views Envy as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, to be avoided at all costs. In contrast,
Judaism does not see Envy as the embodiment of absolute evil, but rather as
an emotion that, on the one hand, demonstrates the weakness and vulnerability
of human character and, on the other, is rather beneficial to humankind's development.
The Hebrew root for
nun, alef). According to Wilhelm Gesenius, the nineteenth-century father
of modern Hebrew lexicography, our root was probably originally tied to an Arabic
word meaning "to become intensely red with dye." In Hebrew, by a facile
linguistic leap, the word came to be used for the color of one's face when experiencing
intense emotion and then for the emotion itself.
is today commonly translated as jealousy, zealotry, envy, and even suspicion
of adultery on the part of one's spouse. In Genesis, the root is used to move
the narrative along by describing a universal human trait, sibling rivalry.
We are told that the matriarch Rachel, despondent over her barren state in the
face of her sister Leah's repeated demonstration of fertility, "became
jealous of her sister": (ve-tekaneh
the same root is used in connection with Rachel's son, Joseph. Joseph's
special status as favorite son was thrown glaringly in the face of the
other sons when father Jacob gave only Joseph the gift of a special coat.
And the brothers were jealous indeed: (va-
yekan'u vo ehav).
the root is used to express not jealousy but zealotry, another fervent
and intense emotion. Take for example its use in connection with the story
of Moses and the rebellion of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:29). When Joshua
suggests that Moses put down the rebellion harshly, Moses responds (ha-
mekaneh atah li?), "Why are you being so zealous for my sake?"
Moses would rather, he explains, that all Israelites were prophets.
is zealotry, and then there is Zealotry. During the revolt against Rome
in Second Temple times, there arose a political party, the (kanna'im
), who were against any compromise with Rome. Whether one agrees or not
with the political stance of this movement, it cannot be denied that their
name moved from being a "brand" name to a "generic"
one. The same expression is used in modern times to describe those individuals
for whom love of the Hebrew language is ardent and exclusive, (kanna'im
la-safah ha-ivrit), zealots for the Hebrew language.
were of two minds about our rootword. On the one hand, they described
human nature as essentially envious. They said, (Sanhedrin, 105b) (bakol
adam mitkane), "One is envious of everyone," And then they
added in their wisdom,(
hutz mibno ve-talmido), "except for one's children and students."
of the Yalkut Shim'oni (a widely popular thirteenth-century compilation
of midrashim) sounds like that of a football coach speaking of the healthy
competitive spirit. There it is written,
(ilmaleh ha-kin'ah, ein ha-olam omed), "If it weren't for
jealousy (i.e., competitiveness), the world could not exist." According
to the Rabbis of the Talmud (Baba Batra, 21a), this idea applies specifically
to writers, (kin'at
soferim tarbeh hokhmah), "Jealousy among writers increases wisdom."
Ostensibly, the urge to outdo one's fellow writer leads to even deeper
insights and more impressive achievements.
are we to say, finally of the expression (el
kanna), a form of the root reserved exclusively for God? In Christian
theology, this attribute becomes terrible and terrifying, even deadly.
In Jewish thinking, on the other the concept of an envious (and subsequently
vengeful) God creates a theological dilemma. While the Torah urges us
to "walk in the ways of God" (Deut. 11:20) to achieve holiness
and goodness, the rabbis were not keen on promoting the emulation of God's
severe and consuming envy as desirable behavior. We leave this interesting
discussion to the great scholar Solomon Schechter,
to be found in this edition of JHOM.