Asceticism In Judaism

This article covers asceticism in Judaism.

Asceticism is a term derived from the Greek verb ἀσκέω, meaning “to practise strenuously,” “to exercise.” Athletes were therefore said to go through ascetic training, and to be ascetics.

Rigorous abstention from any form of self-indulgence which is based on the belief that renunciation of the desires of the flesh and self-mortification can bring man to a high spiritual state. Asceticism never occupied an important place in the Jewish religion. Judaism did not believe that the freedom of man’s soul could be won only by the subjugation of the flesh, a belief which was central in religions based upon anthropological dualism. see also: Jewish Asceticism

In this usage the twofold application—to the mode of living and the results attained—which marks the later theological implication of the term is clearly discernible. From the arena of physical contests the word easily passed over to that of spiritual struggles, and pre-Christian writers speak of the “askesis” of the soul or of virtue—the discipline of the soul, or the exercise in virtue. But the physical idea, no less than the moral, underlies the meaning of the term in medieval Christian parlance. The monastery, as the place where the required life of abstemiousness is lived under rigorous regulation and discipline, becomes the “asketerion,” a word which to the classical Greek conveyed only the notion of a place reserved for physical exercise; while the monks were the “ascetikoi,” the ascetics, under discipline attaining unto the perfect practise.

Torture of the flesh

Asceticism is indigenous to the religions which posit as fundamental the wickedness of this life and the corruption under sin of the flesh. Buddhism, therefore, as well as Christianity, leads to ascetic practices. Monasteries are institutions of Buddhism no less than of Catholic Christianity. The assumption, found in the views of the Montanists and others, that concessions made to the natural appetites may be pardoned in those that are of a lower degree of holiness, while the perfectly holy will refuse to yield in the least to carnal needs and desires, is easily detected also in some of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The ideal of holiness of both the Buddhist and the Christian saint culminates in poverty and chastity; i.e., celibacy. Fasting and other disciplinary methods are resorted to curb the flesh.

Under a strict construction of the meaning of Asceticism, it is an error to assume that its history may be extended to embrace also certain rites in vogue among devotees to fetishism and nature worship. Mutilations, the sacrifice of the hair, dietary observances and prohibitions, which abound in all forms of religion at a certain stage of development, do not spring from the notion of the sinfulness of the natural instincts and of life. Nor is the sacrificial scheme in any way connected with Asceticism. The idea of privation is foreign to it. If the offering was a gift to the Deity and as such entailed upon the offerer the parting with something of value, the expectation which animated him was invariably that of receiving rich return. But whatever theory must be accepted in explanation of the various rites of mutilation, and of the sacrificial ritual, certain it is that Judaism from the beginning set its face most sternly against the one, and materially restricted the other. Mutilations for whatever purpose and of whatever character were absolutely prohibited. Funeral horrors and superstitions were not tolerated. The Levitical code restricted sacrifices to one place. The priests only were entrusted with the office at the altar. And, if the Prophets are the truest expounders of the ideals and ideas of the religion of Israel, even the sacrificial and sacerdotal system, with its implications of extraordinary and precautionary cleanliness and physical abstemiousness, was of little vital moment.

Fasting, which plays so essential a part in the practices of ascetics, classically found official recognition only in the development of the Day of Atonement. The Prophets, again, had little patience with fasting. There are some obscure allusions to fast days of popular observance, but the Prophets of exilic and postexilic days insist on the futility of this custom. Isaiah (lviii.), while appealing for a broader charity and deeper sense of justice, maintains that these, and not fasting, are the expression of a will sanctified unto God. It is characteristic of the attitude of later Judaism that this very chapter has been assigned for the Hafṭarah for the Day of Atonement, the one penitential fast-day of the synagogue.

Western Wall Old City of Jerusalem

Western Wall Old City of Jerusalem


Main article: Fasting in Judaism

Nevertheless, fasting among the Jews was resorted to in times of great distress. The Book of Esther, of late date, illustrates this for the period included in the Biblical canon. Rabbinical sources prove the growing tendency to abstain from drink and food whenever memories of disaster marked the days of the synagogal calendar, or instant danger threatened the community. In the scheme of the synagogue the one fast-day of the Bible received no less than twenty-two as companions (compare Fasting in Judaism).

Still, it may be doubted whether this multiplication of fast-days can be taken as a sign of an increased tendency to Asceticism. Probably the theory of Robertson Smith (The Religion of the Semites, p. 413) still holds good to a large extent in explanation of many of the fast-observances of later Judaism, as undoubtedly it does for the voluntary and occasional fast-days mentioned in the historical books of the Bible; namely, that Oriental fasting is merely a preparation for the eating of the sacrificial meal. The rabbinical injunction, not to eat too late a meal on the eve of the Sabbath-day, so as to enjoy all the more that of the Sabbath, tends to corroborate the theory. Perhaps this also underlies the rabbinical report that some examples of rabbinical piety fasted every Friday (in preparation for the Sabbath).

Ascetics in Talmud

Jewish praying in a cave

Jewish praying in a cave

Among the Rabbis some are mentioned as great and consistent fasters. Rabbi Zeira especially is remembered for his fondness of this form of piety. Yet to make of him an ascetic would be inaccurate. He fasted that he might forget his Babylonian method of teaching before emigrating to Palestine (B. M. 85a). The story continues that he abstained from drink and food for the period of one hundred days, in order that hell-fire might later have no power over him. Simon ben YoḦai is depicted as an ascetic in the traditions preserved in rabbinical literature. But exposed to persecutions under the Hadrian régime, and often in danger of his life, his whole mind was of an exceptionally somber turn for a Jewish teacher. Moreover, his ascetic practices were not inspired by a consciousness of the futility of this life and its sinfulness, but by the anxiety to fulfill to the letter the Law, to “ponder on the Torah day and night”. He begrudged the hours necessary for the care of the body as so many precious moments stolen from the study of the holy Law. He envied the generation of the desert who had been fed on heavenly manna, and were thus absolved from the care for their daily bread; an echo of this sentiment may be detected in the petition of Jesus for daily bread (on Simon b. YoḦai, see W. Bacher, Ag. Tan. ii. 70-149).

Still, with all these seeming leanings to ascetic conduct, these rabbis did not encourage individual fasting. The community in distress did indeed proclaim a public fast, and it was the duty of the loyal member to participate. For he who would not share in the distress would have no part in the consolation of the people (Ta’an. 11a). The habitual faster was called a sinner (ib.). This judgment was enforced by an appeal to the Biblical text in connection with the Nazir’s (Nazarite’s) expiatory sacrifice (Num. vi. 11). Rabbi Zeira would not permit his disciples to indulge in extraordinary practices of self-restraint, if they presumed thereby to reflect on the piety of others saner than they. The title applied to such an adept at saintly practices is characteristically deprecatory for his attitude of mind: his conduct is declared to smack of conceit, if not of hypocrisy (Yer. Ber. ii. 5d).

The attempt has been made to explain the Biblical Nazarites as forerunners of monastic orders addicted to the practice of ascetic discipline. Pentateuchal legislation concerning them shows them to have been merely tolerated. Modern criticism explains their peculiarities as arising from motives other than those that determine the conduct of ascetics. The Biblical Nazirs, forerunners of the Nebi’im (Prophets), were Protestants against the adoption of the customs and the religious rites of the Canaanites. In their dress and mode of life they emphasized their loyalty to YHVH, enthroned on the desert mountain. Wine and the crown of hair were sacred to the gods of the land. Their very appearance emphasized their rejection of the new deities. And in later days the number of those that took the Nazarite vow was exceedingly small. One is inclined to the opinion that no case occurred in which the Pentateuchal provisions became effective.

Essenes not ascetics

Nor may the Essenes be classed among the order of ascetics. While some of their institutions, notably celibacy, appear to lend support to the theory that would class them as such, their fundamental doctrines show no connection with the pessimism that is the essential factor in Asceticism. They were political indifferentists; they were but little, if at all, under the sway of national aspirations. They stood for a universal fellowship of the pure and just. They set but little store by the goods of this earth, and were members of a communistic fraternity. But it is inadmissible to construe from these elements of their hopes and habits the inference that in them is to be found a genuine Jewish order of monks and ascetics.

A stronger case against the theory that Judaism is a very uncongenial soil for the growth of Asceticism might be made out by an appeal to the later Jewish mystics, the Ḥasidim and Cabalists of various forms, all ecstatic fantastics, and—this is a point that must not be overlooked—more or less strongly under the influence of distinctly non-Jewish conceits. See below, Examples of Jewish Asceticism.

Looking upon this life as essentially good, according to Gen. i. 31; upon the human body as a servant of the spirit, and therefore not corrupt; upon the joys of earth as God-given and therefore to be cherished with gratitude toward the divine giver; having a prayer for every indulgence in food and drink; a benediction for every new experience of whatever nature, gladsome or sad—the Jew partook with genuine zest of the good cheer of life, without, however, lapsing into frivolity, gluttony, or intemperance. His religion, that taught him to remember his dignity as one made in the image of God, and to hold his body in esteem as the temple of God’s spirit within, a dwelling of the Most Holy, “a host,” as Hillel put it, “for the guest, the soul,” kept the Jew equidistant from the pole of self-torturing pessimism, from the mortification of the flesh under the obsession of its sinfulness and foulness, and from the other pole of levity and sensuousness.

Never intemperate in drink or food, he sought and found true joy in the consecration of his life and all of its powers and opportunities to the service of his God, a God who had caused the fruit of the vine to grow and the earth to give forth the bread, a God who created the light and sent the darkness, a God who, as a Talmudical legend—one of the many with Elijah for their subject—has it, reserves paradise “for them that cause their fellows to laugh” (Ta’an. 22a). The most beautiful saying of the rabbis about Asceticism is: “Man will have to give account in the future for every lawful enjoyment offered to him which he has ungratefully refused” (Rab in Yer. Ḳid., at the close); compare TanḦ., end, “The wicked in his life is considered as one dead,” etc.

Examples of Jewish asceticism

While the dominant note of Judaism is optimism, faith in a God who delights in the happiness of His creatures and expects their grateful appreciation of His bounties—see Abstinence in Judaism—there have, nevertheless, been prevalent in Jewish life certain ascetic tendencies of which the historian must take account.

Shammaites and Hillelites

The two great rabbinical schools of the first pre-Christian century, the Shammaites and the Hillelites, debated the question whether life was worth living or not—”ṭob le-adam shenibra mishelo nibra” (Er. 13b), and there was an unmistakable element of austerity in the teaching of many a Shammaite that favored asceticism (compare II Esdras iv. 12). While one teacher would say, “The Shekinah rests on man only amid cheerfulness that comes from duty well performed” (Pes. ii. 7a), another held the view that “there should be no unrestrained laughter in this world” (Ber. 31a).

But it was particularly with the view of fitting the soul for communion with God, or for the purpose of keeping the body sufficiently pure to allow it to come into contact with sacred objects, that many strove to avoid things that either cause intoxication or Levitical impurity, the drinking of wine (Lev. x. 9; Num. vi. 3; Amos ii. 12; Judges xiii. 14), or sexual intercourse, which was forbidden to the people of Israel, in preparation for the Sinai Revelation (Ex. xix. 15), and to Moses during the life of communion with God (Deut. ix. 9, 18; I Sam. xxi. 5; Shab. 87a).

According to this principle the life of the ancient Ḥasidim or Perushim (Pharisees) and Ẓenu’im (Essenes) was regulated. At the same time these devotees of holiness, making “askesis” (the practise of fortitude) their special object of life, were naturally led to view sensual life as contaminating. F. C. Conybeare says: “Philo’s ideal was to die daily, to mortify the flesh with fasting; he only insisted that the seclusion from social life should take place at the age of fifty, the time when the Levites retired from the active duties of the Temple service”.

This was exactly the view of the Essenes and Therapeutæ also, in whatever connection they stood to Jonadab ben Rechab and the Kenites (see Mek., Yitro, 2, regarding “the water-drinkers” (shote mayim), as some of these are called). Banus, the eremite saint with whom Josephus passed three years of his life (Josephus, Vita, § 2), was certainly an ascetic. Likewise were John the Baptist (Matt. iii. 4 and parallels) and the early Christians, Paul included, insofar as they shunned marriage as a concession to the flesh (Matt. xix. 10-12; I Cor. vii. 28-38), imbued with ascetic views. It was exactly in opposition to this tendency, so marked in early Christianity, that the Talmudists denounced fasting and penitence (Ta’anit 11a, b) and accentuated the duty of cheerfulness in the Elijah legend (Ta’anit 22a). Upon the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, a veritable wave of asceticism swept over the people, and in tribute to the national misfortune various ascetic rules were instituted (see B. B. 60b; Tosefta Soṭah, end; II Esdras ix. 24; compare W. Bacher, Agada der Tannaiten, i. 164).

Mysticism and asceticism

Main articles: Mysticism, Asceticism, and Jewish Mysticism

Still, mysticism, which goes hand in hand with asceticism, always had its esoteric circles. Judah ha-Nasi, called “the saint,” was an ascetic (Ket. 104a). Mar, the son of Rabina, fasted throughout the whole year with the exception of the holy days and the eve of the Atonement Day (Pes. 68b). For the sake of communing with the upper world, the lower one was despised by the elect few who preserved the tradition of the gnosis and the apocalyptic mysteries.

So did the followers of Obadiah Abu-Isa, the Isawites, and of Judah Yudghan, the Yudghanites, at the close of the 7th century and at the beginning of the 8th, the forerunners of the Karaites, and many prominent Karaites themselves lead ascetic lives; abstaining from meat and wine, and spending much of their time in meditation and devotion, partly in order to obtain a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures, partly as mourners over Jerusalem (see Shahrastani, Book of Religions and Philosophical Sects, Haarbrücker’s translation, i. 254-257; H. Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, iii. 417 et seq., 446 et seq.; Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums, ii. 350 et seq.).

To some extent, therefore, all the mystics of the Middle Ages were Ascetics, assuming or accepting for themselves the title of “Nazarites,” or being called by their contemporaries “saints.” This is especially true of Abraham ben David of Posquières and his circle in the 13th century, whose relation to the beginnings of the Kabala can hardly be denied. Further, the currents of thought which, emanating from India, created Sufism in Persian and Mohammedan circles in the 12th and 13th centuries, exerted considerable influence upon Jewish thinkers, as may be learned from BaḦya, whose ethical system, Ḥobot ha-Lebabot, oscillates between asceticism and Jewish optimism, with a decided leaning to the former (see below).

Asceticism in Bachya

Abraham ben Ḥiyya

Even such thinkers as opposed the ascetic view could not extricate themselves entirely from the meshes of Neoplatonic mysticism, which beheld in the flesh or in matter the source of evil. Thus Abraham ben Ḥiyya strongly refutes the Neoplatonic conception of evil as being identical with matter, and maintains against BaḦya that indulgence in fasting and other modes of penitence is not meritorious, since only he who is ruled by his lower desires may resort to asceticism as the means of curbing his passion and disciplining his soul, whereas the really good should confine himself to such modes of abstinence as are prescribed by the Law.

Nevertheless, Abraham b. Ḥiyya claims a higher rank for the saint who, secluded from the world, leads a life altogether consecrated to the service of God. He goes even so far as to advocate the state of celibacy in such cases, referring to the example of Moses—who had to abandon intercourse with his wife when receiving the laws on Sinai—to the majority of the prophets (who were, as he thinks, unmarried), and to Ben Azzai (according to Yeb. 63b). Like BaḦya, he considers that the ascetic, while leading a purer and holier life, requires less legal restraint (see his Hegyon ha-Nefesh, ed. Reifman, 16a, 32a, 37a; Rosin, Ethik des Maimonides, pp. 15, 16; Moritz Güdemann, in Monatsschrift, 1900, pp. 196–216).

Of Asher, the son of Meshullam ben Jacob in Lunel, Benjamin of Tudela (Travels, ed. Asher, 3b) relates as eye-witness that he was an ascetic (“parush”) who did not attend to any worldly business, but studied day and night, kept fasts, and never ate meat. His brother Jacob bore the title of Nazarite, having also been an ascetic abstaining from wine (see Zunz’s note in Asher’s Benjamin of Tudela, ii. 11, 12; H. Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, vi. 240, 241).

Also the whole family of Judah the Ḧasid of Regensburg, of the 12th century, his father, Samuel, and his grandfather, Kalonymus of Speyer, grandson of Eliezer the Great of Worms, seem to have been a family of Ascetics (see H. J. Michael, Or ha-Ḥayyim, Nos. 433, 990, 1174, 1200).

The subsequent development and growth of the Kabala produced other forms of asceticism. In fact, the Ḥasid and the Ẓanua’ of the medieval apocalyptic literature being a survival of Essenism, ablutions and fasting were resorted to by the adepts of the Cabala as means of attaining communion with the upper world. Some of these Ḥasidim would spend the whole week—without or with interruption, according to their physical endurance—in fasting, rendering only the Sabbath a day of comfort and joy. The object of their penitences and fastings was to bring about the time of divine favor, the Messianic era. Every Messianic movement had therefore Ascetics as leaders, such as were the Shabbethaians (see H. Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, iii. 307) and others (see Abraham ben Samuel Cohen of Lask). Others would refrain from eating animal food—’eber min ha-Ḥay—and, like the Buddhists or the Pythagoreans of old, live on vegetarian diet. The same is related by Epiphanius of the Dosithean sect.

Moses Maimonides

Against all these ascetic views and tendencies Maimonides raised his powerful voice, and his sober view maintained the upper hand. He admits the wholesome influence on those needing much discipline of the soul of fasting and vigils, of sexual and social abstemiousness, the self-torture of the hermit, and of the penitent who dwells in deserts and uses only coarse haircloth for the covering of his flesh; but he declares the constant use of what can at best be only a remedial measure in abnormal and unsound conditions of life to be a great folly and injurious extravagance.

Maimonides, while adopting the Aristotelian maxim of the golden middle way in all things, finds in the various restrictions of the dietary and marriage laws of the Torah a legislative system of training the people to a sobriety which makes superfluous such asceticism as the monks and the saints of other nations indulge in; nay, sinful indeed, according to the rabbinical interpretation of Num. vi. 11, which says that the priest shall “make an atonement for him [the Nazir] for that he has sinned against the person [in making his vow of abstinence]” (see Ned. 10a; Maimonides, Yad, De’ot, iii. 1, vi. 1).

Jewish hermits, living in a state of celibacy and devoting themselves to meditation, are still (circa 1906) found among the Falashas. They claim that Aaron the high priest was the first Nazarite who from the time of his consecration separated from his wife to live only in the shadow of the tabernacle. Accordingly, they join the monastic order after they have been married and have become fathers of children (Halévy, Travels in Abyssinia, p. 230). According to Flad (Abyssinische Juden, pp. 32 et seq.), the order founded by Abba Sabra (Halévy, Abba Sura) consists altogether of eunuchs. This would indicate non-Jewish influence, of which the Falashas show many traces.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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