Roots of Revenge

April 22, 2012

6 min read


Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

Roots of Revenge

In explaining the roots of the prohibition against taking revenge Leviticus (19:18), the Sefer HaChinuch (241) writes that a person is obligated to believe and recognize that everything which happens to him was ordered by God. In this vein, King David commanded (2-Shmuel 16:11) that Shimi ben Geira not be harmed for cursing him, explaining that “God told him to curse me.” The Torah therefore forbids taking revenge against a person who harms or hurts us, since he was just an agent to execute God’s decrees.

This idea is difficult to reconcile with an explanation of the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh in Parshas Vayeishev. The Torah records (Genesis 37:21) that while the rest of the brothers were plotting to kill Yosef, Reuven saved him by suggesting that they instead throw him into a pit. Since Rashi writes (37:24) that the pit was full of poisonous snakes and scorpions, in what way was this considered “saving” Yosef and not merely substituting one type of death for another?

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that while humans have free will and the ability to do something which wasn’t decreed in Heaven, animals have no such free choice and are limited to whatever was decided by God. Reuven knew that Yosef wasn’t the wicked pursuer that the other brothers thought he was and was confident that a death sentence hadn’t been decreed upon him.

Nevertheless, Reuven feared that his brothers, with their free will, would succeed in their plans to kill Yosef. Reuven “saved” Yosef by having him thrown into a pit where he knew that the snakes and scorpions would have no permission to harm him. This seems to contradict the principle of the Sefer HaChinuch, who writes clearly that humans have no ability to harm innocent people and should be viewed as mere executors of God’s decrees.

A possible reconciliation is that in Derech Sicha, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky clarifies that the explanation of the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh isn’t to be taken completely literally. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh didn’t mean to say that humans are capable of killing a totally innocent person against God’s will, but rather that a person needs more merits to be saved from those with free will. According to this understanding, this explanation need not contradict the opinion of the Sefer HaChinuch that whatever transpires is ultimately a fulfillment of the Divine plan.

Ten Commands

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:5) explains that Parshas Kedoshim was said to the entire nation because it contains verses corresponding to all of the Ten Commandments. How many can you find?

The Midrash gives the following verses as corresponding to each of the Ten Commandments, respectively: “I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:2), “Molten gods you shall not make for yourselves” (19:4), “You shall not swear falsely by My Name” (19:12), “You shall observe My Shabbos” (19:3), “You shall revere your father and mother” (19:3), “You shall not stand aside while your brother’s blood is shed” (19:16), “The adulterer and adulteress shall be killed” (20:10), “You shall not steal” (19:11), “You shall not be a gossipmonger” (19:16) corresponds to the prohibition against bearing false witness, and “You shall love your brother as yourself” (19:18) corresponds to the prohibition against coveting.

The First Revenge

The Torah prohibits a person from taking revenge against another Jew (Leviticus 19:18). Rashi gives an example of a person who asked to borrow his neighbor’s axe, but his neighbor refused. When his neighbor asks the following day to borrow his axe, it is prohibited to refuse to do so in order to get revenge. Why does the Torah forbid the person from withholding his axe, for which he has a legitimate reason, but doesn't also prohibit the neighbor from refusing to lend the axe to begin with, for which he has no justification?

The Bechor Shor and Chizkuni explain that if a person values his possessions and doesn't want to lend them to others, a decision which has nothing to do with his feelings toward the prospective borrower, the Torah doesn't require him to do so. On the other hand, a person who would have gladly lent an item to somebody else if not for the hatred that he feels toward that person as a result of his refusal to lend an object to him is required by the Torah to use the love that he feels for God to overcome his negative feelings toward the other person, and he is therefore prohibited from taking revenge in this manner.

Immediate Fruits

The Torah forbids the consumption of orlah, the fruits produced by a tree for the first three years (Leviticus 19:23). The Talmud (Shabbos 33b) relates that when Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai was forced to flee to a cave to save his life, a carob tree miraculously sprouted there to provide him sustenance. How was he permitted to eat the fruits, which are considered orlah?

Rabbi Yissochar Dov of Belz (Imrei Daas) cites the Talmud (Yerushalmi Orlah 1:1), which rules that if a tree grows in a place which isn't designed for human settlement, which was the case with the cave of Rebbi Shimon, it is exempt from the laws of orlah.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (Derech Emunah Hilchos Maaser Sheini 10:6) notes that Maimonides rules that if a tree grows on its own in a public area, such that its fruits are ownerless and available to all, the laws of orlah do not apply to it.

The M'rafsin Igri gives a few answers. First, a tree which grows miraculously is exempt from all laws governing fruits, such as orlah and ma'aser. Second, the tree may have already been planted elsewhere for more than three years, and if it was transferred to the cave together with its roots, its fruits would be immediately permissible. Alternatively, Rebbi Shimon may have eaten the carob fruits while they were still small and not yet legally classified as fruits which are forbidden as orlah.

The Ma'adanei Asher (Lag B’Omer 5769) writes that the fruits were permissible to Rebbi Shimon due to the principle of pikuach nefesh – one may transgress any prohibition, with three exceptions, in order to save one's life – and since he was trapped in the cave with nothing else to eat, he was permitted to eat fruits which would normally be orlah. However, he notes that it would be unusual for God to miraculously save Rebbi Shimon's life in a manner which would require him to eat otherwise-forbidden food, especially when many opinions maintain that forbidden food eaten to save one's life still causes spiritual damage to a person.

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