Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who gets angry, all kinds of Gehenna rule over him …
That is, anger inevitably leads to suffering — most of all, for the person who is feeling it. Gehenna, that hellish underworld that serves as the first stop in the afterlife, is perhaps invoked to suggest the magnitude of the suffering the angry person experiences, or to suggest that anger in this life has devastating consequences in the next.
The consequences of anger are not just emotional, according to this next bit of Gemara:
… and not only this, but hemorrhoids will also control them, as it is stated: But the Lord shall give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and languishing of soul.(Deuteronomy 28:65)
Which is the matter of sickness that causes failing of the eyes and languishing of the soul? You must say this is hemorrhoids.
Setting aside the fact that Rabbi Yonatan’s description of symptoms and causes of hemorrhoids does not line up with a contemporary understanding of the affliction, his point is clear: Anger is not only a difficult emotional state, it has physical consequences as well.
Perhaps more significant than causing emotional or physical discomfort in this world or the next, the Gemara cites three rabbis who suggest that anger turns one’s attention away from those three things that are, for the rabbis, essential to living a good life: God, Torah and mitzvot:
Rabba bar Rav Huna said: Anyone who gets angry, at that moment even the Divine Presence is not important to him, as it is stated: The wicked one, in the height of his anger says: … There is no God” (Psalms 10:4).
And Rabbi Yirmeya of Difti said: Anyone who gets angry forgets his learning and increases foolishness, as it is stated: For anger rests in the bosom of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:9) And it is written: But a fool unfolds folly. (Proverbs 13:16)
And Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: With regard to one who gets angry, it is acknowledged that his sins are more numerous than his merits, as it is stated: And a wrathful man abounds in transgression. (Proverbs 29:22)
If the discussion ended here, we could sum up by noting that the rabbis have built a persuasive case against succumbing to anger, if not for the sake of people who irk us than for our own sake, because it will reduce our own suffering and facilitate our enjoyment of the good life. But the Gemara has a surprise in store:
Rav Adda, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: Had Israel not sinned in earlier times they would have been given the five books of the Torah and the book of Joshua alone (and not the rest of the Bible). What is the reason? It is stated: For in much wisdom is much vexation. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
The word translated here as vexation is ka’as, also the word for anger. The first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes (arguably Judaism’s first work of Existentialism) is building a case, culminating in this verse, that wisdom does not make a person feel calm and peaceful, but the opposite: A deep awareness of the true nature of existence inspires only bewilderment, frustration and, ultimately, anger.
Rav Adda reads this verse in the opposite way. Instead of seeing wisdom leading inexorably to anger, he builds a case that anger can lead to wisdom. How so? The Torah lays out the rules by which the Israelites were to live, and the Book of Joshua includes the details for where each tribe was to settle in the land of Israel. Ideally, this would have been all the instruction Israel really needed. Had the people, upon receiving the Torah, cooperatively followed God’s rules, they would have lived happily ever after in the promised land.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, starting with the sin of the Golden Calf and continuing practically without cessation right through the period of wandering in the wilderness, the conquest of the land of Israel, the time of the judges, and the establishment of the monarchy, Israel continued to falter and sin in ways large and small, from continually turning to idolatry to neglecting the socially marginalized members of society. That sinning, as we see early in the Torah, often stemmed from emotional distress and anger. Consider the Israelites’ speech to Moses and Aaron in Exodus 16:3: Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat over the fleshpot, when we ate bread to satiety! For you have taken us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by famine!
Those are angry words. God too is repeatedly angered by Israel’s sins. To take but one example, look at this speech God makes to Moses after Israel has constructed the Golden Calf, in Exodus 32:9–10: I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let me be, that my anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you (Moses) a great nation.
This cycle of anger — anger of the Israelites which leads to sin, and anger of God which leads to their punishment — is repeated throughout Israelite history. It’s a grueling cycle that leads to one tragedy after another, culminating with the destruction of the Temple and the exile in Babylonia. But, as Rav Adda points out, there is a silver lining: All this anger and destruction led to the creation of Israel’s scripture. Out of great anger, came great wisdom.
Rav Adda’s teaching brings this talmudic discussion on the dangers of anger to an unexpected end. Yes, it is a good thing to seek to control your negative emotions. But failing to do so is also part of the human experience. And when you fail, as we all inevitably do, you can turn your anger into wisdom by looking for lessons that you can take from your experience. If you need help working through it, just open your Bible — you will find that you are in good company.
Read all of Nedarim 22 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 16th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.