by R' Yerachmiel Kram
Torah Weakens a Person
"You shall be holy for I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy"
"Sanctify Yourself Through the Permissible"
Rashi explains that the essence of the holiness which the
Torah is referring to here is the obligation to separate
oneself from licentiousness and sin. Distancing oneself from
immorality is considered holiness. Rashi even provides
several elucidating proofs.
In his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban disagrees with
Rashi. In his opinion, prishus, or separation and
abstinence, which he maintains is what Chazal were referring
to, does not involve the prohibition of immorality but the
duty of a person to sanctify himself through what is
permissible to him.
The Torah commanded distancing oneself from immorality, to be
sure, but it permitted marital relations. The Torah forbade
eating the meat of carcasses and other meat not ritually
prepared, but it allowed eating kosher meat. Similarly, one
is permitted to drink wine that was properly processed and is
free from the prohibitions of tevel and orlah
or yayin nessech. One might, thus, find allowance to
assume that a person could indulge in those things permitted
by the Torah even to an excessive degree, what is called
novvol birshus haTorah.
The Torah preempts this by exhorting us to "Be holy." First
it teaches us what is absolutely forbidden, but beyond that,
Hashem also tells us that one must practice abstinence even
in what is allowed.
"He should sanctify himself from wine by the minimum of
indulgence, in the same way as the Torah refers to the
nozir as kodosh. He should bear in mind the
evils mentioned as rooted in it, as is found in the cases of
Noach and Lot. One should also separate oneself from
impurity, even though we were not specifically warned against
this in the Torah, as is mentioned, `The garments of an am
ho'oretz are considered to have a high degree of impurity
(medras) by perushim.' And just as the
nozir is called `kodosh' in his being cautioned
against becoming tomei from contact with the dead, so
too, should a person be cautious of impurity. One should also
refrain from defiling his mouth and tongue through gluttonous
eating as well as from disgusting speech, as is mentioned in
the Torah, `And every mouth speaking disgust . . .
(Yeshayohu 9:16).' He should sanctify himself thereby
until he reaches the level of perishus."
The Ramban continues to explain that the Torah is accustomed
to sum up a list of prohibitions with a general rule that
encompasses innumerable instances not included in the
previous detailed, explicit list. For example: when the Torah
deals with monetary laws of damages etc., it forbids
stealing, robbing, fraud, delaying the payment of wages and
so on. In the end, it commands us in a general fashion, "And
you shall do what is straightforward and good."
This is all-embracing, inclusive of all conduct between man
and his fellow man, even beyond the letter of the law, that
is, even matters which are not obligatory in the Choshen
Mishpot section of the Shulchan Oruch and which
beis din is not even empowered to enforce.
The same applies to Shabbos. After the Torah enumerated the
thirty-nine forbidden melochos, the major creative-
work categories, it sums up with a general prohibition that
does not specifically apply to those major and subsidiary
The Torah did not break down the injunction of self
sanctification (kedoshim tihiyu), or the obligations
in conduct beyond the letter of the law (hayoshor
vehatov) or the obligation of resting on Shabbos -- for
two reasons. The first is that had the Torah explicitly
enumerated them, these would have become absolutely
forbidden, something which it did not want to happen. Besides
this, there is no limit to the details of this injunction and
a person is incapable of learning an infinite amount of
Do Not Add Prohibitions to Those Stated in the
Nevertheless, it is not so simple and one must study this
thoroughly since, through examining several sources, we learn
that taking pleasure from this world is not only not negative
but is even a duty! In fact, a duty that if ignored, is
considered a sin.
For example, the Torah commands us, "And you shall rejoice
from all your endeavors, you and your household, as Hashem
blessed you" (Devorim 12:7). One might think that it
was referring, as other verses, to the partaking of
kodshim sacrifices which is considered a mitzva. But
from the wording of Chazal, we learn that the Torah is not
referring only to kodshim. Excessive abstention from
the [permitted] pleasures of this world is actually
considered sinful, even with regard to elective eating of non-
sacrificial food, meat that is not kodshim and also
Chazal expressed their negative view in Talmud
Yerushalmi in a surprising manner: "Do you not suffice
with what the Torah prohibited you that you come to prohibit
other things?" (Nedorim 89:5) How, then, can we
reconcile this contradiction with the Torah's demand of a
person that he sanctify himself and abstain also from those
things that are permissible?
In a different place in Yerushalmi, Chazal use an even
stronger form of expression: "A person will, in the future,
have to give an accounting for all that his eye beheld and
which he did not partake of" (End of Kiddushin). The
two commentaries, Korbon Ho'Eida and Pnei
Moshe, explain according to one alternative that this
means that the person's sin here is that he denied himself
for naught. The Talmud Yerushalmi adds that R' Eliezer
took special pains because of these words and would set aside
a sum of money to provide himself, each year, with all
But how can we, again, reconcile this with the commandment of
"You shall be holy", which, according to Chazal, means, "You
shall be separated from . . ." referring to abstaining also
from what is permissible?
The Nozir Atones for Having Denied Himself Wine
According to what is explained in the gemora, the
sacrifice of the nozir which is brought at the
conclusion of his ascetic period comes to atone for the very
fact of his having denied himself those particular worldly
pleasures during the term of his nezirus. His vow
caused him to abstain from wine.
"R' Elozor Hakappor, son of Rebbi, says: [It is written:]
`And it shall atone for him for his having sinned against a
soul.' Against which soul did he sin? [Rather it must refer
to his own soul, and] the very fact that he denied himself
wine. Now we derive a lesson from the lesser to the greater:
If one who merely abstained from wine is called a sinner,
then one who denies himself everything is all the more a
sinner. From here we learn that whoever fasts is called a
sinner" (Nedorim 10a).
Shmuel the Amora also ruled this for Rav Yehuda: "Grab and
eat, grab and drink, for this world is like a party
(Eruvin 54a)." Rashi explains the advice of `grab and
eat' in the following words: "If you have the means to
indulge yourself, don't wait for the morrow, lest you die and
forfeit the opportunity, for today you will have it and
tomorrow it will be gone. Life is like a wedding procession
that passes speedily."
Could we, however, suspect these saintly figures of blithely
ignoring the commandment of the Torah to "Be holy"?
The Difference Between Beneficial Abstinence and
This question was already asked in the beis midrash of
the great thinker and saintly figure the Ramchal, who devoted
an entire chapter to thrashing out this problem in his famous
Mesillas Yeshorim. He explains that there is no doubt
whatsoever that distancing oneself from the vanities of this
world is a positive thing in itself. King Chizkiyohu proves
this. According to Chazal, he did not take advantage of his
royal position to dine sumptuously. At his table only two
measures of vegetables were served (Pesikta deRav
Kahana). Similarly, before his death, the very wealthy
Rabbenu Hakodosh lifted up his ten fingers towards heaven and
declared: "It is revealed and known before You that I did not
indulge in this world even in [or to the extent of] my little
pinky" (Kesuvos 104a).
Unnecessary indulgences lead, of necessity, to forbidden
things as well, and when a person abstains from them to the
best of his ability he is guaranteeing and safeguarding
himself from stumbling over the impermissible.
It is simple logic that a person is obligated to flee from
the forbidden with all of his might and ability. And since
every pleasure eventually can lead to actual trespass for one
who is incapable of self restraint, it follows that one
should flee from that pleasure even when it is altogether
permissible. The Ramchal quotes several examples for this
"The Torah did not warn against finery in clothing and
accessories. It only forbade kilayim (linen and wool
mixture) and obliged tzitzis fringes upon clothing.
After that everything is permitted. But who does not know
that splendid clothing with embroidery and the like causes
pride and may lead to immodesty bordering on immorality,
besides arousing envy and desire and the evil means that
often accompany anything that is difficult to obtain? Chazal
already stated: As soon as the evil inclination sees a person
mincing his steps, adjusting his clothing and fixing his
hair, he exclaims: This one is mine!
"Idle outings and extraneous verbiage (that is not
ossur) are not forbidden per se, and are
permitted by the din Torah. But how much time is
wasted from Torah study in their indulgence! How much
gossipmongering, how much lies and mocking speech! As it
says: `With much verbiage there shall be no lack of sin'
(Mishlei 10:19). The general rule is that all worldly
affairs are tremendous pitfalls. Who shall not be praised if
he seeks to escape them and if he thus succeeds?! This is
positive abstinence, that he should not derive from this
world anything that is not absolutely necessary to him
according to his nature and needs. This is what Rebbi gloried
in before his death, that he did not indulge in the pleasures
of this world as much as a little finger's worth, even though
he was a nosi of his people, and likewise King
Why, then, did Chazal come down so strongly on those who
The Ramchal explains that the mortification frowned upon by
Chazal was abstention not only from luxuries but also from
minimal necessities. Those who mortify their flesh with self
imposed suffering and abstemiousness are alien to the spirit
of the Torah. In condemning their likes, Chazal said that a
person must not punish himself (Taanis 22).
For this reason they also said that "Whoever sits in fasting
is deemed a sinner" for this is self-imposed suffering. The
gemora in Taanis (11a) says that whoever fasts
is called a sinner only if he is incapable of withstanding
this mortification. But if he is capable of it, he is not
considered to be sinning, for then it is a permissible and
commendable form of abstinence. The Ramchal sums up this
subject as follows:
"This is the true and valid rule: Whatever is superfluous for
a person with regard to mundane, corporal things -- should be
abstained from. Whatever is necessary, for whatever reason it
be [if it is there to serve him and] if he abstains from it,
he is considered a sinner. This is a reliable yardstick
(Mesillas Yeshorim Chapter 13).
"Do Not Be Overrighteous, Nor Be Overclever"
The Rambam concludes the following in his Yad
"Lest a person say: Since envy and desire and the urge for
glory and the like are evil ways that remove a person from
this world, I will distance myself from them to the extreme
to the point that I will eschew eating meat and drinking
wine; I will not marry and will not live in a nicely
furnished home or wear seemly clothing, but will suffice with
sackcloth and unrefined wool and so on, as do the abstemious
priests of other religions. But this, too, is an evil way
which is forbidden to follow. One who pursues such a path is
called a sinner, as we find by the nozir: `And he
shall atone for himself for having sinned upon his soul.'
Said Chazal . . .: Therefore Chazal commanded that a person
not renounce anything beyond what the Torah itself denied
him. One should not deny oneself through vows and oaths,
restricting himself from things that are permitted. Thus did
they say: `Does it not suffice you what the Torah forbade
that you must go and add upon yourself additional
restrictions?' And in general, those who are constantly
fasting are not doing a good thing. Chazal forbade a person
to mortify himself through fasting and all similar things.
King Shlomo advised (Koheles 7:16), `Do not be
overrighteous, nor be overclever; wherefore must you destroy
yourself?' (Rambam, Hilchos Dei'os, chapter III,
The Rambam's terse language here indicates that every
abstention is undesirable and ugly, but perhaps he was only
referring to those specific examples which he enumerated,
like abstaining from eating meat and wine, abstaining from
marriage and living in decent housing as opposed to neglected
and rundown living conditions, things which are considered
basic needs for normal existence. It is probably that the
Rambam agrees with the words of the Ramchal that it is
desirable to distance oneself only from luxuries and
Why Does the Torah Sap One's Strength More Than Any Other
Perhaps one may even expand on the words of the Ramchal:
Let us first present a different saying of Chazal, well known
The gemora determines that the Torah weakens a person.
The simple explanation of this rule is that Torah constitutes
a factor that fatigues a person; it weakens him. And here we
must ask: Is this true? Can this be? Is it valid to say that
a Torah scholar who returns from kollel after a day of
grappling with difficult, mind-exhausting sugyos is
wearier than the carpenter or construction worker who returns
home after a day of physically exhausting toil? Are not the
physical laborers more depleted of their strength than the
Furthermore: Even if we presume that mental exertion is as
difficult as work on the scaffolds, and perhaps even more,
and even if we accept the statement that Torah exhausts the
strength of a person who immersed himself totally in cracking
a difficult, obscure passage in Rashbo, thus one who invested
all of the vigor of his 248 organs and 365 sinews into
intense study is truly as sapped of strength to the point
that he cannot do anything else. But this is not true if he
is fully committed to a life of Torah study and a long day of
mental exertion, since from the moment he opens his eyes to
the moment he finally retires to bed, he cannot have really
depleted his strength. It cannot be that to such a person
Chazal were referring when they claimed that Torah depletes a
person's vitality. And yet, it appears that they did mean
such a one, that the Torah does, indeed, sap him of his
The gemora tells of R' Yochonon who was once bathing
in the Jordan River when he suddenly spied the chief of a
band of highwaymen in the area. R' Yochonon was impressed by
his prowess in leaping across the river and tried to persuade
him to repent his ways, since the power he displayed showed
him capable of harnessing himself to a life of Torah study,
which makes great physical demands upon a person. After R'
Yochonon promised him the hand of his sister if he committed
himself to Torah, the robber chief agreed to abandon his evil
ways and join the scholars of the beis hamedrash. But
when he attempted to leap back across the Jordan to join R'
Yochonon, he was unable to do so.
Why not? What change had suddenly come over him?
Torah Fatigues from the Moment of Commitment
The gemora does not provide any answer to this
question, but Rashi explains: "As soon as he made a
commitment to accept the yoke of Torah, he became weakened."
This bandit went to the beis medrash, where --
according to Rabbenu Tam -- he had once studied in his youth,
and became one of the most famous of the amoroim of
Eretz Yisroel, Reish Lokish, one of the chief disciples of R'
Here we must express our amazement: We can understand that at
the moment of commitment, Reish Lokish renounced his
gymnastic and acrobatic pursuits which became henceforth
meaningless to him as they are in the life of any ben
Torah. We also understand that there, on the banks of the
Jordan, his decision was firm and binding that all his
desires and aspirations be henceforth harnessed to growth in
Torah and piety. At that very spot, the seed of his future
greatness as a saintly amora began to sprout and
But all in all, he had not yet even as much as opened a holy
book! He had not yet even invested an ounce of strength in
that direction. All that had transpired was a commitment,
albeit honest and sincere, but it was only a conscious
decision and not any actual act in the flesh! Wherefore did
Reish Lokish become so weakened?
Nothing Can Stand Against the Will
Modern science determines that a person utilizes only a small
fraction of his mental and spiritual capacity. If a person is
able to carry a certain weight and no more, this is only
because he is prepared for the effort that he is willing to
invest therein. A factor that cannot be ignored is the extent
of the effort which he is prepared to invest when he
is very interested in accomplishing a given thing.
A person of limited physical capacity cannot swim more than a
distance of several meters. The effort he must expend in the
paddling motions cannot exceed the effort he is willing to
make because it is difficult for him and he will tire very
quickly and give up. But if we take the selfsame person and
throw him off the deck of a ship in mid-ocean, he will
quickly reveal latent strength which he never knew he
possessed. He will swim energetically, indefatigably, with
determination, towards the closest piece of driftwood,
exhibiting vitality and strength no one knew existed, all for
the sake of saving himself from death.
What has happened to this person whose physical strength was
so poor and limited? Apparently, his threshold of willpower
was raised many notches because he realized that his life was
in danger. He understood full well that if he said, "I don't
have the strength to persevere; I am unable to continue," as
he did in the past, it wouldn't help and he would sink and
drown. The sea does not recognize such excuses and
explanations. Waves must either be overcome or they will
overcome him. He is aware of this and utilizes all of the
hidden strength which he never realized he possessed and
never made use of in the past.
Another example: A person who has never attempted it, will
not dream that he is capable of bursting through a locked
door. It seems totally beyond his ability and he will not
even make an attempt to test his strength in this area. But
witness the conduct of a person who sits in a locked room
when he suddenly becomes aware that the building in which he
is located is on fire. After determining that no one from the
outside can help him, he will do all in his power to barge
through and escape the firetrap. Nothing will stand in his
way and he will attack the door from every possible angle
until he has battered it down.
He, like the first person, knows very well that his life
depends on the extent of the strength he is prepared to exert
to save himself.
A person's powers and abilities are not only measured by the
strength of his muscles, but also by the strength of his
will. The will can free latent powers and bring them to
actuality. Nothing stands against the will.
The Torah saps the strength of one who gives himself over
totally to the Torah. This is what Chazal referred to. A man
like this is unwilling and fatigued by doing all the other
things for which most people show enthusiasm. The Torah
cancels all desires for anything else. The enthusiasm that
others show for a nice car or creature comforts, he shows for
a clear understanding of a Tosafos or full
comprehension of a Ketzos or simply remembering every
detail of the maseches he is learning. That is how the
Torah saps one's strength from anything else.
The Mitzvah of Kedushah is to Reach a Madreigoh of
Transcending Olom Hazeh
When the Torah says, Kedoshim tihiyu, it is not asking
us to forego a tasty kugel. Rather it is asking us to
lift ourselves to a madreigoh so that we will not feel
its lack. A person must become so close to kedushoh
that his intensity of avodas Hashem imply that he
loses interest in the things of Olom Hazeh so that
spending the night talking about yetzias Mitzrayim
rather than the material aspects of simchas yom tov do
not in fact affect his peronsal simchas yom tov which
is focussed on the mitzvah.
But in the meantime, whoever has not reached this
madreigoh should not give up his wine and kugel
as long as it is permitted. If the pleasure is forbidden,
then a person must undergo whatever suffering is necessary to
avoid the issur.
We are not asked to leave the kugel that is served to
us in our plates. Rather we must concentrate on putting all
our energies into Torah and mitzvos -- and the rest will
happen by itself.
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