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Is There Anything Wrong with Sinful Thought?

Is There Anything Wrong with Sinful Thought?

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Liz Fagoli
Liz Fagoli

Dear Rabbi,

At times my mind wanders off and I imagine myself committing crimes. I’ve always felt that there is nothing wrong with these thoughts because I do not actually follow through and commit the crime.

What do you think?

Answer:

Thought is the most difficult part of the person to control. Our thought process is constantly at work and thoughts seem to enter our minds at random. But it’s important to remember that every action is preceded by a thought. For example, one does not commit adultery without thinking about it and planning it in detail. Trying to control one’s thoughts is clearly a good start to one’s quest in becoming a better person.

According to the Talmud:

Thoughts of sin are more difficult than the sin itself.1

This means, in a certain manner a sinful thought is more damaging than the sin itself.

How so?

There are two components to a person’s wrongdoing:

  1. The negative action and its effect that that we see and feel in our physical world.
  2. The damaging spiritual effect the wrongdoing has on the one who does it.

We tend to think in terms of the first way. Living in a physical world we go by “the facts on the ground.” Thoughts are unseen and cannot be judged. No one is convicted of “thinking about stealing”. The same would be the case in a court of Jewish law.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of the soul, there is something about the sinful thought that is especially painful.

Maimonides puts it this way:

The capacity to think comes from humankind's unique spiritual standing. Therefore, to use thought for sin is to sin by means of the noblest part of oneself.2

Put simply, “action” is something we share in common with many other creatures. We can use it negatively, as can animals. But corrupting our minds, which are unique to humans, hurts that much more. We have taken something so high and brought it so low.

According to Chabad philosophy, the soul has “three garments” – three ways of expressing itself:

  1. Thought.
  2. Speech.
  3. Action.

Thought, the most spiritual of the garments, is intimately connected with the soul and shares some of the same characteristics.

  1. Thought is constant, and the soul is constantly connected to the body.
  2. Thought stays within the person. The soul remains part of a person as long as he or she is alive.

Sinful thought will blemish the soul in a more spiritual place than a sinful act. A sinful deed is an external expression of the soul, but the effects of negative thoughts are deeper and far-reaching.3

With this in mind, we can appreciate the Talmudic statement, “Thoughts of sin are more difficult than the sin itself.”

Conquering one’s thought is an integral part of Judaism. But it is certainly not easy to control all of our thoughts all the time, and it may take years, maybe even an entire lifetime, to master it.

Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, provides tools to help overcome negative thoughts, and discusses the incredible pleasure we give G‑d when we attempt to master our psyche. For details, see Tanya in Plain English Chapters 26-28.

This article will also help you: How Do I Rid Myself of Inappropriate Thoughts?

Footnotes
1.

The Talmud, Yoma 29a, see ad loc Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, the MaHarsha. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, disagrees with this translation of the words, and explains that ridding oneself of unwanted thoughts is much more difficult than stopping oneself from doing an actual sin.

2.

Guide to the Perplexed 3:8.

3.

See Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, Derech Chaim, pages 36 and 38.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Michael Marsh Floreat W.A. May 11, 2017

Humans have the ability to control their thoughts. What negative or destructive thoughts that permiate from our unconscious mind to our consciousness can be immediately replaced by positive and constructive thoughts through will power and internal dialogue. We think in opposites ie love/hate, joy/sadness, hot/cold, dialogue/combat, peace/war, etc. Failure to control recurring negative thoughts requires therapy before such thoughts become dominant in our minds and are put into action. Reply

Linda Gerber South Africa June 3, 2017
in response to Michael Marsh:

Agree Michael Marsh. I learned it when mid- life depression struck me unexpectedly. I had to "speak" to negative thoughts and cast them away as if the evil inclination attacked my mind or thoughts directly Refusing to entertain negative thoughts and choosing positive thoughts immediately helped me. The soul weeps before Hashem through thoughts? Reply

Dan February 26, 2016

Thoughts When Messiah comes and we are renewed, will we have perfect control of our thoughts? Reply

T T, Israel February 13, 2012

RE:no condemnation in bad thoughts Yes, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, discusses this in Tanya and says that when a person has bad thoughts they shouldn't be alarmed, this is their yetzer hara, their evil inclination, trying to bring them to stumble, but once a thought enters a person's mind they are given the choice to willingly think this thought or to resist it. That's where we make our choice (with Hashem's great help!) and when we don't act on a not-good thought, essentially, this means that we had somewhere a positive thought that was stronger than the negative one! Otherwise we wouldn't have the power to act.
May we all merit to bring our thoughts to be truly beautiful! Amen Reply

Eric Sean Tite Webber Hammock Dunes, FL/USA February 11, 2012

Pure Thought produces Pure Speech & Pure Deeds Thanks for the great answer!

What about those trying to promote dangerous ideologies like this lunacy of free will being an illusion?

Shouldn't we point out the dangerous thoughts of others though or should we remain silent & allow their victims to accumulate? Reply

Michael Marsh May 11, 2017
in response to Eric Sean Tite Webber:

One must speak the truth for there is no place for complacency. In doing this wisdom is paramount. Albert Einstein migrated to the USA for a very good reason. Reply

B. Mialich February 9, 2012

It´s written that it is necessary to have a joyful heart to break down the evil inclination. In ancient times the heart was considered to be the mind´s center, so, for the joyful heart is necessary a partner mind. Reply

pnda usa February 8, 2012

taughts i drove close to 10hrs today(truck driver) and was enraged ,feeling having waisted that time on silly matters. your answer helps me much and is timely,really odd how timely.
because am trying to draw closer to my jewishness and am having this looong talks...w/myslef!. they bring nothing but words,it makes me sad because theres so much to learn. now,,,found out theres TWO talmud,babli/yerushalmi,and all the rest wich am unaware of. i feel its "unfair". if theres so much,then Hashem must put me in a context where i can divide my time between work and studies. or He can content Himself with my few words /sentences i memorized and barely understand. i taught this today,it made me mad. but i still love and apprecaite this gift of a website. thank you. Reply

J.R. Frankfurt am Main February 8, 2012

Thought is the precursor of the deed Research at the ULB (Université Libre Bruxelles) published in 2005, proved that thought processes physiologically change the brain. Therefore, there is a physiological precursor to speech that then can result in the deed.

Consequently, we can also say that the act could never have been committed without the thought, i.e. thought is the driving force.

One can also see thought and the deed as the driver and the wagon. The wagon only takes the direction that the driver has decided upon, which then results in the chain: thought, words, deeds. Reply

Israel Goldman snellville, Georgia February 8, 2012

no condemnation in bad thoughts Sure to think positive/good thoughts is ideal, but in all fairness to a human being we must not judge too harshly when we have a bad thought. Remember the deed is the main thing and the real merit lies in not acting on bad thoughts.We all have a yetzer hara. We should not condemn ourselves or others for bad thoughts, how beautiful when we do the opposite action of the bad thought! Blessings to all Jews and all peaceful peoples! Reply

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