The Yetser HaTov in Rabbinic Thought

The rabbinic notion of two inclinations – good and evil – vying for domination in each human heart is first mentioned and best known from a homily on Deuteronomy 6:5, the second verse in the Shema, which begins “ve’ahavta et hashem elokekha bekhol levavkha…” Commenting on the use of the variant form levavkha, with double bet, for “your heart,” instead of libkha with one bet, the darshan explains that you are expected to love God with both your inclinations, the good and the evil: “bishney yetsarekha, yetser hatov viyetser hara.” Versions of this homily are found in Mishnah Berakhot 9:5, Sifre Deuteronomy 32 and Tosefta Berakhot 6:7. In the Tosefta this darshan is identified as the second century tanna [sage] Rabbi Meir, the primary teacher of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, editor of the Mishnah.

At first glance, Rabbi Meir’s notion of the two inclinations of the heart brings to mind the anatomy of the soul according to Plato and Aristotle: Plato divides the soul into passion, spirit, and intellect, and bids the intellect control the other two (Republic, book IV). Aristotle’s soul has rational and irrational components, and he sees a hierarchical relationship between them; the rational being the higher soul (De Anima, book III).

Maimonides tries to equate Rabbi Meir’s notion with that of the Greek philosophers, going so far as to suggest that while the evil inclination is present in the individual from birth, the good inclination develops along with the intellect (Guide for the Perplexed, book III, chapter 23). But it seems clear that Maimonides’ attempt to harmonize the mishnaic conception of the two yetsarim with Greek thought does not reflect the original meaning of Rabbi Meir’s statement. Rabbi Meir sees the yetser hatov and the yetser hara as two equal tendencies built into each and every human heart from its inception. His short homily makes that abundantly clear:

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Author: Moshe Benovitz

Keywords: Adversary, Angel of darkness, Angel of death, Body of death, Christ tempted, Christ's temptation, Christ's temptation in the wilderness, Deliver us from evil, Devil, Devil and Jesus, Devil tempts Jesus, diabolos, Evil angel, Evil Inclination, Evil nature, Evil one, Good angel, Good nature, Hara Yetser, Ha-ra Yetser, Hara Yetzer, Ha-ra Yetzer, Hara Yezer, Ha-ra Yezer, Intentional misspelling, Intentionally misspelled, Jesus' temptation, Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, Jesus tempted, Jesus tempted by Satan, Jesus tempted by the devil, Jesus tempted in the wilderness, Jesus's temptation, Jot, Jot and tittle, Jots, Man's sinful nature, Mispelled word, Mispelling, Misspelling, Misspelled word, Origin of sin, Personification of evil, Personification, Satan, Satan and Jesus, Satan tempts Christ, Satan tempts Jesus, Seducer, Sexual temptation, Sin, Sin in the flesh, Sin personified, Sin within, Sinful nature, Snatcher, Temptation, Temptation from within, Temptation in the wilderness, Tempted in the wilderness, Tempted of Satan, Tempted of the devil, Tempted sexually, Tempted to do evil, Tempts Christ, Tempts Jesus, The devil tempts Christ, The devil tempts Jesus, The Evil Inclination, The Evil One, Tittle, Two jots, Two yodhs, Two yods, Wicked one, Wilderness temptation, Wretched man, Yatsar, Yetsarim, Yetser ha ra, Yetser ha tov, Yetser ra, Yetser tov, Yetzer, Yetzer ha ra, Yetzer ha tov, Yetzer Hara, Yetzer ra, Yetzer tov, Yezer ha ra, Yezer ha tov, Yezer Hara, Yezer tov, Yod, Yodh, Qumran Rule

Bible reference(s): Genesis 2:7, Genesis 8:21, Deuteronomy 6:5, Deuteronomy 10:16, Job 1:6-12, Job 2:1-7, Psalms 51:10, Proverbs 25:21, Isaiah 5:18, Isaiah 14:4-19, Isaiah 57:14, Ezekiel 28:11-17, Ezekiel 36:26, Joel 2:20, Matthew 4:1-11, Matthew 6:13, Mark 1:13, Luke 11:4, Luke 4:2-13, John 8:44, Acts 5:3, Romans 7:17-24, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Corinthians 12:7, 2 Corinthians 11:14, Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 4:27, Ephesians 6:11, Ephesians 6:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:5, 1 Timothy 3:6-7, 2 Timothy 2:26, Hebrews 2:14, James 4:7, 1 John 2:13-14, 1 John 3:8, 1 John 3:10, 1 John 3:12, 1 John 5:18-19, Matthew 5:18, Revelation 20:10

Source: Prof. Faculty Forum, Volume 11, Issue No. 3, November 2012.

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