CONCERNING THE TRAIT OF SEPARATION
SEPARATION IS THE BEGINNING of Saintliness. Up to this point we have concerned ourselves with the requirements for righteousness. From this point on we shall discuss the requirements for Saintliness. It is to be observed that Separation bears the same relationship to Saintliness as Watchfulness does to Zeal, the first element in each set concerning itself with departing from evil and the second with doing good. The rationale of Separation is epitomized in the words of our Sages of blessed memory (Yevamoth 20a), "Sanctify yourself through what is permitted to you." This is the signification of the word "separation" itself i.e. separating and withdrawing oneself from something, forbidding to oneself something which is permitted. The intent is to keep oneself from that which is forbidden, the understanding being that a person should withdraw and separate himself from anything which might give rise to something that could bring about evil, even though it does not bring it about at the moment and even though it is not evil in itself.
If you look into the matter you will perceive three distinct levels - the forbidden things themselves, their fences (the edicts and safeguards that our Sages of blessed memory made binding on all of Israel), and the "withdrawals" that those committed to Separation must create for themselves by circumscribing themselves and building fences for themselves; that is, by abstaining from things which were permitted, which were not proscribed to all of Israel, and separating themselves from them so as to be far removed from evil.
One might ask, "What basis is there for multiplying prohibitions? Have our Sages of blessed memory not said (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9.1), `Are the Torah's prohibitions not enough for you that you come to create new prohibitions for yourself?' Have our Sages of blessed memory in their great wisdom not seen what it was necessary to forbid as a safeguard; and have they not already forbidden it? And does it not follow, then, that anything which they did not proscribe they felt should be permitted? Then why should we now initiate edicts which they felt no need for? What is more, there is no limiting anything like this. One would have to live in desolation and affliction, deriving no enjoyment whatever from the world, whereas our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:12) that a man will have to give an accounting to the Presence for everything that his eyes beheld and he did not wish to eat, though permitted and able to do so. They adduced Scripture in their support (Ecclesiastes 2:10), `Anything my eyes asked, I did not keep from them.' "
The answer to these arguments is that Separation is certainly necessary and essential. Our Sages of blessed memory exhorted us concerning it (Sifra)," `Be holy' (Leviticus 19:2)separate yourselves," and (Ta'anith I la), "One who engages in fasting is called "holy," a fact which may be deduced from the case of a Nazarite;" and (Pesikta) " `The righteous man eats to the contentment of his soul' (Proverbs 13:25) - this is Hezekiah, King of Judah, about whom it is said that two bunches of vegetables and one litra of meat were brought before him each day, while the Jews made mock, saying, `This is a King?' " In relation to Rabbeinu Hakadosh they said (Kethuvoth 104a) that before he died he held up his ten fingers and said, "It is perfectly known to You that I derived no enjoyment from this world, not even to the extent of my little finger." And along the same lines they said (Yalkut Devarim 830), "Before a man prays that words of Torah be absorbed into his innards, let him pray that food and drink not be absorbed therein."
All of these statements explicitly point out one's need and responsibility for Separation. In any event, we must account for the statements to the contrary. The truth is that many distinctions and principles must be considered. There is a type of Separation which we are duty-bound to observe and a type that we were warned not to fall victim to -- in the words of King Solomon, may Peace be upon him (Ecclesiustes 7:16), "Do not be over-righteous."
We shall now discuss the desirable type of Separation. Having recognized the fact that all of the world's contingencies are trials to a man, as stated and verified above, and having been made convincingly aware of man's weakness and the nearness of his mind to evil, we must perforce conclude that a man should attempt to escape these contingencies as far as possible so as better to protect himself from the evil upon which they border. For there is no wordly pleasure upon whose heels some sin does not follow. For example, food and drink when free of all dietary prohibitions are permitted, but filling oneself brings in its wake the putting off of the yoke of Heaven, and drinking of wine brings in its wake licentiousness and other varieties of evil. This obtains to an even greater degree if one accustoms himself to eating and drinking to satiety. If he is once made to lack his usual fare he will be painfully aware of the fact and will thrust himself into the -hegt of the race for possessions and property so that his table will be spread in accordance with his desires. He will thence be drawn on to wrongdoing and theft, and thence to taking oaths and to all of the other sins that follow in its wake; and he will depart from Divine service, from Torah and from prayer, all of which would not have occurred if, from the beginning, he had not allowed himself to be pulled into these pleasures. As our Sages of blessed memory have said in relation to the rebellious son (Sanhedrin 72a), "The Torah penetrates to the very end of a person's thoughts ..." And in relation to licentiousness they said (Sotah 2a), "One who sees a Sotah in her disgrace should forbid wine to himself." You will notice that this is an excellent device for the rescuing of oneself from his evil inclination; for since it is difficult for one to conquer and subdue it when he is involved in the transgression, he must, while he is far from it, remove himself yet farther so that it will be difficult for his evil inclination to bring him close to the transgression.
There is no question as to the permissibility of cohabitation with one's wife, but still, ablutions were instituted for those who had had seminal emissions, so that Scholars should not be steadily with their wives, like roosters. Even though the act itself is permissible it implants in a person a lust for it which might draw him on to what is forbidden; as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Sukkah 526), "There is a small organ in a man which, when it is satiated, hungers and which, when it is made to hunger, is sated." And they said about R. Eleazar (Nedarim 20b) that even in the proper hour and the correct time he would expose a handbreadth and conceal two hand-breadths and imagine that a demon was compelling him, in order to cancel out the feeling of pleasure.
The Torah did not exhort us in relation to the beauty and style of clothing and adornments, requiring for their permissibility only that they not contain a mixture of wool and linen and that they be fitted with tzitzith. But who is not aware of the fact that fancy headgear and embroidered material pulls one towards pride and brings one to the border of licentiousness, aside from giving rise to envy, lust and exploitation, which attach to anything that is very desirable to a person. And our Sages of blessed memory have already remarked (Bereshith Rabbah 22.6), "As soon as the evil inclination sees a man assuming delicate stances, straightening his garments and curling his hair, it says, 'He is mine.' "
Walking and talking which do not involve any particular prohibition are certainly permissible, but how much neglect of Torah grows out of it, how much slander, how many lies, how much levity; as it is said (Proverbs 10:19), "In a multitude of words there is no ceasing of sin."
In fine, since all the world's contingencies are great dangers, how commendable is the attitude of him who desires to escape them and of him who increases his distance from them. His Separation is the desirable type, the type in which a person takes from the world, in all of the uses that he makes of it, only what his nature renders absolutely essential to him. It was this type of Separation which R. Judah reveled in when he said (in a statement previously referred to) that he had derived no enjoyment from this world, not even to the extent of his little finger, though he was a Prince of Israel and his table was a table of kings, entirely commensurate with the dignity of his station. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Avodah Zarah 1 la), "'There are two nations in your womb' (Genesis 25:23) - this refers to R. Judah and Antoninus, from whose table were never lacking lettuce, cucumbers and radishes, neither in the dry nor in the rainy seasons." This was the case, too, with Hezekiah, King of Judah. And all of the other statements to which I have referred stress the importance of a person's separating himself from all worldly pleasures so as not to fall into the dangers connected with them.
It may occur to you to ask, "Why, if Separation is so necessary and essential, did our Sages not institute it as they did the `fences' and other measures?" The answer is clear and simple. "Our Sages pronounced an edict only if the majority of the people could abide by it" (Bava Kamma 79b); and the majority of the people cannot be saintly. It is enough if they are righteous. But upon the select few who desire to achieve closeness to the Blessed One and to benefit thereby all those who depend upon them, devolves the fulfillment of the saints' higher duties, those duties which the others cannot fulfill, namely, the provisions of Separation here set forth. This is the will of God; for since it is impossible for all of the individuals within a nation to be on an identical level (levels varying in accordance with intelligence), those individuals who have not completely conditioned themselves for the reception of the love of the Blessed One and of His Divine Presence are enabled to attain to it through the chosen few who have. As our Sages of blessed memory said in relation to the four species of the lulav (Vayikra Rabbah 30.11), "Let these come and atone for these,." And we find in relation to the incident of Ulah bar Koshev (Yerushalmi Terumoth 8.4) that when R. Joshua ben Levi asked Elijah of blessed memory, "Is it not a Mishnah ?" the latter replied, "But is it a Mishnah for Saints?"
The undesirable type of separation is that of the foolish gentiles who abstain not only from that which is not essential to them, but also from that which is, punishing their bodies with strange forms of affliction that God has no desire for. What is more, our Sages have said (Ta'anith 226), "A person is forbidden to torture himself." And in relation to charity they said (Yerushalmi, conclusion of Peah), "Anyone who needs it and does not take it, is a spiller of blood;" and (Ta'anith 22b), " `A living soul' (Genesis 2:7) -sustain the soul that I gave to you;" and (Ta'anith I 1 a), "One who engages in fasting is called `a sinner.' " (This they applied to a person who is in no condition to fast.) And Hillel was wont to apply (Proverbs 11:17), "He who is kind to his soul is a man of saintliness," to the eating of the morning meal. He made it a practice to wash his face and hands for the honor of his Master, reasoning from the practice that prevailed at that time of washing the statues of the kings (Vayikra Rabbah 34.3).
The truth, then, is that a man should separate himself from anything which is not essential to him in relation to the affairs of the world; if he separates himself from anything which is essential to him, regardless of the reason for its being so, he is a sinner. This principle is a consistent on.-. Its application to particular instances, however, is a matter of individual judgment (and "A man will be praised according to his understanding"). For it is impossible to discuss all the particulars of Separation; they are so numerous that the mind cannot encompass them. One must deal with them each in its own time.