Tzemach Tzadik by Rabbi Leone di Modena Chapter 32 Temperance


Back to chapter 31 about irresolution

Translated by Ralph Anzarouth and an anonymous friend


Temperance is when one is in control of himself so as to rule over his desires and this is achieved in two ways: the first involves suppressing the desire stemming from the animal instinct and this is a real restraint. The second involves restraining a natural desire resulting from a physical stimulus such as the natural tendency towards eating, conjugal unions, pride, envy, anger, and similar tendencies; suppressing them requires a much greater and praiseworthy endurance than the first way.

We can compare the trait of restraint to the camel, which has a natural propensity to physical unions more than any other animal and will pursue a female for hundreds of miles in order to unite with her or to catch sight of her. Despite of this, it has such a degree of self-control that when it is in the presence of its mother or sisters, it will not touch them. It is also said that it is very modest in its mating habits.

King Solomon said (Proverbs 16, 32): "The one who possesses self control [is better] than the one who conquers a city. He also said (ibid 16, 17): "The path of the just is to steer away from evil; one who is prudent in his actions preserves his life". In other words, the proper way is to be cautious and ordered about one's life and behavior.

Our Sages of blessed memory said (Talmud Bavli, tractate Berakhot 7a): "One chastisement in the heart of man is more beneficial than several lashes […], Resh Lakish said 'even more than a hundred lashes', as it is said (Proverbs 17, 10): 'One rebuke to a sensible person [is more effective] than a hundred lashes to a fool'." Rashi explains the term Mardut (chastisement) as self-directed criticism and submission.

Seneca said: "There is no greater or smaller power than self-control". Tully (Tullius) said that if you wish to conquer your desires, deprive yourself of everything superfluous. Ptolemy said: "Fight your desires while you are young, since once you grow old you will not be able to reject them". Socrates said: "Conquering one's desires is more difficult than conquering the enemy; and one who does not overcome himself will not be able to overcome others". Plato said: "I praise seven particular ways of controlling one's [natural tendencies]: to be modest and pure in one's youth; to rejoice in one's old age; to be generous in poverty; to restrain oneself when wealthy; to be humble in times of greatness; to be submissive in times of trouble; and to overcome one's desires".

The Trojans related that King Priam [of Troy] once heard the philosopher Coarda say that one who does not control himself is not a man. Priam decided to test him. He sent a number of slanderers and boasters to insult him in order to anger him. The first of them asked him: "From what family are you? and he replied: "My lineage starts with me and yours ends with you, since mine is enhanced by me and yours shrinks with you". The second asked him whether his cloth looked well on him and he replied that man is not assessed according to his garments. The third said: "Let us see how this evil person will speak" and he replied: "Whoever said that you don't lie was talking nonsense". The forth one said: "Hello, you fool!" He replied: "You spent a long time teaching your tongue to speak evil, while I have learned not to respond". The fifth one said: "Ignore the stupid person since speaking with him is pointless". At this he was silent and did not reply. The king asked Coarda why he did not reply. He said to him: "My lord: silence is the response which fits a question of this nature and it is more appropriate that such vulgar words are responded to by the ears rather than by the tongue, since I could not offend him with my tongue more than he shamed himself: inasmuch as he is master of his tongue I am master of my ears.". The sixth told him: "Your hair is round1." He replied that virtues stem from heart. The seventh advised the king to beware of Coarda since he is a spy and passes information and I have seen him in the camp of the Greeks. He replied: "If this was true, you would not have dared to say it". The eighth said: "See how this thief speaks!" He replied: "If you knew yourself you would not address me in this way". When the king saw Coarda's forbearance, he summoned him, sat him at his side and asked him how he endured these insults without becoming angry. He responded: "I am in control of what controls them (i.e. the personality traits); and they are subservient to my servants (i.e. the vices). And there is no better way to anger the offender than remaining silent and appearing to be unmoved. Since one who loses his temper when insulted will most probably cause the other to insult him even more."

Note of the translators:
[1] Whatever that means, it was meant as an insult.

The whole book Tzemach Tzadik in Hebrew (printed in Rashi characters) can be downloaded in PDF format and read online at Chapter 32 about temperance is found at pages 62-65.