping with the great value placed on social service and using
challenging situations for personal growth.
A branch of Novardok was established in Jerusalem in the 1930s. That
yeshiva, as well as one in Gateshead, England, were the only Novardok
establishments to survive the Holocaust. Several yeshivot exist today
that continue to follow the philosophy developed by the Alter of