Skip to main content Accessibility help


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2014

Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, 1991–2013


Happiness has both universal and culturally specific forms. This article describes three sensibilities of happiness in Judaism: the prophetic life of struggle; the happiness of ashrei, with its life of simplicity in accordance with the will of God; and simchah, the life-lived-in-relationship given supreme expression in Moses's covenantal vision in the book of Deuteronomy. Focusing, in particular, on the social vision of Moses, the article explores how Jewish notions of happiness challenge contemporary conceptions of happiness grounded in materialism and acquisition, and it discusses how a focus on material happiness threatens to undermine relationships and the social fiber that is the thread from which true and lasting happiness is woven.

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1 Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina (New York: Modern Library, 2000)Google Scholar, 1.

2 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 1.

3 Lam. Rab. 2:13.

4 Ps. 137:1, 4.

5 Jer. 29:5–7.

6 Neh. 8:10.

7 Kierkegaard, Søren, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journal, ed. Dru, Alexander (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003)Google Scholar, 67.

8 Sacks, Jonathan, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Schocken Books, 2005)Google Scholar, 186. See also Sacks, Jonathan, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Schocken Books, 2009)Google Scholar, 254.

9 In particular, see Exod. 19:6; Lev. 19:2.

10 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 10:2.

11 Steinsaltz, Adin, The Strife of the Spirit (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1988)Google Scholar.

12 Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978): 2537Google Scholar.

13 BT Berakoth 64a.

14 Gen. 17:19.

15 Gen. 26:8.

16 Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents, rev. ed. (London: Hogarth Press, Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1930)Google Scholar, 12.

17 Schneidau, Herbert N., Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977)Google Scholar.

18 Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, trans. Haldane, R. B. and Kemp, J. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1883)Google Scholar.

19 This was the element of Kantian moral philosophy that Bernard Williams found problematic. See Williams, Bernard, “Persons, Character and Morality,” in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Gen. 25:8.

21 Gen. 47:9.

22 Gen. 48:11.

23 MT Avot 2:16.

24 Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)Google Scholar, 81.

25 Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic” (speech, Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910) transcript,

26 Ps. 1:1–2.

27 Ps. 1:3–4.

28 Ps. 92.

29 Ps. 1:6.

30 Gen. 30:13.

31 Deut. 16:21.

32 Ps. 17:5.

33 Ps. 128.

34 McMahon, Darrin M., Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006)Google Scholar, 79.

35 See Ellul, Jacques, The Meaning of the City, trans. Pardee, Dennis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970)Google Scholar.

36 Gen. 11:4.

37 Gen. 18:16–19:29.

38 Khaldun, Ibn, Al Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Rosenthal, Franz, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967)Google Scholar.

39 Eccles. 1:2.

40 William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3.

41 Eccles. 3:19–20.

42 Eccles. 2:24.

43 Eccles. 3:12.

44 Eccles. 5:12.

45 Eccles. 9:9.

46 Eccles. 2:4–8, 11.

47 MT Avot 1:14.

48 Frankl, Viktor E., The Doctor and the Soul: An Introduction to Logotherapy, trans. Winston, Richard and Winston, Clara (1955; repr., New York: Knopf, 1963)Google Scholar, 46.

49 Deut. 24:5.

50 Deut. 26:11.

51 Deut. 16:11.

52 Deut. 28:47–48.

53 Gen. 2:18.

54 The reference is to Macmurray's, John fine study, Persons in Relation (London: Faber, 1970)Google Scholar.

55 Gen. 2:7.

56 Num. 6:1–21.

57 Num. 6:13–14.

58 BT Taanit 11a (quoting Num. 6:11).

59 JT Kiddushin 4:12.

60 Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, bk. 3, chap. 27.

61 Goldsmith, Oliver, “The Traveller,” in Select Poems of Goldsmith, ed. Rolfe, William J. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875)Google Scholar, 70.

62 Henry George, “Moses” (lecture, National Single Tax League, Cincinnati, OH, 1918).

63 Gottwald, Norman K., The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979)Google Scholar.

64 Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010), 45Google Scholar.

65 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Festivals 6:18 (quoting Hosea 9:4).

66 Deut. 8:10–14.

67 Deut. 8:17.

68 Deut. 31:10–13.

69 For recent research, see Emmons, Robert, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007)Google Scholar.

70 See, for example, Augustine's discussion of Seneca's views on the Sabbath. Augustine, City of God, bk. 6, chap. 11.

71 Sacks, Jonathan, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion (New York: Free Press, 2000), 136–41Google Scholar, esp. 139.

72 Ha-am, Achad, “Al Parshat Derakhim,” in Sefer Hashabbat, ed. Bialik, Hayyim Nahman (Tel Aviv: Agudat Ohel Shem, 1936)Google Scholar, 3:516.

73 Wordsworth, William, “The World is Too Much With Us,” in Select Poems of William Wordsworth, ed. Rolfe, William J. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1889)Google Scholar, 120.

74 Ps. 23.

75 Hab. 3:17–18.

76 Strawson, P. F., “Social Morality and Individual Ideal,” in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1974), 2949Google Scholar.

77 Vico, Giambattista, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. Marsh, David, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin Classics, 1999)Google Scholar, 98.

78 Ibid., 490.


79 Judt, Tony, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010)Google Scholar, 1.

80 MacIntyre, Alasdair C., After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth, 1981)Google Scholar.

81 Bellah, Robert N. et al. , Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)Google Scholar, 284.

82 Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Bennington, Geoff and Massumi, Brian (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 75
Total number of PDF views: 112 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 26th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-898fc554b-87htd Total loading time: 0.339 Render date: 2021-01-26T17:57:17.280Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *