Why Jewish sages viewed anger as a dangerous emotion

Here is a selection of quotes from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that reflects our sages’ views about anger and its management:.

 A traffic jam during the holiday season in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon, on December 22, 2022. Psychologists say traffic congestion may be a contributing factor to road rage. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)
A traffic jam during the holiday season in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon, on December 22, 2022. Psychologists say traffic congestion may be a contributing factor to road rage.

When a wise man loses his temper, he loses his wisdom. – Talmud Pesachim 66b

A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention. – Proverbs 15:18

"A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention."

Proverbs 15:18

Have you experienced road rage? Just about everyone has, whether as passenger or driver. Have you wondered why road rage is more common than experiencing road “annoyance”? Or why it is that you, as an otherwise peaceful person, wished you had a James Bond Aston Martin with a cannon so that you could blast the car that just cut in front of you?

Our sages anticipated these modern difficulties, as noted in the quotes above and others that we will look at. They viewed anger as a dangerous emotion. When our judgment is clouded by strong anger or rage, rational thinking is diminished, and the result is conflict

I am sure you can think of situations in the Bible where anger was exhibited, not usually with the best results. These include Cain and Abel; God and the flood; Esau and Jacob; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and the rock; God and the Israelites during the Korach rebellion; and Moses and the first set of tablets. In each case, anger led to actions that had regrettable consequences. This is not to say the anger was without justification, but perhaps more considered – and effective – actions might have accompanied better anger management. 

 An electric road sign discouraging road rage. (credit: MassDOT/Wikipedia) An electric road sign discouraging road rage. (credit: MassDOT/Wikipedia)

We are hard-wired to experience a wide range of emotions. Evolutionary psychologists study the functional meaning of emotions and how that meaning might change over time. What is the evolutionary significance of anger? We are made in the image of God. God gets angry. We get angry. What purpose does it serve? 

We actually have to look at two emotions: anger and rage. The rabbis did not really distinguish between the two, perhaps seeing rage as anger that has gotten out of control. Here is what leads to anger and rage:

  • Anger: I have been put down, demeaned, attacked, or insulted – or this has happened to something or someone I care deeply about.
  • Rage: I feel so threatened, offended, and mad that I almost feel like I want to inflict harm on someone or something.

Our capacity to experience both of these emotions ultimately is protective of ourselves and/or others whose safety and care we feel invested in (including a family or tribe). Anger is fundamentally a social emotion, and its function is to shape status in relationships. The basic meaning of anger is “You aren’t treating me right.” Its function is to inflict some harm on somebody else for behavior that is seen as demeaning, humiliating, and degrading, to deter its repetition. 

As we experience road rage, we are saying to ourselves, in outrage, “You are doing that to me?? Don’t you see me here? Don’t I matter to you?” Now imagine God, as Adam and Eve spurned the benefits of Eden and as humankind devolved into crass, exploitative misbehavior, or as Korach and, later, Moses showed their disrespect for God. “You are doing that to Me? Here is what I am going to do to you.” God’s actions were a clear symbol to the sages that anger and rage have the potential to get out of hand quickly and are best avoided. 

What the sages said

Here is a selection of quotes from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that reflects our sages’ views about anger and its management:

  • 1:15: “Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”
  • 3:16: “Rabbi Yishmael said, be yielding to a superior, pleasant to the young, and receive every person cheerfully.”
  • 4:1: “Ben Zoma said, who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99). Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Proverbs 16:32). 
  • 4:3: “Ben Azzai taught.... This was a favorite teaching of his: Do not be scornful of any person; do not disdain the importance of anything – for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.”
  • 5:14:  “There are four types of temperaments. One who is quick to become angry and quick to calm down – his gain is outweighed by his loss. One who is slow to become angry and slow to calm down – his loss is outweighed by his gain. One who is slow to become angry and quick to calm down is pious. One who is quick to become angry and slow to calm down is wicked.”

Note the wisdom – and alignment with contemporary science – of the sages’ advice. They don’t talk about eliminating anger, but rather forestalling it to the extent possible, and then calming it when it happens. They saw what has been confirmed by science, as Daniel Goleman described so well in his book Emotional Intelligence: anger hijacks us. At a certain point, when we get angry (or enraged), we take action; we stop listening; we even stop thinking cogently. Our adrenaline flows, and it can take 20 minutes or so before we can engage in rational conversation. Studies have shown that it’s harder to prevent anger than one might think. But the sages had the right idea – have a positive, cheerful attitude with others. Don’t provoke their wrath, which will escalate the threat you might feel. 

Though not mentioned in these quotes, it’s clear that our sages understood that anger – especially of the kind that is quick to attain and slow to lose – is likely to lead to grudges. Many of us live in families where one or more members hold grudges. It would not be inappropriate to look at the world stage, historically and at present, and see the corrosive influence of grudges as undiminished anger. 

So approach people with cheerfulness and the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be diminutive or dismissive of others – they matter! Try to catch yourself before you become enraged. Don’t take everything too personally. Everyone has moments of carelessness in speech and action that is not reflective of their true feelings. And when you start to feel that anger rising in you, take some anger management advice, in part from Maimonides.  ■

Maurice J. Elias, PhD, is professor of psychology and contributing faculty in Jewish studies at Rutgers University, where he also directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org). He is co-author of The Joys and Oys of Parenting: Wisdom and Insight from the Jewish Tradition (Behrman House, available at Amazon.com); and Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. He can be reached at maurice.elias@rutgers.edu.

Ideas for managing anger

Step 1. Recognize when you start to feel angry

Watch for your body’s physical signals when anger starts to kick in. These reactions can serve as good indicators to us that we may be close to losing control. Reactions like: flushed face, sweating, heart beating a mile a minute, feeling close to tears, shaking, clenched or grinding teeth. By recognizing your body’s response to it, you can start figuring out how to keep anger in check and not let it escalate too quickly or beyond control. 

Step 2: Collect yourself 

Because anger can explode into outbursts of rage that leave us full of regret, we need an intentional, advance plan to keep our bodies and emotions under control. Be sure you have a self-calming strategy. For example: stop and take deep breaths; count backward from 10; do something distracting (squeeze a stress ball, doodle, clean the countertop); put on soothing music. Sometimes, getting control of our emotions requires taking a little break in another room (kind of like a parent’s time-out). As the two quotes in this article from Proverbs show and Judaism teaches, it’s best to step back first. And then, stop talking and start listening. Listening helps dissipate anger.

Step 3: Put feelings into words 

Once our emotions are under control, we will have more clarity about our deeper feelings and be better able to reasonably put those feelings into words. How we talk to our children and to others we care about creates the foundation for our influence on them. Start by asking questions to clarify the situation. Then, be sure to help them or give them a chance to identify how they are feeling, as well as share how you are feeling (without blame). After that, the best strategy is to plan a time to have a follow-up conversation about what happened. Dan Goleman reminds us that it can take 20 to 25 minutes to get over being emotionally hijacked by our anger, which we now understand for evolutionary reasons. So don’t always think it’s best to deal with things immediately. In anger contexts, time is your ally. 

(From The Joys and Oys of Parenting, with some thanks to Maimonides’ thoughts about anger and conflict reduction)