Isaac Sassoon

Life and death are in the power of the tongue (see Proverbs 18:21)

It’s hard these days to escape the debate over the parameters of free speech. Legal brains are continually picked for clarification of this cherished constitutional freedom and its limits. All agree incitement to violence is not protected by the first amendment. But at what point does hateful speech cross the line into incitement?  What is the status of invective that falls short of explicit provocation? These questions jurists and lawyers continue to struggle with.

That is not to say the rest of us have no thoughts on hateful speech and its prevalence, at which we cannot help but wonder. Some psychologists theorize that when under pressure, people need to let off steam and that blurting out strong language brings a modicum of catharsis. As a British prime minister put it: jaw jaw is better than war war. Some invoke this theory to explain the angry outbursts found in ancient texts. Helpless and beleaguered, they were driven to mouth maledictions or, in desperate straits, to turn to God for relief; in extremity for relief through the oppressor’s demise. Jeremiah, for example, cries out for vengeance on the men of Anathoth (Jer 11:20, 20:12), and a similar sentiment flowed from the painfully wrathful pen of a Psalmist (Ps 79:10).

While we understand and even sympathize with the bullied and persecuted who give vent to their rage, surely we don’t want to idealize the use of immoderate rhetoric. And when such rhetoric is expressed as a prayer, it calls for serious soul-searching.

Several years ago the following incident was reported in the newspapers. Relatives of a fallen IDF soldier were dissatisfied with the epitaph proposed for their hero’s tombstone because it lacked the acronym heh yud dalet. Officials explained to the relatives that all tombstones in the IDF’s military cemeteries bore a standard basic text which did not include the acronym.

The initials heh yud dalet represent an abbreviation of three Hebrew words that translate as: God avenge his/her blood. Prior to reading the story in the papers, I was unfamiliar with the usage of appending this abbreviation to the names of individuals who had been killed. Neither the Bible nor the Talmud attest to it, although they both had ample opportunity. For example, the murder of the prophet Zechariah son of Jehoiada is narrated in the Second Book of Chronicles (24:20-22) and elaborated upon in Tractate Gittin (57b) but without recourse to the acronym. R. Hananiah ben Teradyon was executed by Roman authorities, yet the Talmud (e.g. A. Z. 18a) does not encumber his name with heh yud dalet.

I also recall that upon asking for the origin of this vengeful acronym, a wise guy volunteered that it went back to John Milton’s poem On the Late Massacre in Piedmont that begins “Avenge, O Lord, the slaughtered saints”. More plausibly, Chava Turniansky suggests a provenance in Ashkenaz, perhaps in the wake of the Crusades (Glickl Memoires 1691-1719, Yiddish and Hebrew edition 2015 p.117 n.342). If so, its catalyst may have been the same trauma and the same culturally-conditioned response that prompted the formulation of Av ha-Rahamim as well as the introduction of Shefokh into the Passover Haggadah.

Even as we acknowledge the precedent for beseeching vengeance, let’s not overlook weightier considerations. Prayer is a gift whereby we humans are allowed to set forth our sorrows, joys and yearnings, in front of our Maker.  When immediate danger threatens there is, of course, an obligation to thwart and preempt it by all means available – which may include invoking divine intervention. But that is a far cry from adopting vengeful prayer as part of one’s stock repertoire. In a world like ours that is exploding with malevolent speech, surely counterbalancing it with a measure of life-affirmations would seem a better option. Nor do those who choose the latter option lack noble precedent. The Talmud tells us that Moses interceded for posh’im (the worst people); not for them to perish but that they might repent (Sotah 14a). Beruriah did not ask God to destroy the villains whom her husband R. Meir had given up on. Instead she persuaded him to join her in praying for their repentance which he did. The Talmud records that the profligates actually turned over a new leaf. We are not told whether they ever found out that R. Meir and Beruriah had been praying for them. If they did find out, who can doubt the redemptive impact?

About the Author
Isaac Sassoon is a rabbi and educator. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hakham Yosef Doury, attended Gateshead and other yeshivot, and received semikhah in Israel. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Lisbon. Hakham Sassoon is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (2011); Conflicting Attitudes to Conversion in Judaism, Past and Present (2018); a torah commentary An Adventure in Torah (2022); and co-editor of Siddur ‘Alats Libbi (2023).
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