“He [the Nazir] shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried” Numbers 6.3


 Parashat Naso introduces several aspects of ancient Israelite religion that may seem strange to us: stock characters who have long since exited stage left in our own cultural drama. Chief among them are the sotah, the wife accused of infidelity, and the Nazir, a person who takes on an ascetic vow. 

The character of the Nazir has always captured my attention and interest — for one simple reason: repeatedly and routinely I, and I’m sure many others, have mistakenly been told that Judaism doesn’t practise asceticism. 

Not only does the detailed description of the biblical Nazir disprove this, but the entire history of Judaism since includes ascetic practices which, while we moderns may not like, are irrevocably part of our traditions. 

One doesn’t have to look too far: the fasting of Yom Kippur, the mourning rituals of the Omer period, the Prophets’ passion for hairshirts and sackcloth, all testify to a tradition of asceticism. Schools of Jewish thought since have expanded the options. 

In the medieval period, many would take on voluntary fasts regularly, some once a week, some every other day. Others would practise purposeful sleep deprivation, placing a bowl of ice-water between them and the book they studied so if they drifted off they’d be awoken by a faceful of freezing water.

Speaking of freezing, there were the mystics who rolled naked in the snow of Central Europe, as well as those who flagellated themselves with whips, many of whom also would re-enact the rabbinic death penalties to remind themselves of their mortality. Being woken up, blindfolded, and having someone hold a sword to your throat is certainly a practice that seems far from contemporary Jewish life. 

The truth is, after three millenia, there are not too many things which Judaism does not include. Whenever we are presented with a simple, reductive approach to Judaism, we should immediately be suspicious. 

Our tradition does tend less to the ascetic life than others (particularly in contrast to monastic Christianity). However, that doesn’t erase the long history of asceticism from Judaism, starting from the Nazir  and continuing all the way up until today. 

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive