Mitzvot Bein Adam Lechaveiro Part 4: The Prohibitions Against Taking Revenge and Bearing a Grudge

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

 

Halakha: A Weekly Shiur In Halakhic Topics
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Bein Adam Lechaveiro

Based on a Shiur given by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein

Shiur #04: The Prohibitions Against Taking Revenge and Bearing a Grudge

 

The Torah in Vayikra 19:18 states:

You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge.

The formulation of this command implies that are two separate prohibitions – a prohibition against taking revenge and a prohibition against bearing a grudge. What are the definitions of these two prohibitions? The well-known Gemara in tractate Yoma (23a) answers this question:

For it has been taught: What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? If one said to his fellow: "Lend me your sickle," and he replied "No," and tomorrow the second comes [to the first] and says: "Lend me your ax," and he replies: "I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle" – that is revenge. And what is bearing a grudge? If one says to his fellow: "Lend me your ax," he replies "No," and on the morrow the second asks: "Lend me your garment," and he answers: "Here it is. I am not like you who would not lend me [what I asked for]" – that is bearing a grudge.

In this week's lecture we shall deal with a number of fundamental questions regarding the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge.

1. Does a person who violates the prohibition against taking revenge also violate the prohibition against bearing a grudge? The Gemara does not explicitly discuss this question, but we are left with the impression that a person who violates the prohibition against taking revenge does not violate the prohibition against bearing a grudge. On the face of it, however, there is good reason to say that he also violates the prohibition against bearing a grudge, for he has certainly not eradicated from his heart what the other fellow had done to him. Hence, we have here the bearing of a grudge over and beyond the act of revenge.

Rambam writes in Hilkhot De'ot 7:8:

So too, one who bears a grudge against a fellow Jew violates a prohibition, as it is stated: "Nor bear any grudge against the children of your people"… One who acts thus, transgresses the commandment, "You shall not bear any grudge." One should eradicate the thing from his heart, and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. Therefore, the Torah emphatically warned us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong shall be obliterated and no longer remembered.

According to Rambam's formulation, it may certainly be suggested that a person who violates the prohibition against taking revenge also violates the prohibition against bearing a grudge, for he certainly does not remove from his heart the wrong that his fellow had committed against him.

2. This question is connected to a fundamental question regarding the prohibition against bearing a grudge: When does a person violate the prohibition? Does he transgress when he reminds his friend of the wrong that he had committed, or is his sin the very nursing of the grievance in his heart? Rambam's formulation cited above implies that the focus is on the nursing of the grievance, rather than upon what he actually says. If, on the other hand, we say that the problem is in what he says, it may very well be that a person who violates the prohibition against taking revenge does not violate the prohibition against bearing a grudge. This, however, is not a necessary conclusion. For even if we say that the problem of bearing a grudge lies in what the person says, this does not necessarily mean that the prohibition is restricted to actual speech. It may include any form of bearing a grudge that stays not in his heart but rather finds external expression, and there is no greater expression of his bearing a grudge than his refusal to lend out his utensil, i.e., taking revenge. In any event, if we say that the sin lies in the nursing of the grievance in the person's heart – as is implied by Rambam - it would appear that one who violates the prohibition against taking revenge also violates the prohibition against bearing a grudge.

3. A similar question may be raised regarding the prohibition against taking revenge. What is the law regarding a person who refuses to lend his friend a certain utensil because his friend had refused to lend him something several days earlier, but he does not state this explicitly, and instead offers some other excuse why he is unable to lend him the utensil?

The Sefer ha-Chinukh in commandment 242 relates to the prohibition against bearing a grudge:

Not to bear a grudge; in other words, we were forbidden to keep in our heart any ill-feeling over the harm that any Jew did to us. Even if we should resolve not to repay him in kind for his deeds, the mere remembrance of his sin in the heart is forbidden to us.

The Chinukh, like Rambam, implies that the focus of the transgression is the nursing of the grievance in the person's heart, and not what he actually says. He speaks in similar terms regarding the prohibition against taking revenge.

This question has ramifications with respect to other issues as well. The Chinukh explains that the violation of these two prohibitions is not punishable by lashes, because neither prohibition involves an action. Even in a case where the person performed an action, he is not flogged, because he could have violated the prohibition without doing an action. The Rishonim disagree about the law applying in such a case where a prohibition was violated with an action but could have been violated without. Rambam maintains that in such a case, if he violated the prohibition with an action, he is liable to flogging. Why then, according to Rambam, is the violation of neither one of these two prohibitions ever punishable by lashes; surely a case can be constructed where a person violates the prohibition with an action!

Rabbi Krakovski, in his "Avodat ha-Melekh" on the Rambam, answers that the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge relate to the thoughts of vengeance and the nursing of the grievance in the person's heart. Hence, these prohibitions lack an action by their very definition, regardless of whether or not the person acted upon his thoughts. Let us remember, however, that it is not entirely clear, according to Rambam, whether the prohibitions relate to what the person says or to what he thinks.

There may be a difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge with respect to the very nature and focus of each of the prohibitions. It may be suggested that the prohibition against taking revenge, which includes injury caused to the other party, relates to the person's actions. But in the case of bearing a grudge, where the other party is not actually injured, the prohibition may relate to the person's thoughts.

There may be another difference between the two prohibitions. With regard to the laws included in Hilkhot De'ot, Rambam relates for the most part not to injury caused to others, but to the moral injury which a person causes to himself. It may very well be that taking revenge is forbidden because of the injury caused to others, whereas bearing a grudge is forbidden because of the moral injury which the person causes to himself. Rambam himself, however, deviates from his usual manner and shifts the focus of the prohibition against bearing a grudge from the moral injury of the person himself to the concern lest the grudge lead to vengeance.

[Rambam's explanation raises a general question whether or not there exist mitzvot that serve as fences to protect other mitzvot. We find a number of examples of this phenomenon in the works of the Rishonim. For example, Ramban understands that a priest is forbidden to enter the temple after drinking wine, lest he come to perform the sacrificial service in an inappropriate manner. (See Avot D'Rabbi Natan Ch.2)]

It should be noted that the formulation of the Baraita in Sifra is slightly different than the formulation found in tractate Yoma:

How far does revenge extend? He said to him… How far does bearing a grudge extend? He said to him…

According to this formulation, it is easier to suggest that a person who violates the prohibition against taking revenge also violates the prohibition against bearing a grudge. For the Baraita speaks of the range of situations in which one violates each of the two prohibitions, and it is certainly possible that there is a certain amount of overlapping between the two.

4. What is the definition of the prohibition against taking revenge? We are accustomed to think that the prohibition lies in the correspondence between the one person's refusal and the other person's refusal that had preceded it. Hence, there cannot be a situation in which the person responsible for the initial refusal would violate the prohibition against taking revenge. Ra'avad, however, in his commentary to Torat Kohanim, thinks otherwise. Ra'avad is disturbed by the fact that the first person does not violate any prohibition, despite the fact that he refuses to lend out his utensil for no reason, whereas the second person transgresses the prohibition against taking revenge, even though he has solid psychological and human grounds not to lend out his utensil. Ra'avad, therefore, explains that we are dealing here with a case where the first person refused to lend out his utensil, not because of hate, but for justified reasons. The second person, on the other hand, has no good reason to refuse, and his refusal follows solely from the first person's refusal. If, however, the first person would refuse to lend out his utensil due to hatred, he too would violate the prohibition against taking revenge, for the focus of the prohibition lies in the enmity between the two parties. Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, author of Sefer Yere'im, implies otherwise. There is a difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. Regarding the prohibition against taking revenge, the focus is upon the person's action, whereas regarding the prohibition against bearing a grudge, the focus is upon what the person says.

[Another point requiring clarification relates to the extent to which there must be a correspondence between the two acts of refusal. For example, if a person refuses to do another person a great favor, and in response to that refusal, the second person refuses to perform a small favor for the first, this is clearly a case of revenge. But what is the law in the reverse case where the first refusal related to a small favor, and the second person is ready to perform a small favor for the first person, but not a big favor? Is this also considered as taking revenge?]

5. An additional question regarding these prohibitions relates to the scope of the prohibitions and the realms in which they apply. Thus far we have seen that taking revenge and bearing a grudge are negative phenomena which must be avoided at all costs and in every situation. The Gemara in Yoma 22b implies otherwise:

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon: Any Torah scholar who does not avenge himself and bear a grudge like a serpent, is no [real] scholar. But surely it is written: "You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge"! That refers to monetary affairs, as it has been taught… But does not [this prohibition apply also to] personal affliction? Has it not been taught: Concerning those who are insulted but do not insult others [in revenge], who hear themselves reproached without replying, who [perform good] work out of love of the Lord and rejoice in their sufferings, Scripture says: "But they that love him be as the sun when it goes forth in its might" (Shoftim 5:31). That means, that he keeps it in his heart [without taking action].

Thus, the Gemara explicitly states that in certain situations taking revenge and bearing a grudge may be viewed in a positive light.

Rambam does not even hint at such a distinction, but other Rishonim relate to this point. The Yere'im argues that the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge are limited to financial matters, as may be learned from the verses constituting the context of the two prohibitions. This position is difficult, for when we examine the commandments surrounding these two prohibitions, it is not at all clear that all of them, or even the majority, relate only to financial matters. Assuming that we do in fact distinguish between the financial and other realms, it must be clarified which refusal is under discussion. Must the financial aspect be connected to the first refusal, the second refusal, or perhaps both refusals? The Gemara seems to imply that we are talking here about the first refusal.

The Gemara in Megilla 28a states:

Nor has the curse of my fellow gone up with me upon my bed. This is illustrated by Mar Zutra, who, when he climbed into his bed, would say: "I forgive all who have vexed me."

Ritva asks: What is the great novelty in what has been stated here? Surely there exist prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge. Everybody then is commanded not to nurse a grievance against another person. Ritva concludes that we are dealing here with religious, as opposed to financial, matters. Rabbi Krakovski argues that it is possible to distinguish between financial matters and bodily matters, as we find in the Gemara in Yoma. This implies that Ritva agrees with Rambam that there is no difference between bodily distress and financial matters.

The Gemara in Yoma raises a question regarding the attitude that should be adopted towards taking revenge. Is it an unfit feeling that must be strangled to the greatest extent possible, or does it have a certain legitimacy as long as it is contained within set boundaries? Both in the Chinukh as well as in Rambam, the rejection of this quality seems to be absolute. Thus, writes Rambam in Hilkhot De'ot 7:7.

He who takes revenge against his fellow violates a prohibition, as it is said: "You shall not avenge" (Vayikra 19:18). Although this offense is not punishable with lashes, still such conduct indicates an exceedingly bad disposition. One should rather practice forbearance with regard to all worldly things.

Fundamentally speaking, it would have been possible to understand that the person responsible for the initial refusal does not deserve that the other person should lend him his utensil. Such revenge, however, hurts the person taking revenge, and for that reason he must overcome his desire for vengeance. Rambam, on the other hand, does not take this approach. He understands that there is no reason to take revenge and it is not worth one's while. The implication is that if there were good reason to take revenge and revenge would be effective, he would not reject it out of hand.

As for the Gemara regarding those who are insulted but do not insult, Rambam mentions this passage in several places as an ideal to strive for (see end of Hilkhot Shabbat, end of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, and end of Hilkhot Talmud Torah).

Ramban in his commentary to the Torah writes about taking revenge and bearing a grudge as follows:

Our Rabbis have already explained the matters of taking revenge and guarding a grudge [which are here forbidden], that they apply to cases where there is no monetary obligation… For in a case where his friend owes him money, such as because of damage that he caused him or for similar reasons, one is not obliged to let his friend go free. On the contrary, he should sue him before the court and receive payment from him… And how much more so in matters of life, [the next of kin] should take vengeance and guard the grudge against the murderer, until the blood of his brother be redeemed by a court that will render judgment according to the laws of the Torah.

Interesting is Ramban's understanding of the Gemara in tractate Makkot, that the mitzva of the blood-avenger is not connected to revenge, but rather part of the mitzva falling upon the courts to mete out punishment. In other words, Ramban sees permitted and desired revenge as part of the mitzva to uphold the words of the judges.

(Translated by David Strauss)

This lecture was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein.