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Sukkah 52a has an interesting story with Abaye (translation from Sefaria.org)

כי הא דאביי שמעיה לההוא גברא דקאמר לההיא אתתא נקדים וניזיל באורחא אמר איזיל אפרשינהו מאיסורא אזל בתרייהו תלתא פרסי באגמא כי הוו פרשי מהדדי שמעינהו דקא אמרי אורחין רחיקא וצוותין בסימא

It is like this incident, as Abaye once heard a certain man say to a certain woman: Let us rise early and go on the road. Upon hearing this, Abaye said to himself: I will go and accompany them and prevent them from violating the prohibition that they certainly intend to violate. He went after them for a distance of three parasangs in a marsh among the reeds, while they walked on the road, and they did not engage in any wrongful activity. When they were taking leave of each other, he heard that they were saying: We traveled a long distance together, and the company was pleasant company.

אמר אביי אי מאן דסני לי הוה לא הוה מצי לאוקומיה נפשיה אזל תלא נפשיה בעיבורא דדשא ומצטער אתא ההוא סבא תנא ליה כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו

Abaye said: In that situation, if instead of that man it had been one whom I hate (a euphemism for himself), he would not have been able to restrain himself from sinning. (After becoming aware of so great a shortcoming) he went and leaned against the doorpost, thinking and feeling regret. A certain Elder came and taught him: Anyone who is greater than another, his evil inclination is greater than his. (Therefore, Abaye should not feel regret)

What does this principle mean? It can't be understood literally, it defies logic. The more righteous a person is, the more lusts he feels for women and murder and stealing etc.? Usually we see the opposite...

I once heard an explanation that "greater" means more sophisticated. Instead of immature desires like food and pleasure the temptations are more refined. The problem is it doesn't fit the context of the story and Abaye's realization about himself

  • Where do you usually see the opposite? Whose to say what level lusting anyone has? You don't measure that by how much he fails. – Double AA May 17 '17 at 23:36
  • The people usually guilty of those crimes aren't what I'd describe as righteous. I'm making an assumption that the fact that they committed those crimes shows they had a great desire for them, perhaps larger than those who don't commit them. You're right I don't have any solid proof that the more righteous people aren't simply greater at controlling themselves yet have greater inclinations than the rest, but it just seems more reasonable that they have less desire for these crimes. – robev May 17 '17 at 23:41
  • For another interesting, potentially relevant avenue of approaching this passage, see: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/75188/8775. Also from the same work, see sefaria.org/Shmonah_Kvatzim.1.258.1/he/…, sefaria.org/Shmonah_Kvatzim.7.40/he/…. – mevaqesh May 18 '17 at 3:10
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See the 6th chapter of Shemonah Ferakim in which Rambam mentions this aphorism, as part of his presentation of seemingly contradictory sources about whether it is better to have a negative urge and fight it, or to not have the urge at all. His conclusion is that the urge towards sins whose impropriety is generally intuitive is indicative of a character flaw with the person. Accordingly, it would be better to not have such an urge at all. The urge to commit sins which are not intuitive, however, is not indicative of a shortcoming and it is better to have them and overcome them.

In this scheme, the intent of the Gemara suggesting that greater people have greater urges towards sin, would be speaking specifically of sins which are not intuitive; commonly referred to as hukkim.

This category of hukkim includes forbidden sexual relationships, as is evident from his entire discussion there. For example, he cites a Tannaic teaching (Sifra Kedoshim 4:9:12) that a person shouldn't say that he doesn't yearn to commit various sins, including forbidden sexual relations, but rather that he yearns for them, but nevertheless resists and desists. Rambam explains this statement, as referring to hukkim in particular.

However, the passage does not, as you suggest, refer to murder and stealing, which Rambam specifically lists as sins which ought to be intuitive.

R. Ovadya Sforno seems to have a very different understanding in his commentary to Genesis (3:1). He equates the greater urge towards sin that the great have, with a greater capacity for imagination; picturing and fantasising about the act of sin. (Accordingly, presumably he understood the "great" in the sense of intellectual giftedness). Importantly, accordingly, it is not righteousness which leads to the urge to sin, as the question presumes, but rather intellectual and emotional gits.

Additionally, it seems likely that not every sort of sin would be included. For example, within the example of murder, the greater, i.e. more imaginative person would perhaps be more likely to become obsessed with a scenario in which involves killing someone, but not necessarily be any likelier (and perhaps even less likely) to commit a crime of passion, in the heat of the moment.

  • So why is it a greater a person is the more they yearn for hukkim? More שכר? – robev May 18 '17 at 0:44
  • @robev I think that that is a good, but distinct question. I wonder whether Rambam even agrees to the idea (or whether he just quoted the passage to show that in Hazal's view an urge for sin wasn't equivalent to being bad.) – mevaqesh May 18 '17 at 1:29
  • Is it not included in my original question? What does the aphorism mean. You have shown it means the greater desire for hukkim but what does that have to do with being a greater person – robev May 18 '17 at 2:04
  • The Seforno's approach is interesting and goes well with the aphorism in Yoma 29 הרהורי עבירה קשין מעבירה, but again doesn't make sense with the story of Abaye, unless Abaye meant if he was traveling with that woman he would have sinned regarding thought? What's the comparison to the guy who simply put was an issue of action not thought – robev May 18 '17 at 2:10
  • @robev I guess the exact delineation of your question is somewhat open to interpretation. "What does this principle mean" klal. "The more righteous a person is, the more lusts he feels for women and murder and stealing etc." prat. | Rambam explains the intent of the Gemara. (klal) he also addresses the particular question (prat). He does not address the mechanics of the Gemra (which AFAICT you didn't ask about specifically); only its intent. | Regardless, R. Sforno, does address the mechanics of the Gemara. – mevaqesh May 18 '17 at 2:14

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