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Beit Midrash Jewish Laws and Thoughts Pathways in Personality Development

Chapter 26

26. abstinence and Permissible Pleasures

A person is not permitted to abstain from those permissible pleasures which strengthen him, make him happy, and improve his state of mind. If a person does abstain from such things, he will have to account for his behavior before the Almighty.
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Does Judaism consider abstinence from permissible pleasures an admirable character trait?
Pathways in Personality Development (52)
Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed
25 - 25. The Pursuit of Honor
26 - 26. abstinence and Permissible Pleasures
27 - 27. Abstinence and Permissible Pleasures (Cont.)
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On the one hand, regarding those who behave in such a manner, the Sages say, "Are the Torah's prohibitions not enough for you that you have decided to take on additional prohibitions?" On the other hand, the Sages teach: "Sanctify yourself through that which is permitted to you."

On the one hand, the Sages teach that in the future a person will have to give an account before the Almighty for whatever his eyes saw and he did not want to eat, even though it was permitted to him. If he denies himself this, he will have to give an accounting, because a person needs to enjoy, and for this reason enjoyable things were created.

On the other hand, our Sages say that before R' Yehudah the Prince died he held up his ten fingers and said: "It is perfectly known to You that I did not derive any enjoyment from this world, not even to the extent of my little finger." This means that R' Yehudah boasted having abstained from pleasures of the world and did not partake of them at all.

From the Sages we learn that there is good abstinence and bad abstinence. Abstaining from necessities is a negative character trait, but abstaining from that which is unnecessary is an admirable character trait. Regarding a person who occupies much of his time fasting and as a result becomes weak, unhappy, bitter, critical, and tense, the Sages teach: "One who sits in fasting is called a sinner." Such fasting only causes damage and has no positive value.

Yet some people are strong and healthy, and fasting, rather than weakening them, uplifts them, makes them feel purer, more spiritual, freeing them from dependency upon food. Regarding such people, the Sages say, "One who engages in fasting is called holy." This is because when such a person refrains from bodily matters while fasting he not only distances himself from the physical, he also elevates the spirit, adding sanctity. And a fast that adds sanctity is positive.

Excessive abstinence from consumption is undesirable abstinence, as is the denial of that which is needed for the body and the soul. On the other hand, overeating is also detrimental to the body and soul. abstinence from that which is unnecessary and from overindulgence is a positive trait, not only because such behavior is unhealthy from a physical standpoint, but because any time a person pursues the unnecessary, he paves the way for violating prohibitions. The reason for this is that when a person pursues pleasure, if he does not find a permissible way to fulfill his desires, he will be drawn to forbidden things.

This is true with regard to foods and relations alike. If a person becomes carried away with permissible pleasures, the attraction gradually increases until it is difficult to maintain a clear distinction between the forbidden and the permissible.

The need to distance oneself from tendencies that can lead to prohibitions is not the only reason that a person should abstain from even permissible pleasures. The pursuit of pleasure per se restricts a person and makes him a slave to his urges, while the right kind of abstinence frees a person from such constraints.

What this means is that a person is not permitted to abstain from those things which strengthen him, make him happy, and improve his state of mind. If a person does abstain from such things, he will have to account for his behavior before the Almighty, for these pleasant things were created for the very purpose of bringing pleasure to human beings.

Yet, a person must keep himself from going overboard, even with permissible pleasures, because going overboard with permissible pleasures does not make a person happy. It in fact entices a person to violate prohibitions. It weakens rather than strengthens a person, destroys rather than improves his state of mind.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh Yeshiva of the Bet El Yeshiva, was the head of the Yesha rabbis board and rabbi of Bet-El, founder and head of Arutz 7.
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