An American founding father’s influence on Judaism


In addition to his lasting contributions to science and government, Benjamin Franklin succeeded in influencing Jewish thought and practice, a feat he accomplished posthumously, through his famous “Autobiography,” which found its way into Eastern European rabbinic circles in the early 19th century.

In the “Autobiography,” Franklin (1706–1790) briefly discusses a method he devised to overcome his undesirable habits and become a more virtuous individual.  Inspired by this account, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow (1749–1826) decided to compose “Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh” (“The Book of Spiritual Accounting,” 1808), a Hebrew self-improvement guide based on the “Autobiography’s” method that is still studied in yeshivot today.

Franklin’s “Autobiography” and Lefin’s “Spiritual Accounting” both put forward year-long, quarterly-repeated self-reform programs that center on 13 character traits.  Franklin focused on the virtues of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.  Lefin encouraged his readers to focus on whatever character traits they found themselves most in need of improving.

Each trait is given a week of close attention and daily journaling. A grid chart that has the seven days of the week running horizontally and the 13 desired traits running vertically is used to monitor growth and progress.  After 13 weeks, the cycle begins again so that over the course of a year each trait may be carefully worked on for four weeks.

Franklin devised his moral-improvement method while he was in his twenties, and had originally intended to compose a book elaborating on it.  That book was to be part of “a great and extensive Project” envisioned by Franklin: the formation of an international secret fraternity and mutual-aid society, “the Society of the Free and Easy,” comprised of virtuous men across the globe.  However, in the “Autobiography” Franklin reconciles with the fact that “the necessary close Attention to private Business in the earlier part of Life, and public Business since” has prevented him from carrying out that project.

Nearly 20 years after Franklin’s death, and halfway across the world from Philadelphia, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow published his own book based on the “Autobiography’s” self-improvement method.  However, instead of this being a work for the use of the “Virtuous and good Men of all Nations,” whom Franklin had envisioned as the members of his society, Lefin’s “Spiritual Accounting” was written in Hebrew for the religious and moral edification of his fellow Jews, who embraced it.

In a Hebrew letter written to a colleague in 1815, for instance, Samuel Jacob Bick described the self-improvement method of “Spiritual Accounting” as “a wonderful technique invented by the sage Benjamin Franklin from the city of Philadelphia in North America.  This scholar is renowned in all corners of the earth … Thus, Rabbi Mendel [Lefin] has prepared a delicacy for his nation … and taught a simple and clear solution for the broken but still precious soul to speedily return from the bad to the good.  In their approbation, the rabbis of the generation said that this thing is beneficial and new.”

Although Lefin never claimed that the technique he presented was his own invention, he didn’t disclose to “Spiritual Accounting”  readers that Franklin was its source.  He explained only that “a few years ago a new technique was discovered, which is a wonderful innovation in this task [of overcoming one’s animal nature], and it seems its mark will spread as quickly, God willing, as that of the innovation of the printing press, which has brought its light to the world.”

It’s not clear why Lefin took such an approach.  David Shahar, in his Hebrew essay “Benjamin Franklin’s influence on the approach to character improvement in R. Menahem Mendel Lefin’s Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh” (1984), has reasoned that Lefin’s acknowledgment of Franklin’s role was done only “partially and through hinting and without attributing his source” because “perhaps he was concerned that revealing the source of his inspiration might prevent the book from receiving rabbinic approbation.” 

Nonetheless, Lefin was confident that Franklin’s method could benefit all who were interested in self-improvement, and was determined to adjust it for a Jewish audience.  Fortunately, Franklin’s approach to religion made for a smooth adaptation. 

In the “Autobiography,” Franklin explains his original intention to make his system for self-betterment, as well as the international fraternity whose members would adhere to it, universally accessible: “It will be remark’d that, tho’ my Scheme was not wholly without Religion there was in it no Mark of any of the distinguishing Tenets of any particular Sect.  I had purposely avoided them; for being fully persuaded of the Utility and Excellency of my Method, and that it might be serviceable to People in all Religions, and intending some time or other to publish it, I would not have any thing in it that should prejudice any one of any Sect against it.”

As Franklin assumed a generic religious approach to his method, there were no obstacles preventing its development within a Jewish context.  Lefin was able to adjust Franklin’s system, expand upon it, and publish it as a book for Jewish readers, in the process furthering Franklin’s initial goal of making his system for self-examination and character improvement “serviceable to People in all Religions.”

SHAI AFSAI ( lives in Providence. This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Jan. 14, 2014.