Rabbi Israel Chait
pirkei avos lectures (1986)
Avos 3:13 — Vows are a safeguarding fence around abstinence.
Rabbeinu Yona comments:
Abstinence is a superior virtue and there are several good virtues that are [needed] to acquire it, as we say (Avodah Zarah 20b), “Cleanliness leads to abstinence.” And this is one who separates from the pleasures of the world - even from the things that are permissible in eating and sexual relations; even from all of the other desires in avoiding honor and lordship and wealth and what is similar to them. And he distances himself from the roots of [the pleasures] and brings himself near to the fundamentals (essence) of the soul and its foundation. And [hence] he is close to the service of the Creator, may He be blessed.
Abstinence as an end is nonsensical, as if to say the pleasures are inherently bad. Abstinence is a separation [from pleasures], but it is only a means. Rabbeinu Yona says that abstinence targets the objective of drawing closer to the essential nature and function of the soul. This is the definition of one who worships God. Therefore, this person—by definition—must be happier than one who engages in physical pleasures. For the latter is distant from the workings of his essential nature, his soul. [He is not functioning with his essence, which is his soul. If the essence of a thing is absent in any function, that thing does not function in line with its nature, which we refer to as malfunctioning in inanimate things, or unhappy in animate beings.]
One philosopher said that people who chase after envy, greed, lust, honor and money have no concept of the enjoyment in being in a perfected state. Had they sensed that the state, they would abandon what they presently chase. They err regarding what the good is. Happiness is contingent on one principle: that man lives in line with the function of his soul. One who has experienced the pleasures of the soul to some degree [the pursuit of wisdom and the experience of uncovering scientific and Torah marvels] will try with all his efforts to bring himself to a state where he is close to the soul’s function to a higher degree. I think that this is the purpose of a yeshiva: to provide this experience. A yeshiva cannot give a person perfection; this is a very individualistic process. But a yeshiva can give a person an experience of what it is like to be involved in the “essence of the soul and its foundations.” Once one experiences it, he can arrange his life to reach that goal. Rabbeinu Yona continues on abstinence:
How is it with food? One who eats a little in order to live that he be healthy to study much Torah and to do great service in the service of God. And he drinks to fill his thirst and not to get drunk and [so] not “expose himself within his tent.” And he only has sexual relations to fulfill the commandment, behold this is from the way of abstinence - as his intention is not to enjoy from the world. And there is also a second benefit: that he guards his soul from sin - as when his impulse overpowers him and he desires to do a sin, he will say in his heart, “I am vigilant about what is permissible, [so] how can I do this great evil, and ‘I will have sinned to my Father in heaven all of the days.’” And this thing will [protect] him from all of the stumbling blocks. But one who goes after natural physicality and is pulled by his desires and his pleasures - even if he does not do a forbidden thing - will be found to have distanced himself from the fundamentals of his soul and its foundation. He will have also caused his soul to follow the body and the physical and “sever it with an ax from its roots and its foundation.” And [it is] as it is written (Hoshea 4:11), “Promiscuity, wine and new wine take the heart.” Hence, they gave a counsel to the one who is not able (to lead) to control his spirit and is pulled by the pleasures, to make a vow for some days to say, “I will not eat and not drink until time x except like this”; or to forbid what is permissible. And [then] his habit will control him, from that which he observes his vow. It comes out that he leads himself to conquer his impulse. And with this, the benefit that is in his hand is abstinence.
One who is distant from the essence of his soul and its foundation is one who operates without knowledge. Rabbeinu Yona says that they gave advice that one makes a vow.
This mishna identifies the difference between one who is seriously involved in perfection and one who is not. The former takes great care before he engages in a pleasure; he discerns whether the pleasure will remove him from the essence of the soul or not. This is Chazal’s greatness; it is a level on which most of us do not operate. Chazal monitored their internal selves as they led perfected lives. This dictated that they did not freely indulge in anything permissible. They realized that there is a penalty for such indulgence; if an indulgence removes one from the essence of his soul, this endangers his very existence.
Someone recently asked, “If I have the money to live well and indulge the pleasures, is it proper to do so?” There is no mitzvah to be an ascetic per se. There is no difference between an ascetic for the sake of asceticism and the hedonist: both are improper lifestyles, as Chazal taught. One must use one’s intellect and be objective about the pleasures in which he engages. The determinant is whether such an engagement will bring one closer to the life wisdom and perfection. One must know oneself and be careful with one’s emotions and monitor oneself. Chazal taught that this is the most essential feature in one’s life.
The simpleton allows himself every permissible pleasure. However, this violates “Kedoshim tihiyhu,” “you shall be sanctified” (Lev. 19:2) which refers to abstinence. Enjoyments, at best, are necessary evils which enable one to be involved in the world of wisdom to a greater degree. “Evil” means that it is unfortunate that one must spend time in other areas which are necessary to enable a life of wisdom. And the greater the person is, the less physical enjoyments he requires to remain in his pursuit of wisdom. The more physical [indulgences] one needs, the further away he is from the essence of the soul and its foundations. When the Vilna Gaon studied Torah during the day, he closed the shades and learned by candlelight so as not to be distracted by nature’s beauty outside. The mind works best with the least amount of distractions. When the soul is involved in its own workings, it is completely removed from the physical pleasures. This is a very high level but it is good to know this example for self-appreciation.
Promiscuity, wine and a new wine take the heart.
The pleasures remove one from the mind. The wise person will be very cautious regarding how much he involves himself in the physical world. It is important to recognize that regarding desires, it is not the pleasure itself that is so harmful, but it is the self-image that is so damaging. It is not so bad to indulge in a meal. The damage is that the person views himself as “one who eats well.” This becomes one’s philosophy. [He identifies himself with this value which does not embody the value of wisdom.]
Judaism’s philosophy is opposite of the world’s philosophy. The world takes pride in how much acquisition one amasses, while Judaism views such involvement as a distraction from the life of wisdom. Maimonides says that it is wrong to talk about mundane accomplishments because talk itself means that one values those things. Speech is damaging since one tends to believe what he formulates and verbalizes. This explains why in this same mishna Chazal included “A guarding fence to wisdom is silence.” The wise man does not pride himself in his acquisitions through talking about them.
This mishna says that one can remove himself from the very functions that are essential to his soul, to his very nature. But one can ask, “As one has desires, from where do they emanate? Are they not part of my very nature? Why then, if I follow my desires, do I remove myself from my essential nature? This seems inherently contradictory.” I raise this question as we are discussing abstinence which asks one to remove himself from physical pleasures.
The answer is that one should leave the pleasures because they are false. Desire attaches itself to a fantasy; it is a phantom of something else that one desires. [The pleasure is not the true object one seeks.] Man is different than an animal. An animal’s desire is for the very thing it seeks; there is no fantasy or phantom. But when man desires something, he does not want it for its own sake. The desired object is a substitute for something in his past, which is the true object for which he wishes. Man’s past is his infantile state. In that state, the child is like an animal as his desire is for the very object he seeks. People recognize that children are very happy [this is because they are fully satisfied when they obtain their desires].
In human maturation, somehow man’s infantile enjoyments cease to offer satisfaction. A person then chooses replacements that somehow reflect the original, but they are substitutes. That new substitute becomes glorified in man’s eyes and he is convinced that that substitute will offer him the identical satisfaction as his original objects of desire offered [during infancy]. A mirage is a good example, as here, one’s desire is so great that he fantasizes that this is the object of his desire. Neuroses is the same phenomenon where one believes something to be real when it is nonexistent.
Man’s energies require an outlet. Therefore, man can select or imagine something will offer him the satisfaction he craves. Man becomes convinced that the substitute is the object that he needs. Therefore, he attaches his desire and even his mind [to that object of his desire] and then applies all his energies to obtain that object. But, as this object is a substitute, he never achieves full satisfaction. His disappointment compels him to search for another replacement.
Why does man have such a nature? Because without it, he would never be capable of a life of wisdom. In the pursuit of wisdom, one must remove oneself from the attachment to the physical and entertain [focus on the world of] the abstract. In order to accomplish this, to entertain the abstract and pursue knowledge, man could never do so had he the capacity to gain real [complete] satisfaction from physical pleasures [complete satisfaction in the physical world would deter man from seeking satisfaction elsewhere]. Therefore, God structured man in such a way where he undergoes a process where certain energies are freed from their attachments to the physical. This energy can now be redirected towards wisdom. Man differs from animal in this ability to direct his energies towards wisdom and that he can enjoy pondering wisdom. This psychological phenomenon that might appear as a curse, as man does not obtain complete satisfaction from physical desires, turns out to be man’s greatest blessing. For this enables man to enjoy the world of wisdom, which is the greatest pleasure. This is man’s purpose and design: to engage in the tremendous pleasure of wisdom. This happiness is the result of man’s ability to fully satisfy his energies seeking satisfaction. Those energies now frustrated by dissatisfying physical pleasures find 100% satisfaction in the pursuit of wisdom.
What is happiness? It is when a person pleasurably consumes [all] his energies seeking satisfaction. In the physical world, this is impossible since man’s objects of satisfaction are only substitutes and his search ends in dissatisfaction: a relentless [unhappy] search. But in the pursuit of wisdom, man finds complete satisfaction for his frustrated energies. This was God’s purpose: to create such a creature who can utilize those energies that were deflected from pursuing physical satisfaction, and direct them to the enjoyment of wisdom. This explains why we find people like Rav Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory who engage the world of wisdom and gain great satisfaction from it.
This is why abstinence is the highest level. It might sound like an austere matter, but it is in fact a very happy situation. The person who attains that level is in a blissful state. This is because he is capable of using so much energy in wisdom that he doesn’t want to waste it on anything inferior. This is what Rabbeinu Yona means about the one being in-line with his nature.
One could ask why God didn’t design man naturally attached to wisdom, instead of going through this process of his energies redirecting from the physical. The answer is that there are creatures like that: they are called angels. But we have no right to ask such a question regarding why God created man in such away. King Solomon expressed this:
For what is man who comes after the King, after He already made him? (Koheles 2:12)
This means that man can investigate only those matters subsequent to creation. Why man was created a certain way is God’s knowledge alone.
If it were possible for man to experience the original infantile physical enjoyments, he would not be happy because his energy level is too great to be satisfied with physical enjoyments. Man can only find complete satisfaction in the world of wisdom. [Wisdom is the only pursuit that enables man to consume 100% of his energies, which is the meaning of satisfaction.] That is why as long as man is not pursuing wisdom he will fail to achieve satisfaction. [The physical world is limited and therefore man’s immense energies are not consumed in the pursuit of the physical, thereby yielding frustration.] Most psychological problems are due to man’s abundant energies. People fall ill due to neuroses, and adolescents experience much mental illness because of their level of dissatisfied energies. Before adolescence there are insufficient energies to cause problems. But with the onset of adolescence when there is a new influx of large quantities of energies, one’s emotions become dammed-up as one’s psychological mechanism is incapable of enjoying so much; this creates much pressure. This also explains why intellectual people—despite this damage—do not fall ill as they are capable of directing their great amounts of energy towards thought. This spares them from mental illness. This is a psychological fact.
To combat one’s instincts, one must be totally honest with oneself and examine his inner workings and his mind. Only then can a person detect the fantasies lurking behind his desires. When a person sees that fantasy, then he can remove his energies from it. But as long as one is fooled by the substitute object of desire, he will not be able to remove himself as the emotion is too powerful.
Pirkei Avos strives to make a person a general over his soul. Abstinence is the end of the process were man is closest to his nature.
Vows are a guarding fence to abstinence.
Maimonides felt there are two types of philosophy: abstract philosophy, like we find in his Guide, and philosophy that directly parallels halacha, which Maimonides typically includes at the end of a section in his Mishne Torah.
Maimonides writes the following at the end of Hilchos Shavuos:
One can have a vow nullified buy a Bais Din, as we said, and there is no doubt that one can do so. One who is bothered and cannot bring himself to nullify his vow is a heretic [he denies the rabbis’ law that permits vow nullification]. Even so, one should be very careful about it and we do not nullify the vow unless for an important reason. [Some poskim hold that one should not nullify a vow.] And it is very beneficial that one never swears it all. But if one already did swear, he should abide by his pain: “One who swears to prohibit should not retract” (Psalms 15:4). Immediately following this verse are the words “Those who do these will never be shaken.”
Maimonides writes the following at the end of Hilchos Nedarim:
13:23 — One who has made a vow in order to perfect himself is considered zealous and praiseworthy. What is the case? One who is a hedonist and ate much meat and says he will not eat meat for one or two years, or a drunkard who prohibits himself from wine for a long time or he took an oath to never get drunk again, or if one chased gifts and money and he prohibited himself from receiving gifts or not taking anything from a certain country or from a group of people, or one who took much pride in his appearance and became a nazirite…these are all forms of worshiping God, and about these types of vows Chazal said “Vows are a guarding fence to abstinence.”
13:24 — Even though they are a form of divine service, one should not impose on himself many vows of prohibition nor make frequent use of them, but should rather abstain from things that are to be shunned, without making vows.
13:25 — The sages have asserted: “Anyone who makes a vow is as if he built a high place for idolatry” (Nedarim 60b). If he transgressed and made a vow, it is a mitzvah to seek absolution from his vow so that it might not become an obstacle on his way. When does this apply? By a vow of prohibition. But a vow to sanctify something to the temple one should fulfill and not seek to release himself unless under duress, as it says, “I will pay my vows to God” (Psalms 116:18).
In Hilchos Shavuos, Maimonides did not say it is a mitzvah to release oneself. He said that if one made a swear he should pain himself and stand by the swear, and he should not be released unless out of a great need. But in Hilchos Nedarim, Maimonides says nedarim are praiseworthy. Furthermore, within these three halachas of nedarim above, we find a contradiction. Therefore, we ask what the difference is between a shavua and a nedder.
One difference is that a shavua essentially includes God’s name:
Who swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel (Isaiah 48:1)
In contrast, nedder contains no idea of God’s name. Nedder and shavua are two types of institutions. The purpose of shavua is not to create prohibitions upon oneself. One’s intent is to demonstrate to others that his intention is as strong as his belief in God. One verifies his intent through that which is most dear to him: his relationship with God. This is shavua.
Nedarim are different and are simply mechanisms to create prohibitions upon oneself. Once a person nullifies a shavua, it’s no longer exists. But one who breaks his shavua without nullification breaks down his acceptance of God. Even though one can nullify his shavua, he should try to keep it because fulfilling his word is in fact honor to God, for this demonstrates a conviction in his shavua which is as real to him as God. This explains why a shavua contains God’s name. Therefore, fulfilling a shavua is a great mitzvah. And once one made a shavua he should not break it.
As a shavua can both prohibit matters on oneself or benefit oneself, why is the phrase “one who swears to prohibit should not retract?” [Why is the aspect of prohibition highlighted in this verse?] This is because if the shavua is to benefit, there’s no real significance. But if it was made to prohibit a matter on oneself, this demonstrates one’s allegiance to God, even though he suffers some pain. This type of vow is a greater sanctification of God. One who swears to enjoy a meal does not demonstrate allegiance to God, as does a vow to fast. Thus, once someone makes a shavua he should not release himself from it, in order that he can create a sanctification of God’s name through fulfilling it. Even so, Maimonides says that even with regards to a shavua, it is better to not even make the vow. This is because allegiance to God should not require a demonstration, but rather, be kept in a person’s heart. A shavua is where a person puts himself on the line saying, “My allegiance to God is 100%, and I can even demonstrate it.” However, the person might fail.
One who feels he is doing wrong by releasing himself from a shavua is a heretic because one is permitted to do so. He feels the release of the shavua is a break in his allegiance to God, when God says it is not: one is permitted to release himself. Thereby he rejects God’s Torah. The only allegiance to God is within his Torah system. Any other allegiance is apostasy, and here Maimonides refers to it as a “trace of apostasy.”
This also explains why there is nothing gained by keeping a nedder. As there is no sanctification of God’s name, it is simply a prohibition from which one now wishes release.
Now we must answer why Maimonides both praises and condemns one who creates a nedder. We also must answer why, as Rabbeinu Yona said, they condemn the one who made a nedder by saying, “Is it not enough what God already prohibited [that you increase prohibitions with nedarim]?” Here we discover from the halachic system itself how Judaism takes a different course than the rest of the world in terms of the perception of human perfection.
Why is one who makes a nedder considered to have built a bammah (an idolatrous altar)? The danger of a bammah is that one’s own practice of sacrifice can be a subjective form of worship like idolatry [he is involved in his own primitive emotions]. However, if one brings his sacrifices not on his backyard altar (bammah) but to the temple, his sacrifice must conform to all of the laws of temple [preventing any subjective or primitive expression]. What then is Chazal’s analogy between bamma and nedder when they say, “Anyone who vowed is as if he built a bammah?”
There is one key in Maimonides’ words. In halacha 23 above he praises one who takes a vow. In halacha 25 he disparages him. And halacha 24 is like an in between state: he’s not praising him but he is not yet condemning him. Since Maimonides praises a person who makes a nedder, he cannot simultaneously consider him as one created an altar for idolatry. The answer to this apparent contradiction is halacha 24 where he says one should not increase or become habituated in creating vows. What is Maimonides’ answer?
Halacha recognizes a tremendous danger regarding human nature. When Chazal say that a vow is like building an idolatrous altar they are warning of a danger that man might become inextricably attached to his superego satisfaction. Within the system of vows of self-prohibition is the greatest egocentricity. A person finds great satisfaction in his ability to endure the denial of certain involvements. Feeling satisfied in one’s immense self-control is essentially idolatrous. Unconsciously, it is the greatest egocentricity. That is why monks who deny themselves all pleasures and are considered saints, Judaism considers to be idolaters. For when they maintain that they abstain from pleasures, the truth is just the opposite: they engage in the greatest pleasure of all: the glorification of their egocentricity [they pride themselves in self-control]. This is a most dangerous emotion. When does one get involved in such an emotional state? Precisely when making prohibitions upon oneself and fulfilling them. Doing so, one feels a tremendous ego satisfaction. But this is false, as this person is not denying himself pleasure but catering to it in the form of ego: a dangerous psychological area. That is why they say to one who makes vows, “Is it not enough what Torah prohibits, but you must add?” What does this mean? It means this person wants to glorify himself in egocentric satisfaction. This is the most dangerous form of idolatry. What the world recognizes as great (monks), Judaism recognizes as dangerous and idolatrous.
Thus, Maimonides resolves the conflict in his halachos by writing not to increase or to habituate oneself in vows. One whose ego seeks glory will not be satisfied with a single vow. As one increases his vows they become part of his lifestyle. Thus, Maimonides praises one who makes a vow with the intent to perfect himself and not to enjoy ego glorification.
Chazal say, “One who vows is as though he built an idolatrous altar, and one who fulfills his vow is as if he sacrificed upon it.” This is a beautiful statement. Once one makes a vow, he has a satisfaction in his anticipation of fulfillment, as if he built an idolatrous altar. And when he fulfills his vow, it is as if he offered a sacrifice on that altar. Chazal identify precisely when the emotion is being moved. [Meaning that one’s fulfillment of his vow is akin to an idolatrous offering. That is, when man sees that he fulfills his self-denial of pleasures, this is the “sacrifice to idolatry”; this is the point of self-glorification.] Thus, one should release himself from a vow because fulfilling it is worse than making it.