At the end of the book of Bereishis the Torah describes how Yosef’s brothers asked him to forgive their crime of selling him to Egypt. The request, which the brothers quoted (falsely) from their father, was out of concern that following Yaakov’s death Yosef would take revenge against them (Bereishis 50:15-18).
The brothers’ fear of Yosef’s vengeance, which he quickly alleviated (Bereishis 50:19-21), brings us to discuss the halachic question of taking revenge. The Torah specifically prohibits taking revenge: “You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge” (Vayikra 19:18). The instruction includes two clauses, one of them forbidden vengeance, and the other prohibiting even bearing a grudge.
But what are the parameters of these prohibitions? Does a person transgress the prohibition of bearing a grudge even if he performs no physical action? Are there instances in which it is permitted to bear a grudge? And which actions constitute “revenge”? We will discuss these questions, among others, below.
The Pasuk quoted above implies two distinct prohibitions, one against taking revenge and the other prohibiting bearing a grudge. The Gemara (Yoma 23a) gives the respective definitions of the two prohibitions:
It has been taught: What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? If one said to his fellow: “Lend me your sickle,” and the other replied “No,” and tomorrow the other comes and says: “Lend me your ax,” and he replies: “I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle”—this is revenge. And what is bearing a grudge? If one says to his fellow: “Lend me your ax,” and he replies “No,” and the next day the other requests: “Lend me your garment,” and he answers: “Here it is. I am not like you who would not lend me”— this is bearing a grudge.
Taking revenge clearly refers to a concrete vengeful action against somebody else. For bearing a grudge, it seems that there is no need for a concrete action (the person in question agrees to lend the item), and the prohibition refers to the actual spiteful feelings one has for the other.
The Rambam ties the two prohibitions together, explaining that we are duty bound to “eradicate the thought from his heart, and not bear a grudge,” the reason being that “as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance” (Hilchos De’os 7:8). Although bearing a grudge is a full Torah prohibition, the reason for the prohibition is concern for taking revenge. It follows that if somebody actually takes revenge, he will also have violated the prohibition of bearing a grudge, since he failed to remove the wrong committed against him from his heart.
Prohibitions of the Heart?
The definition of the Gemara, as quoted above, mentions that a person bears a grudge when he agrees to lend his fellow an item, but says: “Here it is. I am not like you who would not lend me.” The statement raises the question of whether the prohibition is only violated upon reminding the other of the wrong he had committed, or whether the very nursing of the grievance in his heart is a full transgression.
Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 242) relates the prohibition against bearing a grudge: “We are forbidden to retain in our heart any ill-feeling over the harm that any Jew did to us. Even if we should resolve not to repay him in kind for his deeds, the mere remembrance of his sin in the heart is forbidden to us.” Clearly, the Chinuch maintains that the transgression requires no outward expression.
However, the wording of Sefer Yerei’im suggests that the focus of both prohibitions is not thought but rather deed. He writes: “We are forbidden from not giving charity and doing kindness with our money as vengeance for the other’s not doing so—this is taking revenge. We are also forbidden from mentioning and stating that even though he has not done this for me, I shall do it for him—for this is bearing a grudge.”
This implies that the Torah prohibitions against revenge and against bearing a grudge both require a concrete action. A person transgresses the prohibition against revenge when he performs a full act of retribution; he transgresses the prohibition of bearing a grudge when he does not perform a full act of retribution, but still gets his own by in the subtle manner of mentioning the previous offense.
The Rambam, as noted above, indicates that the prohibition is transgressed by simply bearing the grudge in one’s heart.
Who Started the Fight?
We generally understand that the prohibition of revenge depends on the second person’s refusal to lend out a utensil in response to the first person’s initial refusal. Based on this assumption, the person responsible for the initial refusal cannot violate the prohibition against taking revenge.
The Ra’avad, however, in his commentary to Toras Kohanim (on the Pasuk of lo tikom) finds difficulty with the fact that the first person does not violate any prohibition. Why is the person who retaliates worse than the person who started the fray?
The Ra’avad explains that the specific prohibition of taking revenge refers to a case where the first person refused to lend out his utensil, not out of hate, but for some justifiable reason. The second person, on the other hand, had no good reason to refuse, and his refusal followed solely from the first person’s refusal.
If, however, the first person refused to lend out his utensil due to hatred, he too violated the prohibition against taking revenge (as well as the prohibition of hating another Jew), because his refusal drew on the hatred in his heart.
The fact that the person who initiates the enmity transgresses the prohibition highlights an emphasis, even in the prohibition against revenge, on the hatred a person feels in his heart—although the novel approach of the Raavad is certainly not implied by the Rambam.
Punishment for Revenge
Rabbi Menachem Krakovski, in his Avodas HaMelech (on the Rambam), questions the Rambam’s explanation (Sanhedrin Chap. 18) that the reason why there is no punishment for the transgression of taking revenge is because no concrete action is involved.
The Rambam generally rules that when a prohibition is violated by an action it is punishable in Beis Din, even if it can also be transgressed without an action. Why then is the transgression of revenge not punishable, at least for cases that involve a concrete action?
Avodas Hamelech explains that since the focus is on the hatred one feels, it follows that even when the violation is evident by means of a concrete action no punishment is issued. In the words of the Chinuch (241), the transgression of revenge occurs when “the hatred is so strong in his heart, that he deals him evil, or until he returns the evil that was done to him.” The emphasis is on the heart.
Only for Monetary Matters
The Gemara (Yoma 22b) implies that the prohibition of taking revenge is limited to certain situations.
The Gemara notes that Torah scholars are expected to avenge their honor, which is the honor of the Torah: “Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon: Any Torah scholar who does not avenge himself and bear a grudge like a serpent, is not a scholar.” The Gemara asks that surely this will involve a transgression of the Torah prohibition against revenge and bearing a grudge. The Gemara replies: “This refers to monetary affairs.”
The Gemara thus states that in certain situations taking revenge and bearing a grudge can be viewed in a positive light. The Magen Avraham (306:29) also mentions the “mitzvah of avenging the vengeance of one’s father.” Sometimes, it seems, revenge is not only permitted but even encouraged!
Following the Gemara, the Yere’im writes that prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge apply specifically to financial matters. It is forbidden to bear a grudge and to avenge a financial wrong. But a bodily injury, for instance, there is no prohibition of taking revenge and bearing a grudge.
Sefer Chafetz Chaim (Negative Commandments 8-9) raises a matter of doubt concerning whether all forms of vengeance are permitted as revenge for bodily harm, or whether financial retribution remains prohibited.
Note that the Rambam and the Chinuch make no mention of this distinction, and they apparently understood that the prohibitions apply in all matters. Sefer Chafetz Chaim suggests that the conclusion of the Gemara does not uphold the distinction, and that according to the Rambam it is only permitted to take revenge for a public humiliation of a Torah scholar, since the vengeance applies to the degradation of the Torah and not as a personal matter.
Revenge in Spiritual Matters
The Gemara (Megillah 28a) states: “Nor has the curse of my fellow gone up with me upon my bed. This is illustrated by Mar Zutra, who, when he climbed into his bed, would say: I forgive all who have vexed me.”
The Ritva questions this behavior. The Gemara in Yoma mentioned above states that a talmid chacham should indeed bear a grudge and take revenge: Why was Mar Zutra careful to forgive those who wronged him? He answers that a talmid chacham should bear a grudge and take revenge for spiritual matters, but not for personal insults. If someone misbehaves on spiritual matters, a talmid chacham should seek to curb the matter and not forgive the sinner.
Thus, when Mar Zutra forgave people before he went to sleep, as many do nowadays, it was only for non-spiritual actions.
Revenge or Retaliation?
If somebody hits me, am I permitted to hit him back? If somebody hurls an insult my way, am I permitted to retaliate with a slur of my own?
Poskim distinguish between revenge and retaliation. Certainly, it is permitted to hit a person out of self-defense. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 421:13) rules that somebody who strikes and injures another in retaliation for the first person’s aggression is exempt from liability, since “it permitted for him to injure him to save himself.” The Rema adds that the same is true for insults: If one person slurs another, it is permitted for the second to return his own insult, for this too is considered self-defense (see also Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 338).
The Chafetz Chaim (Introduction: Lavin, note 8) adds that an immediate response to an insult will generally not be considered taking revenge, since it is immediate and out of pain. Only if some time has subsided, so that the returned insult is calculated and intentional (rather than instinctive) will it be considered an act of revenge. This is the ruling of the Sema (421, 24).
The Chafetz Chaim bases this ruling on the Or Zaruah (cited in Shut Mahari Vayil no. 28) who writes that if someone insulted his fellow and the victim returned the insult, for example someone called someone a mamzer and the victim responded in turn, only the first is penalized for his verbal assault, while the second party is exempt since his response was out of anger. He bases the ruling on the concept of the goel hadam, whom the Torah permits to kill his relative’s murderer in the heat of the moment. He further quotes the Chinuch (338), who writes that a person cannot be a “silent rock” in the face of insult (thereby implying that the accusations hurled against him are true), and it is therefore permitted to retaliate in kind.
Shut Chavos Yair (no. 65) disagrees with this ruling, explaining that the exemption from liability is limited to the financial ramifications of a person’s actions, and not to whether it is permitted or forbidden. Emotional pain, he reasons, is not a valid excuse for retaliation. It is permitted to respond only when required for one’s self-defense; otherwise, any retaliation is forbidden.
If one person does not attend his fellow’s family wedding, is it permitted to act similarly and to refrain from attending the other’s wedding?
It seems that the halachic evaluation of this action will depend on the person’s underlying intention. It is possible that refraining from attending the wedding will not constitute revenge, since refraining from attending another’s wedding can be based on an appraisal of friendship: If the other didn’t attend my wedding, it follows that he isn’t a close friend, and therefore, I don’t feel the need to attend his wedding. This is not a matter of revenge, but of gauging the closeness of a friendship.
If, however, a person refrains from attending the other wedding out of spite and revenge—he offended me by not attending my wedding so I will offend him back and refrain from going to his wedding—this constitutes revenge (see Hanekama Vehanechama pp. 28-9).
As the Mesilas Yesharim (Chap. 9) writes, “revenge is sweet,” and a person’s natural inclination is to strike back at a person who has injured him. The Torah obligates us to overcome this natural inclination, to elevate ourselves above it, and to remove the feelings of hatred and enmity from our hearts.
In summary, we have learned:
- The Torah states two distinct prohibitions, one of taking revenge, and one of bearing a grudge.
- According to the Rambam and the Chinuch, the focus of both prohibitions is a person’s thoughts and dispositions (which is why the Rambam writes them in his Laws of Dispositions). The prohibition of taking revenge refers to hatred so deep that it reaches the realm of deed (a person refuses to lend out a utensil as revenge for a similar refusal on the part of his fellow). Bearing a grudge implies a lesser hatred (the utensil is given, but the grudge is borne).
- According to the Yere’im, it is possible that the distinction between the prohibitions is that revenge applies to the realm of deed, whereas bearing a grudge applies to speech alone.
- Some authorities write that the prohibition is limited to financial matters and does not extend to bodily or other harm. According to the Rambam and the Chinuch, it is always forbidden to take revenge, though a Torah scholar is charged with punishing sinners for their crimes, or for avenging the public degradation of the Torah.