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The Sin of Ascetism

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The truly sensitive soul eschews spiritual counterfeits.

There are times in a person's life that holiness becomes a conscious goal, a state of mind and body that he or she actively pursues, a desideratum. However, the quest to achieve a higher plane of existence, to attain spiritual elevation, is not always a simple or straightforward path. The desire for spirituality can lead us along strange and uncharted roads, at times taking us in a direction or to a place which is either devoid of holiness or, even worse, the antithesis of holiness. Numerous sections of the Torah and the majority of the words of the prophets are dedicated to the seemingly never-ending battle against false pagan gods whose seductive promise of a quick "one night stand" of ecstatic religious experience leads unsuspecting seekers astray. Sensuality, sexuality, sensory overload and artificially altered states of consciousness of have long served as key "marketing tools" for the false nirvana offered by paganism in its various forms - from the dawn of time to the present.

The truly sensitive soul eschews spiritual counterfeits, and seeks holiness elsewhere - often in the very antithesis of the debauchery and carnal excess that characterizes paganism. The Torah presents one such model, in which the spiritual seeker can achieve an altered state, an elevated level of holiness. In this model, a person can either temporarily or permanently step outside their normal existence and become a "different" person, taking on new, more restrictive limitations of their sensory and physical existence. In so doing, the spiritual seeker becomes a nazir.

Some of these additional restrictions are reminiscent of the laws that apply to a kohen, such as the prohibition against voluntary contact with the dead. Similarly, wine is forbidden to the nazir, as it is to a kohen during his period of active service in the Temple. Although these parallels might lead us to equate the nazir and the kohen, there is one major difference, perhaps designed to remind the nazir that he is not a kohen: the nazir's hair must be left uncut, whereas the kohen gadol (high priest) is specifically commanded to be well-coiffed.(1)

The nazir might be deluded by the similarity with the lofty spiritual status of the kohen, and draw inappropriate conclusions. However, one additional law regarding the nazir must be taken into account. Surprisingly, the Torah commands the nazir to bring a sin offering to the Temple when the assigned period is completed and normal life is resumed. Upon reflection, this seems quite strange: The nazir has just completed a period of heightened spirituality, of asceticism and self-denial, of abstention from various aspects of the physical world. Why would a sin offering be appropriate at the end of this period of holiness?

The nature of this sin offering is debated in the Talmud. One opinion is that the sin offering is brought because the nazir may have unwittingly failed to live up to his new status at some point in the process. The other opinion is that the offering atones for the "sins" that are part and parcel of the nazirite experience itself- namely, abstinence from wine that would otherwise have been enjoyed. This teaching may come as a surprise; after all, Judaism does not usually concern itself with lamenting unfulfilled desires or earthly pleasures - but the Talmudic teachin(2) is quite clear: This world was made to be enjoyed, celebrated, and sanctified.

God created a beautiful world, and He placed the first man and woman in the "Garden of Eden," which means, quite literally, the garden of pleasure. In a particularly beautiful passage, the Talmud teaches that a person who fails to enjoy the beautiful world God gave us will be held accountable as he or she stands in judgment at the end of their life. The Talmud then recounts the custom of one particular sage who took this teaching to heart and made it his custom to visit the market regularly in the hope of finding some new fruit or other delicacy, seeking out new tastes in order to be able to recite the appropriate blessing and have an opportunity to say the "shehecheyanu", to appreciate the wonder and variety of God's creation and to avoid the wrath of Heaven should he fail to take advantage of all that God created for the pleasure and benefit of mankind.(3)

The nazir's decision to take on a level of asceticism, to forego certain earthly pleasures, is an option that the Torah condones for those who feel they are in need of more sharply-defined boundaries in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality. However, this decision has consequences: The nazir has taken a vow that precludes taking full enjoyment from the physical world, and for this, the nazir must make amends. As he (or she) prepares to return to his former life, he must "apologize" to God for passing up on the pleasures this world has to offer. The nazir's sin-offering, then, is an important message for us all: In His benevolence, God created a world of wonder and delight, which He allows us to share. The Torah is the framework through which the pleasures of this world can be experienced and appreciated, enjoyed - and sanctified.

For a more in-depth analysis see:


1. Vayikra 21:10; compare with Vayikra 10:6.

2. Ta'anit 11a.

3. Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12.



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