Is There a Mitzva To Be B'simcha (happy) constantly ?
In recent years, a 'saying, "mitzva gedola lihiyos b'simcha tamid" (It
is a great mitzva to be always joyous) has become well known and oft -
quoted. It is not a new saying, but probably due to being put to music
in recent years and (an)other factor(s), it has become a very popular
saying. Some seem to think that it is an ancient Jewish teaching -
perhaps from the gemara (Talmud) or another unimpeachable classic
ancient Jewish source. That is not the case, however. The source of the
saying is, to my knowledge, the leader of the Breslov (or Bratzlav)
chassidic group, R. Nachman, who lived approximately 200 years ago. Such
a formulation does not appear earlier than that, to my knowledge. With
that in mind, I think it is appropriate and in order to try to examine
if this is an undisputed and indisputable teaching accepted by all
Jewish authorities, despite their not expressing such, or perhaps their
refraining from expressing such a belief for so long, indicates
Questions On 'Mitzva Gedola Lihiyos B'Simcha Tamid'
(1) What is the source of this supposed mitzvah?
Many would point to 'ivdu es Hashem b'simcha' (serve Hashem with
joy) of Tehillim (Psalms) 100:2 and similar verses. However, that /
those verse(s) speak(s) of serving Hashem with joy - not being joyous in
and of itself. This distinction, although seeming very fine, should not
be ignored, in my opinion. What may seem to be fine distinctions /
nuances in Torah verses can be of great import.
(2) If this is a mitzvah (commandment), why do the classic enumerators
of the 613 mitzvos not count this as such? There is a Biblical mitzvah
of Simcha on certain yomim tovim (holidays) that is enumerated, I
believe, but not such a mitzva that applies constantly. In fact, even
the mitzva of simcha on holidays is only fulfilled by action, e.g.eating
meat from karban shelamim (sacrifice), etc., and not just by being in a
certain state of mind. This is quite significant in that it shows that
(1) when there is a mitzva of simcha, it involves more than just thought
/ feelings / emotions and (2) there is no such mitzvah seemingly, at
Conflicting Statements / Sources
(1) One of the great early hassidic leaders, R. Aharon of Karlin, is
reported to have stated 'there is no mitzvah to be b'simcha, but simcha
can bring one to the greatest mitzvos and there is no aveira
(prohibition) to be be'atzvus (in a state of sadness), but atzvus can
bring one to the greatest aveiros' (or similar). Here one sees a great
hassidic leader, contemporary to (slightly earlier I believe) R.
Nachman, saying that there is no mitzvah to be b'simcha!
(2) Rav Yosef Gikatilla (a great Sephardic Rishon - early authority -
circa 1200's C.E.) says in his Sefer Hamishalim (book of Parables) the
following ( # 97) - He compares simcha to day and atzvus (sadness) to
night, saying that simcha's effect is to light up a person, similar to
the sun lighting up the day and atzvus darkens a person like darkness
darkens the night. He continues by saying that just as it is impossible
to have (only) (day) light always, with no periods of night (darkness),
so it is impossible to have (always) only simcha without atzvus
(3) Rabbenu Bachayay (a great early commentator) says in his classic
'Kad HaKemach' - There is Simcha that is assur (prohibited) min haTorah
(Biblically). Somewhat less than R.Nachman's unequivocal enthusiastic
advocacy of simcha. It is also written, I believe, that simcha tmidis
eina simcha - a constant simcha is not simcha! (I don't have the source
right now - help would be appreciated).
(4) Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon, wisest of men) says in Koheles
(Ecclesiastes) 2:2 "UliSimcha-ma zo osa?" - As for Happiness - what
(good) does it accomplish? Rashi comments - what good does it do, being
that letdown follows in it's wake. Here the wisest of all men,
questions the value of simcha. The gemara (Talmud) in Maseches Shabbos
30b explains this verse (in contrasting it to Koheles 8:15, where Simcha
is praised) as referring to Simcha sheaina shel mitzvah (non - mitzvah
related joy). In other words, Simcha (Joy / Happiness) of a mitzva is
praiseworthy - Simcha not of a mitzva is not.
Another statement critical of simcha is in Koheles 7:4 where it is
stated "Lev chachamim b'veis eivel v'lev ksilim b'veis simcha"- The
heart of the wise is in a house of mourning and the heart of the fool in
a house of happiness (simcha). We see clearly that the wisest of men
clearly does not consider simcha to be always and unequivocally
desirable / praiseworthy - rather he considers certain simcha
praiseworthy and other simcha worthy of criticism / disdain.
Another statement critical of simcha is found in Mishlei (Proverbs)
21:17 where Shlomo says "Ish machsor ohev simcha"- a deficient person
Why There May Be No Mitzvah To Be B'simcha
Perhaps there may not be a mitzva to be b'simcha because (1) As shown
above, not all simcha is desirable (2) Simcha (joy / happiness) is not
considered a desirable end / goal in and of itself. Rather, it is
something that must go together with / be derived from mitzva
activity. Having an independent / stand alone mitzva to be b'simcha
might be interpreted as making simcha a goal / end in and of itself,
rather than an adjunct / by product to / of mitzva activity.
What Brings Desirable Simcha? Some Ways
Examination of Psukim (Biblical verses) that mention Simcha positively,
show that (1) Straightness - There is a connection between yashrus
(straightness) and simcha. Being straight / righteous brings simcha, as
is stated [Tehillim (Psalms) 97:11] "Uliyishrei lev simcha" - to the
straight of heart is joy. This is also evident in the pasuk (Tehillim
19:9) "pikudei hashem yesharim mesamchei lev" - the precepts of Hashem
are straight and heart gladdening. A straight person with a clear
conscience is naturally inclined to happiness.
(2) Proper Torah study (as per Tehillim 19:9, as above).
Conclusion - Summing Up
As it appears to me, the Jewish attitude to simcha (happiness) is
nuanced. Proper simcha, though not a mitzva, can be desirable /
praiseworthy. Other simcha is undesirable, even forbidden. One should
beware of overly exalting simcha and making / proclaiming 'simcha' a
major thrust of one's Judaism. Let us not forget the classic Rabbinic
dictum "Kol hamosif goreia" (whoever adds, actually subtracts). If
Hashem did not make something a mitzvah, it is presumed to have been for
good reason and we are forbidden to put it in that category.
P.S. Re a related subject - Some people who believe 'mitzvah gedola
lihiyos bisimcha tamid' seem to think as well, as a corollary of the
above perhaps, that sadness and shame are always viewed negatively and
as undesirable by Judaism. Re shame - That is incorrect, as classical
Jewish sources praise shame and bashfullness highly - though not
excessive shame / shyness.
Re atzvus (sadness) - some seem to think that it's always, totally
undesirable. However, we know that everything Hashem made was for a
purpose (see last statement in Pirkei Avos).There is a time for
everything (Koheles). Atzvus may have it's proper place in the world in
aiding a choteh (sinner) and spurring him to do teshuva
(repentance). Those who seem to want to banish it entirely remind me of
a Midrashic teaching where Chazal say that Dovid haMelech (King David)
wondered why Hashem created shigaon (insanity) - he wondered what useful
purpose it serves - who needs it? He was later shown that he would have
need for it - when 'L'Dovid bishanoso es taamo lifnei avimelech
vayigarishehu vayeloch' (Tehillim 34) - He was only able to escape
unharmed from the jaws of King Avimelech by feigning insanity
(parenthetically, this account is somewhat similar to a story related by
Chazal re Dovid hamelech o"h questioning why Hashem had created spiders
and the need for them in the world - which ends with him similarly shown
not to question G-d in that manner and being saved by Hashem from his
enemy via a spider [web]).
Similarly, in my opinion, those who think that atzvus has no proper
place in the world, are repeating the mistake of Dovid hamelech and
should realize that G-d created everything for a reason.
Wisom of the Wise of the Nations re Simcha
I have come across the following quotes from general non - Jewish
literature, which I think are enlightening on the subject. In the spirit
of the Talmudic teaching that 'chochma bagoyim taamin' [if someone tells
you that there is wisdom among the nations, you should believe them] ),
I am mentioing them here.
"Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued is just beyond your grasp,
but if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you." - Nathaniel
"If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time." -
Both of the above seem to express a realization that active pursuit of
and concentration on happiness can actually be counterproductive to it's
attainment. Perhaps because of the above reasons, some people have been
observed to change the lyrics when the songs were played to 'simcha
gedola lihiyos bimitzvah tomid' (it's a great joy to be always involved
in mitzvah[s])-a reformulation which seemingly avoids the objections
Comment: I agree that there is simcha and there is simcha.
Koheles 2:2 says: To Laughter, I said "Profane!" and to Simchah,"What is this one doing?
The commentators explain that (empty) laughter is always profane but joy needs to be investigated to see what it does, in other words, what kind it is and to what it leads.
Simchas Yom Tov to all!