Monday, March 21, 2016

Traditional Jewish source for the “Seven Deadly Sins”

Traditional Jewish source for the “Seven Deadly Sins”
 By Chaim Sunitsky

In Christianity as well as in western culture there is a well-known concept of “Seven Deadly Sins” usually enumerated as: pride, covetousness, lust (understood as illicit sexual desire), envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. In particular this theme is well known through the art of Hieronymus Bosch.

Even though there is no clear biblical source for this particular list of sins, in general the number seven plays a major role in the Bible and in particular the concept of some “seven sins” is thought to come from Mishle (6:16): שֶׁשׁ הֵנָּה שָׂנֵא ה וְשֶׁבַע תּוֹעֲבַות נַפְשׁוֹ (there are six things Hashem hates and [altogether] seven that are abomination to Him).

In traditional Jewish literature the number seven[1] certainly plays a very important role. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) mentions seven “names” (or types) of Yetzer Hara and in a different place (Eruvin 19a) seven names of Gehinom. The Zohar (Hechalot in Parshat Pekude) associates the two with each level in Hell ruled by a different aspect of the Satan. One would therefore expect some list of “seven deadly sins” in our literature as well. However it would come as a surprise to find the list that is almost identical.

Still such a source does exist. The GR”A[2] comments on the Agada in Berachot (4b) that the Angel of Death flies in eight steps (מלאך המות בשמונה):

ששמונה סבות המיתה על האדם הם , אחת מחמת חטא אדה״ר וז׳ מחמת ז׳ ראשי עבירות שהם גרם כל העבירות והם התאוה והקנאה והגאוה שהוא הככוד והכילוה שהוא עין הרע והזנות שהוא היצה״ר ושנאת הבריות והבטלה והיא שביעית נוק׳ לשבת בית ובה כלולין ד׳ כידוע והוא מ"ש שיחת הילדים כו׳ וישיבת כו׳. וז׳ שמות יש ליצה"ר הידועים וז׳ מדורות ז׳ ראשי תנינים וז׳ גשרים לס"א וז׳ של להט החרב המחהפכת צבוע כו׳ וז׳ עונשים של התורה ד׳ מיתות ב״ד ומיתה ביד״ש וכרת ומלקות

Because there are eight causes of death, one due to the sin of Adam and seven due to the seven main transgressions that cause all other sins and they are the תאוה (desire for gratification which can in our case mean gluttony[3]) קנאה (envy), גאוה (pride) that is also ככוד (honor), כילות (stinginess) that is bad eye, זנות (illicit sexual desire) that is Yetzer Hara, שנאת הבריות  (hatred of others) and בטלה (sloth). And this [sloth] is the seventh – feminine[4] “to sit at home[5]” and it includes 4 as it is known, like it says “childish conversation etc and sitting [with ignoramuses[6]].” And there are seven known names of Yetzer Hara, and seven “heads” of the snake and seven bridges of the “Sitra Achra” and seven of the rotating sward that turns from hyena etc and seven types of punishments: four types of execution by Bet Din, death at the hands of Heaven, Karet and flogging.

Regarding his words “seven of the rotating sward that turns from hyena” he is referring to an Agada in Baba Kama (16a) about six species turning into one another every seven years and the person not bowing down at Modim turning into a snake:

צבוע זכר לאחר שבע שנים נעשה עטלף עטלף לאחר שבע שנים נעשה ערפד ערפד לאחר ז' שנים נעשה קימוש קימוש לאחר שבע שנים נעשה חוח חוח לאחר שבע שנים נעשה שד שדרו של אדם לאחר שבע שנים נעשה נחש והני מילי דלא כרע במודים

The male hyena after seven years turns into a bat, the bat after seven years turns into an arpad (possibly a species of bat), the arpad after seven years turns into kimmosh[7], the kimmosh after seven years turns into a choach, the choach after seven years turns into a demon. The spine of a man after seven years turns into a snake if he doesn’t bow when reciting Modim[8].

The GR”A’s comments on this Agada in Baba Kama are similar to his comments in Berachot: the six animals are hinting to 6 active (masculine) sins and the seventh – to the passive (feminine) sin of laziness:

תניא צבוע זכר כו׳. הן ז׳ קשרים דתנינא דלהט כו׳ לכן הן מתהפכין והשביעית דנוק׳ שלכן נעשה נחש והראשונה בדכורא לכן נעשה שד

“They are seven knots of the snake of the “rotating [sward]” etc and therefore they turn into each other and the seventh one is the feminine and therefore he [who doesn’t bow at Modim] becomes a snake (fem) while the first [six] are masculine and therefore he turns to a demon (masc)”.

R. Avraham, the Vilna Gaon’s son explains the words of his father as follows:

הן ז׳ קשרים דתנינא דלהט פי׳ דלהט חרב המתהפכת שמתהפכת לשבעה גוונים הם ז׳ ראשי עבירות שהם גרם כל העבירות , והם התאוה והקנאה והגאוה שהוא הככוד, והכילות שהוא עין הרע , והזנות שהוא יצה"ר, ושנאת הבריות, והבטלה והיא שביעית נוק׳ לשבת בית

The seven knots of the snake of the “rotating sward” meaning the “rotating sward” turns into seven types of seven major sins that are a cause of all other sins and they are the תאוה, קנאה, גאוה that is ככוד, כילות that is bad eye, זנות that is Yetzer Hara, שנאה and בטלה. בטלה is the seventh [passive] feminine “to sit at home”.

The correspondence of the GR”A’s list of seven deadly sins and the non-Jewish list is almost exact with the exception of שנאה (hatred) being used instead of anger (כעס), and even these two are closely related. The main question becomes: what is the GR”A’s source for this specific collection of transgressions?

It seems that the GR”A’s source is Mishnayot in Avot. The first three sins are mentioned in 4:21הקנאה והתאוה והכבוד  that cause מוציאין את האדם מן העולם to take the person out of this world. The next three sins are in 2:11:   עין הרע, ויצר הרע, ושנאת הבריות and they also “take the person out of this world[9]”. The last of the seven sins includes the four types of time wasting mentioned in Avot 3:10. These four also said to “take the person out of this world[10]”.

In conclusion I propose that the collection of the “Seven Deadly Sins” that are a source[11] of all other transgressions[12] is found in Judaism.[13]




[1] Of course in Kabala this number is very important as it relates to seven lower Sefirot.
[2] The GR”A didn’t write a commentary to all agadot like Maharsha or Maharal, we only have his words on Berachot and some of Shabbat, Megillah, Baba Kama, Baba Batra and Bechorot; much of his commentary is hard to understand but his son R. Avraham helps us in his super-commentary.
[3] As the other main “desire” for sexual gratification is mentioned separately later.
[4] In Kabala action is associated with male and passivity with female. The first six sins are related to six “masculine” Sefirot of Sitra Achra and the Seventh – to Malchut or Nukva – the passive “feminine” Sefira.  
[5] See Yeshayahu 44:12. Kabalistic literature uses this verse to refer to the feminine aspect – Nukva.
[6] See Avot 3:10 שנה של שחרית, ויין של צהרים, ושיחת הילדים, וישיבת בתי כנסיות של עמי הארץ, מוציאין את האדם מן העולם. The GR”A is hinting that sloth includes 4 different types of empty wasting time just as Malchut is known to include 4 separate aspects.
[7] According to the English Artscroll and Soncino, kimosh and choach are types of thorns, but it seems that this agada is talking about various animals. Indeed Rashi (Hoshea 9:6) brings that according to Targum Yonatan on this verse kimosh and choach are some kinds of animals. (Hebrew Artscroll also brings the possibility that choach and kimosh are animals.)
[8] Regarding how Modim is related to this the GR”A gives a mystical explanation that is beyond the scope of the present article.
[9] See also GR”A on Mishle 21:4 that there is a correspondence between the sins mentioned in these two mishnayot. I presume it is similar to the correspondence between the Sefirot Hesed-Gevurah-Tiferet and the lower level Netzach-Hod-Yesod. The GR”A also writes there that these sins correspond to the qualities of students of Balaam (see Avot 5:19).
[10] Indeed these are the only 3 Mishnayot in Pirke Avot that use the expression: מוציאין את האדם מן העולם
[11] Note how the qualities of a person are in a sense more fundamental than the actions, see the beginning of R. Hayim Vital’s “Shaare Kedusha” and “Even Shlema” written by the students of the GR”A according to the teachings of their Rebbe. 
[12] Interestingly even the Hebrew article in Wikipedia on the “Seven Deadly Sins” assumes it’s a Christian concept and does not mention that this concept has a source in Judaism as well.
[13] It might even be that this idea came from Judaism into early Christianity.

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