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I heard today there is an old Jewish saying that goes something like this:

“To be lenient when you should be firm is to be cruel when you could be kind.”

This, as so many Jewish sayings do, strikes a chord of resonance with me. I would like to learn more about this saying.

  1. What is the actual saying?

  2. What is the origin of the saying?

  3. What is the “Anglicized” version?

  • It sounds like this question would be better-suited for a Yiddish/Hebrew SE site. – Lee Aug 4 '15 at 5:03
  • @Lee: I actually looked for that site first but could not find it. Could you please provide a link? – Mowzer Aug 4 '15 at 5:05
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    This appears to be referring to Kohelet Rabba 6:17 - sefaria.org/… -- If so, the question can easily be reworded to to be on topic, just change "Old Yiddish/Hebrew saying" to "Statement of our Sages" ---- "כל מי שנעשה רחמן במקום אכזרי, סוף שנעשה אכזרי במקום רחמן." and "כל מי שנעשה רחמן במקום אכזרי, סוף שמדת הדין פוגעת בו" – Menachem Aug 4 '15 at 7:57
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    The origin of this question was curiosity about a Jewish saying. The fact that it was labeled uncertainly with languages was a red herring. That it is a "Statement of our Sages" belongs in an answer, not in the question. I've edited the question accordingly, and I encourage @Menachem to post an answer based on his comment. – Isaac Moses Aug 4 '15 at 13:25
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This is a midrash from Kohelet Rabbah 7:16, Tanhuma, Parashat Mezora,1; Yalkut Shimoni, I Samuel, Chapter 121 and the Rambam in Guide for the Perplexed Part 3, Chapter 39. See also Me’am Loez Anthology on Exodus, 21:14

Rav Hirsch points out in Mishpatim 21:14 that it is a commandment to put a murderer to death and it is not allowed to show him "mercy".

There is an interesting article applying this to modern times which quotes these sources.

“He Who is Compassionate to the Cruel Will Ultimately Become Cruel to the Compassionate”

This notion, that displaying an attitude of mercy towards the wicked who deserve severe punishment involves acting cruelly towards the general public, can be found in the words of Maimonides in his book The Guide of the Perplexed.2 In reference to the verse (Exodus 21:14), “If a person willfully schemes to kill his neighbor – he shall be (even) taken from my altar and put to death”, Maimonides writes that

the wicked and calculating person (who killed intentionally and was sentenced to death) – if he seeks sanctuary among us, we must not provide him with asylum and not have mercy upon him...because compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings.

Regarding the verse located in the chapter discussing Saul’s war with Amalek (I Samuel 15:9), “And Saul and the nation spared Agag,” the Midrash says (Tanhuma, Parashat Mezora,1; Yalkut Shimoni, I Samuel, Chapter 121.):

R’ Elazar said: One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate, as it is written, “And Saul and the nation spared Agag and the best sheep and cattle.”, and it is written (Ibid. 22:19) “And Nov, the city of priests, he smote with the edge of a sword.”

As we know, King Saul was commanded by the prophet Samuel: “Go and smite Amalek and confiscate all that is theirs” (I Samuel 15:3). This commandment stemmed from the Torah commandment to erase the memory of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19), however, in the hearts of Saul and the nation, compassion on Agag, King of Amalek and on the best sheep and cattle, was aroused, and as a result, Saul refrained from completely fulfilling the words of the prophet. In this regard, the Midrash states that one who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate as King Saul acted compassionately to Agag (the cruel) and ultimately became cruel to the compassionate, in the guise of the people of Nov, the city of priests, whom Saul killed wantonly because he suspected them of having assisted David.

  • I was trying to find the source of that 2nd expression, actually. I had a discussion about this concept with a Christian co-worker. Thanks for the answer. – DanF Aug 4 '15 at 16:16

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