Asceticism (Judaism)

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. 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 preChristian 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. Main article: Asceticism

Yarmulke Jewish Kippah Religion Judaism Kipa

Yarmulke Jewish Kippah

It is thus seen that both the term and the idea which the term expresses are of non-Jewish origin and implications. Judaism can not be said to encourage asceticism, even in the restricted sense of discipline. Rationalists have indeed affected to construe the ritual legalism of both the Pentateuch and the later rabbinical codes as a disciplinary scheme, devised by God or man with the view of bringing men under rigid restriction of freedom of action, in the satisfaction of the appetites and the control of the passions, to a higher degree of moral perfection. But even before comparative studies had shown that most, if not all, of the so-called disciplinary contrivances of the Mosaic scheme rest on notions altogether other than those assumed, the rigorous constructionists among Jewish theologians put themselves on record as utterly inimical to the ascription of utility, either moral or material, to the divine laws. They were simply divine commandments, and to inquire into their origin or their purpose was forbidden—”Ḥuḳḳah Ḧaḳḳaḳti; we’en attem reshuyim leharher aḦareha” (I have decreed the statute; but you are not permitted to inquire into its reasons; Yoma 67b; Sifra, AḦare, xiii.).

At all events, Judaism is of a temper which is fatal to asceticism; and the history of both Judaism and the Jews is, on the whole, free from ascetic aberrations. Fundamental to the teachings of Judaism is the thought that the world is good. Pessimism has no standing-ground. Life is not under the curse. The doctrine of original sin, the depravity of man, has never had foothold within the theology of the synagogue. It never held sway over the mind and the religious imagination of the Jews. In consequence of this the body and the flesh were never regarded by them as contaminated, and the appetites and passions were not suspected of being rooted in evil. The appeal to mortify the flesh for the sake of pleasing Heaven could not find voice in the synagogue.

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 practises. 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 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 practises of ascetics, 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.


Ta’anit, 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). 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.

Main article: The Talmud

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 transcend the bounds of truth. 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 practises were not inspired by a consciousness of the futility of this life and its sinfulness, but by the anxiety to fulfil 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 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 practises 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 practises 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 practise 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 Yhwh, 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.

Jewish Mysticism

Transformation Mysticism Live Death Astrology

Transformation Mysticism Live Death Astrology

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 Hasidim 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.

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.

By: Kaufmann KohlerEmil G. Hirsch

This article is borrowed from 


  • Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism, §§ 246-256.

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