There is a biblical basis to the idea of the existence in man’s nature of an instinctive tendency or impulse (yeẓer as in Ps. 103:14 from yaẓar, i.e., to “form” or “create” as in Gen. 2:8), which, left to itself, would lead to his undoing by prompting him to act in a manner contrary to the will of God (whence the term yeẓer ha-ra or “inclination to evil”). Thus, in Genesis 5 it is stated that “every inclination of the thoughts of his – i.e., man’s – heart is only evil continually” and again in Genesis 8:21 “for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
The doctrine of the two inclinations (or drives) is a major feature of rabbinic psychology and anthropology. As a personification of the permanent dualism of the choice between good and evil, the rabbinic notion of the two inclinations shifts this dualism from a metaphysical to a more psychological level (i.e., two tendencies in man rather than two cosmic principles). According to the rabbis, man was created with two opposing inclinations or tendencies, one impelling him toward the good and the other toward evil. This, in their opinion, was indicated by the employment in the term Vayyiẓer used in regard to man’s creation in Genesis 2:7, of two yods (Ber. 61a).
However, even the so-called yeẓer ha-ra, which corresponds roughly to man’s untamed natural (and especially sexual) appetites or passions, is not intrinsically evil and, therefore, not to be completely suppressed. Without it, a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade (Gen. R. 9:7). It is only when it gets out of hand that it becomes the cause of harm. An effective antidote is the study and observance of Torah (cf. Kid. 30b). This would suggest that the Torah is conceived as an ordering, guiding, and disciplining principle with regard to the untamed natural urges. While the yeẓer ha-ra is created in man at birth, the yeẓer ha-tov, which combats it, first makes its appearance 13 years later at the time of his *bar-mitzvah, i.e., when one assumes the “Yoke of the Torah” and with the onset of the age of reflection and reason (cf. Eccles. R., 4:13, 1).
Unless it is checked and controlled, the yeẓer ha-ra will grow like habit. At first it resembles the thread of a spider’s web but at the end it is like the stout rope of a wagon (Suk. 52a). Another parable describing the yeẓer ha-ra is that of a wayfarer who starts out by being taken in as a guest and ends by making himself the master of the house (ibid. 52b). Greatness does not necessarily render a human being immune from the power of the yeẓer ha-ra, which manifests itself in such traits as vindictiveness and avarice (Sif. Deut. 33), anger (Shab. 105b), and vanity (Gen. R. 22:6). In fact, the greater the man, the stronger are such tendencies apt to be in him. The yeẓer ha-ra operates only in this world. It does not exist in angels or other spiritual beings (Lev. R. 26:5). “In the world to come,” said the amora *Rav, “there is no eating or drinking, procreation or barter, envy or hate” (Ber. 17a). The yeẓer ha-ra has been personified by being identified with Satan, man’s tempter in this world and his accuser in the world to come, and also with the Angel of Death (BB 16a; cf. Suk. 52b). In Genesis (3:1ff.) the serpent is presented as man’s tempter. Whether the devil, Sammael, merely employed the serpent as an instrument of himself assumed the form of a serpent is not clear from the text of the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch.
In Jewish Thought
Discussions of the two human inclinations, good and evil, constitute an integral part of theories of the soul in Jewish thought. At the same time, the fact that these aspects of the soul are called by value-laden names, “good inclination” and “evil inclination,” frequently transforms a theoretical discussion into practical guidance regarding the proper behavior required to suppress the evil inclination as much as possible and to enable the good inclination to control it. Such practical guidance often forces the thinker to treat a related problem of theodicy: How can one explain the fact that God, who is good, implanted the harmful, evil inclination in the human being?
Maimonides integrated the “good inclination” and “evil inclination” in his Aristotelian theory of the soul. In accordance with his conception of the ultimate human good in terms of intellectual actualization, Maimonides identified the good inclination with the acquired human intellect (Guide 3:22), which in turn is identical with the “image (ẓelem) of God” (Guide 1:2). Conversely, the evil inclination is identified with the imaginative faculty common to humans and the higher animals (Guide 3:22), and which is responsible for both moral and epistemological harm. On the moral level, imagination leads people to follow their appetites, and on the epistemological level, it leads them to believe in the existence of impossible beings (Guide 2:12). Maimonides also presents the struggle among the faculties of the human soul in a manner consistent with an allegorical understanding of the three characters in the story of the garden of Eden: Adam represents intellect; Eve represents matter; and the serpent represents the evil inclination as embodied in imagination (Guide 1:2, 2:30).
Joseph *Albo, in his discussion of why the evil inclination is necessary, pointed out that without the appetitive nature of this faculty, which characterizes the animal soul, the human species would become extinct. Conversely, the good inclination, namely the rational soul, is the means of the individual’s attaining spiritual immortality (Book of Principles 2:13). Isaac *Arama explained the existence of the evil inclination in terms of providing a challenge, presenting the opportunity to perform an evil act. The evil inclination thereby leads a person to examine his or her actions, to discern good from evil, and to decide freely to do the good (Binding of Isaac, ch. 8).
In the Kabbalah, the evil inclination was understood in cosmic terms, as disturbing the harmony of the cosmos symbolized by the *sefirot Power (gevurah) and Kingdom (malkhut).
[Hannah Kasher (2nd ed.)]
Porter, in: Biblical and Semitic Studies… Essays… (1901), 91–156; G.F. Moore, Judaism…, 1 (1927), 479–93; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1936), index; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1938), index S.V. Evil Inclination. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Klein-Braslavy, Maimonides Interpretation of the Adam Stories in Genesis (A Study in Maimonides’ Anthropology) (1986), 212–17 (Heb.); B. Braun, “True Will, or Evil Inclination: Two Ḥaredi Thinkers’ Concept of Freedom,” in: Hagut, 1 (1998), 97–125 (Heb.).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.