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A regimen of self-denial to help one avoid temptations and distractions that hinder spiritual development. The Nazirites and Rechabites of the Bible, who abstained from wine, were ancient examples of asceticism. Rechabites also refrained from living in houses and dwelt in tents instead. In the time of the Second Temple there was an ascetic sect called the Essenes. Fasting frequently or eating very little, wearing rough clothing, avoiding company, doing without money, these were practices among the ascetics. The growing influence of the Zohar and the Kabbalah during and after the Middle Ages, plus the increasingly difficult conditions of Jewish life, furthered asceticism. A practice favored by many ascetics was “putting oneself in exile.” The ascetic would leave home and family for a time, in order to appreciate more fully the exile of all Jewry. Jewish authorities such as Maimonides allowed limited asceticism for short periods, but opposed it as a way of life. A familiar ascetic figure was the matmid, one who devoted his days and nights to Torah study and allowed no other interests to distract him. The Mussar movement, which began in Lithuania about 1850, had ascetic leanings. But it placed less emphasis on self-inflicted suffering and more on the examination of the conscience as a means of self-improvement.

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