The Latest from BZBI

Finding a Balance

Nasso 5779 / 15 June 2019

June 20, 2019

Early in his career, Reb Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye used to fast every day during daylight hours, and one week each month he would eat nothing at all and drink only water for a full week. Even when he ate, he avoided any meat or dairy, partaking in a mystical practice known as the kanah penance. He kept his kanah penance in strict secrecy; he arranged for a young niece to be the only one to bring his meals, and each day when she retrieved his dishes she would dispose of the uneaten food without anyone else knowing about it.[1] 

Abstinence holds an ambiguous place in Jewish thought. On one hand, we are taught to restrain our impulses, and many foods and other things are placed off limits. On the other hand, practices such as birkot ha-nehenin, blessings of enjoyment, suggest that we are meant to take pleasure in the world around us.

In this morning’s parashah, Nasso, we read of another ascetic practice: the Nazir. A man or woman taking a Nazir’s vow  is forbidden to consume any grape products, shave or cut their hair, or come into contact with any dead person – even their own close relatives.[2] The restrictions are both analogous to and even stricter than the limitations placed on the High Priest, who is permitted to drink wine when he is off duty and allowed to tend to deceased relatives.[3] 

There were two ways this vow might end: either with the elapsing of a prescribed time period, thirty days by default, or if the Nazir inadvertently came into contact with a corpse and thereby violated the terms of the vow. In the latter case, the Nazir brings a burnt offering (עולה), a purification offering (חטאת), and a guilt offering (אשם), and then must shave her head and restart her Nazirite period from the very beginning.[4] These offerings are easy to understand: whether through negligence or willful disobedience, the Nazir has contravened his vows and must atone.

The strange thing is, even in the case where the Nazir completes her term without a problem, the Torah still requires her to bring a חטאת, a purification offering, in addition to a burnt offering.[5] The חטאת is a sacrifice brought in response to a moral sin: moral transgressions contaminate society, and must be cleansed through this specific offering.[6] But the חטאת offering here is hard to understand: what sin has been committed here, when the Torah tells us explicitly that this Nazir has fulfilled all the terms of her vow?[7] 

Ramban, the 13th-century Spanish rabbi whose interpretations are among the most popular Torah commentaries, suggests that the problem here is not anything the Nazir has done, but what he has not done. In limiting his engagement with the world and its pleasures, the Nazir ascends to a higher level of sanctity. Having attained that holier state, Ramban suggests that the Nazir should want to stay at that level; allowing the Nazirite period to lapse, while permissible, is nevertheless a moral lapse and must be atoned through the חטאת.[8] His interpretation reflects a broader philosophy in which holiness is linked to distance or detachment from the world. The more we separate from material things, the holier we become. No day exemplifies this way of thinking more than Yom Kippur, the day on which we abstain from food and drink, from bathing and intimate relations, and on which the liturgy tells us we have become like the angels.

But not every day is Yom Kippur, and there is another side to this story. In the sixth final year of Reb Yaakov Yosef’s secretly maintaining his kanah penance, during one of the weeks in which he ate nothing from one Shabbat to the next, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov, the first Hasidic rebbe, received a vision alerting him that Reb Yaakov Yosef was in grave danger. The Ba’al Shem Tov sprang into action, and drove his horse so hard it expired from the effort. Upon arrival, the Ba’al Shem Tov insisted on seeing Reb Yaakov Yosef. “My horse, worth ten gold coins, has died on your account,” the Ba’al Shem Tov told him, “And now you must atone.” Immediately Reb Yaakov Yosef began to eat, and from that time forward he never resumed his kanah penance.[9]

In the final line of Tractate Kiddushin in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rabbi Hizkiah quotes Rav: “At the end of his time a person will be called upon to justify and account for anything he set his eye upon but did not eat.”[10] Rabbi Hizkiah certainly doesn’t mean to give license for hedonism; there are plenty of things he knows that we, as Jews, can’t and shouldn’t eat. His point is about what we do with the things that are permitted. Have you ever wanted something – ice cream, let’s say – but told yourself that you “didn’t deserve it?” This is what Rabbi Hizkiah is getting at – why not? Assuming there’s no harm in it, why shouldn’t you allow yourself any and all available pleasures?[11]

Building on this line of reasoning, Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar – another Talmudic sage – asserts that the Nazir brings a חטאת offering because he has sinned against himself by “tormenting himself over wine” – and if one who makes himself suffer over wine alone has sinned, what about people who abstain from many other things? Driving the point home, Rabbi Elazar insists that anyone who fasts beyond the few religiously prescribed fast days is considered a sinner.[12] As one of the later Hasidic masters teaches, our body is God’s own handiwork – what right do we have to deny it those pleasures that God permitted?[13]

Taken as a whole, Judaism advocates neither abstention nor unfettered indulgence. Instead, the proper path seems to be a kind of positive moderation.[14] Without taking things too far, engaging in forbidden desires or descending into gluttony, we ought to take advantage of all the good opportunities life presents to us. Delight in good food, take pleasure in a sunny day or a fragrant blossom. Make the most of each moment – because in the end, we will need to account for all the things we didn’t let ourselves enjoy.

[1] Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz, In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 64; Avraham Rubenstein, ed., Shivhei ha-Besht [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Reuven Maas, 2005), 103.

[2] Num. 6:1-8.

[3] Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), 355.

[4] Num. 6:9-12.

[5] Num. 6:13-20.

[6] Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), 14-15.

[7] Ramban, Num. 6:11; Rabbenu Bahya, Num. 6:13; Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers 6:14.

[8] Ramban, Num. 6:11.

[9] Ben-Amos and Mintz, In Praise, 64-65; Rubenstein, Shivhei ha-Besht, 103-105; Samuel H. Dresner, The Zaddik: The Doctrine of the Zaddik According to the Writings of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy (New York: Schocken Books, 1960), 50-52; see also, generally, Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1996), 27-41.

[10] Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4.12.

[11] Cf. the interpretations of Korban ha-Edah and P’nei Moshe, ad. loc. Caroline Knapp’s book Appetites: Why Women Want (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2003) deals in part with the underlying psychology of this way of thinking, but without the book in front of me I am unable to point to specific passages.

[12] Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 10a; cf. Rashi, Num. 6:11 and Torah Temimah, Num. 6:11 n.84.

[13] Mei HaShiloah, Vol. 2, Nasso.

[14] Maimonides states this explicitly in Hilkhot De’ot 3.1.