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Why Did Kayin Sin?

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Why Did Kayin Sin?





Kayin said to Hevel, his brother; and it was, when they were in the field, that Kayin rose up to Hevel, his brother, and killed him. (Bereishit 4:8)


In this single verse, the Torah tells us of Hevel's murder at the hands of Kayin. Midrashim and commentators try to explain that which is omitted from the verse: what did Kayin say to Hevel before killing him? What made him so angry that he murdered his brother?


In Bereishit Rabba (22,7), Chazal offer three explanations, representing three different causes of conflict that remain relevant to this day.


1. What was their argument? They said: Come, let us divide the world. One took the land; the other took the movable possessions. The first said: "The ground upon which you stand belongs to me." The other said: "That which you are wearing belongs to me." The one said: "Take it off;" the other said: "Fly in the air." As a result, "Kayin rose up to Hevel his brother and killed him."


2. Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin taught in the name of Rabbi Levi: Both took the land, and both took the movable possessions. What did they argue about? One said: "The Temple shall be built in my portion." The other said: "The Temple shall be built in my portion…" And as a result, "Kayin rose up to Hevel…."


3. Rabbi Huna taught: An extra twin sister was born together with Hevel. One said: "I shall take her, since I am the firstborn." The other said: "I shall take her, for she was born with me." As a result, "Kayin arose…."


The first interpretation views the conflict as a power struggle: Kayin demanded that Hevel get off his land, while Hevel insisted that Kayin relinquish his chattel. Indeed, to this day rulers who already have all that they need continue to struggle and wage war for power and control.


The second explanation casts the conflict in a religious light: Kayin and Hevel were arguing over who would have the Temple built in his half of the world. Today, too, we have first-hand experience of wars that break out because of religious zealotry and conflicts of faith.


The third explanation tells us that Kayin was born with a twin sister while Hevel was born with two twin sisters. Each brother took as a wife his brother's twin, and then they fought over the third sister. While we may not have experience of wars breaking out over women, we are certainly familiar with the terrible reality of murders that take place as a result of this sort of conflict.


Through their interpretation of the mysterious background to the story of Kayin and Hevel, Chazal indicate the factors that generate conflict in every age.  These sources of strife have been with us since the dawn of mankind, and we must exercise perpetual caution in order to avoid sinking into conflict.




Following the murder, God asks Kayin, "Where is Hevel, your brother?"  Kayin answers, "Am I then my brother's keeper?"  Chazal (Tanchuma, Bereishit 9) explain that Kayin meant by this to absolve himself of responsibility for his act. God, Kayin claimed, had set up the conditions for this murder by creating Kayin with his urges and desires, and He had then provided the proximate cause by refusing Kayin's offering, while accepting that of Hevel.


Kayin seemingly has a point. The Gemara (Berakhot 31b) recounts that Eliyahu came before God with a similar claim: "You have turned their heart backwards" (I Melakhim 18:37) – it is You Who have caused Israel to sin, and therefore You should not punish them. Indeed, God accepts this argument and forgives the nation. Similarly, concerning the verse, "Rachel weeps over her children" (Yirmiyahu 31:14), Chazal explain that Rachel likewise claimed that it was God Who created the possibility of marrying two wives, and that He had thereby caused her distress and rivalry. Therefore, God should not punish Israel for engaging in idolatry – which is also compared to "rivalry." Here, too, Chazal conclude that God accepted her claim.


Why, then, does God not accept Kayin's argument? There seems to be a difference between the claim offered by Kayin and those offered by Eliyahu and Rachel. A person cannot complain about the fact that he has certain urges. Indeed, God created him in this way, and it is his job to grapple with them and to conquer them. Sometimes there are exceptional situations – famine and war, as in the time of Eliyahu, or extraordinary deception, as in the case of Rachel and Yaakov. In such situations, it really is impossible to blame a person who no longer remains faithful. We cannot argue with Holocaust survivors who have abandoned their faith, but we can argue with a regular person who rejects the yoke of Torah.


The existence of the evil inclination is not an excuse for sinning. In general, a person has to know that problems always exist, but his task is to battle against his base desires and to conquer them. If he fails to do so, then, like Kayin, he is deserving of punishment.



Translated by Kaeren Fish