Asceticism (Jewish)

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. Apart from the Nazirites and the Rechabites who constituted special groups, and the mortification practiced by Ezekiel (4:4–15) which was apparently to induce a vision, the only ascetic practice mentioned as of universal application is fasting which is called in the Bible “affliction of the soul” (Lev. 23:27; Isa. 58:3). In addition to the Day of Atonement numerous fasts are mentioned as having been instituted on special occasions (see: Fasting) but they are mostly expressions of remorse, sadness, and grief or acts to aid concentration in prayer rather than religious practices in their own right. The prophets emphasize over and over again the fact that fasting and mortification of the body by themselves do not please God. They are justified only if they help change man’s moral actions.

The rabbis went even further; they consider asceticism and privation as a sin against the will of God, that people should enjoy the gift of life. Hillel considered taking care of and bathing the body a religious duty (Lev. R. 34:3). In practice, however, there were many ascetics among Jews during the period of the Second Temple. Y.F. Baer maintains (Yisrael ba-Ammim (1955), 22) that during this and the preceding period Judaism possessed a definite ascetic character and furthermore, the teachings of the first tannaim also leaned toward asceticism. This doctrine, though later rejected by the halakhah, according to him left its permanent traces in all the realms of halakhah and aggadah and in all spheres of Jewish life, and in it he sees the origin of the ascetic and monastic elements so prevalent in Christianity. Most other scholars disagree with this view. On the contrary Christian theologians (see e.g., Bousset-Gressman, Die Religion des Judentums in spaethellenistischen Zeitalter (1966), 428–29) saw in the fact that there is so little emphasis on asceticism in Judaism proof of the inferior religious quality of Judaism as compared with Christianity. This very point was used by Jewish apologists (e.g., M. Lazarus, Die Ethik des Judenthums, 1 (19042), 272–80) to demonstrate the higher standards of the Jewish religion. The entire subject of the attitude of early rabbinic Judaism to asceticism is summed up against its historical background, in a study by E.E. Urbach (Y. Baer Jubilee Volume (1960), 48–68). It maintains that the principal motive for Hellenistic asceticism in all its various manifestations, also found in Philo, does not occur in the Talmud, namely: the antithesis between the body and the soul, between the flesh and the spirit. The motivations for asceticism, according to Urbach, are fear of sin and a strong attraction to the sanctuary and sacrifices. Such cases of asceticism are included within the context of the halakhah dealing as it does with practical matters of the world. The heroic religious deeds of the *Ḥasidim during the rule of *Antiochus Epiphanes left no impression in this respect and did not give rise to ascetic ideals. Only the destruction of the Second Temple and the serious religious problems that arose with the cessation of the daily sacrifices gave rise to an ascetic movement and also endowed the fasts with a new significance. The scholars and leaders of that generation spared no effort to deprive this movement of its extremist character. The generation of *Jabneh witnessed its decline, but during the period of persecution and forced conversions that followed the movement spread and grew strong. The Jewish doctrine of *kiddush ha-Shem crystallized at that time and the problems of theodicy were more deeply considered. Acts of asceticism and the acceptance of suffering were numerous, as evidenced by the fate of many of the sages in Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia. But even in the cases of these scholars, two phenomena generally typical of asceticism were missing: unusual acts of self-denial contradicting human nature, like total sexual deprivation or celibacy, and the establishment of a special caste and closed society of ascetics. The *Essenes and similar Jewish sects practiced austerity as conditional for a life of justice and purity; they did not however laud asceticism as a value in its own right. Instances of asceticism in the Talmud and the Midrashim are, according to Urbach, not remnants of a fanatical ascetic doctrine which degenerated, but the result of definite events in the history of the Jewish people at that time.

Decorative plate with the image of a dove carrying an olive branch and inscription peace in Hebrew and English

Decorative plate with the image of a dove carrying an olive branch and inscription peace in Hebrew and English


In addition to historical circumstances, there are also personal motivations for asceticism within Judaism. Abstinence from pleasures in itself is not considered a way of religious worship of God. The characteristic of asceticism when found among the rabbis is not the pains and privations to which a man subjects himself, but the end which he proposes to achieve. Abstinence may be self-imposed as a penance for a mortal sin. In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs it is stated that for seven years Reuben drank no wine or other liquor, no flesh passed his lips, and he ate no appetizing food, but continued mourning over his great sin. In the fear of the Lord, Simeon afflicted his soul with fasting for two years for his hatred of Joseph. Judah, in repentance for his sin with Tamar, until his old age took neither wine nor flesh and saw no pleasure. That fasting has an expiatory value is distinctly expressed in the Bible (Isa. 58:3) as well as in the Psalms of Solomon (3:8–9): the righteous man continually investigates his household to remove the guilt incurred by transgression. He makes atonement for inadvertent sins by fasting, and afflicts his soul. R. Sheshet, a Babylonian amora of the third century, would have his fasting received as a substitute for sacrifice. When he was fasting he used to pray: “Lord of the Universe, Thou knowest that, while the Temple stood, if a man sinned he brought a sacrifice and they offered only the fat and the blood, and atonement was made for him. And now I have sat in fasting, and my fat and blood have been diminished; may it be Thy will that this diminution of my fat and blood be as though I had offered a sacrifice upon Thine altar, and be Thou gracious unto me” (Ber. 17a). It is perhaps in this aspect that fasting is associated with almsgiving (Ber. 6b; cf. Tob. 12:8).

The regulations of mourning do not prescribe fasting or other afflictions though in the interval between the death and the burial (except on Sabbath) the mourners must abstain from flesh and wine (MK 23b). Yet there is an aspect of fasting which is connected with the mourning for a national calamity, like the fast of the Ninth of Av. Fasting is always a potent auxiliary of prayer. “If a man prays and is not answered, he should fast, as it is written (Ps. 20:2) ‘The Lord will answer thee in the day of distress'” (TJ, Ber. 4:3, 8a). Fasting is also mentioned as a preparation for revelation (Dan. 9:3, 20–22; 10:2 ff.; cf. Yoma 4b).

The destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the disastrous results of the widespread rising under Trajan, and the final catastrophe of the Bar Kokhba War, revived the temper in which the four memorial fasts in Zechariah had been kept (Zech. 7:3–5; 8:19). Private fasting also became more frequent. After the destruction of the Temple some altogether gave up eating meat and drinking wine, because the daily sacrifice and libation had ceased; some of the leading rabbis however disapproved their abstinence. R. *Joshua b. Hananiah pointed out to them that their logic would carry them much farther; they could not eat figs and grapes because the first fruits could no longer be brought, nor bread because there were no more “two loaves” and shewbread, and not drink water because there was no water libation at Tabernacles (Tosef., Sot. 15:11–12).

After the Bar Kokhba War R. Ishmael b. Elisha said: “From the day when the Temple was destroyed we should by right make a decree binding upon ourselves not to eat flesh nor drink wine, but it is a principle not to impose on the community a decree to which the majority of the community cannot adhere (Hor. 3b; Av. Zar. 36a). And from the triumph of the heathen empire which imposes upon us dire and cruel edicts and stops the study of the Law and fulfillment of the commandments, and does not let us circumcise our sons, we should by right make a decree for ourselves not to take a wife or beget sons, so that the seed of Abraham might come to its end in this way. Such a decree, however, would not be observed and the deliberate violation of it would be worse than marrying without seeing anything wrong in it” (BB 60b; cf. Shab 148b; Beẓah 30a).

Whether abstinence was a result of a national or a personal motivation, the rabbis disapproved of it. A vow of abstinence is an iron collar (such as is worn by prisoners) about a man’s neck and one who imposes on himself a vow is like one who should find such a collar lying loose and stick his own head into it. Or, a man who takes a vow is like one who builds an illegal altar (bamah), and if he fulfills it, like one who sacrifices on such an altar (Ned. 22a). R. Isaac said: “Are not the things prohibited you in the Law enough for you that you want to prohibit yourself other things?” An ingenious interpretation of Numbers 6:11 discovers that the Nazirite had to make atonement by sacrifice for having sinned against his own soul by making himself miserable by abstaining from wine. Such a man is called (in the text) a sinner, and, a fortiori, if one who has denied himself the enjoyment of nothing more than wine is called a sinner, how much more one who denies himself the enjoyment of everything (Ta’an. 11a). In this spirit is also the saying of Rav: A man will have to give account on the judgment day of every good permissible thing which he might have enjoyed and did not (TJ, Kid. 4:12, 66d). For an apt summing up of this principle see Maimonides ‘ Mishneh Torah (De’ot 3:1).

[Pinchas Hacohen Peli]

Sectarian Asceticism

In the postbiblical period the ascetic tradition, exemplified before the Exile in the Nazirites, Rechabites, etc., persisted as a “wilderness” tradition. From time to time, especially when conditions in the main centers of population seemed to become religiously or otherwise unbearable, pious Israelites withdrew to the wilderness to resume a more ascetic way of life. Such were the “many who were seeking righteousness and justice” who went down to the wilderness of Judea with their families and cattle to escape the intolerable conditions imposed by Antiochus Epiphanes but were pursued by the king’s officers and massacred on the Sabbath (I Macc. 2:29–38). Similar movements in the Herodian period are reflected in apocalyptic works like the Assumption of *Moses, where a levite named Taxo and his seven sons fast for three days and then take up residence in a cave, ready to die there sooner than transgress God’s Law (9:1–7), or the Martyrdom of Isaiah, where Isaiah is followed to his desert retreat by his disciples clothed in garments of hair (2:7–11).

The best-known instances of asceticism in the later years of the Second Temple are the *Qumran sect, the *Essenes, and the *Therapeutae . The first of these (c. 130 B.C.E.–70 C.E.), of which the *Zadokites who migrated to the region of Damascus formed a part, is treated in the articles on the Book of the Covenant of *Damascus, the *Dead Sea Scrolls, and *Yaḥad . The evidence for the Essenes is not entirely consistent: on the one hand they were to be found in considerable numbers in every city (Jos., Wars, 2:124), while on the other hand they are described by Philo and Pliny the Elder (and indeed by Josephus himself) in terms which strongly suggest a desert community. The situation probably was that the fully initiated members of the various Essene orders lived a communal and ascetic life in the wilderness, while they had sympathizers or “associate members” in most of the cities of Palestine, and perhaps of the Diaspora too. The Essene group which Pliny describes (Nat. Hist. 5:17) lived on the west shore of the Dead Sea; its headquarters are nowadays widely identified with the ruined buildings at Qumran. The Essenes maintained themselves by manual labor and were punctilious in their religious observances, which included communal prayer, Bible study, and frugal meals. Full members were bound by such strict oaths that even one who was expelled from the order could not bring himself to break them, and was liable to die of starvation in consequence. They had neither wives nor servants, although Josephus mentions one company of Essenes who, exceptionally, did marry for the sole purpose of begetting children (Wars 2:160f.).

The Therapeutae, of whom Philo speaks (Cont. 2 ff.) immediately after his account of the Essenes, were a Jewish ascetic order comprising both men and women, living in the Egyptian desert on the landward side of Lake Mareotis, near Alexandria. Their designation is derived by Philo from the Greek verb therapeuo, but he is not sure whether it means primarily “healers” or “worshipers.” If it is the former, it recalls a suggested derivation of “Essenes” from Aramaic ʾāsyā (“healer”). They lived in individual huts, giving themselves to contemplation, prayer, praise, and Bible study, in which they followed a traditional allegorical interpretation. Every seventh day they met in community to worship and eat. On other days they practiced extreme frugality in food (some even partaking only once a week), and even on the Sabbath their fare was as plain as possible. The weekly meal, according to Philo, was regarded as the eating of the showbread – which suggests a priestly character for their order. A noteworthy feature of their worship was their choral singing, which on the Sabbath eve followed their meal and lasted till dawn. What relation, if any, they bore to the Essenes or any other ascetic group in Israel is uncertain.

John the Baptist is not called an ascetic by Josephus (Ant., 18:116–9), but he is so described in the Gospel tradition. According to Mark (1:6) he wore camel’s hair, girt with a leather belt, and lived on locusts and wild honey; according to Q (the non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke) he ate no bread and drank no wine (Luke 7:33; cf. Matt. 11:18), which may be compared with what is said of the Rechabites in Jeremiah 35:6–10. The material special to Luke suggests rather that John was a lifelong Nazirite (Luke 1:15): he grows to manhood in the desert (1:80) and in his preaching urges his hearers to share their clothes and food with the destitute (3:11). Bannus, another ascetic of the wilderness with whom Josephus spent some time (c. 55 C.E.), clothed himself with leaves or bark, ate food which grew naturally, and practiced frequent purifying ablutions, both by day and by night (Life, 11–12). The account in the Slavonic Josephus (between Wars 2:110 and 111) of a wild man of the woods who had a confrontation with Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea, seems to be based in part on the portrayals of John the Baptist and Bannus. In another Slavonic addition (after Wars, 2:168) John the Baptist avoids not only bread and wine but also the flesh of animals; here may be traced some influence on the tradition from the Encratites (the second-century ascetic Christian sect who abstained from meat, wine, and marriage). Some forms of wilderness asceticism toward the end of the Second Temple period probably arise from the self-denial imposed on those engaged in a holy war (Deut. 20); this appears in some of the Qumran texts (see *War Scroll ).

[Frederick Fyvie Bruce]

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Main article: Jewish Philosophy

Among medieval religious philosophers, the general line of the talmudic approach to asceticism is maintained.

The medieval philosophical approaches to asceticism may be characterized by three stages: (a) a moderate approach, affirming the value of family and social life in accordance with the Aristotelian “golden mean” (Nicomachean Ethics 2:1; see on Maimonides, below); (b) limited asceticism, recognizing the need to sustain the body; (c) absolute asceticism and withdrawal from family and social life. The medieval philosophers regarded these stages as corresponding to levels of perfection: the first, moderate stage is that of the common people and of the first steps on the path to wisdom; the second stage of limited asceticism, making do with the minimum required for continued physical existence, characterizes a more perfect class of people; those who reach the highest level of perfection practice extreme asceticism.

*Saadiah Gaon mentions in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions (treatise 10), among the various conceptions of the ideal life, the way of asceticism. He finds it unacceptable as a correct way of life, since, if it were practiced by everyone, it would lead to the end of man’s existence on earth. This would be counter to the will of God that the world be peopled and built up by men, who should carry out His commandments in life in this world. Saadiah states that man is constituted by both body and spirit; hence, both must be attended to.

On the other hand, *Baḥya ibn Paquda in his Duties of the Hearts prescribes a measure of regular fasting and other ascetic regimens as indispensable for the achievement of ethical perfection (part 9). Solomon ibn *Gabirol, while not advocating asceticism directly, presents a doctrine compatible with Neoplatonic philosophy, from which a proponent of asceticism might derive considerable comfort. According to Gabirol, the soul is the human being, and it should be the aim of man’s life to prepare the soul for union with the world of its element. Thus, man’s physical appetites are to be held in reign by reason (Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh, passim).

*Judah Halevi in his Kuzari describes the righteous person as one who gives every part of his personality its due, thus decidedly protesting against the notion that inflicting mortifications on one’s body is itself a virtuous act. “Our religion,” says Halevi, “is divided among fear, love, and joy, by each of which one can approach God. Your contrition on a fast day is not more acceptable to Him than your joy on the Sabbath and holy days, if it is the outcome of a devout heart” (2:50; cf. 3:1 ff.).

On the other hand, Halevi describes the perfect ḥasid as yearning for absolute asceticism and abandonment of social and family life, like the biblical *Enoch and *Elijah (3:1). For Halevi, then, the ideal of extreme asceticism is not desirable in our day because prophecy is no longer possible.

The most pronounced support for asceticism among the medieval philosophers came from *Abraham b. Ḥiyya, who actually advocates sexual abstinence as the ideal (Meditation of the Sad Soul, Eng. tr. (1969), 133). However, this view is strongly condemned in the treatise Iggeret ha-Kodesh, attributed to *Naḥmanides, where in a mystical vein sexual intercourse is exalted, when motivated by sacred intentions, as a lofty activity of men (see especially ch. 2).

*Maimonides‘ attitude is consistent with his philosophy of the “middle path.” His emphasis on a contemplative, virtuous life naturally has as its corollary a depreciation of terrestrial pleasures; yet, he warns against the other extreme of complete abstinence. In his discussion of the topic in his introduction to the tractate Avot (4th chapter) and in his Mishneh Torah (De’ot, 3), he stresses that the Torah does not wish man to deprive himself of pleasures. God is not the enemy of man’s body. The way of the golden mean calls for a conduct of life equidistant from the two extremes of overindulgence and self-deprivation.

While certain individuals may at certain times derive benefit for their moral constitution from a policy of extreme self-deprivation, this should not be made a general program of life. Such deprivation is like certain medicines that may be beneficial for certain sicknesses, but will harm the normal healthy person. Maimonides’ interpretation in his introduction to Avot of Numbers 6:1, that the Nazirite must offer a sacrifice, because by refraining from such pleasures as wine he “sinned against his [own] soul,” was opposed by Naḥmanides, who argued to the contrary that the Nazirite’s sacrifice reflects atonement for leaving the higher sanctity of being a Nazirite in favor of returning to ordinary life. The dispute between them reflects talmudic discussions, with Naḥmanides following the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar (in Ta’anit 11a) and Maimonides following the view of the rabbis in Nedarim 10a.

In any event, in his Guide for the Perplexed Maimonides adopts a more pro-ascetic view and hints that extreme asceticism is the goal of such perfect persons as the prophets, and he accepts Aristotle’s view that the sense of touch is the most repugnant of all the external senses, and accordingly regards sexual relations negatively.

*Abraham b. Moses b. Maimon expressed a positive attitude toward asceticism in his Arabic work Kifāyat al-ʿĀbidīn (“Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God,” Heb. ed. 1965), a philosophy reminiscent of Sufi views.

The ambivalent attitude towards asceticism, on the one hand rejecting it as the recommended moral way for the masses and on the other hand presenting it as an ideal of perfection, continued to permeate medieval Jewish thought. The radical rationalism of the 13th–15th centuries regarded conjunction with the Active Intellect – the beatitude sought by the philosopher – as attainable only after death. For the person who has reached perfection, matter becomes superfluous. Such rationalism led to idealizing extreme asceticism.

Extreme asceticism also came to be idealized as a repressed ideal of the religious Jew in other non-philosophical conceptions of human perfection, in the Kabbalah and in 12th–13th century German Ḥasidism (Ḥasidut Ashkenaz), which posit utter self-nullification and assimilation into the divine world.

Mystical tendencies towards asceticism took several forms. First, the mystical way leads to conjunction or communion (devekut) with the divine, and in some cases even to union with the divine world. Such views frequently result in an ascetic ethos. Second, the theurgic interest in Kabbalah focuses on repairing (tikkun) the divine world, with the result that the terrestrial dimension of physical life is rendered marginal. Third, certain trends, such as German Ḥasidism, developed a series of ascetic techniques in order to effect what was called a “counterbalance of repentance” (teshuvat ha-mishkal), namely, in order to attain perfection the penitent had to undergo suffering which would counterbalance his prior sinful pleasure. On the other hand, the movement’s tendency towards asceticism was opposed by their concern for the sanctity of sex and for theurgic practices. Mystical attitudes towards asceticism thus remained mixed and complex.

Perhaps Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto best summarized the prevalent Jewish attitude toward asceticism. In Mesillat Yesharim (end of chapter 13) he explains that, while it is proper for a person to limit his superfluous enjoyments to guard against debasement of his character, it is wrong and sinful to deprive oneself of enjoyments in a manner that will cause one needless suffering and be detrimental to one’s bodily and spiritual health.

Thus, while a moderate and balanced morality always dominated Jewish thought, the ascetic motif was never lacking.

By Jacob HabermanDov Schwartz (2nd ed.)

Women and Asceticism

Biblical legislation places limits on ascetic practices women might take upon themselves. According to Numbers 30:4–17, a woman’s vows and self-imposed obligations were valid only if her father or guardian, in the case of a minor, or husband, in the case of a married woman, did not object when he learned about them. The vows and self-imposed deprivations of a widow or divorced woman, however, were considered binding.

Issues connected with women’s self-imposed ascetic vows are discussed in the Talmud (TB Ned. 81a–84a), including abstention from food, from bathing, from wearing certain clothes, and most importantly, from cohabitation and sexual relations. Following the model of biblical legislation, the rabbis affirmed that the male guardian or husband has the prerogative to annul all such vows as soon as he hears of them; however, if he delays significantly, he cannot annul them later. Generally, the rabbis disapproved of women who assumed obligations requiring extremes of self-denial and expressed particular disapproval of women who devoted themselves to excessive prayer and unusual degrees of fasting. Such a woman would be derelict in her central religious obligation, her domestic duties to her husband and family. Thus, TB Sotah 22a understands the “female ‘pharisee’ … who brings destruction upon the world” in R. Joshua’s statement in Sotah 3:4, as “a maiden who gives herself up to prayer.” In the parallel passage in TJ, the disapproval is extended to a woman “who gives herself up to fasting.”

While celibacy and monastic living allowed a significant number of medieval Christian women, and to a certain extent, also, some Muslim women, to cross gender boundaries, engage in a variety of ascetic spiritual exercises, and secure a place alongside men as scholars, saints, and mystics, rabbinic insistence on universal marriage from early adolescence ruled out such life alternatives for medieval and early modern Jewish women. The effort to distance women from asceticism is also indicative of their absence in Jewish mystical life, where such practices were typical of the male elite.

The popular conception that East European Ḥasidism enabled a significant number of women to become mystical leaders with permitted access to the ascetic mortifications usually reserved for male leaders has been shown to be a 20th-century historiographical myth. It was only within the anti-nomian practices of the Shabbatean movement that gender barriers were removed sufficiently to allow for female participation in the spiritualization of physical existence and the advent of a new messianic reality.

By Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)

This article is borrowed from Encyclopaedia Judaica.


NON-TALMUDIC: M. Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins (1961); H. Sérouya, Les Esséniens (1959); M. Simon, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus (1967); J. Steinmann, St. John the Baptist and the Desert Tradition (1958); J. Thomas, Le mouvement baptiste en Palestine et Syrie (1935). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: RABBINIC: J. Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (2002); D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993); E. Diamond, “Hunger Artists and Householders: The Tension between Asceticism and Family Responsibility among Jewish Pietists in Late Antiquity,” in: Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 48 (1996), 28–47; S.D. Fraade, “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism,” in: A. Green (ed.), Jewish Spirituality (1986), 253–88. MEDIEVAL: Guttmann, Philosophies, index; G. Vajda, La théologie ascétique de Bahya ibn Paquda (1947). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kreisel, “Ascetism in the Thought of Bahya and Maimonides,” Da’at, 21 (1988), V–XIII; A. Lazaroff, “Bahya’s Ascetism against its Rabbinic and Islamic Background,” JJS, 21 (1970), 11–38; S. Schwarzschild, “Moral Radicalism and Middlingness in the Ethics of Maimonides,” in M. Kellner (ed.), The Pursuit of the Ideal, Albany (1990), 137–160. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Schwartz, “The Tension Between Moderate Ethics and Ascetic Ethics in Medieval Jewish Philosophy” (Heb.), in: D. Stitman and A. Sagi (eds.), Between Religion and Ethics (1993), 186–208. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: WOMEN: A. Rapoport-Albert, “On Women in Hasidism, S.A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition,” in: A. Rapoport-Albert and S.J. Zipperstein (eds.), Jewish History. Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky (1988); idem, Female Bodies, Male Souls: Asceticism and Gender in the Jewish Tradition (2006).

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