At the end of Parashas Vayechi, which is also the end of the entire book of Bereishis, the Torah describes how Yosef’s brothers asked him, in the name of their father, to forgive their crime against him. The brothers’ concern, as the verse notes, was that after Yaakov’s death, Yosef was going to take revenge against them.
It is possible that had the episode occurred after the giving of the Torah, the brothers would not have been so concerned. The Torah specifically prohibits taking revenge, stating (Vayikra 19:18): “You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge.”
Yet, according to the opinion in Chazal that the Avos kept the entire Torah (see Yoma 28b; Kiddushin 82a; Vayikra Rabba 2:1), there is room to question why the brothers were concerned for Yosef’s vengeance. Surely, Yosef would not have violated the grave transgression of taking revenge?
In addressing this question, we will dedicate the present article to a number of fundamental questions regarding the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge.
When are the prohibitions of taking revenge and bearing a grudge transgressed? Are they contingent on a person’s inner thoughts, or do they require a concrete action? Are there instances in which it is permitted to take revenge and to bear a grudge? We will seek to clarify these issues below.
The Torah-statement quoted above implies that there are two distinct prohibitions, one of them prohibiting 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 he replied “No,” and tomorrow the second comes [to the first] 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—that is revenge. And what is bearing a grudge? If one says to his fellow: “Lend me your ax,” he replies “No,” and on the morrow the second asks: “Lend me your garment,” and he answers: “Here it is. I am not like you who would not lend me [what I asked for]”— that is bearing a grudge.
Taking revenge thus refers to a concrete vengeful action against one’s fellow, whereas bearing a grudge, it appears, refers to the failure to eradicate the malice one feels from one’s heart. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchos De’os 7:8) writes that the prohibition urges us to “eradicate the thought from his heart, and not bear a grudge—for as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance.”
Bearing a grudge, according to this formulation, is closely related to taking revenge. It is forbidden to bear a grudge, because this can lead a person to take revenge. It also follows that often if somebody actually takes revenge, he will also have violated the prohibition of bearing a grudge, in his failure 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 [what I asked for].” 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.
A similar question may be raised regarding the prohibition against taking revenge. The Gemara mentions somebody who refuses to lend his fellow an item, explaining “just as you would not lend me your sickle.” But what is the law regarding a person who refuses to lend his friend a certain utensil, yet does not state the true vengeful cause, offering instead some other excuse as to why he is unable to lend him the utensil?
The Sefer Ha-Chinuch (Mitzvah 242) relates the prohibition against bearing a grudge: “Not to bear a grudge; in other words, 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.
It further appears that even the prohibition of actual revenge focuses on a person’s heart, rather than his deeds, and that the prohibition is violated even if nothing is said. This principle emerges from the question of why there is no punishment of lashes for these transgressions.
Lashes for Taking Revenge
The Chinuch explains that the violation of both prohibitions is not punishable by lashes, because neither prohibition involves an action. Even in case the person performed an action, he is not gives malkos, because he could have violated the prohibition without doing an action.
The Minchas Chinuch asks a patent question on this ruling. The Rishonim disagree about the halachah in a case where a prohibition was violated with an action, but could have been violated without it. According to the Rambam, in such a case the offender is liable to malkos. Why, if so, is the violation of neither one of these two prohibitions ever punishable by lashes; surely a case can be constructed where a person violates the prohibition with an action!
Rabbi Menachem Krakovski, in his Avodat Ha-Melech (on the Rambam), answers that the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge relate specifically to the thoughts of vengeance and the nursing of the grievance in the person’s heart. The wording of the Chinuch (241) is that a person violates the prohibition when “the hatred is strong in his heart until he deals him evil, or until he returns the evil that was done to him.” The emphasis is on the heart.
Because the focus of both prohibitions is a person’s heart, it follows that even when the violation is evident by means of a concrete action, there is no punishment of lashes.
Transgression by the Person who Starts
We are accustomed to think that the prohibition of taking revenge lies in the correspondence between the second refusal to lend out a utensil, and the other person’s initial refusal that had preceded it. 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, despite the fact that he refused to lend out his utensil for no reason. 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 because 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 the fact that the focus of the prohibition is the hatred in one’s heart (although the novel approach of the Raavad is certainly not implied by the Rambam). The wording of the Sefer Yerei’im, however, suggests that the focus of both prohibitions is not the realm of thought, but rather the realm of deed. He writes (197-8):
We are forbidden from refraining from giving charity and performing kindness with our money as vengeance for the other’s not doing so—this is taking revenge. We are also forbidden from mentioning and telling them that “even though you have not done this for me, I shall do it for you”—for this is bearing a grudge.”
It is possible to defer that though mentioning practical expressions (of deeds and speech), Sefer Yere’im agrees that the crux of the prohibition is the hatred in one’s heart. Yet, his words certainly imply that the prohibition applies specifically to an act of retribution. The Torah forbids a person from getting his own back, and even from doing so in the subtle manner of mentioning the previous offense.
Qualification of the Prohibition: Monetary Matters
The Gemara (Yoma 22b) implies that the prohibition of taking revenge is limited to certain situations:
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 [real] scholar. But surely it is written: “You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge”! That refers to monetary affairs.
The Gemara thus explicitly states that in certain situations taking revenge and bearing a grudge may actually be viewed in a positive light. Even in halachah, the Magen Avraham (306:29) mentions the “mitzvah of avenging the vengeance of one’s father.” When is it revenge permitted, and even encouraged?
The Yere’im states that prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge apply specifically to financial matters (as the Gemara implies), deriving this from the verses in proximity to the prohibitions. It is forbidden to bear a grudge and to avenge a financial wrong; for a bodily wrong (for instance), however, there is no prohibition of taking revenge and bearing a grudge.
Based on the distinction mentioned by the Yere’im (and upheld by the Semag, and other commentaries), we can explain the concern of the brothers lest Yosef avenge their crime of selling him to Egypt. If the prohibition is limited to financial wrongs, the concern of Yosef avenging his wrongful sale is well understood.
[See also Sefer Chafetz Chaim, Negative Commandments 8-9, who is unclear as to whether all forms of vengeance are permitted as revenge for bodily harm, and suggests that financial retribution remains prohibited.]
However, the Rambam and the Chinuch makes no mention of this distinction, and they apparently interpreted the above Gemara in a different light.
Revenge in Spiritual Matters
It is possible that the Rambam and the Chinuch understood the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan in line with the interpretation of the Ritva, who addresses another passage of the Gemara that concerns taking revenge.
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 the novelty of this statement. In view of the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge, surely everybody is commanded not to nurse a grievance against another person?
The Ritva concludes that we are dealing here with religious, as opposed to personal matters. It is forbidden to take revenge and to bear a grudge for any personal affront related to matters of this world. For spiritual matters, however, it is permitted, and proper, to take revenge, and to “afflict the sinner.”
It is possible that this is also the way in which the Rambam interpreted the Gemara in Yoma. When the time calls for it, a true Torah scholar must be prepared to avenge the vengeance of Hashem in punishing sinners.
Although the Gemara mentions a distinction between financial and other matters, the Sefer Chafetz Chaim (introduction to Negative Commandments 8-9) suggests that the conclusion of the Gemara does not uphold this distinction. In a similar vein to the Ritva, he suggests that according to the Rambam it is only permitted to take revenge for a public humiliation of a Torah scholar, whereupon the vengeance applies to the degradation of the Torah.
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.
 This is comparable to the Rambam’s definition of the Torah prohibition of touching an ervah, which means to distance a person from the actual act of forbidden sexual relations (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, Lo Ta’aseh 353).