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Shiur #05: “Erekh Apayim”

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The sixth of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy is that of erekh apayim (literally, “delaying anger”).  What effect does this attribute have, and what is its precise meaning?


            The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit, end of 2:1) discusses this attribute at length.  Let us study this sugya and attempt to understand its various segments.


            The Gemara begins by addressing the fact that this attribute is formulated in the plural form – erekh apayim, as opposed to erekh af:


Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It does not say here erekh af, but rather erekh apayim; He delays His anger with the righteous, and delays His anger with the wicked.[1]


The Talmud’s formulation points to a difference between the patience extended to the righteous, and God’s patience for the wicked.  Indeed, for this reason some Rishonim consider erekh apayim two separate attributes.  As we mentioned at the beginning of this series, there are Rishonim who count Hashem Hashem as but a single attribute, and some maintain that this phrase does not refer to an attribute of mercy at all.  These Rishonim are compelled to find substitutes to complete the sum of thirteen attributes, and one possibility suggested is to divide erekh apayim into two distinct attributes.  This division requires us to explain the difference between the patience God extended to the righteous and to the wicked, which justifies this classification of erekh apayim as two different attributes.  However, since I have limited myself in this series to the accepted view regarding the classification of the thirteen attributes, the view of Rabbenu Tam, who considers erekh apayim but a single attribute, I exempt myself from addressing this intriguing question.


            Let us therefore proceed to the next passage in the Yerushalmi, which cites another comment in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “It does not say here erekh af, but rather erekh apayim: He delays His anger before He ‘collects’ [His ‘debt’], and once He has begun ‘collecting,’ He delays His anger and ‘collects’.”  We will discuss this comment at greater length later; for our purposes at this point, it suffices to note the new term that the Yerushalmi introduces in this context – geviya (“collection”).  The attribute of erekh apayim stands in opposition to the Almighty’s act of “collection.”  It seems that the Yerushalmi here seeks to address the syntax of the expression “erekh apayim.”  Whereas in the previous attributes we have divine kindness working in opposition to divine justice, here, God’s kindness works against af – God’s anger.  The Gemara translates the concept of divine anger as “collection”; meaning, God’s anger is the punishment that affects the individual.  We will return to this expression later in our discussion.


In the meantime, let us continue our study of the Yerushalmi: “Rabbi Chanina said: Whoever says that the Almighty relents – his intestines should be "relented" (ruptured).  Rather, He is maarikh af and then collects what is His.”  At first glance, it might appear that this passage serves to dispel a possible misconception.  We might have thought that the Almighty “delays His anger” forever; this remark therefore comes to clarify that this is not the case – God delays His anger for a long time, but in the end “collects what is His.”


But this not the correct reading.  Rabbi Chanina does not seek to dispel a certain misconception, but rather explains the attribute of erekh apayim itself.  There are two possible meanings of erekh apayim.  The first, which Rabbi Chanina seeks to negate, explains that the Almighty is a vatran – he relents - and does not show too much concern for what people do.  Given His indifference, it is possible for Him to simply relent, to look the other way, rather than reacting angrily to sinners.  But the correct meaning of erekh apayim is that God “delays His anger and collects that which is His.”  The basis for the delay in anger is not disinterest or lack of concern, but rather the precise opposite: He can delay His anger specifically because He will ultimately collect that which is His.  He cannot simply forego on the attribute of justice, and the attribute of justice demands punishment, it insists that the “debts” be collected.  However, in contrast to a human being who collects his debts immediately, as he is always concerned that tomorrow he will not succeed in retrieving the funds, the Almighty has the luxury of waiting.  The collection is guaranteed; no obstacles will get in His way in the future, and therefore He need not rush to collect.  His “collecting that which is His” does not contradict “He delays His anger”; to the contrary, it is the basis of erekh apayim.  It is an integral part of this attribute.


The Yerushalmi immediately proceeds to explain this concept: “Rabbi Levi said: What is erekh apayim?  He distances fury.”  Although we often understand the Hebrew term erekh apayim to mean simply that God does not grow angry, a closer examination of the literal meaning of the phrase yields the precise opposite meaning – “extending anger,” remaining angry for an extended period without calming the rage.  The Yerushalmi therefore explains that erekh here means not “extend,” but rather “distance.”  The Almighty extends the distance between Himself and His anger, so that the anger cannot be manifest – at least in the meantime.  Onkelos similarly translates erekh apayim as “rachik ragiz” (“distances fury”).  This is, indeed, the plain meaning of this attribute.  The question, however, arises, what does it mean that God distances His anger?  How can we understand the concept of “distance” in the context of a divine attribute?


The Yerushalmi answers this question through the use of an allegory:


A king had two harsh legions.  The king said: If they live with me in the city, then when the citizens anger me, they [the legions] will rise against them.  Instead, I will send them far away, so that if the citizens anger me, then by the time I send for them [the legions] the citizens will appease me and I will accept their appeasement.

Similarly, the Almighty said: Af [Anger] and Cheima [Rage] are two destructive angels.  I will thus send them far away so that if Israel angers Me, by the time I send for them and bring them, Israel will repent and I will accept their repentance.


Let us try to explain this analogy.  The people sin and arouse the king’s anger, in response to which he sends his legions to punish the people.  It should be noted that this scenario was not unfamiliar to the population of the Roman Empire; the unleashing of legions dispatched to ravage through the country as punishment was a common phenomenon.  We deal with an entirely different response than a trial before a judge, where a single individual commits a crime and receives the punishment warranted by the code of law.  Here, we speak not of the cold objectivity of justice, but rather of af and cheima, an outburst of rage in response to provocation.  And so, the legions are on their way, because anger has been aroused.  The king’s anger surfaces as an instinctive reaction to the people’s conduct, and not as a calculated decision.  Practically, however, some time still remains so long as the legions have not yet arrived.  Transferring this analogy to God and Benei Yisrael, a gap exists between the anger and its repercussions.  And here, there would seem to be a vast difference between the analogy and its application.  In the case of a mortal king, there is always a gap between the decision and its execution – because he is limited by mortal constraints.  Theologically, such a thing cannot possibly be said with regard to the King of kings, whose word is its own execution.  Can He declare that something should occur, but it does not occur?


            This, then, is the special attribute of erekh apayim.  This attribute drives a wedge between the Almighty’s anger, the reaction of the attribute of justice, and the execution of that which should necessarily result from that reaction.  The Almighty is angry at you, and the anger smolders, but in the meantime you will not be affected by that anger because “He distances fury.”  This does not mean that God does not grow angry, that He sends anger away altogether, but rather, as is clear from the Talmud’s analogy, that He distances the practical repercussions of His anger.  The Almighty controls His anger and does not allow it to burst forth.  Here, we once again sense the strength entailed in the divine attributes of kindness, as we saw when we studied the attribute of Kel.


            One might ask, what difference does it make?  After all, as we saw, we refer here only to a temporary delay, and eventually God will come and “collect that which is His.”  If there is anger, eventually it will burst forth.  What does a person gain from this attribute of erekh apayim, from God’s delaying the punishment?  The Yerushalmi itself provides the answer.  Delaying the onslaught of the legions, the eruption of anger, grants the people the opportunity for teshuva.  This attribute serves as a call for “appeasement,” for repentance which will eliminate the cause of the anger from the outset.


            This brings us to a point which we addressed in our study of the second attribute of Havaya, which applies “after a person has performed teshuva.”  Erekh apayim acts before a sinner repents, but only because of the expectation of repentance.  Teshuva is the reason for this attribute, albeit a reason that exists only in the future.  The attribute of erekh apayim clearly does not grant atonement or forgiveness.  The sin remains, as does the consequence – the impending punishment.  We deal here with but a delay of punishment, and so this is merely a means through which the person can continue existing, as we emphasized in previous shiurim.  In this case, he will continue existing for a limited period of time, because the existence granted by erekh apayim is an existence in the shadow of divine wrath.  The legions are on their way, and draw nearer each second.  A person with attentive ears will, even at the moment when he receives the kindness offered by erekh apayim, hear the – pounding of the marching boots of the legions as they make their way toward him.  This attribute does not give a person much relief; to the contrary, it causes him anxiety and dread.  Erekh apayim is not an attribute that works in opposition to anger, but rather one which postpones it; the anger is guaranteed to surface in the future.  Whoever says that the Almighty is a “vatran” – that “I have been saved, I can breathe a sigh of relief because He is not angry at me despite my sins” – is doomed.  God delays His anger, and then collects that which is His.  You will survive – but only for a brief period of time, unless you are wise enough to take advantage of this delay and fundamentally correct your current sinful condition.


            “Whoever says that the Almighty relents – his intestines shall be ruptured.”  If you think that you have not received immediate punishment because there is no anger, because the Almighty is indifferent and there is no judge, then you essentially decree destruction upon yourself.  For if the Almighty “gives in” to you, then He "gives up" on you altogether.  As we’ve emphasized several times, there is no possibility of existing outside the Almighty’s will or against His wishes.  If God, the Judge of the earth, looks upon you and takes interest in you, and you sin – then He will undoubtedly now look upon you with anger.  The attribute of erekh apayim allows the sinner to exist within the Almighty’s angry look – but the time-constraint is critical.  One can exist in this way only for a brief period, until the legions arrive.  It is preferable to receive attention than to be completely ignored, but in the end, this angry attention will lead to destruction unless this result is prevented through “appeasement” – and repentance is what appeases the divine attribute of anger.


            Note that anger differs from justice.  I would dare go so far as to say that anger is actually an attribute of kindness.  As we saw, the fact that God “collects that which is His” is included in the attribute of kindness latent within erekh apayim.  Anger is born only once we have already gone through the previous attributes.  Until the attribute of chanun, the attributes worked in opposition to the divine attribute of justice, God’s role as judge.  Clearly, a judge does not become angry.  He presides over the case, controlled and disinterested, and looks upon the defendant from above.  In fact, a judge who feels anger toward the defendant is disqualified from presiding over his trial.  The judge’s response follows what is written in the legal codes: you committed such-and-such crime, so you deserve such-and-such punishment.  There is no reason for a judge to be angry.  When does a person become angry?  When the offense is not simply an objective wrong – a violation of the law – but rather one which affects him personally.  The judge suffered no personal harm from the defendant’s crime, and specifically for this reason he is qualified to judge him, in the name of law and justice.  Anger reflects personal feelings toward the affair, and somebody with personal interest is disqualified from judging.  Accordingly, the attribute of erekh apayim goes into effect only after we have left the framework of judgment.  When does this happen?  It happens with the advent of the attribute of chanun.  As we explained in our previous shiur, chanun comes into play once the sentence has been issued (as Tosefot comment), once all avenues within the realm of judgment have been tried.  A person’s cry arouses the Creator’s personal identification with His creation; the God of gods identifies with the creature made with the divine image.  If so, then already from the attribute of chanun we speak of God having personal interest.  The entire concept of chanina is the neglect of the attribute of justice, and personal involvement borne out of God’s deep sense of identification with – and hence His favoritism toward – His children.  For this very reason, the next stage is a situation of anger.


            Once God looks upon the person – starting with the attribute of chanun – from the perspective of personal identification, in the situation of a sinner the response is naturally one of anger, a personal reaction, as though God takes personal offense.  If the divine image committed a sin, then he has sinned and slighted God.  Don’t ask me philosophical questions as to how God can take personal offense and feel anger.  Questions such as these we leave for the likes of the Rambam and Rav Chasdai Crescas.  Here, we seek merely to understand the analogy drawn by the Yerushalmi.  Chazal attribute anger to God, and whatever the philosophical explanation is, this means that the human being’s actions arouse within Him an emotional response that is warranted in light of the personal offense.  As it were, God looks upon the sinner and erupts in a rage of fury.  Why?  Because He sees, as it were, Himself; He sees the Shekhina being ruined.  He sees sanctity defiled.  And why does He view the sin in this way, rather than from the calculated perspective of the judge, without any personal interest in the result?  Because I cried: “Then, when he cries out to Me, I shall listen – for I am gracious.”  The success of the previous attribute gives rise to the need for the next attribute.


            Therefore, the Yerushalmi emphasizes specifically in this context that “Whoever says that the Almighty relents – his intestines shall be ruptured.”  After the attribute of chanina, there is no longer any possibility to even think that the Almighty will simply “give in” – not after we cried to him and demanded that He see within us the divine image, the “chariot” for the Shekhina, the potential for the existence of Godliness in the world.  Without God’s personal identification and concern, we would never pass the stage of chanina.  But this personal identification and concern represents the precise opposite of indifference, and therefore anger surfaces – and God will certainly “collect that which is His.”  He will demand a personal accounting, because I have offended His personal image.  But – there is the attribute of erekh apayim, which delays this response.  You, our Father and King, are angry, and I accept this and acknowledge the reason for this anger.  My existence was intended to serve as an image of God, and I betrayed this purpose.  Yet, amidst this anger, I hang my hopes on the opportunity You will grant me to appease You, for You are erekh apayim.  Some people would probably prefer that the Almighty would simply relent and forget about him, but at this stage this is no longer possible.  The only option is to accept God’s angry, threatening closeness, and to try to correct the mistake through repentance.  In the meantime, until teshuva is achieved, we ask for the right to live amidst the anger and fury, on the basis of the attribute of erekh apayim.


            I believe that in this vein we might understand Chazal’s inference from the plural term apayim (without turning this into two separate attributes).  God delays His anger to both the righteous and the wicked.  Divine anger and wrath are based upon His closeness, love and identification.  There is a common basis shared by the manifestations of erekh apayim in the cases of a righteous person and a wicked person.  The anger is, fundamentally, a positive attribute, an attribute of kindness, of God’s identification with the person.  The person – the sinner – does not want a special attribute that suits the wicked, an attribute of “giving in” and disregard.  To the contrary, he desires the attribute that suits the righteous, an attribute based upon God’s relating to him as a “chariot” for the Shekhina.  Therefore, with regard to the attribute of erekh apayim, the sinner must accept the future “collection of that which is His.”  No attempt can be made to avoid this outcome.  Without the attribute of erekh apayim for the righteous, there is no possibility of erekh apayim for the wicked.  The sinner knowingly exposes himself to God’s anger, in order to buy time for appeasement.  Without increasing the basic reason for divine anger – God’s identification with the divine image – there is no room for the attribute of erekh apayim.


            As we saw, both Targum Onkelos and the Yerushalmi translate the term erekh apayim to mean “distances fury.”  As we proved from the Yerushalmi’s analogy, distancing anger does not eliminating anger; the anger exists and has already begun approaching.  I believe that on the level of peshat we may propose a different explanation of this term, one which will enhance the picture we have already drawn of this attribute.


            Why does the word “af” (literally, “nose”) signify anger?  The answer, of course, is that when a person grows angry, he breathes heavily, thus giving the impression that the anger leaves his nose.  Just before a person erupts in rage, he takes a deep breath and then allows it to burst forth.  I would like to suggest that the term af relates to this first stage, the long, deep intake of breath that precedes the eruption of anger.  Thus, the term ma’arikh af (“extends anger”) means prolonging this deep breath.  When you sit in front of a person and make him angry, you see him sitting and filling his lungs with air; he actually inflates and fills with rage.  And you know that soon enough, the accumulated, pent-up fury will burst forth and overtake you.  The Almighty is ma’arikh af – meaning, He delays the outburst of anger, and prolongs the process of accumulating anger.


            The difference between this interpretation and that of Chazal lies only in the force of the imagery.  In our interpretation, it is clear and evident that the stage of erekh apayim does not eliminate the anger, but rather delays it – and, what more, it actually intensifies it.  In addressing the analogy of the legions, I suggested that we listen to their footsteps in the background while we ask for erekh apayim.  Now, in the second explanation of erekh apayim, there is no way not to see the impending anger – because the delay of anger and anger are essentially one and the same.  The delay is simply the preparation of the anger.  If you are not wise enough to make appeasement, then this delay will not simply have been for naught, but will have the effect of creating an especially forceful rage that will eventually overcome you.


            The Yerushalmi presents two images to illustrate the delay of punishment.  The first involves distance: “The Almighty said: Af and Cheima are two destructive angels.  I will thus send them far away.”  Rabbi Yitzchak then adds a different image:


Rabbi Yitzchak said: What more, He locked them [the destructive angels] away.  This is what the verse means, “The Lord has opened His treasury and taken out His instruments of fury” (Yirmiyahu 50:25) – by the time He goes through the trouble of opening, compassion arrives.


In these two analogies, there is a difference between distant legions and legions that have been locked away, but practically, this difference entails simply another few minutes of delay.  So what is the difference in the application of this analogy, with regard to the Almighty?  What does Rabbi Yitzchak add to the original understanding?


            In order to answer this question, let us first examine the precise meaning of “distancing” and “locking away” the divine attributes.  Some attributes are “near” while others are “far,” and God sends anger far away.  What does this mean?  All of God’s attributes stem from goodness.  The Creator’s connection and relationship with the world is based upon goodness and His desire to perform goodness.  Bestowing goodness and kindness is an attribute that flows directly from goodness, because, in the words of Rav Chasdai Crescas, “The nature of goodness is to do good” (“Teva ha-tov le-heitiv”).  Anger, God’s demand to “collect” His “debt,” is justified only in that it ultimately serves the purpose of goodness.  Conceptually, the attribute of anger operates on the level of “be-di’avad.”  It is a yerida le-tzorekh aliya (“descent for the purpose of ascending”).  The attributes of anger and rage relate to goodness in that they work as a means of goodness; they serve goodness.[2]  At least with respect to anger, we may classify it as an attribute of evil which joins goodness only for the purpose of serving its purposes.


            It would seem that the Yerushalmi’s image of “distance” comes to express this distinction.  Even though anger is among God’s attributes, nevertheless, it is a “distant” attribute, one which the Almighty utilizes only after the “near” attributes have not achieved the desired result.  Just as ethicists – from King Shlomo to the Rambam to contemporary ba’alei musar –have always advised distancing oneself from anger as much as possible, such is the case also with the divine ethic.  Although anger is necessary, it is far, as it were, from being a natural attribute within the framework of divine goodness.  It is like a foreign player, who contributes to the team, but does not fully belong.  Anger plays on the team of compassion, because it advances its cause, working to sustain the individual until he repents, but there will always remain a certain contradiction between goodness and anger, because anger contains an element of evil.  This disparity is reflected in the “distance” between God and anger, between the King and the “legions” under His charge.  Practically, this distance is expressed through time – the delay of anger – and herein lies the primary result of erekh apayim.  The term “distance” explains the basis of this delay: God enlists the services of a “foreign” concept, rather than granting favor from within the internal system of divine attributes.  If the Almighty brings me near, this is kindness; if He pushes me away – so that I can eventually draw near – this is justified and ultimately something good, though practically, at the time this happens, it entails releasing the forces of evil and destruction.  We might say that it pains God, as it were, to do this, just as it pains a father to punish his child.  Even when he realizes that he must – for his child’s own good – administer punishment, he turns his head to the side.  The response is therefore not immediate; God delays it, a little bit, and then a little bit more, hoping that in the meantime the sinner will repent without punishment, and thus allow the Almighty to act in the preferred manner of love and forgiveness, rather than in the “be-di’avad” manner of cruelty and anger.


            This explains the concept of “distance.”  But what does the image of “locking away” add?  Since anger contains an element of evil, it entails – at least from the perspective of “le-chatkhila,” the preferred way of doing things – tarnishing the perfection and purity of God’s love and grace.  As such, God encounters, as it were, some “difficulty” in utilizing anger.  The anger is locked away; it is not readily available for use.  Until the final decision is made to use it, anger does not even appear on the list of options.  Given the impropriety of anger, and the inherent contradiction (at first glance) between it and divine goodness, it does not stand before God as an attribute until there is no other option than to search for it.  As it were, so long as the Almighty is not angry, he is not susceptible to anger.  The attribute of anger is not even possible – until it becomes necessary.  The concept of “distance” expresses the fact that anger operates on the level of “be-di’avad”; the image of “locked away” teaches that it is rejected.  Rav Yitzchak does not offer a differing view, but rather deepens the same basic idea.  The Almighty is filled with anger but He delays the outburst because anger is a foreign attribute – and, moreover, an attribute that contradicts His goodness.  Until He decides to access this attribute, and until he girds Himself with this attribute which does not at all suit Him, the possibility remains that compassion will prevail, that the sinner will repent and appease, that he will calm the rage and eliminate its underlying cause.


            I realize that students of the Rambam will again object: “Aren’t all of God’s attributes one and the same with His essence?  He and His compassion are one; He and His anger are one!”  Presumably they are correct, but, nevertheless, it seems that being one with the attribute of anger is something that the Almighty does not deem worthwhile to do.  Until He is angry – “by the time He goes through the trouble of opening” – until anger becomes an attribute like God’s other attributes, in practice, in our world, there is time for repentance.


            In summary, when a person sins, he does not merely receive a bad grade from the One who gives out grades.  He causes the One who expected from him achievement, who expected better conduct, to become angry, because sin is not only a failure, but rather an affront to the sanctity of the Creator.  Anger is the result of our being created in the divine image.  But the Almighty delays and distances anger to the furthest extent possible, without eliminating it – not because He does not want to eliminate it, but because it cannot be eliminated.  Out of this tension – the delay of anger together with its urgency – an opportunity arises for us to repent.  Teshuva can eliminate the anger (or, in the Yerushalmi’s words, can “appease”) after kindness succeeded only in delaying it.  Therefore, the attribute of erekh apayim, in the mindset of the worshipper, must include an existential feeling of God’s anger – and the glimmer of hope for teshuva.


            The next attribute is that of “rav chesed.”  In order to understand this attribute, we must return to the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17a) and Rashi’s explanations there.


[1]      This passage also appears in the Talmud Bavli, in Masekhet Eruvin (22a).

[2]      The Medieval philosophers discussed the question of how the Almighty punishes the wicked.  The Ralbag claimed that the rule of “nothing bad comes down from the heavens” applies even with regard to the suffering of the wicked, because punishment – pain and suffering – is bad.  Rav Chasdai Crescas’ response was that evil that serves goodness – such as punishment, which serves the purposes of goodness – is also goodness and can thus be included among the attributes of God.