Jewish Words

Cheshbon Nefesh


Taking a cheshbon nefesh is one of the religious practices recommended at this time of year. It means an "accounting of the soul." We examine the credit and debit columns of our spiritual lives, where we've made a profit, so to speak, and where a loss, where we've built up capital, and where we've depleted it.

With the balance sheet before us, we can draw up a viable business plan to stay spiritually solvent in the coming year.

Though it may seem incongruous, traditional sources frequently apply business metaphors such as cheshbon nefesh to our spiritual lives.

Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, advises us to weigh our actions carefully: "Estimate the loss of a mitzvah against the reward, and the reward of a sin against the loss." It expresses the urgency of life in this way: "The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the payment is much, and the Boss is pressing."

An example from American literature is the first chapter of "Walden," in which Thoreau itemises every cent he spent on the simple house he built, demonstrating the rigour of his life.

The point of these metaphors is to show the meticulousness and discipline with which we should approach our spiritual lives.

For most people, nowhere is a more thorough and transparent accounting required than in their finances. Small items which are forgotten or overlooked can have serious consequences.

The Torah wants us to consider that on the Days of Awe an equally full and perspicuous account is required of our actions in the rest of our lives.

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