It has become commonplace, almost hackneyed, to decry the proliferation of religious stringencies that typifies modern Jewish life. We are well aware that prior generations had no need for these stringencies, and we often find ourselves railing against them.
And yet stringencies abound—perhaps greater in number and absurdity than ever before.
We are addicted to these spiritual “uppers”—the street classification for substances that stimulate the central nervous system.
Such stringencies were largely disfavored in bygone generations. “Anyone not commanded to do something, yet does it, is called a fool” (Yerushalmi, Shabbos 2:1). “Just as it is forbidden to rule that the impure is pure, so is it forbidden to rule that the pure is impure” (Yerushalmi, Terumos 5:3). “Are the Torah’s prohibitions not enough that you seek to prohibit yourselves from other things?” (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:1). Some stringencies were regarded as “close to apostasy” (Pischei Teshuva, Yoreh Dei’ah 116:7). There is no shortage of authorities who caution against them (Sh’vus Yaakov, Yoreh Dei’ah 3:98; Be’er HaGola II; Sichos HaRan 235), and, indeed, one of the sins for which we confess is, “On that which You were lenient, I was strict; and on that which You were strict, I was lenient.”
That’s not to say there is no legitimate place for stringencies in Judaism; on the contrary, stringency can be—and often is—laudable (Berachos 22a), and it can be a healthy way to express love for G-d and a desire to keep His commandments. But there are inherent risks (see e.g. Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 12:9). This, says R’ Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, is the meaning of the verse, “Guard my soul for I am a pious one” (Tehillim 86:2)—one who acts stringently requires an added measure of Divine assistance to avoid falling prey to potential pitfalls.
There is the risk of subtraction by addition—i.e., that undue stringency may lead to unacceptable leniency (see e.g. Torah Temima, Devarim 4:1; Shabbos Inbox, Queens Jewish Link, Vol. 1, No. 7). This concern is nothing new; it has existed since times primordial, when Chava forbade touching fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which ultimately resulted in her eating from it (Avos D’Rebbi Nosson 1:5; Bereishis 3:1-3 and Rashi and Da’as Torah ad loc.). We must remain ever vigilant of adopting a “stringency that leads to a leniency” (Pesachim 48b).
There also is the danger that stringency will give rise to arrogance or a holier-than-thou attitude (Chulin 44a; Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol. 3, pg. 294; see also (Berachos 17b [a groom who recites Shema when he is exempt from doing so]; Pesachim 54b [refraining from work where such a prohibition was never adopted]).
One disciple of R’ Pinchas of Koritz was extremely scrupulous in avoiding any leavened food on Pesach. Upon inquiring about this disciple’s whereabouts one Pesach, R’ Pinchas was told that the disciple would not visit the Rebbe’s home for fear he might come into contact with leavened foods. “But there is leavened food in one of his barrels!” declared the Rebbe. When the scrupulous disciple was advised of the Rebbe’s statement, he rushed to the Rebbe asking how such a transgression had befallen him despite his intense meticulousness. The Rebbe explained, “Although we are obligated to try our best, we are not angels and require Divine assistance. You, however, chose not to rely upon G-d but upon your own efforts. You therefore did not merit any of that Divine assistance.”
Of course, one may not impose personal stringencies upon others—a practice that earns the moniker “evil trickster” (Sota 21b). It is therefore not uncommon to find that even when stringent for themselves, truly pious individuals are lenient for others (see e.g. Eiduyos 3:10; Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:74).
Before the Bais HaLevi became Rov of Brisk, he held—contrary to the opinion of the Shach—that a certain animal was not kosher. When he later assumed the mantle of leadership, a question arose regarding this same animal and, as would be expected, the Bais HaLevi ruled that it was not kosher. Nevertheless, he told the butcher that since the Shach rules differently, it would be unfair for the butcher to lose money on account of his stringent opinion. So he recompensed the butcher’s loss from his own pocket. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is.
But of all the risks associated with the adoption of more and more stringencies, perhaps the greatest danger lies in our tendency lose sight of the bigger picture.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and his leading follower, Reb Noson Sternhartz, were once invited to the Sukka of a simple Jew. When Reb Noson questioned the validity of the Sukka, Rebbe Nachman shot back, “A Jew works hard to build his Sukka, and you seek to invalidate it based on stringencies?” Rebbe Nachman’s intent is unmistakable: stringencies are fine when they invalidate your own efforts—not when they come at another’s expense. Yet so much stringency exhibits a shocking disregard for common decency.
R’ Yisroel Salanter founded the Mussar movement, in part, because he was the victim of just such a stringency. On one of the High Holy Days, he forgot to bring his Machzor to shul. Standing next to another Torah scholar, R’ Yisroel motioned as if to ask permission to follow along with his seatmate. Rather than acquiescing—or even refusing politely—the scholar simply shoved R’ Yisroel as if to rebuke him for disturbing his prayers.
These sorts of “stringencies” are emblematic of a foolish piety—much the way a fool goes to such bizarre extremes to avoid looking at women that he walks into walls (Sota 22b). That’s “frumkeit” without common sense (see e.g. Alei Shur, Vol. 2, pg. 152). There’s no contemplation. There is no introspection. There is no growth. There is just nonsense.
Life is complicated, and stringencies are to be guided within that broader context. R’Chaim Soloveitchik was known to be uncharacteristically lenient with regard to an ill person eating on Yom Kippur. When asked why he was so lenient about Yom Kippur, he replied, “I’m not lenient regarding Yom Kippur, I’m just stringent regarding lifesaving.”
The tendency to overindulge in added stringencies trades on our inability to achieve real, lasting growth. Let’s face it: we’ve become spiritual wimps. We choose the easy over the difficult and the immediate over the time-intensive. Perhaps that is why stringencies abound. Stringencies have taken the place of genuine spiritual growth—they are not the result of change but just a cheap substitute for it. Ever notice how so many over-the-top stringencies deal with mere externalities, rarely (if ever) focusing on that which truly matters? That’s because these stringencies are nothing but a quick fix—a feel-good solution for wanting to grow spiritually without the requisite hard work.
A Nazir completes his term of abstinence by bringing a sin-offering to atone for his self-deprivation (Bamidbar 6:11 and Rashi ad loc.; Nedarim 10a; Nazir 3a; Ta’anis 11a). But that self-deprivation was necessitated by the Nazir’s inability to avoid temptation without going overboard and refraining from wine altogether (see Kli Yakar ad loc.). The less pious one truly is the greater the tendency to substitute stringencies for genuine religious advancement.
This, explained R’ Yisroel Salanter, is the reason Mar Ukva compared himself to “vinegar” and his father to “wine” because his father waited an entire day to eat dairy after meat, whereas he only waited until the next meal (Chullin 105a). Mar Ukva did not have an uncontrollable urge for dairy products; he simply felt he was not on the level to keep the stringency of his father. Mar Ukva understood that stringencies are an outgrowth of piety, not vice versa.
In a similar vein, Shimon HaTzadik refused to eat from the offering of an impure Nazir, except for when he was convinced that the Nazir’s intentions were pure. Because all Kohanim have a joint responsibility to eat the entire offering, Shimon HaTzadik’s stringency is something that could not be adopted by all Kohanim—if everyone adopted his stringency, no one would eat the offering. Clearly, some stringencies are not meant to be practiced by everyone (Dibros Moshe, Nedarim, He’ara 54).
An acquaintance once related that one of his relatives keeps a suitcase packed just in case Moshiach comes, just as the Chofetz Chaim kept such a suitcase. That guy missed the point entirely. Anyone can pack a suitcase! The Chofetz Chaim was special because he was on the level to be so hopeful for the arrival of Moshiach that it made sense for him to keep a packed suitcase.
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I don’t suggest that stringencies are bad—far from it. But whatever stringencies one adopts should be adopted for the right reasons—not out of arrogance and not as a shortcut to holiness.
If you want a spiritual high, have the fortitude to put time and effort into meaningful pursuits. “If you wish to be stringent, be stringent in the obligation of humility and act like your fellow man” (Yerushalmi, Shevi’is 9:6 and Kav V’naki ad loc.). Or be stringent in helping others and refraining from lashon hara and learning Torah and developing upstanding character traits (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol. 3, pg. 294; Sichos HaRan 235). But forget the uppers. They are no substitute for the genuine article.