Rejoicing in the Death of the Wicked

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Rejoicing in the Death of the Wicked – Commentary

by Rabbi Binyamin LehrfieldPurim is certainly one of the happiest holidays of the year. With the Megillah, costumes, Purim Seuda parties, sending food to friends, and supporting fellow Jews, it is easy to feel the joy of the holiday. It is certainly interesting to think about the reason one celebrates Purim. On its most basic level Purim is a celebration of the Jewish people’s fortunes being flipped as G-d saved them from being wiped out by Haman. However, a closer reading of the Megillah perhaps adds another dimension to the celebration. Purim is not just a celebration of G-d saving the Jewish people, but perhaps it is also a celebration of the downfall of our enemies, and the death of the wicked Haman. In fact, there are customs in some communities to ‘celebrate’ Purim by reenacting the hanging of Haman using a doll. From this perspective, it is clear that the holiday of Purim poses an interesting moral and ethical question for us as Jews—may we celebrate the downfall of our enemies? When a Hitler, or Pharaoh, or Haman dies, may we as Jews celebrate that moment?

Mishna 24 from the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot shares the teaching of Shmuel HaKatan who quotes the verse from Mishlei, “Binfol Oyvecha Al Tismach” ; “When you enemy falls do not rejoice.” From this Mishna it seems quite clear that it is forbidden to rejoice and to celebrate the downfall of enemies. If that is indeed true, then how can one reconcile the celebration of Purim? More than that, how can one reconcile other moments in Jewish history in which the Jewish people certainly celebrated the destruction of their enemies such as with the singing of Shirat HaYam following the Exodus from Egypt?

Perhaps most germane to this discussion is a fascinating Halacha that pertains to Passover. The Shulchan Aruch teaches in Orach Chaim (490:4) that we only recite a full Hallel on the first two days of Passover. On the remaining days of Chol HaMoed and Yom Tov, a ‘half-Hallel’ is recited similar to what is done on Rosh Chodesh. The Mishna Berura in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch writes that the reason for this Halacha is based on a Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (39b) that writes that the ministering angels wished to sing praises to G-d over the destruction of the Egyptians, however, He rebuked them saying, “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea; and you say a song before me?!” It appears that despite how happy the holiday of Passover may be, one must temper their joy as not to rejoice at the destruction of the Egyptians, the enemy of the Jewish people. As such only a ‘half-Hallel is appropriate for the remaining days of Passover.

While all that being said, the Gemara in Tractate Arachin (10a) offers a very different approach to this question about reciting Hallel on Passover. The Gemara teaches that Passover is fundamentally different than Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret in as it pertains to their respective Korbanot offerings. Each day of Sukkot involved a different offering, whereas on Passover, there was no difference between each day. In other words, each day of Sukkot is its own ‘mini-holiday’ whereas Passover is one long holiday with the same Korbanot each day. More than that, the above Gemara on which the Mishna Berura makes his comments makes no explicit mention of a connection between Hallel and the angels offering praise to G-d In fact, the connection between the angels wanting to offer Shira and praises to G-d and the recitation of Hallel on Passover can only found in a Midrash. If in fact a full Hallel is not recited because it is forbidden from rejoicing at the downfall of one’s wicked enemy, then certainly the Gemara should have explicitly taught as such?!

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 23:7 takes a different approach to the question of the angels singing. The Midrash teaches that it is not that G-d did not want the angels to sing as the Egyptians were being destroyed, rather, G-d wished for the Jewish people to offer their singing first. In addition, at the time in which the angels offered their song, the Jewish people were still in danger. Perhaps then not only may one not learn a proof that it is forbidden to rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemies from this Gemara and story, but rather perhaps this is a proof that it is in fact permissible to rejoice in such a situation. It is precisely for this reason that other Halachik authorities emphasize the other reason (the different Korbanot on Sukkot versus Passover) as to why a half-Hallel is recited on Passover.

Unsurprisingly, there are many sources that seem to support this notion that it is in fact permissible and encouraged to rejoice at the downfall of one’s enemies.  The verse in Mishlei (11:10) writes, “When the wicked perish, there is song.” The Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (113b) writes that, “When a wicked person come to the world, divine anger comes to the world…When a wicked person dies, good fortune comes to the world.” Similarly, the Gemara in Tractate Berachot (9b) teaches that King David composed 103 chapters of Psalms and didn’t say Hallelukah (praise G-d) until he saw the downfall of the wicked as we see in Psalm 104, “Yitamu Chataim Min HaAretz U’Rishaim Od Einam Barchi Nafshi Et Hashem Hallelukah” ; “Let sinners cease out of the earth and let the wicked be no more, Bless my soul Hashem! Hallelukah!” It seems clear from these and other sources that not only is it permissible to rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemies, but more than that, it is suggested and perhaps even required. If that is the case, how does one reconcile the verse quoted from Mishlei by Shmuel HaKatan in Mishna 24?

One possible approach to this dillema can be seen in the Gemara in Tractate Megillah (16a) that fills in some of the blank spaces in the Megillah about the relationship between Mordechai and Haman:
After he [Haman] had trimmed his [Mordechai’s] hair he dressed him in royal garments, and said to Mordechai, “Mount and ride.” Mordechai replied: “I am not able by myself, as I am weak from the days of fasting.” So Haman stooped down and he mounted [on his back]. As he was ascending, he kicked Haman. Haman said to Mordechai: Is it not written in your books, “Rejoice not when you enemy falls?” He replied: That only refers to a Jew, but regarding non-Jewish enemies it is written, “And you must tread upon their high places.”
In other words, the only time it would be appropriate to rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemy would be if one’s enemy was in fact not Jewish. The wicked Haman was not Jewish, and therefore it was permissible for Mordechai to treat him (and kick him) in this way. Shmuel HaKatan is only talking about not rejoicing over the falling of Jewish enemies.

A second approach is suggested by Rabbeinu Yona in his commentary to Pirkei Avot. He writes that it is always forbidden, whether one’s enemy is Jewish or not, to express joy or offer praises. However, it is permissible, encouraged, and even expected to celebrate G-d’s victory, be it the death of evil, the destruction of an oppressive people, etc. In fact the Gemara in Tractate Megillah (14a) writes that the reading of the Megillah is actually a form of Hallel. Similarly, the angels were forbidden from offering praises because their joy was in indulging in the suffering of the Egyptians and not in the miracle and victory of G-d. Shmuel HaKatan’s teaching is thus explained to focus specifically on the downfall of one’s enemy and not the victory won by G-d. It is forbidden to rejoice over the fall of the wicked, however, it is permissible and necessary to offer praise and to be filled with joy over the miracle of G-d’s victories.

Finally, perhaps there is a third possibility in balancing and understanding when if ever it is permissible to rejoice at the downfall of one’s enemies. The Gemara in Tractate Berachot (10a) tells the story about a bunch of hooligans that were in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood. These hooligans caused Rabbi Meir much distress so he prayed that they would die. When his wife Bruria saw this, and questioned his actions, Rabbi Meir responded that the verse in Psalms says, “Yitamu Chataim” ; “Let sinners cease.” To which his wife Bruria responded, “Does it say ‘sinners’ (Chotim)? No! ‘Sins’ (Chataim) is what it says.” Instead of praying for them to die, you must pray that they will repent as the end of the verse reads “U’Rishaim Od Ainam” ; “They will be wicked no more.” After hearing this from his wife, Rabbi Meir prayed for mercy on these hooligans and they repented. What emerges from this Gemara is the famous idea, of “hate the sin and not the sinner.” As Jews there is an obligation to uproot evil from this world and to rejoice in its destruction, but not the destruction of evil people. Shmuel HaKatan’s teaching thus fits in that it is forbidden to rejoice over the fall of one’s enemies. However, one that is beyond an enemy—one that is pure evil such as Haman or even Pharaoh, such a person’s fall we are encouraged to rejoice and to celebrate. In fact in 2004 Rav Shlomo Aviner stated after Yasser Arafat’s death, “One should not rejoice at the downfall of their enemy is correct, but there are enemies and there are enemies.”

While this is certainly a difficult line to straddle—that is what is expected out of us as Jews. Perhaps this is what made Shmuel Hakatan the perfect person to teach this idea. It is interesting to note that Mishna 24 is the only Mishna in all of Pirkei Avot in which the author simply quotes a verse from Tanach (in this case from Mishlei) without adding any additional insights or comments. The Gemara in Tractate Sotah (48b) writes that Shmuel HaKatan was a man of great piety who truly embodied the devoutness necessary to live up to this maxim of the verse from Mishlei. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi in Israel writes that it was precisely because of this virtue that in Tractate Berachot (28b), Shmeul HaKatan was chosen by Rabban Gamliel to compose the Birkat HaMinim, the late addition to the Shemoneh Esrey Amida that prays for the downfall of sectarians. Only someone with such virtue, Rav Kook believed, could exercise proper sensitivity in composing a prayer that appeals for the downfall of others. May we each learn that same level of sensitivity as we celebrate G-d, His victories, and the wiping out of evil from this world.