Abstinence is the refraining from enjoyments which are lawful in themselves. Abstinence in general can be considered a virtue only when it serves the purpose of consecrating a life to a higher purpose. The saints, or adherents of religious and philosophical systems that teach the mortification of the flesh, practice asceticism only with the view of perfecting the soul for the higher state of bliss for which they believe it to be destined (see Asceticism).
Disapproved of in the Prophets
The Jewish religion, having for its fundamental ethical principle the law of holiness: "Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev. xix. 2), accentuates the perfectibility of the whole man, while demanding the sanctification of all that pertains to human existence. "The Lord did not create the world for desolation; he formed it for human habitation" (Isa. xlv. 18) is the principle emphasized by the rabbis (Pes. 88b). In the ideal state of things nothing should be profane. "In that day there shall be [inscribed] upon the bells of the horses: Holiness unto the Lord! And the pots in the Lord's house shall be like the bowls before the altar" (Zech. xiv. 20, 21). This view is expressed in no uncertain terms by Rab in Yer. Kid. iv., at the end: "Man in the life to come will have to account for every enjoyment offered him that was refused without sufficient cause."
Disapproved of in the Talmud
Accordingly we find asceticism, or abstinence as a principle, condemned in the Talmud. "Why must the Nazarite bring a sin-offering at the end of his term? (Num. vi. 13, 14). Because he sinned against his own person by his vow of abstaining from wine," says Eliezer ha-Kappar (Sifra, ad loc., and Ned. 10a), drawing his conclusion from this Biblical passage: "Whosoever undergoes fasting and other penances for no special reason commits a wrong." "Is the number of things forbidden by the Law not enough that thou venturest to add of thine own accord by thy inconsiderate vow?" says R. Isaac (Yer. Ned. ix. 41b). See Maimonides, Yad ha-chazakah, De'ot, iii. 1, where the monastic principle of abstinence, whether in regard to marriage or to eating of meat and drinking of wine, or to any other personal comfort, is most emphatically condemned as antagonistic to the spirit of Judaism.
Tolerated in the Talmud
Still abstinence is frequently considered meritorious, if not actually necessary, as a means of self-discipline. Simon the Just said: "I partook of a Nazarite meal only once, when I met with a handsome youth from the South who had taken the vow. When I asked him the reason, he said: 'I saw the Evil Spirit pursue me as I beheld my face reflected in the water, and I swore that these long curls shall be cut off and offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.' Whereupon I kissed him upon his forehead and blessed him, saying: 'May there be many Nazarites like thee in Israel!'" (Nazir, 4b). In this sense abstinence is supposed to have a positive value, as a training in self-control. Consequently the law: "Be holy!" was interpreted: Exercise abstinence in order to arrive at the state of purity and holiness (Ab. Zarah, 20b; Sifra, Kedoshim, beginning).
Excessive indulgence in wine or in any form of enjoyment being harmful (Prov. xxiii. 20), man must learn self-restraint in due time. "Haste!" people say to the Nazarite. "Pass quickly around the vineyard, come not too near the grape" (B. M. 92a) became the proverbial warning. "Make a fence around the Law" (Ab. i. 1; Ab. R. N. ii.). "Abstain from everything evil and from whatsoever is like unto it," a rule found alike in the Didache, iii. 1, and in the Talmud (Hul. 44b)—a saying based on Book of Job, xxxi. 1. "Abstain from lusts of the flesh and the world" (Didache, i. 4). All the Mosaic laws concerning diet are declared by Rav to have for their purpose the purification of Israel (Lev. R. 13)—to train the Jew in self-discipline.
Accordingly there were those that taught and practised abstinence for the purpose of self-consecration. Such were the followers of the Rechabites (Jer. xxxv. 2) among the Essenes, "the water-drinkers" (Mek., Yithro, Amalek 2). A revival of their principles was attempted in Persia by Abu Isa al-Ispahani in the 8th century, who added to the prohibition of wine also that of meat. With this may be compared the vegetarianism of the modern sect of Hasidim. The tendency to mysticism induced moral philosophers of the Middle Ages like Bahya ibn Paquda to favor abstinence as a mode of moral self-elevation (see Chobot ha-Lebabot, ix. 5, xi. 6).
The Biblical narrative, however, according to which man, in the golden age of innocence (Gen. i. 29), abstained from eating the flesh of animals, while after the flood, in an age of decline, the eating of meat, with the exception of the blood, was permitted (Gen. ix. 2 et seq.), is in striking accord with Greek or Aryan tradition (Plato, De Legibus, vi. 782; Plutarch, Symposion, viii. 83; Porphyrius, De Abstinentia, iii. 25, 26; Diogenes Laertius, viii. 20; Spiegel, Eranische Alterthümer, i. 455).
As a rule, however, Jewish opinion has been against total abstinence, and is best represented by Maimonides, who advocates the "golden middle way" of moderation (Yad ha-Chazakah, Hilkot De'ot, i.-iii.).
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.