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Do Thoughts Really Count?

What exactly is the Torah's point of view on thoughts?

Copyright 2013 Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW 718 793-1376  Material may be copied and distributed freely provided that the articles are printed in their entirety and this note is printed on all pages. Previously printed in the Jewish Press.

the.guard Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Therapists have been known to comfort clients who experience anxiety-provoking and obsessive thoughts, by telling them, “There is no need to feel fear or shame about the thoughts that run through your head. Thoughts do not really mean anything and don’t hurt anyone.” While this is an important step in reducing anxiety and breaking a pattern of excessive pre-occupation and over-valuation of thoughts, a religious person may have difficulty accepting this, as it seems that the Torah has many prohibitions regarding sinful thoughts. It is useless and disrespectful to offer false psychological comfort to a religious person whose tradition tells him he should be believe otherwise. In this article, we will look at some of these sources and compare them to psychological ideas about the role of thoughts in human and social functioning, to see how a religious person can develop a healthy approach to thoughts that are considered forbidden.

Torah Prohibitions on Specific Types of Thoughts:

The verse states: "You shall not follow after your heart and after your eyes, which you tend to stray after." (Bamidbar16:32) The Gemara (Berachos 12b) understands this to be a prohibition against three kinds of thoughts: heresy, forbidden sexual acts, and idolatry. The Gemara derives it from the corresponding three components of the verse; the heart (heresy), the eyes (sexual lusting) and straying (idolatry). (Also see Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saase 47, and Mishne Torah Hilchos Avodah Zara, 2:3.)

Aside from these three forbidden areas of thought, one of the Ten Commandments forbids "coveting" your neighbor’s wives or possessions. However, it is interesting to note that there is a difference between the way the Torah states this commandment in Shemos 20:13 versus Devarim 5:17. In Shemos, the prohibition is worded as "lo Sachmod", while in Devarim there is an additional wording "Lo sisave". One only violates lo sachmod if he desires his friends' possession and forces a sale upon him against his will, or takes it against his will see (Bava Metzia 5b and Tosafos Op. Cit., as well as Rambam Hilchos Gezeila 1:9.) However, "Lo sisave" which loosely translate as "Do not desire", is understood as a prohibition against even plotting or planning to possess his neighbor's objects, (see Rambam, ibid 1:10.) Thus, this then is a fourth category of thought that is forbidden.

It should be noted that though it is forbidden to "think" these thoughts, it is more accurate to say that it is forbidden to dwell on these thoughts. Meaning, a passing thought about desiring a neighbor’s possessions is not yet a violation. Rather, it is the plotting and scheming that is forbidden -- so it would seem from the language of the Rambam (ibid).

Similarly, in regard to sexual matters, the Ezer Mikodesh (found on the daf of Shulchan Aruch E.H. 23:3) points out that intellectually thinking sexual thoughts is not forbidden, only lusting and fantasizing is forbidden. He argues, “Otherwise it would be impossible to learn any Gemara that discusses sexual matters!” Indeed, this seems like the only reasonable approach, because we cannot fully control every passing thought that runs through our heads. Additionally, the Gemara considers forbidden sexual thoughts to be one of the three sins that a person cannot fully save himself from (Bava Basrah 164b).

Furthermore, though the Rambam includes prohibitions against heretical thoughts under the general mitzvah of “lo sasuru”, as we saw earlier (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saase 47, and Mishne Torah Hilchos Avodah Zara, 2:3.), the prohibition also must be limited in some way. In the Moreh Nevuchim and Shemoneh Perakim the Rambam himself constantly quotes, evaluates and reinterprets ideas that originated as heretical philosophical viewpoints. How could this be allowed if even the thought of heresy is forbidden? Obviously, to consider a particular idea, with the intention of it being possibly correct or useful from a Torah point of view, is permitted. It therefore is reasonable to presume that it is only forbidden to fixate and adopt such heretical beliefs in one’s mind and heart, as opposed to merely thinking about it in some limited manner, as they are being evaluated and pondered with good intentions.

In summation, we see that indeed thoughts do count quite a bit, and the Torah places responsibility on a person to manage his or her thoughts. We also see from sources quoted above that, in general, it is not random or passing thoughts that are forbidden, but rather adopting beliefs or dwelling on and lusting after forbidden sexual or material possessions that is forbidden.

The Spiritual Impact

Aside from certain thoughts being forbidden, there is also a belief that these thoughts can cause spiritual cataclysms in the hidden and unperceived mystical world. For example, in perhaps one the most striking allegories ever stated by a sage, Rav Chaim Volozhin exhorts that thinking a sinful sexual thought is a greater desecration than when the evil Titus lay with a prostitute in the Holy of Holies! (Nefesh HaChaim, Gate One, Ch. 4.) His rationale is as follows: The body can be understood as the Tabernacle, the mind as the Holy of Holies, and the soul as Hashem’s shechina that rests over the Mishkan. The act of bringing an unclean thought into one’s mind is an even greater desecration than defiling the Kodesh Hakodoshim since the Mishkan is still, after all physical, but the mind is even more holy and spiritual.

Furthermore, while perhaps other authorities would put a greater emphasis on actions instead of thought, the Rambam seems to hold that the perfection of character, thought and state of mind is the ultimate end game of Torah life, to allow one’s soul to become more attached to Hashem. For example, in the Shemoneh Perakim (Ch. 6) he raises a contradiction between secular philosophers and Jewish values. Chazal consider it to be a great act, and actually an ideal, if one desires a sin and resists "because Hashem commanded so". While, according to the philosophers it is repugnant to desire sin and shows poor development of the soul. The Rambam feels that, in essence, the philosophers make a good point, in that a refined and properly balanced character would simply not desire improper things, and therefore, it does not make sense to say it is high level to desire sin and resist. The Rambam solves this contradiction by making a distinction between a chok (mitzvah without an obvious reason), and a mishpat (basic logical rule) such as theft or murder, one should not even desire to do. If one desires to steal or murder, there is already something wrong with his soul because it is decent and reasonable to refrain from stealing or killing. While on the other hand, when it comes to the chukkim of the Torah, a person can and should desire to violate them and only abstain out of loyalty and obedience to Hashem. One way or the other, it is evident from this, that for the Rambam, elevation of the soul to the point where it does not desire sinful matters is the endgame of the Torah. Good behavior and deeds are only means to achieve an elevated soul (by inculcating and internalizing good qualities -- see third and fourth perakim of the Shemoneh Perakim) and proof of the elevated soul. Except when it comes to chukim, since they have no "logic", it’s okay to want to disobey -- so long as you do obey -- and in fact that is ideal because it shows loyalty and love for Hashem's commandments. (For more about the perfection of the soul, see Morech Nevuchim, Part 3, Chapter 54.) Another place where the Rambam indicates the extreme value of thought is in regard to the emotion of anger. While the Gemara (Shabbos 105b) states that one who breaks his vessels out of anger should be considered as if he worships idols, the Rambam in Hilchos Deos (2:8) states that one who gets angry is as if he worshiped idols. In other words, the Gemara adds an extra action of breaking vessels, while the Rambam sees the emotion itself of rage to be the problem. (Perhaps the Rambam understood the Gemara as referring to one who is in such a rage that he is apt to lose control and go as far as breaking things.)


How is a religious person supposed to deal with emotionally intrusive and troubling thoughts and not feel plagued by guilt? Understanding the facts can help a great deal, because though it seems that there are many restrictions on thought, the halacha is also quite realistic about human nature.

One interesting Gemara (Kiddushin 40a) seems to take the opposite position. This Gemara tells us that if one has an intention to do an evil act but does not succeed, Hashem does not count it as if he did it. (On the other hand, if he intends to do a mitzvah and is unsuccessful, Hashem still counts it as if he did it.) Apparently, while certain thoughts may indeed be forbidden, they do not have the same impact as actions and are not considered as severe as an action.

Furthermore, earlier we saw that not all evil thoughts are forbidden. A person may have all kinds of negative thoughts about all kinds of things. The Torah seems to have categories that are forbidden: Heresy, forbidden sexual lust, and idolatrous thoughts (Berachos 12b, also see Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saase 47, and Mishne Torah Hilchos Avodah Zara, 2:3). Also, plotting or scheming how to obtain someone else’s possessions via theft or forcing a sale is forbidden as well (Bava Metzia 5b and Tosafos Op. Cit., as well as Rambam Hilchos Gezeila 1:9-10.) In addition, according to the Rambam (Hilchos Deos 2:8), rageful anger is also not allowed, notwithstanding that the Gemara (Shabbos 105b) only forbids smashing things out of anger.

But even these categories are likely only forbidden if one dwells on them, as we discussed at length in an earlier segment. A passing thought is not under a person’s control. In the words of the Ezer Mikodesh (Shulchan Aruch E.H. 23:3), “The Torah was not given to angels.”

This distinction between dwelling on thoughts versus passing random thoughts is key. In general, those who suffer from obsessive thinking have a dysfunctional response toward anxiety provoking and disturbing thoughts and are unable to “switch gears” and move on from a troubling or fearsome anxiety. Think about it, we all have had the passing thought that perhaps global warming will ruin the world, or that an airplane will once again crash into my office building, or I will be trapped in an elevator etc. But then we soothe ourselves and say, “It probably won’t happen, and anyway, why worry about it?” The chronically obsessive person needs to learn techniques to derail his endless worries and move thoughts on to another venue. Likewise, if a religious person keeps worrying about having forbidden thoughts, he may have more of them. It is like the famous brain-teasing directive, “Try NOT to think about a giant, pink elephant.” Rather, the healthy approach is not to get all worried about a passing thought, and if it violates your moral code, then without beating yourself up, distract yourself with another thought.

Psychological Perspectives

Of course, since psychology is a science, it does not approach human behavior from a moral perspective. In that sense, psychology has no concern with what is sinful, evil or improper. However, psychology does have a concern with what is functional, healthy and promotes human development. While religion and psychology do not agree on many things, it can be said that indeed psychology considers thoughts and beliefs to be important, if not central to a person’s success or failure.

One of the areas where thoughts cause the most trouble for people are when they adopt beliefs as fact, when they are not facts, and then enter into various negative feelings states, and ultimately organize their entire lives in response to, or in fear of these beliefs. For example, a young man could get married to a very fine potential partner for life. Since his mother was a fastidious housekeeper, he may have a belief that he can only have happiness in his life if his home is neat. Or, he may have a belief that a neat mother is a good mother. While it is great to be neat, there a many wonderful and caring parents who are not the best homemakers, and they too can have loving marriages. But this gentleman cannot be happy because he BELIEVES that he is somehow settling for the dregs of life. He obsesses over this, harps on this and criticizes his wife endlessly instead of noticing her many strengths and assets. After a while, under this relentless emotional onslaught, she becomes bitter and depressed and actually starts failing as wife and mother, this time for real. All of this because someone adopted a rigid belief about the world, which may be true to a degree, but is hardly absolute, and certainly not compatible with the kind of person he married.

Another example, a woman might come from a family of intellectuals or learners. To her great dismay, her husband does not do as well academically as she thought. He is fun, loyal, kind, principled, handy -- but he is no scholar. With every passing holiday she spends by her parents, she is more and more embarrassed about her husband compared to her brothers and brothers in law. She needles him and nags him. He feels ashamed and, eventually, becomes bitter and avoids her. He used to adore her and would do anything for her. Now he is sullen and withdrawn. She cannot figure out why she ended up with such a loser, when actually it was her rigid beliefs that contributed to the weakening of his self-esteem. She had at least two distorted beliefs: (1) A man must be an intellectual and a talmid chacham if he is to be successful and good husband and father. (2) If her parents or family does not approve of something, then it must be bad. While of course, both of these beliefs have some validity in a limited way, it is destructive to slavishly follow them and ignore other positive factors and considerations.

This was actually the error of Haman. Though he was second to the king, and had every kind of success, he could not be happy for a moment as long as Mordechai refused to bow. The verse states (Esther 5:13), “All of this means nothing to me so long as I see Mordechai sitting by the gates of the king.” Haman lost it all because he would not accept reality. Instead, he let his thoughts become reality. DON’T make Haman’s mistake.