Talmudic Theodicy

Recently, I submitted a paper for a class titled “Theology and Mythology of Evil.” The class read texts from several cultures and religions, each attempting to resolve how Evil could exist, especially in a world of an omniscient and beneficent God (or Gods as the case may be).

I noticed in the class a tendency for people to assume that there exists a particular “Jewish” attitude regarding Evil. Although this is true to some extent, the overall perception mirrors the attitude of the yeshiva – that one or two opinions believed by Jews makes the opinion “Jewish” – to the possible exclusion of everything else.

This attitude is precisely what prompted me to start the Mahshevet Hazal shiurim. With this in mind, I collected several sources from the Talmud which illustrate the plurality of opinions regarding the problem of theodicy. While retaining the multiple and often mutually exclusive positions in the Talmud, I offered my suggestions for a unified Rabbinic approach to Evil.


Although I do not have the time or space here to cover every possible explanation, I will present enough sources to demonstrate the diversity of Rabbinic interpretation.

A common Rabbinic approach is to explain death or other punishments as a result of sin. For one general example, an anonymous source states “if one dies before age fifty, that is the death of karet.”(Moed Qatan 28a) Occasionally Rabbis will attribute specific punishments for specific actions. M. Shabbat 2:6 declares, “For three things a woman dies in childbirth: for not being careful in the laws of menstruation, tithing, and lighting the Sabbath candles.” In the subsequent Talmudic source, R. Nehemiah says, “for the sin of baseless hatred, strife increases in one’s home, his wife miscarries, and his sons and daughters will die when they are young.”(B. Shabbat 32b)

Some sources directly correlate punishments to the sin. This perspective, often called “middah k’negged middah” or “measure for measure,” is explicit in M. Sota 1:7-9 which states “A person is treated according to his own behavior” and provides examples.

Other attempts at “measure for measure” are not as thoroughly consistent.

    There are seven types of punishments for seven types of sins:

    1. If some tithe and some do not, a famine of drought comes such that some will be hungry, and others will not.
    2. If everyone does not tithe, then a famine of both armed robbers and drought will come.
    3. If they also did not take halla, then a destructive drought will come.
    4. Pestilence comes to the world for people who deserve the death penalty, but were not given over to the court, and for misuse of sabbatical produce.
    5. The sword comes to the world for the delay of justice, the perversion of justice, and for teaching Torah in opposition to Jewish law.
    6. Wild beasts come to the world for meaningless oaths and for the desecration of God’s name.
    7. Exile comes to the world for idolatry, licentiousness, murder, and for not observing the sabbatical years.

    (M. Avot 5:8-9)

Some of these punishments seem more intuitive, others will require interpretation. Generally, if some people sin, then some will get punished; if everyone sins, everyone gets punished.

Of the opinions which attribute afflictions to sins, none is as extreme as R. Ammi who states, “There is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity.” (B. Shabbat 55a-b)

To varying degrees, these divine punishments may serve as atonements:

    R. Hanina said, “No man bruises his finger on earth unless it was decreed against him by heaven.” R. Elazar said, “The blood of a bruise atones like a burnt offering.” Rava said, “it is only the blood of a second bruising of the thumb atones, and only if he was about to perform a commandment.”(B. Hullin 7b)1

When Rabbis attribute punishments to sin, they offer reasons why evil exists; namely, although God is merciful, if people sin, they deserve punishment.(B. Sota 21a) However, sometimes people are held responsible for other people’s misdeeds.

    There was a family in Jerusalem whose members died at eighteen. They came and told to R. Yohanan B. Zakkai. He said, “maybe you are of the family of Eli to whom it was said, “and the increase of your family will does as young men.” Go and study Torah and you may live. They went and studied Torah, and they lived.(B. Rosh Hashana 18a and B. Yevamot 105a)2

Although Torah study might have provided the sons of Eli with protection, it may doom others. Ironically righteous people may be more vulnerable due to vicarious atonement.

    R. Ammi said: Why is the account of the death of Miriam placed next to the laws of the red heifer? To inform you that even as the red heifer afforded atonement, so does the death of the righteous afford atonement.

    R. Elazar said: Why is the account of Aaron’s death closely followed by the laws of the disposal of the priestly garments? To inform you that just as the priest’s garments were means to effect atonement, so is the death of the righteous afford atonement.(B. Moed Qatan 28a)

    R. Gurion, or some say R. Joseph son of R. Shemaiah said: When there are righteous men in a generation, they are taken for the sin of the generation. Then there are no righteous in a generation, school children are taken for the generation.(B. Shabbat 33b)

While these passage might provide an explanation for certain tragedies, they hardly connote “justice.” If sin is the cause of punishment, how could the righteous or children, who are exempt from worship and punishments, suffer for other people? Furthermore, although several sources indicate that Torah and righteousness do bestow extra protection, other sources deny this reward in times of communal suffering. An angel is reported to have told R. Kattina that, “in a time of wrath” even generally righteous people are vulnerable for even for neglecting a single positive commandment.(B. Menahot 41a) If there a town is plagued with an epidemic or famine, one should stay indoors even if there is no immediate danger to one’s life. The Talmud generalizes, “When there is an epidemic in a town, one should not walk in the middle of the road since the Angel of Death walks in the middle of the street. Once permission has been given to him, he may walk freely.”(B. Bava Qama 60a-b)

To explain this incongruity, some delay the rewards and punishments to the undefined “world to come.” Interpreting Ecclesiastes 7:14, R. Nachman B. Hisda explains, “happy is the righteous who lives in this world like the wicked in the world to come, and woe unto the wicked who lives in this world like the righteous in the world to come.” For R. Nachman B. Hisda, one either receives reward in this world or the world to come, the latter being a superior reward. Therefore if a righteous person suffers in this world, then surely his reward will be that much greater in the world to come. Conversely, if a wicked person lives well on this world, then he will have used up whatever merits he has and suffer greater in the world to come.

Arguing with R. Nachman B. Hisda, Rava asks if it would be so problematic for the righteous to enjoy both worlds? Therefore he concludes, “happy are the righteous who live in this world like the wicked live in this world, and woe unto the wicked who live like the righteous live in this world.” For Rava, it would seem reasonable, if not axiomatic that wicked people benefit in this world and would get punished in the next. Rava’s true joy is getting the best of both worlds while the ultimate woe would be lacking in this world and in the afterlife.(B. Horayot 10b)

Not all Talmudic passage assume death and suffering are the result of sin. Rather, death is the inevitable end to all mankind. In a rare instance of emphatic theological rejection, the Talmud denies R. Ammi’s position and concludes “there is death without sin and there is suffering without iniquity.”(B. Shabbat 55a-b)3

Even without examining Talmudic responses to the related question of why the wicked prosper, we have encountered enough sources which demonstrate the broad scope of opinions within the Talmud. However, all the cited passages are merely descriptive. They suggest explanations for the phenomenon of evil, but they do not advise those in the midst of suffering. Furthermore, these texts do not disclose how these Rabbis related to their own personal tragedies.

In the following passage, R. Akiva introduces his optimistic attitude.

    And so it was taught in the name of R. Akiva: A person should always accustom himself to say, “whatever the merciful one does, it is for good.” Once R. Akiva was walking on a road. He came to a certain place and requested a room in an inn, but no one would give him lodging. He said, “whatever the merciful one does, it is for good.” He went and stayed in an open field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey, and a lamp. The wind extinguished the lamp, a cat ate the rooster, and a lion ate the donkey. He said, “whatever the merciful one does, it is for good.” That night, a band of robbers came to the town and took the inhabitants as captives. He said to them, “Did I not tell you ‘whatever the Holy One blessed be He does is for good’?”(B. Berachot 60b)4

R. Akiva does not command that people believe everything is for the good, only that one should “accustom” himself think accordingly. This position encourages faith in God even in the times of dire circumstances for there is some benefit to tragedy. Of course, R. Akiva was fortunate enough to see the immediate positive results (for himself at least).

Rava, the fourth generation Amora, advises individual sufferers:

    Rava said (and some say R. Hisda): If a person sees himself being afflicted, he should check his actions…If he searches and does not find anything , he should evaluate his neglect of Torah study…If he evaluates and does not find, it is known that they are afflictions of love.(B. Berakhot 5a)

For Rava one should initially assume divine justice and retribution. Still, there are even sufferings that will not be understood. Rava continues by comparing these sufferings to a sacrifice – the sufferer must knowingly and willingly accept this suffering for it to truly be a suffering of love. This follows his dictum that ?one must accept evil with gladness, for even evil is from God.(B. Berakhot 60b)

To address the problem of theodicy, the Talmud does not present one solution, but several. However, this plurality provides little comfort for the religious practitioner seeking solace in the words of these sacred texts. However, perhaps that is in fact the Talmud’s attitude towards theodicy that we may offer interpretations, but we may not assert any claim to truth.

In addition to presenting conflicting opinions, the Talmud defines limits as to the applications of these positions. First, despite one’s justifications, one may not impose his positions on God. The Talmud presents a story which contradicts explicit Biblical texts. B. Kiddushin 39b tells the story of a father told his healthy son to climb a tree, chase away the mother bird, and collect its children. The child did so, but on his way down the tree, he fell off the ladder, broke his neck and died. This child fulfilled two commandments for which the Bible states the reward is longevity.5 Yet despite the Bible’s assurances, the child died immediately.

According to the Talmud, this incident allegedly provoked Rabbi Elisha Ben Avuya to become an apostate. His perception of the Bible and God’s place in the world was suddenly questioned. Although his reading was perfectly legitimate, most people would have difficulty reconciling the allegedly stated word of God with contradictory empirical evidence. However justified he might have been, Elisha Ben Avuya imposed his interpretation on God. When events did not occur as he expected, his faith was shattered.

For a counter example, when confronted with a potentially threatening reality, Rava reevaluates his worldview.

    Rava said: My life, my children, and my sustenance are not dependent on merit, but rather on fate (mazal). For behold, Rabbah and R. Hisda were both righteous rabbis. One prayed and it began to rain, the other prayed and it began to rain. R. Hisda lived ninety-two years, Rabbah lived forty. The house of R. Hisda had sixty marriage feasts, the house of Rabbah had sixty mournings. The house of R. Hisda had enough of the purest wheat that he could give it to dogs; the house of Rabbah did not even have enough barley for humans.

(B. Moed Qatan 28a)

The other limitation to Talmudic theodicy is that one may not impose his beliefs on other people. R. Ammi’s statement “there is no death without sin” is one of the rare instances where a theological statement is forcibly rejected. I suggest that the first limitation is this range of imposition. When R. Ammi makes his statement, he is tacitly obligating all Jews to accept his worldview. Since everyone dies and everyone suffers, then it must be that everyone sins including small children! Such a position imposes far too much on the populace for it to be tolerated.

In their rulings on Jewish law, the Rabbis acknowledged that no philosophical solution will suffice during one’s time of trouble. R. Shimon B. Elazar states, “do not offer comfort when one’s dead lies before him.”(M. Avot 4:18) While in a time of mourning, comforters may not speak until the mourner speaks first.(B. Moed Qatan 28b) Before one buries his dead, he is in a state called “onen” where one is exempt from performing positive commandments.(Tur Y.D. 341) In those times of grief the Rabbis acknowledge that one’s faith will be pushed to its limits. The Rabbis realized that the theological solutions of logic provide precious little human consolation.

If there exists a unified Jewish theory of theodicy, it is that one may analyze, discuss, and hypothesize the existence of evil and divine providence. However, he must realize that ultimately, he lacks the capacity to read the mind of God.6 Therefore, the Talmud offers its range of possibilities, but the acceptance of which is left up to the reader. As R. Yannai stated, “It is not in our hands [to understand] neither the prosperity of the wicked, nor the suffering of the righteous.”(M. Avot 1:15)
But that does not mean, we should not try.

1. Note that Rava doesn’t offer an alternative.
2. B. Berachot 7a addresses the contradictions of Ex. 20:4 and Deut. 24:17 regarding children inheriting sin of their father. The solution provided is that children are only punished for their father’s sins when they themselves follow their father’s practices. Regarding the cited passage, Eli’s children sinned though inappropriately partaking of the sacrifices.(I Sam 2:29) Since this family must have lived after the destruction of the temple, at which point the ritual sacrifices ended, it is highly doubtful that they committed the same transgression as their ancestors.
3. Note that the Talmud here does not entertain the notion of vicarious atonement to resolve the contradiction. There is no death without sin, but the sin does not have to be his own.
4. R. Akiva’s story is somewhat problematic in its own right. Assuming everything does in fact happen for the good, then it should also be good for the town to have been ransacked. Furthermore, the town probably did not need R. Akiva’s gloating.
5. For honoring his father see Deut. 5:15. For sending away the mother bird, see Deut. 22:7.
6. This interpretation would also support the conclusions of Job. The whirlwind does not tell Elifaz that he is wrong, only that ?he has not spoken correctly.? (Job 42:7) Job, on the other hand, did speak correctly when he acknowledged his inability to comprehend the ways of the world. (Job 42:3)
Suggested Readings:
Birnbaum, David. God and Evil: A Jewish Perspective. Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken. 1989.
Elman, Yaakov. ?The Contribution of Rabbinic Thought to Theology and Misfortune.? Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering. Ed. Shalom Carmy. Aronson, Northvale. (1999). 155-212.
Elman, Yaakov. ?When Permission is Given: Aspects of Divine Providence.? Tradition 24:4. (1989) 24-45
Elman, Yaakov. ?How Should A Talmudic Intellectual History Be Written? A response to David Kraemer?s Responses.? The Jewish Quarterly Review 89:3-4, (1999) 361-386.
Elman, Yaakov. ?Argument for the Sake of Heaven? The Jewish Quarterly Review.84:2-3 1993-1994. (261-282).
Elman, Yaakov. ?The Suffering of the Righteous in Palestinian and Babylonian Sources.? The Jewish Quarterly Review 80:3-4 (1990) 315-339.
Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud. The Soncino Press, London. 1988.
Kraemer, David. The Mind of the Talmud: An Intellectual History of the Bavli. Oxford University Press, New York. 1990.
Kraemer, David. Responses to Suffering in Classical Rabbinic Literature. Oxford University Press, New York. 1995.
Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Magnes Press, Jerusalem. 1975.