Tzemach Tzadik by Rabbi Leone di Modena Chapter 40


Back to chapter 39 about lust

Translated by Ralph Anzarouth and an anonymous friend


Rightfulness and moderation mean being loved in the Heavens and esteemed on earth. It is dependent upon keeping to a middle path in all one’s actions and avoiding extremes, whether by excesses or by defect.

This virtue stems to a great extent from the trait of bashfulness, being shy and fearful of doing anything great or small which will not find favor in the eyes of one’s fellow creatures. Man should keep this in mind as a navigator who steers his ship and makes sure that it does not hit a rock and will keep on its straight course.

This is what King Solomon said (Proverbs 4, 26): "Keep your feet on the straight path and all your ways will be orderly; turn neither right nor left and keep your feet from evil".

Our sages of blessed memory have taught us several lessons about this in all their sayings. The Ethics of the Fathers, in tractate Derekh Eretz and Midrashic teachings as well, deal with the manner of speech, eating, drinking, dress, walking and all other matters. In tractate Berakhot (folio 8b) Rabbi Akiva said that he likes the Medes for three reasons: they cut meat on the table; they give kisses only on the hand; and when they give advice, they only do so in the field1. In a subsequent chapter (folio 47b) it is written that when two people are eating from the same plate they should wait for each other; but when they are three, there is no need to wait. In the tractate Yoma (folio 4b) they said: from where do we know that when a person tells us something, we should not repeat it unless we have been explicitly authorized? This is from (Vaykra 1, 1): "The Lord spoke to [Moshe] from the Tent of Meeting saying2." In the Ethics of the Father it is written (1, 5): "Open your home and be generous and make the poor welcome there etc.". It is further written (ibid. 6): "Always judge your fellow man favorably"; it is also written there (ibid. 17): "I’ve found nothing more beneficial to the body than refraining from speech". In the second chapter it is written (2, 5): "In a place where no decent person is found, do your best to be one". In the same chapter we find (2, 10): "Consider your fellow man’s property as dear to you as your own"; further similar examples are also brought there.

This trait can be compared to the ermine, a creature which turns into the purest white and which eats only once a day. In the rainy season it does not leave its home out of fear that it will dirty itself in the mud. It will also avoid dwelling in a dump place unless it has been well dried. When the hunters wish to trap it, they dig clay pits and muddy holes so that when it comes out of its home they seal the entrance and it is unable to return. When it sees the hunters it takes fright, but when it sees the muddy clay it surrenders itself rather than become dirty.

King Solomon said (Proverbs 14, 8): "The wisdom of the astute person is to consider his ways". He further said (ibid. 15, 21): "The judicious person will follow a straight path". He also said (ibid. 22, 5): "There are obstacles and pitfalls in the way of the perverse person; but one who is cautious will keep away from them".

Our Sages of blessed memory said (Talmud Bavli, tractate of Kiddushin 40b) that everyone who masters written and oral Torah and is a moderate person will not fall into sin easily, as it is said (Kohelet 4, 12): "The threefold thread will not easily be severed" and everyone who does not master written and oral Torah and is immoderate is an outcast. It is said in tractate Berakhot (folio 32b) that four things require strengthening: Torah, good deeds, prayer and moderate ways.

Andronicus said that everything needs measure and balance and without moderation nothing can survive. Varus said that in the same way as the horse is guided by the bit, so all human traits must be conducted with fairness and moderation. Seneca said: "Somebody who runs excessively will fall a lot".

A wise man said: "A small amount of bitterness will spoil a lot of honey". Plato said: "Nothing is bad when done honestly". Avicenna said: "A person who wants to find all things agreeable should engage in them infrequently".

In his book of wisdom, King Solomon said that a shy person will not be embarrassed; a humble person will not be hated; a generous person will not be greedy; and since speech and its order are the foundation of honesty and moderation, and by them man will be valued, resulting in his being esteemed or shunned, we shall conclude our opinion with speech: (Proverbs 10, 11): "The mouth of the righteous person is a source of life whereas the mouth of the wicked will conceal his evil thought"; (ibid. 12, 14): "A man will enjoy the fruits of his speech"; (ibid. 26, 24): "An enemy will conceal his hate with smooth talk"; (ibid. 24, 26): "One who answers honestly deserves to be kissed by all lips"; and there are many similar quotes.

Our Sages of blessed memory dealt with this topic in tractate Sanhedrin: Abaye said that a pact is sealed with the lips etc., and even though the discussion there concerned a different matter, this teaching stresses the importance of being very cautious in ordering one’s speech. In tractate Pesachim, Rav said to Rav Kahane: "You should rather flay the hides of carcasses in the market, rather than go back on your word3. "

Albertus said that one who wishes to speak wisely should learn from the cockerel, which flaps its wings three times before it opens its mouth to crow. Therefore, one should understand three principles regarding speech: a) If somebody is angry, he should refrain from speech, since anger obscures the vision even of a perceptive person and will not allow him to distinguish between true and false; he should guard himself from being tempted to speak in excess and he should consider whether what he wants to say is true and proper; b) he should look at who he wants to talk to. Ptolemy said: "Before you say something, check who you are talking to, since your words should be suitable for him". In fact, discussion with high-ranking officials and top advisors should focus on high-level topics like authority, loyalty, wisdom, war, horses and chariots, beasts and fowl and the like. With women, conversation should focus on pleasant topics and desired things like jewels, clothes, and household items. With elders, scholars and the pious we should speak about less popular subjects like wisdom and acts of devotion; with the urban masses, each according to his calling; with the rural population and villagers, about plowing, reaping and all agricultural matters; with the ignorant, when we are compelled to speak with them, touch upon common matters, as King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 26, 5): "Answer the foolish person according to his foolishness"; with the depressed and troubled it is necessary to offer words of comfort. And accordingly, in each individual case; c) he should assess whether what he wants befits him or not. Once he has attended to all these, he should be careful of 15 things:

  1. Refrain from superfluous speech, as King Solomon wrote (Proverbs, 10, 19): "The excess of speech cannot be devoid of sin"; he further said (ibid. 17, 28): "The wise man seals his lips"; and our Sages of blessed memory said (Pirkei Avot 1, 17): "All those who speak excessively cause evil". Socrates said: "One who does not keep silent of his own accord will be silenced by others".
  2. To avoid dispute with others, as King Solomon said (ibid. 25, 8): "Don’t be hasty to start a quarrel, lest in the end you will be shamed by your fellow". Cato said: "Better concede to your friend’s opinion even if you can refute him" In a similar vein, our Sages of blessed memory commend4 those who receive insults and do not respond.
  3. Avoid conflicting statements, which is probably what was meant by King David and his son King Solomon (Proverbs 10, 31) "deceptive language" and (ibid. 16, 28) "deceptive person". Cato said: "Contradict somebody else, but not yourself". Plato said: "When somebody contradicts his own words, this is a sign of foolishness".
  4. To refrain from meaningless, stupid and trivial speech.
  5. Avoid hypocrisy. Socrates said that man is the only creature with two tongues.
  6. Refrain from tale-bearing and from disparaging speech; and the severity of the punishment of one who does this is clear from the texts and the words of our Sages of blessed memory.
  7. Not to swear in vain. Our sages of blessed memory have already said (Talmud Bavli, tractate Shavuos 39a): "The whole world trembled when the Holy One blessed be He said5 ‘You shall not pronounce the name of the Lord your G-d in vain’."
  8. To avoid threatening and disproportionate language towards one’s fellow man, as a wise man said: "One who threatens somebody will be considered foolish if he does not carry this out".
  9. To refrain from harsh speech. King Solomon said (Proverbs 15, 1): "A hurtful word will arouse wrath"; (ibid. 25, 15): "Mild speech will overcome resistance6." Our Sages of blessed memory praised the gentle reply and temperate speech with one’s fellow man, as it is brought down in Talmud Bavli, tractate Berakhot. In the book Ben Sira [it is written]: "The violin is pleasant when played with a harp but gentle speech is even more pleasant".
  10. To refrain from cursing one’s fellow man. The Torah says (Vaykra 19, 14): "Do not curse a deaf person". King Solomon, in his spirit of holiness warned the people concerning respect for the kingship, and with the word of Hashem on his lips he said (Proverbs 24, 21): "Fear the Lord, my son, and also the king". He further said (Kohelet 8, 2): "I say, pay head to the king’s utterance and to the oath given the Lord". He also wished to purify every thought and idea from any sin or transgression against the rulers and he said (ibid. 10, 20): "Do not curse the king even in thought etc.". Our sages of blessed memory said that when they asked Rabbi Hanina to explain his longevity he replied: "I never went to sleep with a curse between myself and my fellow man".
  11. To avoid speaking profanities. As the prophet said (Yishayahu 9, 16): "And every mouth speaks obscene language; despite all this, His anger has not turned away7." Our Sages of blessed memory said that whoever speaks vulgarly has no portion in the world to come. Homer said: "The tongue is the expression of the heart, therefore when it utters abominations the heart is also sullied".
  12. Refrain from embarrassing and humiliating one’s fellow man. Our sages of blessed memory said that whoever faults another is guilty of the same fault.
  13. Avoid making fun of others. King Solomon said (Proverbs 17, 5): "One who mocks the unfortunate insults his Creator". Seneca said: "Do not ridicule others, since nobody is without blemish".
  14. Avoid speaking by insinuations and winks. King Solomon said (ibid. 6, 13): "One who hints with his eyes delivers a kick"; (ibid. 6, 14): "One who schemes in his heart prepares the evil". Ben Sira said that one who speaks by way of hint wishes to appear wiser than he really is.
  15. To arrange his speech properly and coordinate it with the expression of his face and body. As a general rule, the most honorable behavior for a man is to conduct all his affairs as befits the time, the place and the person, and in this way all his deeds will be conducted with loyalty.

There was an incident, involving Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania, in connection with what he said concerning moderation: "Nobody ever got the upper hand over me, except a woman, a young boy and a young girl […] until I kissed him on his head and said: ‘Happy are you all, since you are all wise, great and small!’" See this text in Talmud Bavli, tractate Eruvin, 53b. In truth, the Lord gave to His people strength and powers of moderation, as well as the ability to refine one’s traits and to perpetuate the way of the Torah, the tree of life, which the Lord planted in our midst. May He instill in our hearts the love and fear of Him, so that we may merit the days of our Mashiach and the life of the World to come. May He elevate Torah and glorify it. Yehuda Aryeh Modena, may His Rock protect him8, Amen may this be His will.

Concluded and completed,
with praise to the Creator of the world

Notes of the translators:
[1] Among several similar interpretations, we chose Rashi’s.
[2] The word לאמור ("saying") can also be read as an explicit permission to repeat what is being said.
[3] This means that engaging in a menial occupation is preferable to reneging on one’s oral undertaking.
[4] Tractate Shabbat 88b.
[5] Shemot 20, 7.
[6] Literally "Will break a bone".
[7] Translation of this verse courtesy of Judaica Press and
[8] We decided to accept the publisher’s interpretation of this sentence, which is only hinted with the initial letters:
.ו. י. א. מ. י. ץ

The whole book Tzemach Tzadik in Hebrew (printed in Rashi characters) can be downloaded in PDF format and read online at Chapter 40 about Moderation is found at pages 76-82.