There are numerous texts about the
Yetzer HaRa (the Evil Inclination, aka "Satan") in the
Jewish Talmud. The Jewish sages were in no way monolithic in their
understanding of the source of our human capacity to do evil. They all
agreed that humans are born with it. Here are a number of selections
which present proof texts for this:
The following curt statement by Reish Lakish is the most
controversial understanding of the Evil Inclination:
Baba Batra 16a:
R. Simeon ben Lakish said: Satan, impulse to evil, and angel of death:
all three are the same thing.
So how persuasive is the Evil
It has been taught: R. Jose HaGalili says, The righteous are swayed by
their good inclination, as it says, My heart is slain within me.
The wicked are swayed by their evil inclination, as it says,
Transgression speaks to the wicked, I believe, there is no fear of God
before his eyes.
Average people are swayed by both inclinations, as it says, Because He
stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from them that
judge his soul.
Raba said: People such as we are of the average.
Said Abaye to him: The Master gives no one a chance to live!
Raba further said: The world was created only for either the totally
wicked or the totally righteous.
Raba said: Let a man know concerning himself whether he is completely
righteous or not!
Three people never had any problem
with the Evil Inclination:
Baba Batra 17a
Three there were over whom the evil inclination had no dominion:
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...
For the rest of us, however, who are
the most susceptible to the wiles of the Evil Inclination? SCHOLARS!
Abaye explained, Against scholars more than against anyone;
as was the case when Abaye heard a certain man saying to a woman,
‘Let us arise now and go on our way.'
‘I will', said Abaye, ‘follow them in order to keep them away from
transgression' and he followed them for three parasangs across the
When they parted company he heard them say, ‘Our company is
pleasant, the way is long.'
‘If it were I,' said Abaye, ‘I could not have restrained myself,'
and so he went and leaned in deep anguish against a doorpost, when a
certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man,
the greater his Evil Inclination.
Even when we mourn, we're not safe
from the Evil Inclination's influence:
For behold R. Elai the elder said: If a man sees that his [evil]
inclination is prevailing upon him, let him go to a place where he is
not known, and put on black garments, and wrap himself up in black
garments, and let him do what his heart desires;
but let him not profane the Name of Heaven publicly!
R. Judah son of R. Nahmani, the speaker of Resh Lakish expounded: What
is the meaning of the verse: Trust not in a friend, put not confidence
in a familiar friend.
If the evil inclination says to you: Sin and the Holy One, blessed be
He, will pardon, believe it not, for it is said: ‘Trust not in a
friend,' and ‘friend' [Rea'] means none other than one's evil
inclination, for it is said: For the inclination of man's heart is
Oy! The Evil Inclination is so bad
that it's one of the things God regrets creating:
R. Hana b. Abba stated: It was said at the schoolhouse, There are four
things of which the Holy One, blessed be He, regrets that He had
created them, and they are the following: Exile, the Chaldeans, the
Ishmaelites and Evil Inclination.
‘The Exile', since it is written, Now, therefore, what do I here,
says Adonai, seeing that My people is taken away for nothing; (Isaiah
‘the Chaldeans', since it is written, Behold the land of the
Chaldeans; this is the people that was not." (Isaiah 23:13)
‘the Ishmaelites', since it is written, The tents of the robbers
prosper, and they that provoke God are secure since God brought them
with His hand." (Job 12)
‘the Evil Inclination', since it is written, [And I will gather her
that is driven away] and her that I have afflicted.(Micah 4:6)
Is there no hope against the Evil
Inclination? Of course there is!
The school of R. Ishmael taught, If this repulsive wretch meets you,
drag him to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study.
Despite the power of the Evil
Inclination, we are still held responsible; we can beat it. The
following selection deals with Psalm 4:5: Tremble and sin not; Commune
with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Sela."
R. Levi b. Hama says in the name of R.
Simeon b. Lakish: A man should always incite the good impulse to fight
against the evil impulse.
For it is written: Tremble and sin not.
If he subdues it, well and good.
If not, let him study the Torah. For it is written: ‘Commune with
your own heart.'
If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him recite the Shema'.
For it is written: ‘Upon your bed.'
If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the
day of death. For it is written: ‘And be still, Selah.'
Avot D'Rabbi Natan 16:
"The impulse of man's heart was evil from the time he was
expelled from his mother's womb." (Gen. 8:21).
If you argue: "Is it not the Holy One Himself who created the
impulse to evil, of which it is written, 'The impulse of man's heart
was evil from the time he was expelled from his mother's womb?' Who
then can possibly make it good?"
the Holy One replies, "You are the one who makes the impulse to
evil stay evil.
How? When you were a child, you did not sin. Only when you grew up,
you began to sin."
If you argue: "But no man can guard himself against it!"
the Holy One replies, "How many things in the world are even less
bearable and more bitter than the impulse to evil, yet you manage to
Nothing is more bitter than the lupine, and yet, in order to sweeten
it, you carefully boil it in water seven times, until it becomes
Now, if you sweeten for your need bitter things that I alone created,
all the greater is your responsibility for the impulse to evil, which
was placed under your control."
Baba Batra 16a
"Although you know that I am not wicked, and there is none that
can deliver out of your hand."
Raba said: Job sought to exculpate the whole world.
He said: Sovereign of the Universe, You have created the ox with
cloven hoofs and you have created the ass with whole hoofs;
you have created Paradise and you have created Gehinnom:
you have created righteous men and you have created wicked men, and
who can prevent you?
His companions answered him: Yea, you do away with fear and restrain
devotion before God.
If God created the evil inclination, He also created the Torah as its
Baba Metzia 32b
Come and hear: If a friend requires unloading, and an enemy loading,
one's [first] obligation is towards his enemy, in order to subdue his
Now if you should think that [relieving the suffering of an animal is
Biblically [enjoined], [surely] the other is preferable!
Even so, [the motive] ‘in order to subdue his evil inclination' is
The most extraordinary story about a sage overcoming his Evil
Inclination is not found in the Talmud: it's from a midrash collection
called the Tanchuma. However, because of its remarkable imagery, I'm
including it here.
A story of Matia ben Heresh: He was rich and feared Heaven and, like
R. Meir, his teacher, sat all his days in the house of study occupying
himself with Torah.
Now, the splendor of his countenance shone like the radiance of the
sun, and the beauty of his features resembled that of the ministering
angels. It was said of him that never in his life had he raised his
eyes upon a woman.
Once, Satan passed by and, seeing him, was overcome with envy as he
said: Is it possible that there is a righteous man entirely without
sin in the world? At once he went up to the height above, stood before
the Holy One, and said, "Master of the universe, Matia ben
Heresh:what sort of man is he in Your sight?"
God: "He is utterly righteous."
Satan: "Give me permission, and I will test him."
God: "You will not prevail over him."
So God gave him permission.
Satan went and found R. Matia seated and occupied with Torah. So he
appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman, the like of which
there had not been in the world since the days of Naamah, Tubal-Cain's
sister, on account of whom ministering angels went astray.
Satan stood in front of R. Matia, who, upon seeing him, turned his
back to him.
Satan went around and again stood in front of R. Matia. When R. Matia
turned his face to still another direction, Satan was once more in
front of him.
When R. Matia saw that Satan [in the woman's guise] turned up on all
sides, he said to himself: I fear that the impulse to evil will gain
mastery over me and cause me to sin.
What did that righteous man do then?
He summoned one of his disciples, who acted as his attendant, and said
to him: My son, go and bring me fire and nails.
After he brought them, R. Matia passed the nails through the fire,
then plunged them into his own eyes.
When Satan saw this, he was shaken, all but knocked out, and left R.
In that instant, the Holy One summoned Raphael, prince of healings,
and said to him, "Go and heal the eyes of Matia ben Heresh."
When Raphael came and stood before him, Matia asked, "Who are
Raphael answered, "I am the angel Raphael, whom the Holy One had
sent to heal your eyes."
Matia: "Let me be. What happened has happened."
Raphael returned to the Holy One and reported to Him, "Master of
the universe, thus-and-thus did Matia ben Heresh answer me."
The Holy One said, "Go and tell him: From this day and
henceforth, fear not. I guarantee you in this matter that, throughout
your days, the impulse to evil will have no sway over you."
When Matia ben Heresh heard God's guarantee from the angel, he was
willing to accept the angel's healing and was healed.
Inclination and the Jewish sages, continued...