There are three essential types of abstinence the righteous should
concentrate on: those touching on personal pleasures, on Halachic processes,
and on personal habits.
Ramchal already discussed refraining from personal pleasures in the previous
chapter, which focused on the pious only indulging in worldly things that
are absolutely necessary for their wellbeing. He makes the further point
here that while it’s laudable to avoid such pleasures as much as possible in
one’s day to day life, it’s nonetheless imperative to allow for some of it
when it comes to a mitzvah (as in enjoying good food on Shabbos and Holy
Days, being intimate with one’s spouse at appropriate times, and the like).
The second type of abstinence, which touches upon one’s relationship to
Halacha as Ramchal lays it out, comes to this. Halacha, as its name implies
(since it’s derived from l’halaich, to “walk” or “proceed”), is the
life-path we Jews are to take, the direction that our lives are to follow in.
Now, the Halachic path is often-enough broad, flexible, and open to personal
bent; but it can be rather slender and fixed too, depending on
circumstances. Ramchal’s point is that if one is to be pious, he or she is
to walk that narrower path and to “be stringent in the mitzvot at all
times”. That is, when the normative Halacha would tend toward an acceptable
lenience, the pious person should not allow him- or herself to go that way,
as it just might leave one open to Halachic or moral error down the line.
Because “the abstinent has to stay away from the abhorrent,” Ramchal
remarks, as well as “the nearly abhorrent, and even the vaguely abhorrent”
if he or she is going to be pious (much the way someone with a sensitive
stomach would have to steer clear of not only actually stale food but even
day-old or even slightly “off” foods if he’s going to be sure not to become
We’re taught that the great Talmudic sage Mar Ukva used to say, "I am like
vinegar compared to my father, who was like wine (he was so pure). For, had
my father eaten meat just now, he wouldn’t eat cheese until tomorrow this
time; whereas while I will certainly not eat cheese at this meal, I would
eat it at the next one," six hours later (Chullin 105a).
As Ramchal explains, “In fact, the Halacha is not as Mar Ukva's father
practiced it, for if it were, Mar Ukva himself would never have gone against
it” to be sure. “It’s just that Mar Ukva's father was (more) stringent in
his abstinence (than) Mar Ukva”. The point of the matter is that while Mar
Ukva was certainly righteous and caring in his Halachic observance, his
father strove for an even higher level and was thus willing to accept a
greater degree of Halachic stringency than Mar Ukva was.
(One very important lesson that “the rest of us” should derive from this
story is that Mar Ukva was never berated for not striving higher than his
natural bent or for not emulating his father’s self-sacrifice. Mar Ukva
apparently knew his limits and realized that while he was certainly capable
of being righteous, as we all are, he was not capable of being pious like
his father, and that he needed to live his life in accordance with his own
We’ll discuss being pious in one’s personal habits next.