The Evil Inclination

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:

Brachot 61a

R. Nachman b. R. Hisda expounded: What is meant by the text, Then the Lord God formed [va-yitzer] man?

[The word va-yitzer] is written with two yods, to show that God created two inclinations, one good and the other evil.

R. Nachman b. Isaac demurred to this. According to this, he said, animals, of which it is not written va-yitzer (with two yods), should have no evil inclination yet we see that they injure and bite and kick?

In truth [the point of the two yods] is as stated by R. Simeon b. Pazzi; for R. Simeon b. Pazzi said: Woe is me because of my Creator [yotzri]; woe is me because of my evil inclination [yitzri]!

Or again as explained by R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar; for R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: God created two countenances in the first man, as it says, Behind and before have You formed me....

Sanhedrin 91b:

Antoninus asked Rabbi, "At what time does the impulse to evil gain mastery over man: at the time of his conception or at the time he is born?"

Rabbi: "At the time of his conception."

Antoninus: "If so, he would have kicked his way out of his mother's womb. Accordingly, the impulse to evil must gain mastery at the time of birth."

Subsequently, Rabbi used to say: This is one thing that Antoninus taught me, and Scripture supports him, for it is said, "At the door [through which the newborn child issues], sin crouches" (Gen. 4:7).

Avot D'Rabbi Natan 16:

Come and observe: a kid or a lamb, when it sees a pit, turns back, since in an animal there is no impulse to evil [to lead it to harm].

But an infant: the impulse to evil drives him headlong [to destruction], so that the infant places his hand on a serpent or a scorpion and is stung by it, or he places his hand on glowing coals and is burned....

The following text from Avot D'Rabbi Natan 16 is the most depressing statement about the Evil Inclination that I've read; it provides such a sense of futility about a child's development!

The sages said: The impulse to evil is [at least] thirteen years older than the impulse to good.

It begins growing with a child in the mother's womb and comes out with him. If the child is about to profane the Sabbath, it does not deter him;

if the child is about to take a life, it does not deter him;

if the child is about to commit an act of unchastity, it does not deter him.

Only at the age of thirteen is the impulse to good born in a child. If then he is about to profane the Sabbath, it warns him: "You fool! Scripture states, 'Everyone that profanes it shall surely be put to death.' " (Exodus 31:14)

If he is about to take a life, it warns him: "You fool! Scripture says, 'Whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.' " (Genesis 9:6)

If he is about to commit an act of unchastity, it warns him: "You fool! Scripture states, 'Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.' " (Leviticus 20:10)

When a man stirs up his passion and is about to commit an act of lewdness, all parts of his body are ready to obey him. On the other hand, when a man is about to perform an act of piety, all his parts become laggard, because the impulse to evil in his innards is ruler of the two hundred and forty-eight parts of his body, whereas the impulse to good is like a man confined in a prison.

The following selections all try to describe the site and basic "nature" of the evil inclination

Brachot 61a:

Rav said: The evil inclination resembles a fly and dwells between the two entrances of the heart, as it says, Dead flies make the ointment of the perfumers fetid and putrid.

Samuel said: It is a like a kind of wheat [chittah], as it says, Sin [chattat] couches at the door.

Our Rabbis taught: Man has two kidneys, one of which prompts him to good, the other to evil; and it is natural to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written, A wise man's understanding is at his right hand, but a fool's understanding is at his left. (Ecclesiastes 10:2)

Sukkah 52a:

R. Assi stated, The Evil Inclination is at first like the thread of a spider, but ultimately becomes like cart ropes, as it is said, Woe to them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart-rope.

Sukkah 52b:

R. Yochanan remarked, There is a small organ in man which satisfies him when in hunger and makes him hunger when he's satisfied, as it is said, When they were starved they became full. (Hosea 13:6)

R. Isaac said: A man's impulse to evil renews itself [in allure] every day, as is said, "Every impulse wrought by his mind was sheer evil every day" (Gen. 6:5).

R. Simeon ben Lakish said: A man's impulse to evil grows in strength from day to day and seeks to slay him, as is said, "The wicked watch the righteous, and seek to slay him." (Psalm 37:32)

And but for the Holy One who is his help, he could not withstand it, as is said, "The Lord will not leave him in his hand." (Psalm 37:33)

Shabbat 105b

"There shall no strange god be in you." (Psalm 81:10). What is the strange god within a man's body? It is none other than the impulse to evil.

Sotah 8a:

Rava said: We have a tradition that the impulse to evil dominates only what its eyes see.

Kiddushin 30b:

Our masters taught: The impulse to evil is hard to bear, since even its Creator called it evil, for He said, "From his youth the impulse in man's heart is evil." (Gen. 8:21)

Niddah 13b:

Rav stated: ‘A man who wilfully causes erection should be placed under the ban.'

But why did he not say, ‘This is forbidden?'

Because the man merely incites his evil inclination against himself.

R. Ammi, however, stated: He is called a renegade, because such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.

Sukkah 52a-b:

In the time to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked.

To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill,

and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread.

Both the former and the latter will weep;

the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!'

The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!'

And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, Thus says the Lord of Hosts, If it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvelous in My eyes.

R. ‘Avira or, as some say, R. Joshua b. Levi, made the following exposition: The Evil Inclination has seven names.

The Holy One, blessed be He, called it Evil, as it is said, For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth.

Moses called it the Uncircumcised, as it is said, Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart.

David called it Unclean, as it is said, Create me a clean heart, O Lord, which implies that there is an unclean one.

Solomon called it the Enemy, as it is said, If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat and if he be thirsty give him water to drink. For you will heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord will reward you;

read not, ‘will reward you' but ‘will cause it to be at peace with you.'

Isaiah called it the Stumbling-Block, as it is said, Cast you up, Cast you up, clear the way, take up the stumbling-block out of the way of my people.

Ezekiel called it Stone, as it is said, And I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh.

Joel called it the Hidden One, as it is said, But I will remove far off from you the hidden one.