The Dangers of Hatred and Punishment

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Summarized by Dov Karoll


In Parashat Kedoshim (19:17) we read, "You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart." The gemara in Pesachim (113b) notes an apparent contradiction to the absolute nature of this prohibition. Shemot 23:5 states, "When you see YOUR ENEMY's donkey collapsing under its burden, and you hesitate to help him [your enemy], you should be sure to help him." This verse seems to imply that it is permissible to consider someone as "your enemy." The gemara first attempts to resolve the contradiction by assuming that the verse in Shemot is speaking of a person who was convicted by a court and therefore is to be considered as wicked. However, the gemara rejects this suggestion, since such a person would not be considered "your enemy," but rather everyone's enemy. Rather, the gemara concludes that the verse must be speaking of a person who committed a wrongdoing which you alone witnessed. Only the witness is permitted to hate such a person (according to Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, it is not only permissible to hate such a person, but it is even a mitzva to do so). The gemara takes for granted that the Torah cannot be referring to a case of illegitimate hatred.

Tosafot (s.v. "She-ra'a bo devar aveira") juxtapose this interpretation of the verse in Shemot with that of the gemara in Bava Metzia (32b), which discusses the mitzvot of perika and te'ina - helping to unload a burdened donkey and to reload it. The gemara there rules that if one must choose between these two obligations, one should help with perika (unloading) because of the suffering caused to the animal while it is collapsing. It then cites a Tosefta which stipulates that if the person who needs help reloading his donkey is an enemy, it is preferable to help him. The gemara explains that this ruling was issued in order to force the person to overcome his hatred, and help his enemy.

Tosafot ask: if it is justified to consider the person as your "enemy" (as explained by the gemara in Pesachim), why does the gemara in Bava Metzi'a demand that the "hater" overcome his evil desire to hate? Is his hate not justified (or even demanded)?! Tosafot reply that even though the dislike is justified, the witness (the "hater") cannot show outright hatred toward the sinner. For if he does so, the sinner will hate the witness in return, and the two will come to forbidden, personal hatred. This is the reason that the gemara in Bava Metzi'a rules that even a justified enemy must overcome his hatred and help his fellow Jew in need. The principle which Tosafot seems to be emphasizing is that hatred must be carefully utilized, even when technically permissible (or even mandated), and cannot be allowed to grow and thrive.

The Torah, including our parasha (Chapter 20), metes out capital punishment for various sins. However, it is clear from the gemara that in reality it was very difficult to carry out these punishments; the necessary conditions were almost impossible to come by. For example, the gemara (Sanhedrin 40b) rules that one can only be killed if is he is forewarned that his action will cause his death, he responds that he is doing so anyway (or "for that very reason," according to Rashi s.v. Hitir), and then he carries out the action within the next 3 seconds. No normal person would do such a thing! The difficulty in reaching a death sentence is also clear from the Mishna in Makkot (7a), which cites differing views regarding the definition of "a murderous court." According to the first opinion of the Mishna, one death sentence issued every seven years defines a "murderous court." Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria says that one death sentence issued every seventy years satisfies this definition, and Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state that they would never kill anyone if they were on the court. Thus, it is clear that through the rabbinic court system it is extremely difficult to reach a death sentence.

There are certain extralegal methods of putting someone to death which the court can utilize in extreme situations. Regarding these punishments, the Chazon Ish rules (Yoreh De'a 2:16 s.v. Ve-nir'eh) that they can only be carried out at a time when God's providence is clearly felt by all. He explains that only during such a period would people appreciate that the punishment of the wicked is a means of correcting the evil in the world. However, in a period when clear Divine intervention is lacking, such punishments are perceived as violence and aggression. As a result, he rules that they are counterproductive, and therefore forbidden.

These two elements - being wary of hatred even when permitted, and instituting punishments only when they are perceived as corrective measures - bear important ramifications for our own society. For example, there are countless matters of dispute between the religious and secular communities in Israel today. It is important to understand the perspective and background of the secular groups in order to improve relations with them. Large segments of the religious community reject this approach, claiming that if they try to understand the other viewpoint, they will be influenced by it. However, in order to have any positive relationship with other Jews, it is important to recognize where they are coming from.

It is impossible to judge people based solely upon their religious observance now. I am observant, but who knows what would have happened if I had grown up in a thoroughly secular environment? Does any one of us know or understand how God judges a person? Does anyone know that he will be rewarded simply by declaring himself religious? One must be wary of passing judgment on others, as you do not know what factors led to the person's current situation.

Beyond the issue of not judging, it is also important to approach issues which concern the secular community with an understanding of its perspective. For example, in the recent controversy regarding the closing of Bar Ilan Street in Jerusalem on Shabbat, I was asked to speak to the advisory committee. I told them that I thought that the road should be closed on Shabbat, but not because of the prohibition of people driving on Shabbat. I know full well that if this street is closed, the people will simply drive on another street. Nonetheless, I think that this is a reasonable demand - to ask people to modify their travel plans on Shabbat in order not to impose upon the atmosphere of a religious neighborhood. However, I explained that in the same vein I would not protest if those same Jews who do not keep Shabbat wanted to have theaters open on Shabbat.

People complained to me that such a statement implies recognition of non-observance of Shabbat. I responded that the secular Jews of Jerusalem live under constant pressures from the religious Jews, and that it is important that they feel able to continue living their lives. While it would certainly be ideal for them to be keeping Shabbat (and all other mitzvot), the way to change that is not through legislation with an iron fist. Meaningful change can only be effected through more pleasant means. There is often a desire and a need within the secular community for more Judaism. This need can be tapped into, but only through positive, corrective means (along the lines of what the Chazon Ish said), and not through punishments which are not accepted in the desired way.


(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Kedoshim 5757.)