David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Should we rejoice upon the downfall and death of our enemies?

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli Minister of Defense, recently announced that half of Hezbollah’s commanders in southern Lebanon have been eliminated in the months of cross-border violence sparked by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, and on March 10th Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that 13,000 Hamas terrorists had been killed since the beginning of the war. Why do they make such announcements? Presumably to prove to skeptics that the IDF is, in fact, succeeding in its war efforts and that with perseverance and determination it will continue to succeed, and to lift the morale of those of us who are becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the war and the toll it is taking. And I imagine that most of us await the day that our leaders will announce the finding and killing of Yahya Sinwar, the military leader and mastermind of Hamas’s brutal attack, and will mark it as a day of joy and celebration.

Against this background one cannot help but express bewilderment regarding one of the reasons cited for not reciting a full Hallel (literally, “praise”, and a reference to a joyous prayer recited on holidays that consists of six chapters of Psalms (113-118) that praise and express gratitude to God) during the intermediate days of Pesach, as well as on the seventh day which commemorates the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Although the Rabbis in one place (Tractate Arakhin 10b) claim that the reason has to do with the fact that on Pesach (unlike Sukkot) the sacrifices brought each day were identical, suggesting that the six additional days of the festival are, in essence, no different from the first, the Rabbis elsewhere (Tractate Sanhedrin 39b) offer the following explanation:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked, as Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman says in the name of Rabbi Yonatan says: What is the meaning of that which is written (in the passage describing the splitting of the sea): “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: My handiwork (i.e., the Egyptians), are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me??

Although in this text God is opposed to an unspecified song, and although His objection is to a song recited by his ministering angels, according to other sources (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana and Yalkut Shimoni) we are told that God objects specifically to the recitation of Hallel and to its recitation by us—not merely by His ministering angels. They then adduce support for their view from a verse in Proverbs, “Do not exult at the downfall of your enemy” (24:17).

In other words, since God takes no pleasure from the downfall of our enemies, we were prohibited from reciting a song or rejoicing upon the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea. Thus, we should refrain from celebrating the fall of our enemies today as well.

The problem with this position is twofold:

  1. How is it possible to claim that the Israelites were forbidden from singing and rejoicing upon the death of the Egyptians when immediately following their successful crossing of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians they sang and offered praise to God in the famous “Song at the Sea”?
  2. There is another verse in Proverbs that states “When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy” (11:10), which suggests that it is appropriate to rejoice upon the downfall of our enemies.

Thus, we are left wondering, which approach is right? Should we, or should we not, sing and rejoice at the downfall and death of our enemies?

I would like to suggest that perhaps there is truth in both approaches. On the one hand, it is completely natural and even appropriate to celebrate the downfall and death of our adversaries. Thus, it was perfectly acceptable for the Jews to sing upon the drowning of the Egyptians who had enslaved us in the past and it is perfectly acceptable for us to rejoice upon the death of the Hamas terrorists who were responsible for the horrific massacre of October 7th. On the other hand, we must be cognizant of the dangers inherent in the celebration of the loss of life, even when such loss is fully justified. For the celebration of death can lead to the cheapening of the value of life, to the eventual disregard for the “image of God” that is within each and every one of us, and to the moral decay of society as a whole.

If so, our ability to balance these two approaches is critical if we are to maintain both our pride as a nation fighting for its survival as well as our commitment to the values that we share with all of humanity.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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