Q. How would Judaism define happiness?
A. When the Hebrew Bible uses the word ashrei for happiness it is actually plural. It’s a collective noun because happiness is different things to different people. It can be emotional – a feeling of exhilaration and delight. Or psychological – a feeling of satisfaction.
According to Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century, happiness is having a direction in life, a purpose, a goal. Conan Doyle might have summed it up when he put into Sherlock Holmes’ mouth the words, “Watson, the game is afoot!” When the game is afoot, you’re embarked on something exciting.
Whichever concept you choose, happiness is both passive and active. Passive, in that you are suffused with the feeling that, in Robert Browning’s words, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”. Active, in that you are on the move and every fibre of your being is tingling with joy. It amazes you to think how happy you feel. It sounds like C.S. Lewis’ book title, “Surprised by Joy”, which the Book of Psalms anticipated when it said (Psalm 30), “Joy cometh in the morning”.
This Ask the Rabbi is adapted from a chapter in Rabbi Apple’s book, Eighty Days and Eighty Nights: Wise Words for Everyday. Click here for more information and to purchase a copy.