By: Kaufmann Kohler
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—there have, nevertheless, been prevalent in Jewish life certain ascetic tendencies of which the historian must take account. 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 (see Philo, ed. Mangey, "De Vita Contemplativa," ii. 475, 477, 482), were naturally led to view sensual life as contaminating. Conybeare ("About Philo's Contemplative Life," p. 266) 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" (see all the passages in Conybeare, l.c. pp. 265-273, 315).
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, Jesus and Paul included, in so far 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 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 Bacher, "Agada der Tannaiten," i. 164).Mysticism and Asceticism.
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 throughoutthe 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 seventh century and at the beginning of the eighth, 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; Grätz, "Gesch. der Juden," iii. 417 et seq., 446 et seq.; Jost, "Gesch. des Judenthums," ii. 350 et seq.; Abele Zion and Karaites).
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 b. David of Posquières and his circle in the thirteenth century, whose relation to the beginnings of the Cabala can hardly be denied. Further, the currents of thought which, emanating from India, created Sufism in Persian and Mohammedan circles in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, exerted considerable influence upon Jewish thinkers, as may be learned from
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
Of Asher, the son of Meshullam b. 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; Grätz, "Gesch. der Juden," vi. 240, 241).
Also the whole family of Judah, the "Ḧasid" of Regensburg, of the twelfth 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 Michael, "Or ha-Ḥayyim," Nos. 433, 990, 1174, 1200).
The subsequent development and growth of the Cabala 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 (see
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 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 liveonly 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 Zebra (Halévy, "Abba Sura") consists altogether of eunuchs. This would indicate non-Jewish influence, of which the Falashas show many traces.
- Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism, §§ 246-256;
- Dukes, Zur Kenntniss der Neuhebräischen Poesie, 1842, pp. 8 et seq.;
- Goldziher, Del' Ascétisme, in Revue del' Histoire des Religions, 1898, pp. 314 et seq.;
- Nöldeke, Sufi, in Z. D. M. G. xlviii. 45-47.