In English (at least my understanding of it), "bad" is simply the opposite of "good". If someone builds a useful bench from scrap materials, that is good; if they hit their thumb with a hammer while doing it, that is bad. Most people are in agreement on what is good and what is bad.

But to me, evil is more than simply bad. It is something that appears to be good, but which is ultimately bad. If someone gives the scrap materials to a child and teaches him to build a bench, that appears to be a good deed, but if they do so hoping to see the child hurt himself, that is evil. Similarly everyone says sugar tastes good, but it can contribute to tooth decay and obesity. It appears good, but ultimately it causes bad.

In the Tanakh, רַע (raʿ) is sometimes translated as "bad" and sometimes as "evil".

Is there anything that distinguishes the two meanings in the Tanakh, where "bad" describes something that people generally agree is to be avoided, while "evil" describes something that involves deception?

  • I remember learning once that the difference between רע - someone/something that is bad, and רשע someone who we describe as being wicked is the 'shin' - 'ש', which according to Kabbalah, looks like a person with his arms outstretched heavenwards. The implication being that someone who is defined as being evil has the potential to do teshuva (repentance), whereas the term רע is less forgiving and is more definitive.
    – Dov
    Jun 15, 2021 at 20:57
  • Your definition of evil is entirely arbitrary. Evil is generally used by people to mean intentional harm, as opposed to accidental or natural events, which are just bad. A Hebrew word for deceptive harm is מרמה/mirmah.
    – N.T.
    Jun 16, 2021 at 7:02
  • @N.T. All definitions are entirely arbitrary.
    – Double AA
    Jun 16, 2021 at 14:01
  • Maybe arbitrary wasn't the best word. I meant "not agreed to by anyone else".
    – N.T.
    Jun 17, 2021 at 1:44
  • @N.T. said "Your definition of evil is entirely arbitrary.". Agreed. That's why I said "to me, evil is …". My question was whether Hebrew has its own arbitrary way of distinguishing between something that is obviously bad and something that is deceptively bad. I had meant with respect to the word רַע, which gets translated as both "bad" and "evil", but thanks for the response about מרמה, even if it does complicate things for me. Jun 17, 2021 at 2:50

2 Answers 2


It's confusing, but subtle distinctions are sometimes made. Here is a prime example from Kiddushin 40a:

[It says in Isaiah:] "When the righteous are good, they shall eat the fruit of their doings." [Is. 3:10] [“When the righteous are good”?] Is there then a righteous man who is good and a righteous man who is not good? [Yes.] He who is good to Heaven and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good. He who is good to Heaven but not good to man, he is a righteous man who is not good.

"Woe unto the wicked [man who is] evil, for the reward of his hands shall be given to him." [Isaiah 3:11][“The wicked man who is evil?”] Is there then a wicked man who is evil and one who is not evil? [Yes.] He who is evil to Heaven and evil to man, he is a wicked man who is evil; [but] he who is evil to Heaven but not evil to man, he is a wicked man who is not evil.

But he is still “wicked”, though! :-)


As far as I understand, bad is a natural force whereas evil is a supernatural force.

For example: https://www.sefaria.org/Taanit.8a?lang=bi

The Gemara cites another interpretation of the aforementioned verse. Reish Lakish said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “If the snake bites before it is charmed, then the charmer has no advantage” (Ecclesiastes 10:11)? In the future, all the animals will gather together and come to the snake and say to him: A lion mauls its prey and eats it; a wolf tears apart its prey and eats it; but you, what pleasure do you have when you bite a person, as you are incapable of eating him? The snake will say to them: “The charmer has no advantage.” The Hebrew phrase for snake charmer literally means the master of the tongue, and therefore the snake is saying that he has a more difficult question: What pleasure does a slanderer receive, as he inflicts more harm for which he obtains no physical enjoyment.

The snake, which is the primeval representative of evil, damages maliciously, even without personal benefit. And so too does the slanderer. Whereas the lion may kill and eat, but it did so for a purpose.

So we can understand that bad is when someone causes damage for their own benefit (a natural type of illegal taking), whereas evil is when someone causes damage maliciously and vicariously (which is a spiritual type of damage, because its equivalent does not occur in the natural world).

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