Volumes — literally, volumes — have been written on the notorious rabbinic concept of the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination.” It’s the tug we feel to do something we know is wrong, our baser instinct, our id, a powerful self-interest that can sometimes overwhelm the better angels of our nature. Today, the rabbis explore this aspect of our characters that makes us so heartbreakingly human.
The rabbis begin by identifying seven different names for the evil inclination, with a variety of biblical prooftexts:
Rabbi Avira, and some say Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, taught: The evil inclination has seven names. The Holy One, Blessed be He, called it “evil,” as it is stated: For the inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth. (Genesis 8:21)
Other names for the yetzer hara are “uncircumcised,” “impure,” “enemy,” “stumbling block,” “stone,” and “hidden one.” Each of these clearly comes with its own connotations or implications: antipathy toward the Gentile world and adversaries; concerns about ritual purity; obstacles to growth, progress, or forward movement; or a talent for stealth. As you can see, there’s no love lost between the talmudic rabbis and the evil inclination.
But don’t worry! Rabbi Yishmael offers a practical way of getting rid of the evil inclination:
The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: If this scoundrel, the evil inclination, accosted you, seeking to tempt you to sin, drag it to the study hall and study Torah. If it is like a stone, it will be dissolved by the Torah. If it is like iron, it will be shattered.
The key to suppressing an evil urge, as we see here, is to go to the beit midrash, the house of study (one commentary sees this as a response to the evil inclination’s urgings to romp through fields and eat sweets) and study Torah. Torah, our very lifeblood for the rabbis, serves as a panacea for suppressing the evil inclination when it arises.
Though today’s page is fairly uniform in its condemnation of the yetzer hara, curiously not all rabbis of this era agree that the evil inclination is, well, evil. In a collection of rabbinic midrashim called Genesis Rabbah, one rabbi brings a more balanced perspective, using God’s comment that creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:3) as a springboard:
Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Shmuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the yetzer hatov, the good inclination; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.
Rabbi Shmuel notes that as God is creating the world in Genesis 1, after the creation of each element — light, dark, heavens, earth, plants, animals — God notes that each is “good.” But after creating humans, God says they are “very good.” Since only humans have the yetzer hara, the “very good,” shockingly, must be referring to that aspect of human nature. Indeed, this interpretation is immediately questioned. The midrash continues:
Can then the evil inclination be “very good”? That would be extraordinary! But without the evil inclination, no one would build a house, take a wife or beget children; and thus said Solomon: Again, I considered all labor and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbor. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)
Rabbi Shmuel and Rabbi Nachman agree that the evil inclination serves a purpose: Without it, no person would undertake endeavors to improve their own lives and the lives of their families. We’d all be satisfied, but listless and unproductive.
While this pair may have more sympathy for the evil inclination and the role it plays in human development, clearly the evil inclination has more detractors than supporters, especially on our page today. But perhaps it is a comfort to know that it is a universal trait — we are all plagued by it. So common, indeed, the rabbis say it goes by seven different names. And they also provide us with an antidote: the study of Torah.
Read all of Sukkah 52 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 28th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.