Yoma 23

Bearing a grudge like a snake.

Yom Kippur is a holiday that centers the Jewish concepts of repentance and forgiveness. We are encouraged to think about our actions through a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. We list ways that we have missed the mark. We seek forgiveness from one another and God for any ways we have caused harm throughout the course of the year. And, we beat our breasts in anguish and sorrow over all the pain caused.

The act of asking for and forgiving others is a challenging task. So, every year people share difficult cases with me that legitimately raise the question: Should forgiveness be granted in every case? It can be complicated.

That’s why it is amazing to read today’s daf which opens with a zinger!

Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: Any Torah scholar who does not avenge himself and bear a grudge like a snake when insulted is not considered a Torah scholar at all.

Are Torah scholars (davka Torah scholars!) exempt from the heavy imperative to forgive? Now, the Talmud anticipates what we are all thinking: The Torah, in Leviticus 19:18, commands: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord.” And Leviticus 19:17 encourages us to not harbor hatred against our kinsfolk in our heart. So, how can the Talmud then command Torah scholars to bear a grudge like a snake?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz includes in his translator’s notes a hint of explanation: “It is important to uphold the honor of Torah and its students by reacting harshly to insults.” Torah learning is so important, insults to those who guard it can threaten the whole system, and must be challenged.

The Gemara clarifies that the imperative to forgive:

… is written only in regard to monetary matters (i.e. and not personal insults).

In money, we must not seek revenge or bear a grudge. Then the Gemara provides examples of what it would look like if we did:

“Revenge” is illustrated by the following example: One said to his fellow: “Lend me your sickle,” and he said: “No.” The next day he, the one who had refused to lend the sickle, said to the other person: “Lend me your ax.” If he said to him: “I will not lend to you, just as you did not lend to me,” — that is revenge.

And what is “bearing a grudge”? If one said to his fellow: “Lend me your ax,” and he said: “No,” and the next day he, the one who had refused to lend the ax, said to the other man: “Lend me your robe;” if the first one said to him: “Here it is, as I am not like you, who would not lend to me,” — that is bearing a grudge.

Revenge is slighting one who has slighted us. Bearing a grudge means we do not return tit for tat, but we are still angry about the initial insult. These are outcomes that should be avoided in monetary matters. But, according to the Talmud, when Torah scholars are personally insulted, it is another matter.

If this seems a tad distasteful to you, note that Rava does not agree, apparently holding himself and other scholars to a higher standard. He insists:

Whoever forgoes his reckonings with others for injustices done to him, the heavenly court in turn forgoes punishment for all his sins.

Rava implores us to forgive others in this life so that God will forgive us in the next. That is strong incentive to forgive!

But the Gemara is not ready to let go of grudge-bearing and vengeance. It limits the application of Rava’s statement to cases where the initial offender seeks to appease or in some way make amends. In other words, when a person insults a Torah scholar but asks for forgiveness, forgiveness should be granted. But if a person hurls personal insults against a Torah scholar and does not seek forgiveness, forgiveness should not be granted. To do so would be as if to accept insulting the Torah itself. So, while forgiveness is a major focus in Jewish life, according to the Gemara, it has limits.

Read all of Yoma 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 4th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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