Sunday, April 22, 2007

Kedoshim, Vayikra 19:2. Kedoshim Tihyu. Asceticism in Jewish Thought.

What is the place of Asceticism in Judaism? The reflexive answer most Jews would give is that Judaism does not approve of asceticism; we do not believe in celibacy, we celebrate holidays with feast and song, we begin Shabbos and YomTov with a toast over a glass of wine. Indeed, Rashi’s explanation of Kedoshim Tihyu is that we should stay away from arayos that the Torah prohibited, as enumerated in the end of the previous parshah, implying that Kedusha comprises avoidance of the enumerated issurim and no more. However, the Ramban seems to advocate a much broader and restrictive approach.

The Ramban here, in his famous “naval birshus hatorah” drasha, condemns the pursuit of physical pleasure. According to the Ramban, then, why does the Gemora say that a Nazir is a chotei? It would seem that according to the Ramban, a Nazir is the opposite of a chotei; he is to be commended for abandoning worldly pleasures! In fact, the Ramban answers this question. The Ramban says that the Nazir brings a korban upon finishing his nezirus NOT because he refrained from wine during the course of his nezirus. On the contrary: He brings the korban because by of the precipitous drop in his kedusha caused by ENDING his nezirus. The words of the Ramban in Bamidbar 6:14:
"the reason for the Korban Chatas brought by the Nazir upon completion of his term of Nezirus ... is for having completed his Nezirut, and this is the sin. He had reached a very high level of holiness and closeness to Hashem, and he then descended from that level. He should have remained a Nazir for the rest of his life, living out his days as a Nazir sanctified to serving Hashem... He must atone for having returned to the 'tumah' of worldly pleasures."

Indeed, the Gemora there does say that Shimon Hatzadik, while objurgating the usual motives for accepting nezirus, honored the “nazir min hadarom” whose nezirus seemed to be intended to break his physical desires and pleasures. And see Taanis 11b, machlokes Shmuel and Rebbi Elazar and Reish Lakish whether yosheiv b’taanis, one who habitually fasts, is nikra chotei or kadosh or chassid (although Rashi and Tosfos have opposite interpretations of Reish Lakish.) The conclusion of the Gemara there, certainly in Reb Elazar, and maybe the maskana l’halachah, is that if he is “matzi l’tzi’urei nafshei,” if he is “capable of standing the suffering,” he’s nikra kadosh, and if not, he’s a chotei. And it is obvious that Nezirus is a means of deveikus; after all, Shimshon and Shmuel (see Nazir 66a) were Nezirim. (Yes, Avshalom was also a Nazir. But sometimes the refusal of the option of great achievement generates horrible degradation.)

The Mesilas Yesharim Be'vei'ur Middas Haprishus apparently takes the approach of Rebbi Eliezer in Taanis, saying that good prishus is to eschew things that are excessive and unnecessary, and bad prishus is prishus from things that are necessary, so a yosheiv beta’anis is good if he can take it, and bad if he can’t. ( I believe that what he means by "able to take it and not able to take it" is that prishus is good if you can do it without anger and resentment, if you can do it with a sense of gratification.  If you obsess over the thing you are missing, that means  you are not ready.)  However, a careful reading indicates that prishus is necessary only because satisfying physical desires leads to specific aveiros.

Is there any reason other than that to avoid these pleasures? That is, is prishus from taivos good because taivos are inherently bad (ein lecho ben chorin/nemo liber est qui corpore servit), or only because they are thresholds to other things. Difference would be in case of some craving that cannot lead to issurim. No bitul torah, no arayos, no gaiva. Like smoking if it didn’t cause health problems. R’ Rudderman in his Sichos, page 345, mentions that there is a tachlis of “lehagbir haseichel al haratzon,” but he brings no sources.

Reb Moshe in the teshuvos (YD 3:35) talks about smoking marijuana, and he prohibits it. Not only does he prohibit it, he also calls it an issur de'oraysa, on the basis of the malkos in the parsha of Ben Sorer U'Moreh (Sanhedrin 72b regarding the passuk in Ki Seitzei), and Tumah, and an Issur Chamur, since it only satisfies a tayva and has no benefit to one's function. He also says that using marijuana transgresses the Ramban's Kedoshim Tihyu. However, the teshuva is based on his assumption that smoking marijuana creates a powerful addiction that will, like Chazal say about Ben Sorer U'Moreh, lead to violent antisocial behavior to satisfy this urge. One might argue that while this certainly applies to drugs such as heroin, it may not apply to marijuana. Never having smoked pot, I can't say from my own experience, but there are many who say that pot is no more addictive than alcohol.

R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz in Parshas Noso, #72, brings the Rambam that says that good nezirus is a “nodeir lashem derech kedusha, and bad nezirus is “ha’omeir harieni nazir im e’eseh kach vakach o im lo e’eseh.” R’ Shmuelevitz understands this to mean that good nezirus is one that is “ne’esis lesheim milchama im hayeitzer.” In other words, it is meritorious to use asceticism as a weapon in the battle against the evil inclination, but it is wrong to say that if I do or don’t do a certain thing, I will punish myself through self abnegation.

R’ Yakov Kaminetzki here seems to learn that the purpose of prishus is so that mevakshri hashem should be distinct from the common man– not that it is an intrinsically good thing, but that it is a means of reminding the tzadik that he what he seeks is different than what the masses of unthinking people seek. The unenlightened seek physical gratification and see it as the greatest good, while we see it as trivial and merely a means to enable us to serve Hashem.

See also below in Bechukosai, Vayikra 26:5, on “V’achaltem lachm’chem lasova.” R’ Moshe there says that it is better to eat a little and have it misboreich b’mei’av rather than eating the usual amount, because an adam hashaleim avoids involvement with physical pleasure.

I want to suggest an approach that may be consistent with the underlying idea of most of the above concepts of Prishus. It is rather simple, maybe even banal. Simplicity is underrated. It does not really address the high perishus Chazal encourage for people who want to be zocheh to Kinyan Torah-- Pas Bamelech Tochal and "ellah be'mi she'meimis atzmo ale'ha. It addresses only the most basic aspect of Prishus that is necessary for every member of Klal Yisrael.

The gemara Menachos 87 brings that Rav Yochanan says “ke'sheim she’hakol yafeh liketores, kach hakol ra le’yayin.” “Just as the sound of talk is good for the manufacture of the Ketores, so it is deleterious to the manufacture of wine.” Literally, this means that while compounding the Ketores, one should talk rhythmically, and this will improve the final product, while one should be silent when working with wine, because talk might cause it to sour. However, the Be’er Yosef from R’ Yitzchak Salanter says that the reason for the association and contrast, instead of mere recitation of difference, is that wine represents ta’anugei olam hazeh, worldly pleasures, and besamim represents hana’os ruchni’os, spiritual pleasures. One should avoid talk, i.e., preoccupation or deep interest in the former, but the more one delves into the latter, the better it is for him. The pleasures of a voluptuary become his quiddity. Even if you enjoy certain mosros, unnecessary pleasures, don’t talk about them- you can enjoy eating or drinking, but don't talk too much, or become obsessed with them.

It’s interesting to think about the way we look down upon gourmets as hedonistic pleasure seekers but we don't think less of people who love smells and music. What characterizes certain pleasures as animalistic and not others? Why don’t dignified people want to eat in public, but don't mind being seen enjoying the besamim at havdalah? Why do the Roshei Yeshiva all put their forks down when the photographer comes by? It’s not because only rational creatures enjoy smell, because dogs and cats love certain scents, and roll around in them in ecstasy. Certain animals also enjoy music. So what is it that makes eating so base?

When I first brought this question up, I said, as a joke, that the other pleasures, like smell and music, can be enjoyed with your mouth closed. Harav Reuven Feinstein made a beautiful observation. He said that eating is fundamentally selfish, and what you eat cannot be shared. But the enjoyment of music and smell can be shared with others.

I later realized that there is a more fundamental difference: eating and sex satisfy a craving, a hunger. While one may desire to hear music or to smell a fragrance, that desire doesn’t create a craving, or a hunger. As Umberto Eco says in the introductory essay to his anthology On Ugliness, there are different types of beauty: there is "beauty" that primarily arouses a desire to possess and use the object, and there is "beauty" that primarily elicits an appreciation of the object. The former is a vulgar and crude beauty; the latter is an objective aesthetic judgment. It is, one might say, dispassionate.

Having said this, we can see what prishus means in Jewish thought. Sensual pleasure itself is not intrinsically a negative thing. But the drive, the craving and pursuit of pleasure, is both unworthy and dangerous. One must aspire to eliminate that craving. When Prishus is employed for this purpose, it is laudable. This worthy Prishus comprises many levels. The initial level is to develop the discipline that enables one to resist physical cravings. The next level is to eliminate the driving urge that they often generate. Ultimately, one comes to a level where his decision to indulge or refrain is completely uninfluenced by any physical desire. Even this level, though, does not mean that one does not enjoy the food when he eats it; it only means that he choice to indulge was not driven or even influenced by desire.

The lesson is, then, that Prishus, at the most basic level, means the ability to learn to control and modify carnal desire such that one enjoys them as one would enjoy fragrance or music.

A very strong proof: Reb Elazar Hakappar, who said that a Nazir is called sinful for having deprived himself from wine, is the same Reb Elazar Hakappar who said, in Pirkei Avos, "Hakin'ah veha'ta'ava vehakavod motzi'in es ha'adam min ha'olam."

I think that this concept of prishus underlies the multitude of variations discussed by the baalei hashkafa.

This said, the question remains: does asceticism advance this goal? In other words, does self abnegation train a person to not want the thing he forcefully denies himself, or does it generate resentment and greater desire and lust? We all know that people that fall off the wagon tend to fall harder and farther, and that the final result is worse than if no attempt had been made at all. On the other hand, the Gemara does say that sexual desire is diminished by chastity and inflamed by satisfying it-- "it hungers when it is satisfied and it is sated when it is hungered." The answer is that this is exactly what Shimon Hatzadik meant, and this is what the Gemara in Taanis means, and this is what the Mesilas Yeshorim means. If a person is not ready, then his asceticism will be self-destructive, and will only serve to inflame his desire. At best, he will gain nothing from his attempts, only suffering for nothing. Only a person who is mentally and physically ready, and disciplined enough, to use asceticism to tame his baser desires, is encouraged to do so.

The Asceticism that Chazal encourage, then, is a means toward the end of learning to control and modify desire, to modify the desire for eating and for sexual relations so that they resemble the more refined sensual pleasure we derive from fragrance and music.

I suppose you could say, though it would be misleading if you hadn't read this post, that Chazal were aesthetes, not ascetics.

Tosfos Ksuvos 104a
לא נהניתי אפילו באצבע קטנה. דאמרינן במדרש עד שאדם מתפלל שיכנס תורה לתוך גופו יתפלל שלא יכנסו מעדנים לתוך גופו ומייתי הא עובדא דרבי:


  1. Hello, I am new here, and I am really enjoying your thought provoking posts.
    This is a very good piece, but I disagree. I think there are three distinct ideas, and they are not mutually exclusive (is that the correct term?).
    1. is the idea mentioned in rishonim that "min nhaheter yasi'acha el ho'isur"
    2. the ramban, novol berishus hatorah, which is a new concept, a seperate mitsvah, which is to be refined people ( one way of putting it)
    3. the idea we find , ta'anis hora'avad, to give up something we like for hashem, which is sort of like a korban ( isn't that the idea of korbonos al pee pashtus?)
    aren't all three seperate inyonim?

  2. Good ho'oros.
    1. Do you recall who says this and where?
    2. I think the Ramban learns that kedoshim means prushim, and that this is the source for prishus in general.
    3. I should have mentioned the Taanis HoRaavad, and it definitely does deserve a place here. But does he mean it as a korbon or as regular prishus? What's the shaichus to a korbon, when most korbonos involved achilas odom? Does he say that this is like a doron, a gift, like a korbon Olah?

  3. 1. I do not remember the source, but I think it is pretty well established. see at length mesilas yeshorim sha'ar haprishus. He also says over there pretty much the same idea as you.
    A good mareh mokom for this discussion is the gemara in yevamos 20a, kadesh atsmechah bemutar loch, and it is referring specifically to the din of sheniyos la'arayos, which is be'pashtus a case of geder issur.
    2. I am not sure if we both understand the ramban the same way
    3. I think the basic idea of korbon is to give from ones best to hashem, as we see from the first korbon, from hevel and kayin. (Even though we eat from the leftovers of the korbon, by a shelomim, I dont think that is really a contradiction). I dont remember where the ra'avad says it, I just remember seeing it in the mishna berurah.
    All the above, is not all there is to this discussion. There is a shulchan hatohor (from Reb Aron Roth, of Shomrei Emunim) which brings from the malach that spoke with the bais yosef, (I am assuming it is in the sefer magid meishorim) that " people think this world is hefker, they eat and drink 'lesova bitnum', but they dont realise that for every 'hana'ah' in this world , they will be punished". I do not know what that is supposed to mean!

  4. You know, come to think of it, there is indeed a great deal more to write about on this topic, even to scratch the surface. Avos 6:5 on pas b'melach, the Rambam in Dei'os, the Raavad in Toras Habayis, and much more. Two things. First, I still think that what I wrote is shoveh l'chol nefesh and perhaps even true. Second, although much has changed since the time of Chazal, and many people hold that we shouldn't try pas b'melech or the Maggid's criticism, it's definitely worth spending more iyun on the sugyah, which I intend, bli neder. Yasher Kochacho.