I was shocked to have received information that [regarding the manner of your spiritual service] you are conducting yourself in unusual and irregular ways and paths; [you are fasting, are not properly safeguarding your health, and are conducting yourself in a reclusive and non-joyous manner].
All this notwithstanding the fact that all are aware of the well-trodden path of our holy Rebbeim, of blessed memory, as well as that which is explained in the revealed portion of Torah — explained as well by the Rambam in Hilchos Deos — that the “middle path,” [i.e., not going to extremes,] is the proper and good path.
Chassidus explains at great length that G-d should be served with joy, and that “you must come to [the body’s] aid” — to serve G-d with the body and not through self-mortification and fasting. This has already been expounded on in many places, especially in the sichos where it has been expounded upon at length.
This is all the more so when G-d has blessed you with the gift of marriage — your obligation then extends not only to yourself but to another Jewish soul as well; it is only by succeeding in your marriage that you will merit that the Divine Presence resides in your midst.
This being so, it goes without saying that you must guard your health in order to fulfill the three obligations of a husband to his wife, [i.e., those of sustenance, clothing and marital relations,] and to serve G-d with joy and gladness of heart — which fundamentally also includes simply bringing joy to the household, which is achieved by acting in a kind and gentle manner. Surely I need not go on at length about [such] a simple and obvious matter.
If you were to follow my opinion, you would follow the “royal road” that was provided to us by our Rebbeim and Nesiim. Abandon the path of fasting, self-mortification, withdrawal and the like.
May G-d bless you that you be able to serve Him with both body and soul, and the joy of fulfilling the mitzvos will shatter and eliminate all [internal] boundaries and limitations that seek to hinder this form of service.
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. X, p. 187)
... I was pained by the information I received that you look gaunt and haggard (mareh panav iz nit bazunder frei’end
It seems that you have once again begun your path of torment and self-mortification and disregard for your health, even though you are aware of the Rambam’s ruling in Hilchos Deos, beginning of ch. 4, that “maintaining a healthy and whole body is an integral part of Divine service.”
Also known is the ruling quoted in Shulchan Aruch Rabbeinu HaZakein, Hilchos Nizkei Guf v’Nefesh, para. 4: “An individual has no rights at all over his body to smite it, shame it, or cause it any form of pain, even with regard to food and drink — unless he does so as a form of repentance, at which time he is doing the body a service.”
Since the Alter Rebbe has already stated in Iggeres HaTeshuvah that during present generations the path of repentance is not through fasting but through other methods, the ruling of the Alter Rebbe in his Shulchan Aruch (Shulchano HaTahor) remains standing, [that it is forbidden to mortify the body by denying it food and drink].
[This idea of] not listening to what you were told [(by me) about taking care of your health] and only desiring to do that which is right according to your understanding [of it], must cease.
Surely you also saw the letter of the Baal Shem Tov — printed in HaTamim — to his disciple, the author of the Toldos [where he writes that he was extremely upset to hear that he was engaging in frequent fasts, etc.].
I await good news with regard to all the above.
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. VI, p. 168)
I was astounded to learn of your daily schedule, a schedule that is not in keeping with the proper manner of protecting G-d’s possessions, i.e., one’s body.
This is particularly so in light of that which has been explained at length in maamarim and many sichos that maintaining good health is part of one’s Divine service, and the manner of one’s spiritual service must specifically be that of assisting the body and utilizing it for Divine service, rather than negating the body [through neglecting its basic needs].
This applies to an even greater extent in our generation, as people are not as strong as they used to be (see Iggeres HaTeshuvah, beginning of ch. 3). For we readily observe that when the body is weakened, it first and foremost hinders one’s service of prayer. Moreover, it also hinders a person’s Torah study and even his performance of mitzvos.
Consequently, in almost all instances, afflicting oneself (sigufim) invariably causes more harm than benefit. I certainly don’t need to expound at length about a matter that has already been amply elucidated.
It is my strong hope that upon receiving this letter, you will cease starving yourself until late in the day. Rather, you should drink a beverage that strengthens the body and eat some form of pastry as well — and [this should be done] even prior to the [morning] prayers.
There is also the already famous aphorism of our holy Rebbeim and their directive that: “One should eat in order to be able to pray, rather than pray in order to be able to eat.”
Their intent is to be taken literally as well, that if one is hungry during the time of prayer, then it is impossible — for people like us — for it not to affect our concentration during prayer as well as the amount of time we spend in prayer.
On the other hand, by eating prior to [the morning] prayer you will eliminate this concern. You will then be able — should you only so desire — to engage in your spiritual service in an enhanced and loftier manner.
To rectify your past conduct that was not in keeping with the above, you are to influence those around you and see to it that all those who are not healthy [and strong] — as defined in Iggeres HaTeshuvah cited above — should not starve themselves.
Rather, they should pray and study as souls [clothed] in a body, [thus aware of the body’s needs, so] that [one’s bodily requirements] will not hinder [one’s spiritual] service on account of the body’s hunger.
May G-d crown your efforts with success.
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. X, p. 326)
... Picking up again on our telephone conversation:
I felt that you remained unconvinced about [the necessity to scrupulously maintain your] health in general, and in particular about having some form of pastry prior to morning prayers.
I am therefore copying here a saying of the holy Baal Shem Tov, printed in Kesser Shem Tov — [and] surely you are aware of what my father-in-law, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, said during his final farbrengens, that a chassid should study the Kesser Shem Tov and the Or Torah of the Maggid of Mezritch.
In Kesser Shem Tov, part I, p. 17 (in the edition that I have), it states: “When a person is ill in body, his soul is weakened as well and he is unable to pray properly — this, notwithstanding the fact that he is [so sterling an individual that he is] free of sin. Therefore it is important for a person to scrupulously guard his health.”
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. V, p. 150)
... It astounded me to learn that you conduct yourself in an undisciplined manner with regard to your eating and drinking, notwithstanding the fact that we readily observe that such conduct weakens the body and has an immediate negative impact on the study of Torah and the performance of its mitzvos
It is known that my father-in-law, the Rebbe, demanded that all the yeshivah students conduct themselves in an organized manner regarding their eating, drinking, sleeping, etc. I trust that at least now, having received this letter, you will rectify your behavior.
There is also the well-known adage of the Tzemach Tzedek, “Better to eat (first) in order to [then] pray serenely than the opposite: praying in order to be able to eat.”
In today’s weakened generations, permission is given even to eat baked products before prayers (understandably, following the recitation of Kerias Shema Ketanah) to those who conclude their prayers quite a while after they rise in the morning.
One should not act stringently regarding the above [and refrain from eating,] as doing so is a stringency that leads to laxity in Divine service, [since it would then be nearly impossible to pray, etc., with the proper intent]. ...
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. XIV, p. 20)
I was happy to receive regards from you through ... . However, it upset me to hear that for the time being you are still suffering from dizziness.
You should — if you are yet not doing so— eat some form of pastry prior to morning prayers, in addition to having something to drink.
There is the known adage of the Tzemach Tzedek that “Better to eat in order to pray (i.e., that afterwards one can pray serenely), than pray in order to eat,” (for then the person’s nerves are weakened and he cannot pray with serenity; additionally, the evil inclination and the body will then be craving food with great impatience).
Many of Anash, our chassidic brotherhood, received a directive from my father-in-law, the Rebbe, that for reasons of health they should eat prior to the morning prayers and not suffice merely with drinking. When you conduct yourself in this manner, it will be beneficial both to your health as well as to your business.
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. VI, p. 142)
It alarmed me to hear that you engage in frequent fasts, that you torment yourself by not eating for many, many hours prior to prayer, and that you behave in this [tormenting] manner in other matters as well.
I am absolutely certain that this [type of behavior] leads to a deterioration of health — the antitheses of the ruling of the Rambam in Hilchos Deos beginning of ch. 4, that “maintaining a healthy and whole body is an integral part of Divine service.”
It is also known that the Baal Shem Tov wrote to his disciple, the Baal Toldos Yaakov Yosef, that he was extremely upset to hear that he engaged in frequent fasts, etc. If this was true regarding such a giant as the Baal Toldos Yaakov Yosef, how much more so does it apply to people like us.
This is in keeping with the ruling of the Alter Rebbe in Iggeres HaTeshuvah, ch. 3: “All this applies to the strong and robust, whose physical health would not be harmed at all by repeated fasts, as in the generations of yore. But whoever would be affected by many fasts, and might thereby suffer illness or pain, G-d forbid, as in contemporary generations, is forbidden to undertake numerous fasts.”
Accordingly, if you are willing to listen to me, you will immediately cease acting in this manner, and if you have taken upon yourself the above as a “hanhagah tovah,” a “good custom,” [i.e., as a proper form of conduct, undertaking to regularly act in this manner,] and you have conducted yourself thus [at least] three times, then you should perform Hataras Nedarim, the “Annulment of Vows.”
You should eat — even cake — prior to your morning prayers. If your health demands that you eat even more, then do so. Do not rely on your own opinion on this matter, [i.e., whether you need to eat more], rather, ask the opinion of the spiritual mentor, the esteemed and revered chassid, Rabbi Shlomo Chayim Kesselman.
... I sincerely hope that by return mail you immediately set my mind at ease by notifying me that you have forsaken the path of fasting and self-mortification, and [your spiritual service] will fulfill the commentary of the Baal Shem Tov quoted in HaYom Yom on the verse: “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden ... you must come to its aid.”
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. IV, p. 430)
... With regard to fasting:
I have already told you — based on the words of the Alter Rebbe — that it is not advisable to take upon yourself extra fasts in addition to those that are already on the calendar.
One of the reasons offered by the Alter Rebbe is that today’s generations are weaker than previous generations and are no longer physically capable of enduring extra fasts. Obviously, my suggestion to you is therefore valid even now [that you are feeling better].
Your impending resolution to undertake fasts should be changed to resolving to serve G-d with extra measures of joy. Moreover, you should endeavor to inspire others to serve G-d in this [positive] manner as well.
(From a letter of the Rebbe, dated the 15th of Iyar, 5724)
I was astonished to learn of your custom to fast from time to time on Mondays and Thursdays and also erev Rosh Chodesh
. Moreover, you do so despite the known directive of the Baal Shem Tov that one should make sure to be healthy so that [ill health] not be a hindrance to the command of serving G-d with joy, for we readily observe that in this generation frequent fasting weakens one’s health and hinders the performance of mitzvos
Understandably, the above refers to those fasts that the person accepts upon himself (and not those fasts that are commanded by Jewish law).
Should you insist on a form of fasting, then there is the known directive of the Rebbe Maharash that this can be accomplished by refraining from unnecessary speech, even when one greatly desires to do so. This applies not only to forbidden slanderous speech, but even refraining from speaking extraneous words.
As to food fasts — this can also be accomplished by eating nourishing foods, but not seeking out those foods that are particularly tasty. ...
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. XV, p. 177)
With regard to your fasting — I have not heard of such a path [of Divine service for today’s generations]. (Understandably, this excludes those fasts that are commanded by Jewish law, and even then, only if the doctor tells you that there is no danger in your fasting.)
It is better to replace this form of fasting with refraining [and “fasting”] from doing other things that you desire, such as refraining from speaking extraneous words and certainly refraining from speaking in a slanderous manner about someone, and the like.
This [form of fasting] exhausts the evil inclination more than an actual fast, and moreover, it doesn’t harm the person’s health. As a result, the individual has more strength to perform mitzvos in general, and deeds of righteousness and kindness (tzedakah v’chessed) in particular.
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. XI, p. 379)
In your letter you write about your daily schedule, your Torah study, and prayer. I was astounded to read about your conduct with regard to your fasting.
This is truly astonishing, since — as you write in your letter — you meet with Anash from time to time, and still — it would seem — you are unaware that this [path of fasting] is not the spiritual pathway of the Baal Shem Tov, his disciples and their disciples, and all who follow in their footsteps.
It is true that this path [of fasting] is also one through which a person can ascend spiritually, but in addition to the fact that this is an elongated path, it also does not wholly refine the individual, and one’s spiritual service is not enhanced in its entirety as it would be when one serves G-d out of joy.
This is in keeping with the verse: “Serve G-d with joy.” There is also the commentary of the Baal Shem Tov (quoted in HaYom Yom, entry for Shvat 28) on the verse: “When you see the donkey [of your enemy lying under its burden] you will [be tempted to] refrain from helping it; [but] you must come to its aid.”
[Says the Baal Shem Tov:] “When you see a chamor, a donkey — that is, when you carefully examine your chomer, [materiality,] your body — you will see that it is ‘your enemy,’ i.e., that your chomer despises your Divine soul that longs for G-dliness and the spiritual. Furthermore, you will see that it is ‘lying under its burden’ placed upon it by G-d, namely that it should become refined through Torah and mitzvos; but the body is too lazy to act thus.
“It may then occur to you that ‘you will refrain from helping it’ to fulfill its mission, but will instead follow the path of mortification of the flesh to break down the body’s crass materiality. However, the light of Torah will not reside [within the individual] through this approach. Rather, ‘you must aid it’ — purify the body, refine it, but do not break it by mortification.”
This is particularly true in our generation when our health and strength is not as great as it used to be, and it is explained in many sefarim — including the Rambam — that when the body is weakened, it also weakens the person’s intellectual capacity, which in turn hinders the individual’s Torah study and prayer.
... Rather than fasting — which diminishes your body — eat at the proper time and according to the health needs of your body, in keeping with the ruling of the Rambam, that “maintaining a healthy and whole body is an integral part of Divine service.” Replace your fasting with exerting your body in increasing its performance of Torah and mitzvos. ...
(Igros Kodesh, Vol. VII, p. 29)
- (Back to text) 1:4.
- (Back to text) Shemos 23:5.
- (Back to text) Ch. 3.
- (Back to text) See Shulchan Aruch Rabbeinu HaZakein, ibid. Also in Rambam, Hilchos Rotzeiach 1:4, and commentary of Radbaz, ibid., Hilchos Sanhedrin 18:6.
- (Back to text) In the Kehot edition, it is on p. 58.
- (Back to text) Entry for Shvat 28.
- (Back to text) Shemos 23:5.
- (Back to text) The Baal Shem Tov explains that “donkey” — in Hebrew, chamor, from the root chomer (materialism) — refers to a person’s physical body. “You must come to its aid” means that one may not rely on fasts and mortifications to break down the body’s crude materialism, but must “come to its aid,” by purifying, refining and elevating the body.
- (Back to text) Quoted above in the text.
- (Back to text) Tehillim 100:2.
- (Back to text) Shemos 23:5.