Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Wed., Sept. 5th)


Should you ask, "If it is true that abstinence is such a necessary and important thing, then why didn't our sages institute more protective "fences" as they so often did?" The only clear and forthright response to this would be that our sages only instituted the sorts of protective fences the majority of the Jews could abide by (Baba Kamma 79b). Most people cannot be pious, and it would be sufficient for them to be righteous. Those lone individuals among our people who desire to merit closeness to G-d, and to make meritorious those others who are dependent upon them by their merit, have to live by the laws of the saintly-- these abstentions-- which those others cannot live by. This is the way G-d chose it to be. While it is impossible for a whole nation to be of one spiritual type, and there are all sorts of degrees in people, based upon their comprehension, there will at least be found some special individuals who could completely prepare themselves, and by means of this make meritorious the unprepared for the love of G-d and the indwelling of His Presence. In the same vein, the sages said about the four species used in the lulav on Succot, "These will come to atone for those" (Vayikrah Rabbah 30:11). And we find that Elijah the prophet communicated to Rabbi Y'hoshua Ben Levi in regard to the incident of Ulah Bar Koshev, in answer to the question, "Is it not a Mishna?": "Yes, but is it then a Mishna for the saintly?" (Jerusalem Talmud, Trumot 8:4).

But the bad forms of abstinence are those absurd ones used by certain gentiles who are not satisfied with not taking from the world what is not necessary, but withhold from themselves even what is necessary. They afflict their bodies in all sorts of weird ways. G-d does not at all desire that. In fact our sages said, "it is forbidden for one to torture himself" (Ta'anit 22b). They said regarding charity, "Whoever needs charity and does not take it is like a murderer" (Jerusalem Talmud, end of Peah). They also said, it is written, "...A living soul" (Genesis 2:7) -- that is to say, "I have placed a soul within you (G-d said)-- keep it alive (Ta'anit 22b)." And they have said, "One who fasts (when he is incapable for one reason or another of doing so) is called a sinner" (Ta'anit 11a). Hillel used to quote Proverbs 11:17 and say, "One who is generous to his own soul is called saintly." Before breakfast he would wash his hands and face in honor of his Maker, arguing that all the more so should he do so seeing as how the statues for kings were washed every morning (Vayikrah Rabbah 34:3).

Here you have the true underlying principle: you should abstain from whatever is not necessary for your station in this world, but you are deemed a sinner when you abstain from something you need (for whatever reason). This is a principle you can depend upon. The specifics of this general principle, however, cannot all be enunciated, but should be considered on an individual basis, and each person is to be praised according to his own understanding. As it is impossible to garner all the instances as they are infinite in number, and no one mind can contain them all, you should only handle one case at a time.



There are three primary subdivisions of abstinence: pleasure-based, halacha-based, and personal-habit-based abstinence. What we discussed in the previous chapter (which involved taking nothing from the world other than what, for your nature, is absolutely necessary) refers to pleasure-based abstinence. It includes food-related, sexual, ornamental, recreational, and conversational pleasures and the like. The only time acting on these drives is irrelevant to abstention is when it involves a mitzvah.

Halacha-based abstinence involves being stringent in the mitzvot at all times-- to the point of siding with the minority opinion in arguments of the law where that opinion is not the accepted one (as long as following that opinion does not provide a leniency). It also involves being stringent in "gray" areas where you might legitimately be lenient. Our sages already illustrated this notion for us (Chulin 37b) by explaining Ezekiel's statement, (4:14) "My soul has not become impure" as meaning that he never ate from an animal the ritual purity of which a sage ever had to decide, and he never ate the meat from an animal that had to be slaughtered hurriedly so that it would not soon die from natural causes. Even though these would certainly have been permitted according to the law, he was stringent on himself.

As we said above, you cannot derive what would be permitted to the abstinent by what is permitted to others. The abstinent has to stay away from the repulsive, the nearly repulsive, and even the vaguely repulsive. As Mar Ukva said, "In this matter I am like vinegar to wine compared to my father. Had my father eaten meat just now, he would not eat cheese until tomorrow this time. But where I will not eat cheese at this meal, I would eat it at the next one" (Chulin 105a). In fact, the halacha was not as Mar Ukva's father practiced it, for if it were, Mar Ukva himself would certainly not have gone against it. It is just that Mar Ukva's father was stringent in his abstinence. Mar Ukva referred to himself as "vinegar in relation to wine", because he was not himself as abstinent as his father.

And personal-habit-based abstinence refers to secluding and detaching yourself from the company of others, and directing your heart towards Divine service instead, and reflecting upon that, as you should. But such a practice is only good as long as you do not go to an extreme. As our sages instructed, "Your mind should always be concerned with other people" (K'tubot 17a); and, "It is written, 'A sword shall be upon the liars and they will become fools' (Jeremiah 50:36) -- which means to say that a sword shall be upon those who hate certain sages who sit in isolation to learn the Torah'(Makkot 10a)". You should join in with good people for the amount of time you need to study or to earn a living, then go in seclusion to attach yourself to your G-d and come to comprehend the good path and the true form of service to G-d. Included in this is lessening your speech and avoiding small talk, not looking beyond your own environs, and all other such restrictions which you should accustom yourself in until they become second nature to you.

Though I have presented these three divisions in an abbreviated form to you, you cannot help but see that they include within them very many human actions. I have already pointed out that it is impossible to illustrate all of the instances where these principles can be applied. Only careful thought and consideration can determine those.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman