We’d said it before but it bears repetition: there’s good and beneficial
abstinence that’s to be encouraged if you’re trying to be pious, and there’s
bad and unhealthy abstinence.
It would be wrong, for example, to afflict yourself, as some have mistakenly
thought one would have to do to draw close to G-d. Those poor
well-intentioned but misguided souls would “afflict their bodies in all
sorts of weird ways” as Ramchal terms it. But that’s wrong. For as our sages
put it, "it’s absolutely forbidden for one to torture himself” (Ta'anit
22b). Thus, some would roll about naked in the freezing snow to train
themselves in abstinence and personal fortitude; and others would wear very
heavy and uncomfortable clothing all day long for the same reasons, but none
of that should ever be practiced.
Along other lines where taught that "whoever needs charity and doesn’t
accept it is like a murderer" (Jerusalem Talmud, end of Peah), in that he
threatens his own life and the life of his family, thinking he’s being pious
when he’s actually being quite “murderous”.
The sages also said, "One who fasts (when he’s incapable of doing so for one
reason or another) is called a sinner" (Ta'anit 11a). In fact, no lesser a
soul than the great Hillel used to quote Proverbs 11:17’s statement that “a
kind man does himself good, but a cruel one troubles his own flesh” and
explained it to mean that only "the person who’s generous to his own soul is
called pious." For in fact Hillel himself would wash his hands and face in
honor of his Maker before breakfast, arguing that all the more so should he
do so seeing as how the statues for kings were washed every morning
(Vayikrah Rabbah 34:3).
Understand of course that Hillel was talking about simply washing yourself
first thing in the morning, which most of us do anyway and would wonder why
we’d need permission to. His point is simply that even the pious need to
give in to this “indulgence”. For while they might reason that doing without
that and going about scruffy and a bit malodorous instead would lead to
greater purity and piety, Hillel says that that’s wrong and a bad way to be
Hence good and true abstinence comes to this: the person striving for it
“should abstain from whatever isn’t necessary, according to his station in
life, but he’s deemed a sinner if he abstains from something that he
actually needs” for whatever legitimate reason.
The above obviously covers a lot of ground, and all we could do was to lay
out the parameters. Those striving for abstinence and overall piety should
take this all to heart and do their level best, meaning in the end to draw
close to G-d by avoiding spiritual hazards and by likewise averting the
pitfall of going to extremes.