Clearly, there must be a guide for a Jew to be able to determine whether a signal is coming from his yetzer tov or whether the signal is coming from his yetzer hora. At one end of the spectrum recognition is easy. Obviously, if a man desires to steal, it is not difficult to identify that signal as coming from his yetzer hora. More subtly, if a man makes the decision to learn Torah every morning at a fixed time, the suggestion to stay in a warm bed on a cold gray morning and miss learning can also be identified as coming from the yetzer hora.

But sometimes, on the other end of the spectrum, the message can be very unclear and the signal can come in a most seductive form;1 for example, is the desire to cheat an insurance company really stealing?

Given that theft is forbidden, it requires a person of acumen to identify his yetzer hora here. After all, purrs that yetzer hora, adding to the list of stolen items is natural: Every insurance company expects it: They never pay the whole claim anyway: Obviously, the answer is to over claim. On the other hand, the signal not to cheat clearly comes from the yetzer tov. The yetzer tov will tell a man, if he will only listen, that it cannot be possible to profit when doing something contrary to Hashem’s will. If He says not to steal, any extra money received from the insurance claim will be dissipated on negative matters such as doctors’ bills.

There are even more subtle positions. We learn the yetzer hora attacks at the level it is best able to achieve success. A simple man will be attacked at a primitive level. A sophisticated scholar will be attacked on an ingeniously learned level.

There are a few tests; the first relates to time. Chassidim tell the story2 of a pauper who explains to a Rebbe in private of his desperate need for three hundred rubles to marry off his daughter. Later the same day, amazingly another Chosid donated three hundred rubles to the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s assistant was excited to see the donation as he realized that he could now pay the Rebbe’s debts. When, however, he asked for the money, the Rebbe refused. A few moments later, the Rebbe suspended visitors and after some time elapsed called back the assistant. He instructed him to find the man in need of the three hundred rubles and to pay the money to him. The assistant was disappointed but the Rebbe’s behavior was not altogether unexpected. But why the suspension of visitors and the delay?

Ultimately the Rebbe explained;

“ There was never a question of keeping any of the money for myself or my debts. The question, was should the man who needed to marry off his daughter be given the whole three hundred rubles when, after all, this is a poor community and many people are desperately in need. There were at least three hundred families who could do very well with a ruble each at the moment. Should I give the whole three hundred rubles to one man to marry off his daughter or should I distribute the amount to bring relief to a considerable number of poor families?

To make this decision, I needed to decide from where the idea of distributing one ruble to three hundred deserving families was coming from. Was it coming from the yetzer hora or the yetzer tov ? ”.

The Rebbe explained that, upon deep reflection, it was coming from his yetzer hora. Why? Because it was his second thought even though good in itself.

So here we have a test. The Rebbe’s first inclination was to give the whole three hundred rubles to the man who needed to marry off his daughter. Only later did he give himself the alternative.

We know that when, in the attempt to do some good, a decision is made, the yetzer hora will attack that decision at that man’s level. At what level can the yetzer hora attack a great man? Somewhere at least sophisticated enough for there to be a choice for him. One test of where the signal comes from therefore is that it comes second in time after and to undermine the first, good decision.

A second test relates to motive. There is a famous story about a snuff box. People used to use snuff, and snuff boxes to Chassidim in olden times, were like expensive pens to lawyers. The richer you were, the better your snuff box. The story goes that Shimon, a very rich man, was in shul one night when Reuven, a very poor man, asked Shimon for some snuff.

Producing a wonderful jewel-encrusted snuff box, Shimon took some snuff for himself and dismissed Reuven empty-handed in a rude and uncaring manner. It later happened that Shimon became poor and Reuven rich. Shimon went to a Rebbe to ask why he had become impoverished. The Rebbe reminded him of the incident of the snuff box. Once reminded, Shimon asked what he could do to once again be rich. The Tzaddik told him there were two ways. The first was to engineer Reuven to do to him what he had done to Reuven before. There was another way but he would not explain. Shimon sought out Reuven who was in the process of marrying off his daughter and who no longer recognized the disheveled Shimon. In the middle of the greatest moments of rejoicing when father was dancing with his son-in-law on a table, Shimon pulled at Reuven’s trousers.

“ What do you want? ”

“ Excuse me, can I have some snuff?”



Reuven descended from the table and, incredibly, he produced the very same bejeweled snuff box!

“Take as much as you want,” said Reuven. Shimon burst out crying when his much disturbed host inquired after his strange behavior. Shimon told him all. His host listened carefully and then asked, “Why do you want me to be poor again? Before, when I was poor, you were content. When I am rich, you want me to be poor.” Shimon now understood that the second way for him, not explained by the Rebbe, included not wishing poverty on Reuven. He no longer wanted his money back. He wanted other money. The end of the story was that Reuven made a deal with Shimon that he would support Shimon on a salary for the rest of his life and marry off all his children on one condition; that Shimon no longer would want his money back from Reuven. The deal was done and everybody lived happily. Because he repented sufficiently teshuvah, Shimon was once again entitled to have a certain amount of money. Again however there are the two signals. The signal to Shimon that he wanted his money back was a signal from his yetzer hora because it was at the expense of Reuven.

When he reached the level where the signal was coming from his yetzer tov, where any money would do him while meanwhile welcoming his friend’s good fortune, Shimon then received enough.

There is a third and ultimate test of action;

Does the signal bring a man to doing positive good in actual fact or is the result no activity? If, for example, there is the potential to do mitzvah “A” or mitzvah “B”, if neither is performed, long learned argument about which mitzvah is preferred must be coming from the yetzer hora3. If in fact one or, even better, both mitzvos are performed, the signal has come from the yetzer tov. We know this because the net result is the doing of the mitzvos in actuality. As a result more good has been brought into the world. This, after all, is the purpose of the yetzer tov, and the only ultimate clue to its signal.