Ethics Now & Then 72 – Avot 4:24

Pirkei Avot 4:24   Shmuel haKatan ( Samuel, the ‘Little One’) says: “When your enemy falls be not glad, and when he stumbles let your heart not be joyous. Lest HaShem see and it displease Him. and He will turn His wrath from him [to you].”


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Shmuel haKatan ( Samuel, the ‘Little One’) says… 

The Jerusalem Talmud records that Samuel, the Sage qouted here, was called the “Little One” due to his true humility.* The verse is a direct quote from the book of Proverbs (23:17-18) and the fact that it is attributed here to Shmuel the Sage reflects that this principle must have been a central facet of his teaching and, thus, of his personal belief.

Interestingly, the controversial inclusion of a 19th benediction, in the thrice daily Amidah prayer called the Shmonah Esreh (18 blessings), which addressed the sectarian groups  viewed as heretical, was composed by Shmuel haKatan. At that time, in the 2nd century, the Romans dominated and Hellenism was rife among the Jews of Israel as well as in the Diaspora. Also, Jewish sects such as the Sadducees were seen as revising the very fundamentals of the Jewish faith. The renowned medieval commentator Rashi noted, “This [19th benediction] was instituted at Yavneh …in regard to the developing influence of new religious concepts that were inculcating the upheaval of the words of the living God.” No doubt , included among those seen as heretical were the Nazarenes or Christians. Initially, the disciples of Jesus had continued to live as Jews in accord with the Hebrew Scriptures, as Jesus himself had done and taught. “And day by day, attending the Temple together and breaking bread in their homes, … [they were] praising God and having favor with all the people.”** By the time of the 2nd century, however, it seems that many were affected by the Roman Hellenistic influence and, sadly, had abandoned the “words of the living God” and were now recognized as “…heretical Jews who turned against their mother religion with malicious fury when their missionary attempts were rejected.”***

The original text of the 19th benediction reads: “May there be no hope for the apostates; may all infidel heretics perish in an instant, and may all Thy enemies be cut down soon. [This first sentence was amended in recent history]. Do Thou speedily uproot the dominion of the arrogant evil, and crush, cast down, and bring low all our enemies most soon, in our days. Blessed art Thou O Lord, who dost break enemies and bring low the arrogant.”

It reads as a strong indictment against those who were threatening both the physical and spiritual safety of Israel and could only acceptably be received in a spirit of true humility that bore no arrogance or animosity. Shmuel haKatan’s words stemmed from a true love of God and of His people and, while not naming any individual person or group, it decries any who have made themselves instruments of evil in opposition to God and His Word. As the Psalmist proclaims, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (97:10). While leaving the fate of every individual in the hands of God, evil itself – that which is in contradiction to the Word and goodness of God and which is a danger to one’s life – must not be condoned or tolerated in your midst.

When your enemy falls be not glad, and when he stumbles let your heart not be joyous.

When your enemy falls ( Heb.: bin’fol ) be not glad ( tis’mach ), and when he stumbles ( u’vee’cashlo ) let your heart not be joyous ( yag’el ). Repetition often is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for emphasis or greater clarity. In this case, a different concept is being described via the Hebrew words used in the two phrases; which bears our taking a closer look. The first verb, binfol, is derived from the root word nafal, to fall, due to a Providential cause beyond a person’s control. U’vee’cashlo, from the root cashal, to stumble, indicates  the result of a fault made by the person himself. We find an example in Hosea: “Repent O Israel, …for you have stumbled (cashalta) in your sin” (14:2).****

The second set of injunctions are: to not be glad (tis’mach), from the root meaning of a happiness resulting from considered contemplation, nor to be be joyous (yag’el), a spontaneous exultation – a type of inner joyous laughter. When applied in the context of the fate of one’s enemies we are warned, as Irving Bunim describes: “When a misfortune overtakes your enemy that appears to be an act of Providence, do not …decide that since it is a punishment from [God] you should be happy; and if your enemy stumbles by his own fault, by his own carelessness or stupidity, do not [exult in glee].”*****

There is a subtle difference between expressing grateful praise to God for deliverance from one’s enemy and rejoicing in his downfall. The difference lies in the atitude of one’s heart,  which can be arrogance or humility. We have a clear example in Exodus 15:1-19, when the Israelites experienced the miraculous parting of the sea, crossed to safety and freedom and then witnessed the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army as the sea closed upon them. Moses leads a song of praise for the glory and greatness of God that was revealed by this miracle. It was not a crowing of personal triumph of the Israelites over their enemies.

Lest HaShem see and it displease Him, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you].

Based on the belief of the all-encompassing and constant goodness of God, a  basic tenet in Judaism is “Gam zu le’tovah” – “Even this is for good.” In all that God allows to happen, He will be working within the circumstances for the ultimate good of each individual, as each is created in His image. God’s Word clearly teaches that we are not to harbor resentment in our hearts nor take revenge on another, rather we are to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Humanly speaking, taking revenge is extremely sweet, as is seeing the downfall of one’s enemy, and yet we are called to emulate God and, while we cannot love our enemies’ evil actions, we must restrain any excess of satisfaction or joy at his downfall. If a person rejoices and celebrates at another individual’s harm or destruction, this may well incur the wrath of the Almighty, the Father of all.


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Pause and Reflect

The Torah expresses the command to , “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The great sage Hillel, realizing that should a neighbor prove to be an enemy it would not be humanly possible to love him, rephrased the injunction as, in effect: “Do not do to another what you would not wish him to do to you!” A thief would not wish to be stolen from and a murderer would not wish to be killed himself – nor would a terrorist like to be terrorized!

When asked what he considered to be the greatest commandment, Yeshua restored the negative, although practical, statement of Hillel’s to the positive, by reciting the Shema, which all knew since childhood, saying: “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”(Mark 9:29-31) By connecting the two Yeshua was emphasizing that only by fully loving God and walking in His love, can one have the ability to overcome our natural inclination to harbor resentment and even hatred in our hearts toward one who has done wrong and harmed us, and thus be glad or inwardly enjoy satisfaction at any misfortune he, in turn, may suffer.

Most often, the root of discord and the cause of pain inflicted, even among the people of God, is the obverse of the love of God – the desire for personal power, and material gain. We are exhorted in 1 John 2: 15-16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world.”

Let us consider where any root of resentment against another may have a hold in our lives and pray in faith that this be removed and the wound healed in the mighty love of our Father in Heaven. Pray also that any hatred be revealed, removed, and replaced by His love and concern for all His children.



* Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin ix 13
** Acts 2:47-47
Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 167
Ibid., 169
Ibid., 169

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