Biblical and Rabbinic Responses to Suffering

Early Jewish writers were more concerned with the randomness of suffering than with its actual existence.

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Typical of the various, sometimes contradictory, views on the subject is the talmudic passage (Berakhot 5b) in which the problem of suffering is discussed and in which ideas are dismissed without any definite conclusion being reached. In the passage the second‑century teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, remarks that three precious gifts were given by God to Israel and they were only given through sufferings. The three precious gifts are: the Torah, the land of Israel, and the World to Come.

Rabbinic Tales of Suffering

There is here a constant weaving of ideas around the question of suffering in terms of reward and punishment. Three narratives are recorded, in each of which a rabbi who suffers is asked by a colleague whether his sufferings are dear to him. In each instance the rabbi replies that he desires neither them not their reward, whereupon the colleague miraculously restores him to good health by giving him his hand to raise him from the bed of sickness.

Another narrative concerns the third-century teacher, Rav Huna, who has 400 flasks of wine which have turned sour, involving him in severe financial loss. When the scholars visit Rav Huna, they urge him to look into his deeds, that is, they hint that he has been guilty of some dishonesty in connection with an employee of his engaged in the manufacture of wine. Rav Huna eventually admits that he has been guilty in the matter and no sooner does he agree to compensate his employee than the sour wine becomes sweet again.

All this is in no way a theological exposition of the problem of suffering. There is obviously a legendary element in all these narratives and there is even a touch of humor. In another version of the same story, the Talmud says that Rav Huna’s wine did not miraculously revert to its former sweet state; the miracle was that while the wine remained sour, the price of vinegar shot up so that it was equal to the price of the wine!

“Sufferings of Love”

In this passage the striking idea is introduced that there can be “sufferings of love.” This section reads:

“If a man sees that sufferings have come upon him, let him scrutinize his deeds, as it is said: ‘Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord’ [Lamentations 3: 40]. If he did scrutinize his deeds without finding [any sin for which he would deserve to suffer] let him attribute it [the suffering] to the sin of neglect of the Torah [i.e. there may be no sin of commission for which he deserves to be punished, but there may be, nevertheless, this serious sin of omission], as it is said: ‘Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, and teachest out of Thy Torah’ [Psalms 94: 12; i.e. God chastises a man so that he should return to the study of the Torah]. If he did attribute his sufferings to his neglect of the Torah without finding [that he has been indolent in study of the Torah], it then becomes known that they are sufferings of love, as it is said: ‘For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth’ [Proverbs 3: 12].”

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.