Shiur #20: The Problem of Sinful Thoughts and How to Prevent Them

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #20:

The Problem of Sinful Thoughts and How to Prevent Them


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Thoughts of sin (hirhurei aveira) are worse than sin, and the illustration of this is the smell of meat. 

(Yoma 29a)


Some commentaries question this statement in light of other Talmudic sources (e.g., Kiddushin 39b) indicating that sinful thoughts are not punishable.  Others discuss in what sense sinful thoughts might prove more harmful than sinful behavior.  The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8) maintains that sinful thoughts are more problematic because they relate to the essence of what it means to be a human being.  Animals and humans share the realm of action, but only human beings utilize their minds to think, analyze and ponder.  In that sense, sinful thoughts corrupt the most significant part of a person.  Interestingly, Rambam argues that, in this context, sinful speech should be classified together with sinful thoughts, as the power of speech also remains the exclusive character of a human being. 


A different approach identifies sinful thoughts with heretical thoughts.  Rabbi Yosef Albo (Sefer Ha-ikkarim 4:29) points out that sins often stem from the denial of one of the three fundamental principles: God's existence, divine providence or divine revelation.  Thus, the term "hirhurei aveira" actually refers to heresy.  If so, we can understand the gemara's regarding thoughts that reject our fundamentals of faith as worse than individual acts of sin.


Rabbi Mei'ir Simcha Ha-kohen from Dvinsk (Meshekh Chokhma, Bereishit 18:28) bases an alternative explanation on a famous distinction made by Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, the Gra.  The Gra argues that the terms "din and "cheshbon" (see Avot 3:1) refer to two different modes of divine judgment for wrongdoing: the former relates to the actual transgressions, while the latter refers to the wasted opportunity to do mitzvot.  From the perspective of "din," sinful acts may be worse than sinful thoughts; however, from the perspective of "cheshbon," sinful thoughts are worse as each moment of constructive thinking would have been considered a mitzva.  Therefore, the realm of thought accommodates a much greater sense of missed opportunity.  


            Rabbeinu Nissim (Derashot Ha-Ran, Derasha 5) says that this quote of Chazal indicates the essential role of inwardness in religious life.  He contends that positive mitzvot share the significance of the internal component emphasized in Yoma with regard to transgressions.  While Halakha clearly cares greatly about external action, the internal state is indispensable.  Rabbeinu Nissim argues for the centrality of the inner state when it comes to mitzvot relating to beliefs, mitzvot of an interpersonal nature and mitzvot that demand a certain awareness of God acting in history.  With regard to all three categories, physical performance absent the internal awareness would be missing the essence of the mitzvot in question.  In the same way, sinful thoughts can relate to the essential internal component of certain types of evil.    


All of the above approaches assume that when the gemara says that sinful thoughts are worse, it means "worse" in the sense of greater culpability and a more weighty transgression.  Alternatively, "worse" may refer to the measure of frustration and difficulty involved.  Tosafot Yeshanim explain our text in this way and they illustrate their point utilizing the gemara's example.  The smell of a juicy piece of meat is much harder on the one who has not partaken from it than on the one who has.  The thoughts of sin are far more difficult to deal with precisely because they remain unfulfilled.  The sin remains an ever-beckoning goal seemingly full of delight and splendor.


Presumably, Tosafot Yeshanim are not suggesting that we purposely sin so as to lessen the level of frustration.  I see three possible practical implications to their interpretation.  Firstly, we should exhibit understanding and sympathy to those frustrated by temptations.  Secondly, we should avoid placing ourselves in situations that encourage sinful thoughts.  Finally, we should realize that the forbidden fruit often loses its luster once a person has taken a bite; perhaps this thought will help cool our ardor for the cheeseburger that seems so inviting.


As noted, the gemara's evaluation refers either to the degree of blame or to the level of frustration.  Either way, we cannot escape the question of whether or not we can truly prevent sinful thoughts from occurring.  After all, these thoughts seem to come to us from a part of the personality that precedes reflection.  Is there a practical method to avoid the pitfall of sinful thoughts?


The Anaf Yosef, cited in Ein Yaakov, offers two suggestions.  He first mentions the possibility that we cannot prevent sinful thoughts.  Indeed, some temptations afflict the most righteous of souls.  However, we can control what happens after these sinful thoughts arrive.  Do we dwell on the sinful possibilities with great enthusiasm, or do we quickly distract ourselves by thinking about other things?  When thoughts of revenge emerge, do we relish the fantasy of publicly embarrassing our rivals, or do we assure that those vengeful thoughts remain fleeting by diverting our attention elsewhere?  According to this approach, the Anaf Yosef suggests that the hirhurei aveira evaluated negatively by the gemara denote specifically prolonged dwelling on the possibilities of sin and not fleeting thoughts of wrongdoing.


In his second interpretation, the Anaf Yosef argues that we can actually prevent sinful thoughts, but not by attacking them directly.  Rather, he recommends filling one's day with Torah study and other positive endeavors so that dreams of iniquity have little room to enter.  It is well known that bored adolescents hanging out on street corners are more prone to destructive behavior; less well-known is that the same phenomenon occurs with adults.  Adults whose lives are filled with religiously significant activity will simply have less time for thoughts of sin; they will also hopefully find their lives meaningful enough to lessen the need to look beyond the boundaries of religiously acceptable behavior for excitement.


One final approach comes from a famous passage in the Torah commentary of the Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha-arukh, Shemot 20:13).  He questions how the Torah could require people not to covet the house or animal of their neighbors:  after all, such coveting seems natural and immediate.  (Parenthetically, some authorities do maintain that one does not violate the prohibition of "Do not covet" unless one has done an action towards acquiring the item.)  The Ibn Ezra answers with a parable: a poor villager does not desire to marry the princess, as he knows very well that she is out of his league.  In the same way, humans are not jealous of the flying powers of birds, as aviation is simply not part of our universe of possibilities.  Apparently, our orientation toward various possibilities does influence which desires we have.  Many of us are not tempted to steal or cheat on an exam even when we know we could get away with it and we would benefit from such cheating or stealing; due to our moral recoiling from such behavior, the temptations seem much less compelling.  The Ibn Ezra challenges us to internalize the wrongness of problematic practices until they start to lose their allure.


None of the above is meant to suggest that dealing with temptations is easy.  We can understand the difficulties of the endeavor even as we recognize the importance of it and proceed with the three strategies outlined above.