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The Yetser Hatov in Rabbinic Thought

The rabbinic notion of two inclinations – good and evil – vying for domination in each human heart is first mentioned and best known from a homily on Deuteronomy 6:5, the second verse in theShema, which begins “ve’ahavta et hashem elokekha bekhol levavkha…”. Commenting on the use of the variant form levavkha, with double bet, for “your heart”, instead of libkha with one bet, thedarshan explains that you are expected to love God with both your inclinations, the good and the evil: “bishney yetsarekha, yetser hatov viyetser hara”. Versions of this homily are found in Mishnah Berakhot 9:5, Sifre Deuteronomy 32 and Tosefta Berakhot 6:7. In the Tosefta this darshan is identified as the second century tannaRabbi Meir, the primary teacher of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, editor of the Mishnah.

At first glance, Rabbi Meir’s notion of the two inclinations of the heart brings to mind the anatomy of the soul according to Plato and Aristotle: Plato divides the soul into passion, spirit, and intellect, and bids the intellect control the other two (Republic, book IV). Aristotle’s soul has rational and irrational components, and he sees a hierarchical relationship between them; the rational being the higher soul (De Anima, book III).

Maimonides tries to equate Rabbi Meir’s notion with that of the Greek philosophers, going so far as to suggest that while the evil inclination is present in the individual from birth, the good inclination develops along with the intellect (Guide for the Perplexed, book III, chapter 23). But it seems clear that Maimonides’ attempt to harmonize the mishnaic conception of the two yetsarim with Greek thought does not reflect the original meaning of Rabbi Meir’s statement. Rabbi Meir sees the yetser hatov and the yetser hara as two equal tendencies built into each and every human heart from its inception. His short homily makes that abundantly clear:

–  First of all, the inclinations are located in the lev, the heart, a physical organ, rather than in the nefesh, which God breathed into man, mentioned later in the same verse, which is analogous to the psyche that Plato and Aristotle were discussing.

–  Secondly, the very use of the word yetser indicates that both inclinations exist in man from birth. Yetser means created thing, or “nature”, so it would be hard to argue that Rabbi Meir thought that the yetser hatov is not inborn, but develops over time. Also, the fact that the two inclinations are represented by the double bet in the word levavkha implies a basic equality between the two, as does the fact that the Torah requires that we love God with both.

This distinction between Rabbi Meir’s notion and that of the Greek philosophers raises an important question: What is the point of saying that a baby is born with two equal inclinations?  How is that different from saying that a baby is born with a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and becomes good or bad, or a specific combination of the two, over time? Wouldn’t that model be a simpler way of saying the same thing? Why does Rabbi Meir need a yetser hatov and ayetser hara?

The fact is, Rabbi Meir did not invent the word yetser. The word occurs a number of times in the Bible. But in the Bible man is said to be born with one yetser – one inborn “nature” that accompanies him from his inception, and this nature is more often than not characterized as evil. According to Genesis 6:5 “the entire nature,yetser, of the thoughts of his heart is only evil all day”, and according to Genesis 8:21 “the nature, yetser, of man’s heart is evil from childhood”. Deuteronomy 31:21 refers to Israel’s yetser in the same way that Deuteronomy 31:27 refers to Israel’s “rebelliousness and stiff neck”. Ishay Rosen-zvi, a contemporary scholar of rabbinic thought, has shown in a number of recent articles that this is the dominant sense of the word yetser in tannaitic literature as well (Ishay Rosen-zvi, “Two Rabbinic Inclinations?: Rethinking a Scholarly Dogma”, Journal for the Study of Judaism 39 (2008), pp. 513-539; see also his Hebrew article in Tarbiz 76 (2007), pp. 41-79). This leads to one inevitable conclusion, as I point out in my forthcoming volume of commentary on Bavli Sukkah chapters IV and V, to be published by the Society for the Interpretation of the Talmud. In my introduction to a passage regarding the yetser hara found in Bavli Sukkah 51b-52b, I survey recent scholarship on the subject, and propose the following idea: Rabbi Meir, or tannaim associated with him, invented the notion that every human heart is born with both good and evil yetsarim, in order to neutralize the view that pervaded Jewish thought until the end of the tannaitic period, according to which man is born with only one yetser, which may be entirely evil (Moshe Benovitz, Talmud Ha-Igud: Lulav vaAravah and HeHalil[Hebrew, forthcoming from the Society for the Interpretation of the Talmud], Chapter 5, Sugya 4).

We have already noted that God twice asserts in the book of Genesis that the yetser of mankind’s thought is evil, and that Moses in Deuteronomy says the yetser of the Israelites is rebelliousness. However, these assertions could be interpreted as mere expressions of frustration with the behavior of a specific generation of humankind or Israelites; they are not necessarily general descriptions of human nature. Second Temple literature takes the notion of the yetser much further. Careful study of Second Temple texts dealing with the yetser, texts which reflect the views of different Second Temple sects, indicates that none of them anticipate Rabbi Meir’s conception of two equal forces in each individual heart, and all of them indicate that at least some humans are born with a tendency to evil. Let us survey these texts:

Perhaps the closest in ideology to Rabbi Meir’s conception is the Testament of Asher, probably composed by a Greek-speaking Jew in the first or second century before the Common Era. In chapter 1, verses 3-9, we read as follows:

The two ways are good and evil; there are two dispositions within our breasts to choose from. If the soul wants to follow the good way, all of its actions are done in righteousness… But if the soul is disposed towards evil, all of its deeds are wicked; … it accepts evil, and is overpowered by Beliar (Beliya’al, Satan).

The “two dispositions within our breasts” almost sound like Rabbi Meir’s interpretation of bekhol levavkha, but we are immediately disabused of the notion that these two inclinations accompany each individual throughout life. The Testament of Asher says that every human being has two dispositions at his disposal, of which he must choose one. He makes the choice only once, presumably as a child. If he chooses the good, his life from then on is devoted to good, he is protected from wrongdoing; if he chooses sin, the devil takes over, and any good he may undertake from then on is perverted into evil. Man has one yetser only. Which one he has — is his one-time-only choice.

The Qumran sect (second century before the Common Era) denied the individual even this initial choice. In the Rule of the Community 3:15-23 we read as follows:

All that is and ever was comes from the God of knowledge. Before things came into existence He determined their plan … All who practice righteousness are under the domination of the Prince of Lights, and walk in ways of light; whereas all who practice perversity are under the domination of the Angel of Darkness… abhorred by God to the end of time.

According to the Qumran community, each individual is predestined to belong either to the bene or, ruled by the Prince of Lights, or the bene hoshekh, under the domination of the Angel of Darkness and abhorred by God forever.

Surprisingly, an even more extreme view is found in the Pharisaic or proto-Pharisaic book of Ben Sira (second century before the Common Era), 15:11-16, the Hebrew text of which translates as follows:

Do not say, “My sin is from God”… When, in the beginning, God created man, he placed him in the hand of his Snatcher and gave him into the hand of his yetser (vayeshitehu biyad hotfo vayitnehu biyad yitsro). Nonetheless, if you so desire, you can keep the commandment; you have the discernment to do his will. If you believe in him, you too shall live.

God is not responsible for sin; the devil is. At birth God gives the individual over to his or her Snatcher, Satan, who is also called his or her yetser (The words vayeshitehu biyad hotfo are missing from the Greek translation of Ben Sira, which has led some scholars to see them as a later interpolation. Without these words, some suggest that the meaning of the phrase vayitnehu biyad yitsro is that God has left it up to the individual and his inclination, or mind, to choose good or evil. But this interpretation is untenable: how can an individual be given over to himself or a part of himself? It is thus apparent that yetser as used here is greater than man; it is used in the broader sense of Evil as a concept, and the parallel in the Hebrew text, Snatcher, is appropriate). In an important sense, Ben Sira’s view is more extreme than other Jewish Second Temple texts. Ben Sira rejects the notion found in the Testament of Asher that each individual begins life with a one-time-only choice between good and evil, and he rejects the notion found in the Qumran Rule of the Community that some individuals are born into light, rather than darkness. According to Ben Sira, each and every human baby is given over to evil, to Satan the Snatcher and his yetser.

In another sense, however, Ben Sira’s view is more moderate than that of the Testament of Asher and the Qumran Rule of the Community: Ben Sira’s determinism is not absolute. With effort and faith in God the individual can keep the commandment, do God’s will, and choose life. The individual is given over to his Snatcher from birth, but he or she also has the wherewithal to escape. There is free will, but the default choice is evil.

It would seem that the Christian doctrine of Original Sin is an outgrowth of Ben Sira’s doctrine that every individual is given over to Satan from birth. According to Ben Sira, Satan’s hold on the individual can be overcome with faith in God and observance of his commandments, and according to Christian doctrine, the individual can be saved from his sinful state through faith in Jesus. The difference is that according to Ben Sira, overcoming one’s natural state depends upon the individual’s desire, discernment and effort, while according to Christian doctrine faith is a function of God’s grace, bestowed or withheld at God’s will.

The revolutionary nature of Rabbi Meir’s doctrine of the twoyetsarim, inborn in each individual, stands out in light of the various doctrines espoused by the Testament of Asher, the Qumran Rule of the Community, Ben Sira, and the Early Christians. Rabbi Meir rejected the view of Ben Sira and the Christian community, that man is predisposed to sin, and goodness comes through extra effort or the grace of God. Like the authors of the Testament of Asher and the Qumran Rule, Rabbi Meir believed that there were good and bad yetsarim. But while they believed that each individual had only one of these, predetermined by God or chosen in childhood, Rabbi Meir’s view of the yetsarim is dynamic rather than static: both the yetser hatov and the yetser hara coexist within every human heart, and the two are engaged in a continuous struggle throughout life.

Moshe Benovitz is a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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