ֵי ֶצר ַהַרע – Edition Berlin – haRa Yetzer
Kollel – Spring Semester 2021 – Talmud Tractate Sukkah, Daf 52a – Commentary by Deborah Cohen
Rabbi Avira, and some say Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, taught: The evil inclination has seven names.
1. The Holy One, Blessed be He,
called it evil, as it is stated: “For
the inclination of a man’s heart is
evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
Translation of the image’s text:
“Steal a children’s bike? Ugh shame
on you! I wish the thief a weak
immune system, bad dreams and a
bad conscience!!! The number of the
combination lock is 216. (The
birthday of my child, by the way, and
it’s tomorrow.) How can someone be
so mean!? My child is
1. Source: https://www.notesofberlin.com/trauriger-geburtstag/
First reaction to image: Was the thief a child or an adult? What difference does that make in the assessment of the action’s moral value?
Judging by the wishes of the parent for the thief: Is yetzer hara “contagious”?
2. Moses called it uncircumcised, as it is stated: “And circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
2. Source: Foto taken by the author.
The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) is located in the center of Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. It was built between 1891 – 1895; with 113 meters, the church spire was the highest in Berlin back then. In 1943, it was damaged severely during a bombing raid. The ruined spire was not rebuilt as a reminder of World War II.
First reaction to images: A circumcised church.
Following the association, circumcising / bombing a church would be equal to an act of moral cleansing. What weird times must they have been, back then, if this were true.
3. David called it impure, as it is stated: “Create for me a pure heart, O God” (Psalms 51:12); by inference, there is an impure heart that is the evil inclination.
4. Source: Foto taken by the author.
Berlin’s inhabitants seem rather negligent towards their common goods sometimes. Coming from Switzerland, a very clean place, I read this image as negligence towards your fellow humans and the environment that contains you (and your waste). Enjoy the here and now, it’s great! But think about the consequences of your actions, too. Think about your other fellow humans who will sit on that bench after you. Would you like to sit here? And how long it takes until a plastic cup is biodegraded. For some reason(s), people don’t seem to think about that. This is connected to climate change, yo.
Is not thinking about the (probably nasty) consequences of your actions yetzer hara? How is ignorance connected to an impure heart? And how do both constitute yetzer hara (respectively)?
First reaction to image: Come on guys, really?
4. Solomon called it enemy, as it is stated: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21–22). Do not read it as: And the Lord will reward you [yeshalem lakh]; rather read it as: And the Lord will reconcile it to you [yashlimenu lakh]. God will cause the evil inclination to love you and no longer seek to entice you to sin.
5. Source: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/hess-aufmarsch-in-spandau-geisel-verbot-von-neonazi-demo-nicht moeglich/22916536.html
On the banner it says, “I don’t regret anything.”
During a demonstration, about 1000 neo-Nazis remembered Rudolf Heß, Hitler’s proxy in the NSDAP. Heß hung himself in 1987 in the prison for war criminals in Spandau, where the dishonorable procession took place. More than 1000 counter-protesters showed resistance against the neo-Nazis; reportedly, no coals of fire were heaped upon neo-Nazi heads. I don’t know if this is good or bad.
First reaction to image: A feeling as if someone hit me in the gut.
How to encounter hatred with love or at least, compassion? How to feel compassion for someone who doesn’t see you as a person, but as part of a group who should be eliminated? The blindness in the enemy’s eyes mirrors how much yetzer hara there was built over time; it staggers me in too many ambivalent ways to express.
5. Isaiah called it a stumbling block, as it is stated: “And He will say: Cast you up, cast you up, clear the way, take up the stumbling block out of the way of My people” (Isaiah 57:14).
E-scooters are increasingly dominating
Berlin’s streets. This is especially
palpable through those users who like to
leave them in the middle of the
sidewalks. “Nach mir die Sintflut”, a
German proverb says (something like
“After me the deluge.”), meaning people
who don’t bother what happens after
they had their share of benefits.
First reaction to image: A smile caused
by the child’s inclination to jump over
the stumbling block, whereas the grown
ups prefer to walk around it.
6-8. All fotos taken by the author.
6. Ezekiel called it stone, as it is stated: “And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
9. Foto taken by the author.
The image above depicts a part of the East Side Gallery in Berlin-Friedrichshain. It’s an open air gallery and the longest section of the Berlin Wall that still exists; it was painted by artists between 1990 and 1991.
First reaction to image: Stones were assembled in the Berlin Wall in order to separate. The stones that separated both Germanies are used as a memento mori of a stumbling block that is nevermore. Now, it is a sign of ambivalent unities, both the German-German and the German-Jewish one.
7. Joel called it hidden one, as it says: “But I will remove the northern one [hatzefoni] far off from you” (Joel 2:20). The Sages taught concerning the verse: “But I will remove the northern one [hatzefoni] far off from you,” that this is referring to the evil inclination. And why is the evil inclination referred to as tzefoni? It is due to the fact that it is always hidden [tzafun] in the heart of man. […] “its foulness may come up, and its ill odor may come up” (Joel 2:20) […].
Shit is something quite
rich in meaning, yet we
tend to avoid it. Even
though we shit every day,
we hardly ever talk about
it. Maybe because it is
foul and it stinks, and it is
our very own product.
On the other hand, it
fertilizes the ground and
enables essential plants to
10. Source: https://www.pitopia.de/scripts/pictures/detail.php?pid=201334212.
grow. If you care to look
at yours, you can tell if your digestion is OK or not. If you’re constructing something with loam, add some feces to enhance the loam’s material properties.
This one reminds me of image 4, which was connected to impurity. In Berlin you really have to watch your step, or, if in a park, be careful where you sit. Shit remains hidden until you go home and wonder why a shitty smell has been following you the past half hour.
Some dog owners apparently don’t care about the consequences of their pet’s digestion for other people. But I find it interesting that this becomes a problem only once it’s not hidden anymore, e.g. if one steps in it. Maybe it’s the same with yetzer hara: Only once it has come out, it stinks and looks bad; but only then can you take care of it, and purify yourself from it.
First reaction to image: Eeeewww! [Shortly thereafter:] OMG, shitty people leave shitty things behind.
Some opening remarks
Minor and major things constitute yetzer hara. It can become manifest in bombings and open, aggressive hatred; but by merely leaving things (shit) or taking them away (children’s bike) does it enfold itself, too.
Negligence and mindlessness, even though without intention, can have similar consequences as the evil, intentional yetzer hara. The first two seem to be more implicit, hidden, and therefor harder to detect and become aware of. If yetzer hara is hidden, how can you become aware that you enact yetzer hara if you’re not confronted with the consequences of your evil inclination?
In the last “first association”, I wondered if this was also yetzer hara speaking, in me condemning the dog owner to be “shitty”. Is yetzer hara contagious? (cf. images 1 and 5)
Is yetzer hara something malignant? Something that is evil and seeks evil? Or rather something that becomes evil or bad, starting out as an energy that manifests over time?
Maybe both? If so, how would
they be related? Are they
brothers, or in a father-son
[I wrote in the masculine form.
And last but not least:
Is yetzer hara “a thing”
or “many things”?