Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

N'kama and N'tira: Parameters and Preventatives

"Lo tikom v'lo titor es b'nei amecha, v'ahavta l'rei'ach kamocha, Ani Hashem - You shall not take vengeance and shall not bear a grudge against members of your nation, and you shall love your friend as yourself, I am G-d" (Kedoshim 19:18). This passage commands three separate mitzvos: two negative commandments against vengeance and grudge-bearing, and one positive commandment of loving others as ourselves (Rambam Seifer HaMitzvos Lavin 304-305 , Asin 206).

This short passage presents three of the most difficult commandments to fulfill. As we shall present, the methods recommended by our sages to avoid violation of them represent core values of our Torah which transcend these three specific mitzvos. As is the case with keeping any of the mitzvos of the Torah, the first step to proper fulfillment is the study of its details and situations where they apply and do not apply. In this article, we will first attempt to mention some important, perhaps not so well known, features of the first two mitzvos, prohibiting n'kama and n'tira. I believe that knowledge of these aspects makes the proper fulfillment of these commands more within reach. Then, we will list briefly some of the methods proposed to properly fulfill them. This article is certainly not meant to be comprehensive but rather to inspire further study concerning these very important mitzvos.[1] Any specific question concerning these laws should be referred to a poseik.

I

If someone is attacked verbally or physically, one's natural reaction is to react in kind. Is every such response prohibited by the prohibition of lo tikom?

Seifer HaChinuch (338), on the negative commandment of ona'as devarim, verbal abuse, writes:

It appears that if one Jew starts verbally abusing another, [the Torah] does not include [in the prohibition of verbal abuse] that the victim should not respond. For it is impossible for a person to be like an immovable stone. Furthermore, his silence would imply an admission to the insults. In truth, the Torah does not command that a person should be as a silent stone to his insulters... Rather it commands us that we should distance ourselves from this quality [of insulting] and not start to fight and curse at people...[2]

What emerges then is that immediate reactions to verbal assaults are not prohibited by the negative commandments forbidding verbal abuse nor by the prohibition forbidding vengeance.[3] Similarly, the immediate feelings of hurt and even distance after such an event are not prohibited by the prohibition of grudge-bearing. What then is prohibited by the Torah? Vengeance that is taken in a calculated way after the initial hurt has passed and allowing the feelings of enmity, distance and hatred to remain and fester after the initial pain has subsided.[4] This seems to be implicit in the words of the Sifra quoted by Rashi: if X refuses to lend Y his scythe, and then tomorrow X requests an axe from Y, and Y states: "I will not lend it to you, since you did not lend to me," he violates n'kama. The usage of the word "tomorrow" implies that the prohibition applies only after the initial hurt has subsided.[5]

The Talmud (Yoma 23a) states:

Those who are insulted and do not insult back, those who hear their degradation and do not respond, to them applies the verse: "And he shall be as the sun in its full strength."

This passage, quoted by Chinuch as well, adds an important concept. Immediate responses to insults or other forms of hurt are not prohibited by the Torah. But not responding is a valiant middas chassidus, act of piety, which leads to enormous Divine reward.[6] Indeed the Talmud (ibid.) states that one who overcomes his natural tendency to answer back will cause the Heavenly court to forgive all of his sins. Nonetheless, the distinction between the prohibited and the highly recommended must be made.

Hashem is referred to as a G-d of vengeance (T'hillim 92 and elsewhere). B'nei Yisrael are charged to exact vengeance from the Midianites (Matos 31:2). Vengeance is a form of justice. When done solely for that reason or some other constructive purpose, it is permitted and sometimes commanded. Under most circumstances, though, the individual seeks vengeance as a personal vendetta to remove his own personal feelings of hurt and not to mete out justice to the one who harmed him. "Revenge is sweet" as the expression goes, meaning it removes hurt. This kind of vengeance is categorically forbidden by the Torah. When the n'kama is indeed constructive it can be permitted. See the sefarim L'rei'cha Kamocha (Chapter 5) and Lo Tikom v'Lo Titor for a thorough treatment of the many conditions necessary to assure that any given act is l'toeles, for a valid purpose. They are listed briefly in the footnote.[7] One should consult with a Rav before doing so.

II

The mishna (Bava Kamma 92a) states:

Even though [one who wounded another] pays him, he is not forgiven [by Heaven] unless he requests forgiveness from [the victim]... How do we know that if the victim does not forgive him [after such a request], he is cruel? It states: "And Avraham prayed to G-d, and He healed Avimelech..."

This mishna implies two important halachos. 1) That a victim need not forgive until asked. 2) That even upon being asked, not forgiving is considered cruel, but it not necessarily prohibited. How do these implications fit with the prohibition of Lo Titor forbidding grudge-bearing? Does not this commandment demand that the victim forgive the perpetrator even before the latter asks for forgiveness?

Two basic approaches are given by the Rishonim. Ritva (Rosh HaShana 17a) distinguishes between 1) not bearing a grudge, meaning acting and thinking toward the one who harmed you in a manner that does not reflect the hurt and 2) agreeing to forego any valid claim against the perpetrator, called m'chilas shamayim, forgiving of the right to Heavenly judgment. When one harms another verbally, physically or monetarily (assuming this was unjustified), the victim has a legitimate claim against him. Sometimes this can be settled in beis din shel matta, regular courts; sometimes only the Heavenly Court will settle the claim. Not bearing a grudge entails a return to the relationship that existed before, but without necessarily foregoing the right to redress by the courts – earthly or Heavenly. M'chila, total forgiveness, the mishna states, must only be granted when requested by the perpetrator. (And even then it is possible that this forgiveness is not an absolute requirement but rather a very strong recommendation to avoid the label of "cruel".)[8]

Other Rishonim (Rashi in a responsum, Terumas HaDeshen 1:307) seem to indicate that even when not requested to forgive, the prohibition of grudge-bearing requires the victim to forgive. This does not exempt the perpetrator from requesting forgiveness, but even before he does so, the victim must remove all hatred and ill-will from his heart including, apparently, the "right to Heavenly judgment." They might resolve the seeming contradiction between above mishna which implies that forgiveness must be granted only upon request, and the issur of Lo Titor by distinguishing between types of hurt. The aforementioned Gemara in Yoma seems to conclude that the prohibitions of Lo Tikom and Lo Titor only apply to "matters of money" (e.g. not lending money or objects or not doing someone a favor) but not to "tza'ara d'gufa", physical (or emotional) hurt. This view is accepted by many Rishonim. However, Rambam and Chinuch do not make any such distinction. Chafetz Chaim (Be'er Mayim Chayim to Lavin 8-9) treats this as a doubt on a matter Torah law and therefore one should be stringent. [See also Piskei Teshuvos 156:14 for dissenting views.] According to the approach that makes a distinction between types of hurt, forgiveness must be granted concerning "matters of money" even before the person approaches to ask, but not for matters of personal hurt until and unless asked to forgive.

III

How can one overcome the natural tendency to bear a grudge or even exact vengeance? Mesilas Yesharim (Chapter 11) formulates this problem quite poignantly:

Hatred and vengeance are extremely hard to avoid... for the person greatly feels his insults and suffers very greatly. Vengeance is sweet as honey to him for it is his only respite. Therefore, for him to have the strength to abandon that which his nature drives him toward and overcome his tendencies ... not to exact vengeance... when he can, and not to bear a grudge, rather to forget everything and remove it from his heart as if it never happened, he is surely strong and courageous. It is only easy for the angels who do not have these qualities... But it is a decree of the King...

Unfortunately, this passage magnifies the problem but does not seem to address how to arrive at the solution.[9] Elsewhere, Mesilas Yesharim writes that to change our natural tendencies, something to which we do not have direct access, we must modify that which we do have access to, which, in turn, will filter down to cause a change in our inner selves. Here too, to fulfill these mitzvos properly, we must slowly change our attitudes through study to absorb the relevant Torah truths. This is accessible to us and will enable the proper fulfillment of these mitzvos. Below we list several approaches given by Chazal and Rishonim.

1) Talmud Yerushalmi (N'darim 9:4) likens one taking n'kama against a fellow Jew to one hand hitting the other which cut it. We might sense a need to exact vengeance from one who harms us, but absorbing the fundamental reality of K'nesses Yisrael, that all Jews are linked in one national soul, forces us to rethink whether we are really harming ourselves by taking vengeance. Perhaps this is why the mitzva of ahavas Yisrael is listed in the same passage.

2) Rambam (Dei'os 7:7) states that we must learn to nullify the havlei olam, the unimportant aspects of the world and focus on that which is truly important: service of G-d and elevating our personalities to imitate him. This will allow our not getting upset about others harming us.

3) Seifer HaChinuch (241) teaches us to absorb the message that nothing can happen to us without Divine decree.[10] If someone harmed us, this was a necessary harm decreed by the Heavens to elevate us by atoning for some sin.[11] Of what value is it to "kill the messenger!"

4) Petil T'cheiles by R Ya'akov Yisrael Chagiz and Seifer Chareidim (73:4) highlight the aforementioned Gemara Yoma which declares that one who overcomes his natural tendencies to respond in kind will have his sins forgiven. Hashem acts toward us in the same way we act toward others. Why should we needlessly suffer for our sins when we can achieve Divine forgiveness by fulfilling these mitzvos?

5) Mishlei (25:21) teaches: "if your enemy is hungry, feed him bread, ....for coals do you pour on his head, and Hashem will repay you." This serves as a form of "kosher revenge" whereby the perpetrator recognizes the evil in his ways, and the one bestowing kindness upon him does not copy his evil behavior.

6) R. Yisrael Salanter (Iggeres HaMussar) notes that studying the detailed halachos of a given mitzva impacts greatly on one's awareness and performance of it. [See footnote 1 for some recommended works on this and related topics.]

With the help of Hashem and with an increased awareness of these mitzvos, may we merit their fullest fulfillment and all the spiritual and physical benefits they carry with them.


[1] This article is wholly based on the beautiful sefarim on mitvzos bein adam lachaveiro recently published quoting from earlier sources. For further study, see Chafetz Chaim (Lavin 8-9), Mitzvos HaL'vavos (available at http://hebrewbooks.org/37559), Halichos Olam (translated as Journey to Virtue), L'Reiacha Kamocha (Vol. 1), and the comprehensive treatment in Lo Tikom v'Lo Titor published by Machon Toras ha'Adam la'Adam based in Tzfat.

[2] Interestingly, concerning our relationship with parents, more is required and expected. "Even if his parents took his wallet of gold coins and threw it into the sea...even if he was dressed in finery before the community and his parents ripped his garments and hit him on the head and spit at him...he should not embarrass them or cause them pain or get angry at them, rather he should accept the Divine Decree and remain silent...he should fear the King of kings who commanded this." (Rambam Mamrim (6:7) summarized by Chinuch (212) as well).

[3] See Chavos Ya'ir (65) and Chafetz Chaim (referenced in the next footnote) for a discussion of its applicability to physical assault.

[4] See Chafetz Chaim (Be'er Mayim Chayim on Lavin 8-9) who quotes the view of Chinuch as the accepted halacha..

[5] Although this proof is not absolutely conclusive, other sources such as Chinuch and the proofs he quotes verify this approach.

[6] I have heard that one who does so opens an eis ratzon in the Heavens, and his prayer at that time is very likely to be answered positively.

[7] 1) That harm was certainly commited. 2) That it was unjustified. 3) The intent in vengeance is for a valid purpose. 4) There is no other way to accomplish the same goal (e.g. rebuke, social pressure). 5) That the response is just enough to prevent further harm.

[8] See the frightening words of Rabbeinu B'Chaye (VaYechi 50:17) that Yoseif did not bear a grudge against his brother, but he never forgave them fully, "m'chilas shamayim". This led to the tragic episode of the Asara Harugei Malchus.

[9] Perhaps his words "it is a decree of the King" refer to the concept mentioned by Rambam (Mamrim 6:8) that if an earthly king commanded him to undergo suffering, he perforce would do so out of fear of consequences, all the more so concerning a commandment of the King of kings.

[10] Rishonim debate the inter-relationship between Divine decrees and human free will. Chinuch implies that any human act against another was also Divinely decreed. Others dispute this formulation. All agree, however, to the fundamental principle that nothing can occur without at least Divine permission. Whether an individual who harms us was directly sent by Heaven or was "allowed" to utilize his free will by Heaven does not modify the Chinuch's main point.

[11] Perhaps we can add "or to serve as a nisayon to improve our character".

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