Vengeance in Israel?…ask the Rabbi

August 10, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Q. On the wall of a house in Israel where an Arab baby and his father were killed and members of the family badly injured, someone scrawled “N’kamah” – “Vengeance!” What is the Jewish perspective on acts of vengeance?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. The Jewish principle is “Li nakam v’shillem” – “‘Vengeance is Mine, and I will pay back’, says the Lord” (Deut. 32:35). The Targum Onkelos changes the word “vengeance” to “punishment”, which indicates that if human beings do something wrong, God will not leave them unpunished. We don’t know when and how, but He knows what He has to do.

Over the course of history, there were, tragically, countless times when human beings were heartless, not only in a universal sense of one individual against another, but in terms of how one nation behaved towards another. This was especially the case with other nations mistreating the Jewish people.

Our enemies hurt us so often and so badly that there was an understandable desire for retribution. But we were urged by the Torah not to carry out any act of vengeance and not even to think of it: “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge” (Lev. 19:18), we were admonished; “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (Prov. 24:17).

How then are we meant to handle an enemy? When he is hungry, says the Bible, give him food; when he is thirsty, give him drink! (Prov. 25:21). In other words, help an enemy and aspire to eventually make him into a friend (BM Tosefta 2:26). Not easy advice, terribly idealistic, but unambiguous. If any punishment is due, let it come from God!

This doesn’t mean that crimes should go unpunished by the law, but that from a moral point of view the best approach is to hope that – with our help – evil deeds will vanish.

If we are to go down in history and in God’s books as people who suffered, let our record be that we restrained our vengeful instincts and tried to behave with dignity and compassion at all times. Even when it hardest to do so, that’s when we have to say, “God knows what He has to do; as for us human beings, our task is to be like B’ruriah the wife of Rabbi Me’ir and say, ‘Let sins disappear from the earth, and then sinners will be no more’ (Psalm 104:35)” (B’rachot 10a).

In Israel there is, unfortunately, an insidious movement that has the slogan, “Tag Mechir” – “Price Tag!” and scrawl it on the walls that mark their acts.

Those who believe in a different approach have the slogan, “Tag Me’ir” – “Light-giving Tag”. Where they got the words “Tag Me’ir” I don’t know, but to me it is suggested by the wife of Rabbi Me’ir.


Q. Why do Christians, but not Jews, call God “Jehovah”?

A. In the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) the authentic name of God is spelt Y-H-V-H. The text has no vowels, only consonants. It seems certain that the name derives from the root H-V-H, “to be”, and points to the uniqueness of God’s being.

In ancient Israel the name was pronounced only on the Day of Atonement and only by the high priest, and the correct pronunciation was not known to the people as a whole. When the Temple ritual was suspended nearly two thousand years ago, the secret was lost for ever (unless the Almighty chooses to reveal it again). No-one can therefore be certain how to vocalise the name, and no-one is entitled to guess.

Hebrew grammar would allow for at least two possibilities – a vocalisation that would indicate “He who is”, or one that would denote “He that causes (all) to be”.

Christian tradition was quite ungrammatical in using the form Jehovah. No such pronunciation fits in with any of the rules of Hebrew. What happened was that Jews piously substituted for the name Y-H-V-H the title AD-ON-AI, “My Lord”. They could not remove the original consonants of the name from the Scriptures, but when printed or handwritten books began to insert vowel points in the texts as an aid to reading, they added the vowels of the substitute title to the original name as a sort of coded clue to help the reader.

The word therefore looked something like Jehovah, but no Jew or Hebrew scholar would ever read it as such.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


4 Responses to “Vengeance in Israel?…ask the Rabbi”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    There is no distinction between what is generally considered “revenge” and the extended accept of “retribution” or “restitution”. The entire legal system functions on those terms.
    More to the point in question here, we have it in Exodus 21:23:25 as such :

    ” … an eye for an eye …”

    In Leviticus 24:17:21″

    ” You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother,….. an Egyptian , because you were an alien in his land”. Here we have specific reasons for preventing what could be vengeful, inimical designs , otherwise the law of the talion is quite prevalent in Jewish ethics.

    Rabbi Apple mentions cases in which specifically Hashem determines that He shall balance the inequities. Otherwise righting the wrongs is implicitely and explicitely a necessary human enterprise. Vengence has been falsely classified as prohibited as to render Jewish ethics a higher station. In concrete terms, ridding the world of evil implies and employs drastic measures which, naturally, those in favour of evil will claim … ethical principles.
    Rabbi Apple seems here overwhelmed by our desire to excel in moral terms and terminology.
    Justice cannot possibly be seen and rendered without adequate retribution, restitution ….. vengence.

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    As Jews, we must do much more than just hope that evil deeds disappear from this Earth. Or be satisfied than in time to come those who perpetrate evil will get their just desserts. As for basically turning the other cheek and seeking friendship instead, that sounds more like something Jesus would have said, something Christians advise.

    I don’t believe in vengeance for the sake of it, or revenge so to speak, as per the Greek Tragedies. However, I very much believe in fighting against evil actively, at the time its being perpetrated, rather than passively leaving it to Hashem to sort out some time later. Surely it can be seen than none of the advice proffered, regarding giving food and drink to those who might commit the evil, etc. and attempting friendship, would have any affect on the Palestinians other than to cause laughter and contempt – they would assume weakness. In saying this, I do not endorse the actions of the Price Tag activists. Not at all. Response must come legitimately by way of government endorsed actions, not by way of civilian vigilantes. Otherwise, we all descend to barbarism. Exceptions can be made for exceptional circumstances, such as Jewish partisan groups during the British Mandate,or the situation for Jews during the Second World War. However, they can be seen to be response to oppression and acts of war, rather than vengeance per se. They are acts devised to make change, not just seek vengeance.

    The key word here for discussion is ‘vengeance’. So, surely there must be a different approach in Jewish thinking for defending life and the Jewish State against intent to decimate it.

  3. Geoff Seidner says:

    Sorry Rabbi: my wife and myself who have been victim of unspeakable evil from a fellow religious Jew – I tell you that hope had no gravitas.
    Never…tragically we have some of our people who are so inclined.

    You must use the law because the BETH DIN IS A TOOTHLESS LAMB [oops]
    And you should mention the quote yemach shemo: surely it is a justified curse in another realm.

    You quote below is AKIN TO TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK!

    I do not allow myself the luxury of being depressed….no further comment.
    ”This doesn’t mean that crimes should go unpunished by the law, but that from a moral point of view the best approach is to hope that – with our help – evil deeds will vanish.”

    • Geoff Seidner says:

      I must finish what was sadly an incomplete response by myself.

      Reference is made to my own comment:

      ”I do not allow myself the luxury of being depressed…”

      Indeed: one should try to not become depressed when almost no one in the Jewish community was willing / able to get involved.It sadly includes the Beth Din.

      One should also try to not be depressed when the legal system enables massive ‘naughty’ behaviour. Note strange word…

      So it is encumbent on us to have a memory and never forget and if the ‘naughtiness’ is egregious enough, then to act in a proportional way to said ‘naughtiness’

      This also alludes to the idea to never forgive unless said ‘naughty’ parties make a public apology or at least make a genuine effort to undo their ‘naughtiness.’

      Certainly never forget.

      And /or act and behave in such a way as to ensure that we have not turned the other cheek! It a’int a Jewish theme.

      There are things that are impossible to forgive and surely those who act in the way as to get this moniker [a la impossible to forgive] are indubitably not going to do any of the above.

      So the above effectively carries by implication the important cliche of
      What Goes Around… Comes Around – Wikipedia, the free …

      Sometimes .. the below manifests – or plainly ‘what comes around..’

      See links:
      Hashem talks to you every day, how to see Hashgacha pratis
      Shirat Devorah: The Disengagement and Divine Retribution

      But I go on – leaving matters unresolved.

      Rabbi Apple seems to realize this a few words later when he attributes to Onkelos
      the comment that ”VENGENCE IS PUNISHMENT”
      But sadly Rabbi Apple leaves it to G -D.

      I rail against this on the simple corrolary that this enables ‘naughty’ entities to get away with it in THIS WORLD!


      Someone steals a car – the nether – world is deemed payback?
      Who would claim this?
      Seriously risible at best.

      So the principle of real world justice is in direct contradiction with the very idea that HAASHEM will do him /her/ them in the afterlife – with liason with the nether world implied!

      It has nothing and everything to do with ”RETRIBUTION,” dear Rabbi.

      It has little to do with not ”rejoicing in the downfall of ones enemy”!
      Although it is a very human feeling / reaction.

      Note the sentiment is understandable – why Rabbi the very principle by those who are feeling impotent to say ‘he will pay for it in the afterlife’ is effectively ”revenge or vengeance and surely is indicative of a [justified?] bearing of a grudge”
      The scenarios espoused that ”EVIL DEEDS WILL VANISH” is absurd!

      The idea that ”we restrained our vengeful instinct” ignores the plain facts: JEWS WERE ALMOST NEVER IN A POSITION TO TAKE REVENGE / SEEK JUSTICE!
      Of course we have the soft left… see where it has got us with the non – people the PALESTINIANS.
      But that is another scenario.

      And I will leave alone other arenas the good Rabbi ventured into: no time: I seek revenge in my world!

      May Hashem forgive me.
      May Hashem not forgive them!

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