The Evil of All Roots: Why Does the Yetser ha-Ra Exist?

BY: Chesky Kopel.

“…The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘I have created for you a yetser ha-ra; there is nothing more evil than it.’”[i]

The antagonist is often the most noticeable character in a story. His or her position is made so very conspicuous by his or her struggle with the hopes and dreams of the protagonist. The hero’s mission is charged with additional energy as a result of its having to face opposing forces. In Israel’s mission to fear God, walk in all His ways, love Him, and serve Him with full heart and soul,[ii] it seems that there may be such an antagonist, the yetser ha-ra.

It is extremely difficult to understand the yetser ha-ra, best translated as “the evil creature.”[iii] In order to appreciate what exactly it is, many have studied the original sources of the term and tried to formulate, based on them, a precise definition. This definition needs to relate to many different questions: Is it some sort of internal drive, or a separate being that confronts us? Is it inherently bad, or morally neutral with the potential to cause evil? Are we capable of eliminating it, or is it essentially unending and unchanging? Does it bear any relationship to the incident of Adam and Eve’s “Original Sin?”[iv] Others have taken the additional step of comparing the yetser ha-ra to various inclinations, instincts, or other psychological constructs. Probably the most common approach to this creature, however, is a subjective one. We understand the yetser ha-ra by determining how we are to defeat or to utilize it in order to become the best people we can be. All of these strategies prove quite challenging, though, because of the diversity of views in Hazal as to the yetser ha-ra’s nature, the different conceptions of psychoanalysis and its practical relevance, and the great spectrum of conflicting life philosophies among religious Jews, respectively.

But why does it exist altogether? All the perspectives on the yetser ha-ra ostensibly agree that God created it for us, as people or as Jews. Beyond that, the question of “why” is most directly dependent upon the above challenges of its definition and the existential response it is meant to elicit from us. A great deal has been written about these questions, and the presence of the yetser ha-ra in the works of Hazal and later Jewish literature is immense. This essay will summarize a small, but significant, portion of the work that has been done, before returning to the question of why the yetser ha-ra exists. The matter of parallels in psychology will be left aside.[v]
The earliest references to an entity like the yetser ha-ra are in the Torah itself, in two verses in Genesis:

“And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination (yetser) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil (ra) continually.”[vi]

“And the Lord smelled the sweet scent; and the Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination (yetser) of man’s heart is evil (ra) from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.’”[vii]

The first of these verses concerns God’s decision to destroy all of mankind, because of the hopeless future anticipated by its wicked nature. Immediately following this is the Torah’s account of the Flood and the sparing of those few individuals who would reignite the spark of life on Earth. The second verse, ironically, is part of God’s assurance to Himself that He will never again commit such destruction. A seeming message of this contrast, and of its conclusion in particular, is that the evil nature of man’s yetser is no longer reason enough to deny him the opportunity of life. The Torah instructs us that this evil is now a part of the acceptable reality of what is and always will be. Human beings are fashioned with an inherently evil mindset; otherwise, they would not be human beings.[viii] The term yetser here apparently refers to the creature of man’s own heart and not to any other entity that acts externally to it.
In the words of Hazal, the term plays a somewhat different, more dynamic role. The consequences of the yetser ha-ra entail a formidable responsibility for each and every individual; this entity is presented to us as a force with which we are obligated to reckon. The Mishnah in Avot 2:11 illustrates this quite powerfully: “R. Yehoshua said: ‘The evil eye [envy], the evil impulse (yetser ha-ra), and hatred of humankind drive a person out of the world.’”[ix]

It is not hard to appreciate how this inherent facet of human nature can “drive a person out of the world.” In fact, God initially declared it reason enough to remove all of life from the world. An important message of R. Yehoshua’s statement concerns how we are meant to respond to the yetser ha-ra’s presence. Despite the fact that humankind was allowed to survive with the yetser ha-ra still harassing every person, it was (and is) nonetheless expected to recognize the tremendous evil within this entity, and the sort of consequences that it brought about in a world of pre-Flood justice. With statements like this one, Hazal instruct that the yetser ha-ra warrants a personal responsibility which transcends mankind’s freedom from the waters of the Flood.

Other statements of Hazal provide insight which helps shed light on why the seeming imperfection of the yetser ha-ra persists in man and also relate to the general question of the essay. One example is found in the words of R. Shemuel bar Nahman, quoted in several different midrashic sources:

“R. Shemuel bar Nahman says: ‘Behold, it was very good’[x] – this is the yetser ha-tov; ‘And behold, it was very good’[xi] – this is the yetser ha-ra. And is the yetser ha-ra actually ‘very good?’ Unbelievable! Rather, if not for the yetser ha-ra, a man would never build a house or marry a woman, he would never procreate or conduct business.”[xii]

Statements like this introduce us to the benefits of the yetser ha-ra. It seems that besides leading to devious and inappropriate behavior, this entity somehow brings Man to participate in some of life’s most important and productive activities as well. A well-known aggadic story, related in several different sources, teaches that the men of the Great Assembly even sought, through prayer to God, to have the yetser ha-ra for idolatry and adultery eliminated. They then discovered that without sexual drive, no species would be able to survive in the world.[xiii] Another being that we encounter here is the yetser ha-tov, or “the good creature,” which would appear to be the opposite of the yetser ha-ra. The exact definition and description of the yetser ha-tov depend upon those of the more commonly-referenced yetser ha-ra¸ and, therefore, can also refer to one of several different things. The yetser ha-tov may prove especially confusing to grasp in a context like this, one that highlights the benefits of the yetser ha-ra itself.

The interplay between these different perspectives on the yetser ha-ra is clarified somewhat by statements that attribute to it a morally-neutral character. One important example is the following quote from the Mishnah in Berakhot 9:5: “‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.’[xiv] […] – with the yetser ha-tov and the yetser ha-ra.”[xv]

The verse quoted here is an important expression of our requirement to love and serve God, which we recite in the Keri’at Shema twice every day. Hazal see within this verse a directive to enlist both the yetser ha-tov and the yetser ha-ra in the service of God. Still, it remains unclear what makes one yetser good and one evil if both are meant to be sublimated for the same ultimate good: the love and service of God.

These expressions of Hazal, just a few out of hundreds on the topic of the yetser ha-ra, not only demonstrate the dynamic nature of our relationship to the yetser ha-ra, based on a novel interpretation of the two verses in Genesis, but also create a great deal of confusion. It is clear that there is no one unified voice in Hazal regarding the nature of the yetser ha-ra, whether it is positive or negative, internal or external. Israeli professor and well-known activist Ishay Rosen-Zvi published an excellent study of the conception of the yetser ha-ra in different midrashic schools of thought.[xvi] The primary dispute raised in the study is between the Academy of R. Akiva (De-Bei R. Akiva) and the Academy of R. Yishmael (De-Bei R. Yishmael).

In statements by the Academy of R. Akiva, there is no mention of an independent yetser ha-ra, but there are repeated references to a force simply called the yetser, which appears to closely resemble the biblical yetser.[xvii] This force is presented as the natural inclination of a person, expressing his or her internal doubts, concerns, and pleasures. The proposed treatment of this entity is quite mild as well. Rather than encouraging us to struggle against this yetser, the statements of the Academy of R. Akiva often demonstrate how the Torah recognizes the yetser’s concerns as legitimate and explain why they are sometimes not to be followed. The challenge for individuals, therefore, lies in the capability to even follow the directives of the Torah when they contradict our basic, often reasonable, human drives. As an example of such a statement, Rosen-Zvi provides the following quotation from Sifra:

“‘But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, that it may yield unto you more richly its increase.’[xviii] R. Akiva says: ‘The Torah is speaking in opposition to the yetser (dibberah Torah keneged ha-yetser). In order that a person should not say, “Behold, for four years I distress myself with it to no end,” therefore, [the Torah] says, ‘that it may yield unto you more richly its increase.’”[xix],[xx]

The verse quoted here appears in the context of restrictive agricultural laws, commanded in the previous two verses, which limit the benefit that one is entitled to gain from his or her fruit tree for the first four years of its fruit-bearing life. The Midrash addresses the disenchanted yetser of the Jew, which complains about these seemingly wasted four years of work, and explains that the Torah itself demonstrates how God will make up the loss. Starting from the fifth year, the tree is guaranteed to produce “more richly.” Rather than rejecting the claims of the yetser as incorrect or devious, the Torah encourages us to recognize the real blessing that comes from following its laws and not the yetser.[xxi]

The Academy of R. Yishmael, however, concerns itself with a very different kind of entity. Its yetser ha-ra appears to be some kind of independent creature, “demonic and antinomic.”[xxii] It dwells within the human heart, possessing it with an inherently evil impulse that is directed towards the violation of the Torah and its statutes. Every person is bid to involve himself or herself in a constant struggle with this yetser ha-ra, to overcome it and dedicate oneself to the service of God. The most important advice for overcoming it is to involve oneself with the study of Torah.

Within this camp of R. Yishmael, two more important divisions exist. First, some statements suggest that the yetser ha-ra can ultimately be defeated, while others insist that it is an essential, everlasting struggle that every individual must endure. Secondly, some statements seem to describe an independent being acting within a human (often expounded from biblical references to the human heart, e.g., “be-kol levavekha” – with all your heart[xxiii]), while others just see the yetser ha-ra as a metaphorical model to refer to all forces that drive us away from proper service of God (often expounded from expressions of caution, e.g., “hishameru lakhem” – take heed to yourselves[xxiv]).

One example Rosen-Zvi provides of a statement by R. Yishmael is this quotation from Sifrei:

“Another matter, ‘And you shall eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves […]”[xxv] – [God] said to them: ‘Take care, lest the yetser ha-ra lead you astray, and you will separate yourselves from words of Torah, since once one separates himself from words of Torah, he is bound to go cling to idolatry.’”[xxvi]

This statement places clear emphasis upon the importance of struggling against the evil influence that is the yetser ha-ra and identifies involvement in learning Torah as the means to properly wage that battle. It falls into the category of statements characterized by expressions of caution, rather than those that place strong emphasis on the independent entity of the yetser ha-ra. Idolatry, the ultimate rebellion against God’s sovereignty, is a poignant and shocking example of the consequences of abandoning the commitment to struggle through learning Torah.

Another example Rosen-Zvi provides is the following polemic, also from the Sifrei:

“The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘I have created for you a yetser ha-ra; there is nothing more evil than it.’ […] Involve yourselves in words of Torah and it will not rule over you […] If you want, you can rule over it, as it is stated: ‘but you may rule over [sin].’”[xxvii],[xxviii]

The Sifrei here seems to present the yetser ha-ra as an independent entity, supremely evil in contrast to all other evils, and not just the overarching term that encompasses them all. It also indicates that a total victory over the challenges of the yetser ha-ra is possible and within our reach, if we are to just involve ourselves in words of Torah.[xxix]

Rosen-Zvi also demonstrates that most expressions in the Mishnah follow the same R. Akiva- R. Yishmael divide in meaning, between yetser and yetser ha-ra, while the Tosefta seems to largely follow the thought of the Academy of R. Yishmael. One important exception is the Mishnah in Berakhot 9:5, referenced above, which presents a dialectical approach, highlighting the struggle between a person’s yetser ha-ra and his yetser ha-tov.[xxx] Last, the article raises speculations regarding the earlier bases of the different schools of thought (R. Akiva in the apocryphal book of Ben Sira, and R. Yishmael in the literature of Qumran).[xxxi]

The diversity of the voices of Hazal regarding the nature of the yetser ha-ra leaves a considerable task to future generations. Every person determines on his or her own how to best understand the yetser ha-ra and how to relate and respond to it. On the one hand, it is difficult to rally oneself to battle against the very force that brings man to “build a house or marry a woman […] procreate or conduct business.” On the other hand, how can one ever reconcile himself with a being that will “drive [him] out of the world?”[xxxii]

The yetser ha-ra therefore seems at once evil and morally neutral, or even positively valuable. Different schools of thought have developed in response to this problem. Some view the presence of a struggle with improper inclinations to be the healthy mode of relation to the yetser ha-ra,[xxxiii] and some preach the total elimination of any and all drives that are not consistent with our proper service of God.[xxxiv] The former opinion more likely appreciates the conception of the yetser ha-ra as a neutral life force, which can be used for good or evil. Alternatively, it may often be an expression of a religious worldview that emphasizes the centrality of the free will’s struggle against adversity in the service of God.[xxxv] The latter opinion sees the yetser ha-ra as the opposition to the service of God, and therefore as the constant enemy of the Jew. Some expound further that elimination of the yetser ha-ra is necessary to purge the remnants of Adam’s “Original Sin” from within a person.[xxxvi]

Rambam presents a more nuanced third approach in the Shemonah Perakim, which values the total control of the impulses with regard to the more intuitive transgressions, but prefers that one struggle with his impulses with regards to the less intuitive ones.[xxxvii]

Why does the yetser ha-ra exist? All of the above formulations of the yetser ha-ra’s essence assume that God created it for man, and that everything God does is righteous and is meant to benefit His creations. Within that framework, the various views presented all see the yetser ha-ra as one of three things: a metaphorical expression of the struggle to follow God’s will and do good (intended to improve Man’s appreciation of the nature of the struggle), a challenge that enhances the spiritual value of Man’s efforts to do good, or a motivational mechanism to encourage Man to overcome the antagonist and do good. In other words, the yetser ha-ra is either the struggle itself, a force that makes the struggle more valuable, or a means of persuasion for man to fight his hardest in the struggle. Each one of these models represents an aid for mankind to be the best it can be. No matter which position is most accurate, the underlying message is the same. Our greatest enemy is revealed to be one of our greatest friends.

Chesky Kopel is a sophomore at Yeshiva College majoring in English Literature and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Sifrei, Deuteronomy 45 (my translation).
[ii] Cf. Deuteronomy 10:12.
[iii] See, for instance, Isaiah 29:16.
[iv] Genesis 3. The term “Original Sin” is borrowed from common Christian theology, based on a teaching of Paul the Apostle throughout the Gospels, which provides a unique interpretation of Psalms 51:5. The conception that this sin had an impact upon human nature exists in Jewish thought as well, as will be indicated below.
[v] An important study is Moshe Halevi Spero, “Thanatos, Id and the Evil Impulse,” Tradition 15,1-2 (1975): 97-111.
[vi] Genesis 6:5. All Torah quotations are translated by Chief Rabbi Emeritus Dr. J. H. Hertz for Pentateuch & Haftorahs (London: The Soncino Press, 1988), with my modifications to better fit colloquial speech.
[vii] Ibid. 8:21.
[viii] Evan Schwarzbaum, a fellow student at Yeshiva University, brought to my attention an important distinction between the terminology of the verses, which helps to illustrate this contrast. 6:5 refers to the yetser of “the thoughts of [man’s] heart,” indicating that the heart itself can be perfected and need not tolerate any evil. 8:21, however, concludes that the evil permeates “man’s heart” itself and is an essential part of its very being. The human heart cannot be perfected to the point of this evil’s total removal.
[ix] Avot 2:11 (translated by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks for The Koren Sacks Siddur [Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2006], p. 651). Some editions of the tractate, including the one in this siddur, count this Mishnah as 2:16, based upon a different tradition of breaking up the text.
[x] Genesis 1:31.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Bereshit Rabbah 9 (my translation). Also see similar formulations in Kohelet Rabbah 3 and Yalkut Shim’oni 16.
[xiii] Variations of the story appear in Yalkut Shim’oni to Nehemiah 1071 and in Yoma 69b and Sanhedrin 64a. An interesting image in this tradition is the depiction of the yetser ha-ra for idolatry in the likeness of a “lion of fire.”
[xiv] Deuteronomy 6:5.
[xv] Mishnah, Berakhot 9:5 (my translation). See also, for instance, Sifrei, Devarim and Midrash Tanna’im to the verse in Deuteronomy. The exegesis is based upon a seemingly extraneous letter in the Hebrew word meaning “your heart,” leading to the possibility of a dual heart.
[xvi] Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “Dibberah Torah Keneged ha-Yetser: De-Bei R. Yishma’el u-Mekoro shel Yetser ha-Ra,” Tarbits 76 (5767): 41-79.
[xvii] I am referring to the concept of the yetser developed in the two verses in Genesis which I quoted above; see nn. 6-7.
[xviii] Leviticus 19:25.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Sifra, Parashat Kedoshim 3:9 (my translation).
[xxi] Rosen-Zvi, pp. 42-45.
[xxii] Ibid., p. 57 (my translation).
[xxiii] Deuteronomy 6:5.
[xxiv] Ibid. 11:16.
[xxv] Ibid. 11:15-16.
[xxvi] Sifrei to Deuteronomy 43 (my translation).
[xxvii] Genesis 4:7.
[xxviii] Sifrei to Deuteronomy 45.
[xxix] Rosen-Zvi, pp. 48-60.
[xxx] Ibid., pp. 60-68.
[xxxi] Ibid., pp. 68-79.
[xxxii] Avot 2:11; see n. 9 above.
[xxxiii] See, for instance, Rambam’s understanding of Divrei ha-Hakhamim, apparently referring to the normative view of Hazal, in Shemonah Perakim 6.
[xxxiv] See, for instance, Hovot ha-Levavot, Sha’ar 9 – Sha’ar ha-Perishut 5.
[xxxv] See, for instance, R. Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek (New York: Ktav and Yeshiva University Press, 2006), p. 65.
[xxxvi] This view presumes that the yetser ha-ra is part of a person and not a separate entity within him. See, for instance, Yakir Englander, “Tefisat ha-Adam ve-Tafkidah shel ha-Halakhah be-Haguto shel he-Hazon Ish,” Reshit 2 (2010): 185, on the topic of the yetser ha-ra in the thought of the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz). See also Jeremy Cohen, “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination – A Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature,” The Harvard Theological Review 73,3-4 (July-October 1980): 495-520.
[xxxvii] Rambam, Shemonah Perakim, ibid. My thanks to Ben Jubas for providing me with many sources on the topic of approaches to the proper relationship with the yetser ha-ra, which he presented in a shi’ur at the Drisha Institute on September 4, 2010.