The Concept of Abnegation in Jewish Tradition

By David Ramírez

“Mona Lisa,” by Leonardo DaVinci. Photo: AFP/GETTY

Sime‘on son of Rabban Gamliel was wont to say, all my days I have grown up among the sages and I have found nothing better for man than silence. Not learning but doing is the essential. Indulging in many words induces wrong.

— Pirqe Abot 1:17

In the portion of the Toráh called Behar Sinay (Lev. Chp. 25- Chp. 26:1), we find an interesting law:

(35) And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. (36) Take thou not interest of him or increase; but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.

Until then, and even today, this was and is unprecedented in the history of human legislation: To extend help not only to your co-national (“brother” in Hebrew terms) who has fallen into poverty, but also to the naturalized-citizen (“stranger”) and the alien resident (“settler”). The first of the last two refers to a Jewish convert (ger ssedeq), the second to a non-idolatrous non-Jew who remains a non-Jew, and lives in the Land of Israel (ger toshab). All these three are called “brothers” in the Written Toráh. Furthermore, the particular law adds to not take advantage of your brother (co-national / naturalized-citizen / alien-resident) in poverty, but also calls for taking him under one’s wing.

In the every day life and culture of the United States, this legislation has no accommodation in the Anglo-American psyche.

I often found the human disconnect in contemporary America strange and puzzling, particularly in the cities and suburbia. Neighbors do not know each other, people are always suspicious of other races, homeowners never open the door willingly, men have the need to be in a constant state of warfare-competition at home and in the workplace. An ever-present Enmity seems to be a constant in the psyche of this country.

The continuous controversy over giving social assistance to illegal immigrants shows the deeply hidden ugly misanthropic face of Anglo-America. I find this strange, especially at knowing that the general population identifies itself as part of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition, one which should pay special attention to this particular legislation.

The two standing philosophies of the U.S. psyche, the Republican and the Democrat, violate this very principle of Jewish legislation.

The Republican stand is based on the principle of “Each man for his own” under the banner of self-reliance. So, it follows, a development of a Darwinian mentality of “the survival of the fittest” cannot be avoided. For this reason, it should not be to anyone’s surprise that during a Republican administration all kinds of social services are slashed mercilessly.

The Democrat stand, particularly since the Roosevelt ’s New Deal legacy, has been one of purported social welfare, but unfortunately this welfare has turned into a culture of dependency and abuse. Not a few times have the Republicans accused Democrats to use Social Welfare as a token for party favoritism from the socially disadvantaged which lends into political profiteering at the expense of a stagnant social class.

The Republicans violate the principle of helping thy brother, while the Democrats violate the principle of not abusing thy brother.

This parasháh (Toráh’s weekly portion) reminded me of a beautiful story in the Talmud, where a great sage had fallen into poverty and disgrace. His colleagues in turn did something that we do not hear too often in our days. They helped him and funded him so he can have a descent and dignified living, until he got back on his feet, became rich and prosperous. How long it took? I do not remember if the story mentions it at all.

After this mention, I began to connect all kinds of dots enacted in Jewish tradition in the ways of charity. In rabbinic legislation, the congregation has the obligation to reserve money to help the poor families to have a dignified Shabbat celebration, specially for buying candles and food; hospitals were funded by the community, so everyone, including gentiles, could seek medical help for free; even in marriage, there were philanthropic organizations that paid the dowry of the maiden, when the family could not afford it. Even charity extends to aspects of non-monetary reward, as personally teaching someone a trade so the person can become self-sufficient.

In Judaism, our legislation obliges us to give dignity to the individual by providing the very things that makes respectable human life possible. It shuns the very philosophy of “Every man for his own,” this never enters the Jewish equation. We are not, nor ought to be, alone.

And yet, all this charity had to be done in a guise of great discretion:

“Rabbi Eliezer was wont to say, be the honor of thy fellow dear as thee as thine own, and be not lightly moved to anger.” [PA 2:14]

Unlike other expressions of charity in our modern society, Jewish charity takes a muted overtone. I think this is done out of the need to protect the dignity of the individual receiving the charity, as well as the modesty of the donor. Traditionally, any public mention of charity within Jewish communities was considered disrespectable and dishonorable.

In retrospective too, there is a symbiosis between giver and receiver that self-feeds itself, and turns around; therefore, it has a return on investment. The great Spanish Jewish thinker Shem Tob de Carrión would put it in the following:

“1189 As you wish to receive, let others receive from you; it is fitting to serve if you wish to be served.

1193 It is fitting to honor if you wish to be honored; please others and they will please you.”

[Moral Proverbs]

The latter is an extension of the “do unto others what you want others done to you” [common Jesus’ logion among Christians], and vice versa as a Jewish Sage would put it, “don’t do unto others what you do not want others done to you,” both which are an outgrowth of “love thy neighbor as you love yourself” [Lev. 19:18]. This is the foreground of the very law we saw in the beginning, and according to the Jewish Sages, one of the two fundamental summaries of the whole Toráh.

But notice that De Carrión’s more specific stanza does not specify a one-to-one relationship. He is very ambiguous. “Others” can always be anyone, not just the person you have shown tokens of kindness. Which may mean that while the person to whom you might be kind to may not ever return to you the favor, there is always the hope and the possibility that someone else will, perhaps someone you’ve never known or done anything for him. Life is full of unexpected pleasant surprises.

We often mistake, I think, the expectation that to whomever we show kindness should also in kind return to you. And unfortunately in the history of human experience, this has hardly ever worked in such a way.

Fights, misunderstandings, separations, deafening silences and even death are the result of our expectations that never become realized from the very person you want and desire to show you love.

The Sages too warn us about this in the way we give, and to whom we give:

“Antigonos of Socho, who received the tradition from Simon the Just, used to say, be not like servants who serve their master with their thought of reward; but rather be like servants who serve their master without thought to reward, and let reverence for God be upon you.”

“Be cautious with those in political authority, for they draw a man only for their own ends, They wear the guise of friends when it profits them, but they stand not by man in the hour of his stress.” [PA 1:3 and 2:3]

Such giver person who might feel victimized as a result of no-reciprocity has only two choices. Either turn in the negative, or overcome into the positive. The first expression Carrión displays it in the following:

“1209 You cannot avoid, should you do a bad deed, ‘accidentally’ receiving the same.

1213 For know that you were not born to live apart; you did not come into the world to have special privileges.”

The preceding words to the golden rule “love thy neighbor etc.” found in Lev. 19 are very telling to this whole approach. These words are: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against thy children of thy people.” According to a commentary by Rabbi J.H. Hertz in the Soncino edition of the Ĥumash:

“The Rabbis give the following explanation of these two phrases: ‘If a man says, I will not lend you the tool you require, because you did not lend it to me when I asked for it – that is vengeance. If a man says, I will lend you the tool, although you refused to lend it when I asked for it – that is bearing a grudge.” (p. 502)

In other words, do not return the negative in kind, either in deed or attitude.

I am sure that most of us have heard stories of people who were good, and because of life’s trials, that very people turned ugly and misanthropic, often imitating the very indifference of those around them; I think this is the root of much misery, crime and moral decrepitude that transfers over and over across generations.

The two greatest tragedies on the Jewish people in the Modern Age, the Expulsion-Inquisition and the Holocaust, shows us two faces on how Jews have handled this terrible inhuman stress.

Sephardim experienced not only the rejection from a nation (Expulsion), but also the very denial of their religion and self-determination (Forced-Conversions/Inquisition). Yet in both instances, overall, the Sephardic Jew and the converso (Sephardic Jew forcibly converted to Christinianity) never turned into the ugly monster that Spain became towards them.

The Sephardic Jew until fairly recently had a romantic-melancholic longing about Spain. José Faur, descendant of Sephardic Exiles who went to reside to Syria, recounts the image of Spain that was transmitted by his grandfather:

“. . . my grandfather, Joseph Faur, would tell me tales about Sepharad (Jewish Spain and Portugal), the wisdom and splendor of its academies and sages, and the beautiful houses and gardens bursting with flowers, sun, and songs.” [In the Shadow of History, p. ix]

Most Sephardim until fairly recent kept Spanish (in Amsterdam, Portuguese) as their lingua franca, their every day language of communication and literature. And many were even up-to-date in the literature and cultural development of Spain itself.

In yet another context, Faur candidly says, “the memory preserved by the Sepharadí of the Iberian Peninsula is totally idyllic.”

In Spain, most Sephardi conversos, instead of turning into a political factional group (a fifth column), became among the most productive and loyal members of Spanish society, and also among its most fierce critics to Spanish misanthropy without recurring to self-victimization. Even during the struggle towards independence, key insurgents like Simón Bolivar and Miguel Hidalgo (both of Sephardi converso stock), while demanding political and economic autonomy from Spain, they still did not want to cut ties of brotherhood to the Spanish Crown. Their dream was to create a Federation of Hispanic States, in a parliamentary fashion, without the fierce centralization of the then Borbon dynasty. The fact that Spain is commonly mentioned as the Mother Country (la madre patria) by Hispanic-Americans proves this point.

(In contrast, the taditional U.S. citizen never refers to Britain as the “motherland”).

But why? Historians are at odds with this too. The Sephardi Jew does not present itself as a victim, nor seeks vengeance to the victimizer.

“One of the great dangers of anti-Semitism”–Faur continues–“is the « reciprocity » that could be established between the victim and the aggressor: as the aggressor, the victim can come to identify all his problems and misfortunes with the « adversary ». In this manner, both can evade their own responsibility.”

Psychologically speaking, reciprocity is adopting the system of the aggressor, therefore becoming the aggressor himself too. “As Pardo had very well noted, the German people impute the Jews the same slurs and abuses that were imputed on them as a consequence of the First World War. After the war, they were imputed « with the lowest crime of all, the worst crime one can imagine—to having cause the explosion of the War ». European nations described [the German people] « as men of second class, materialist driven, men without originality or genius, cruel men, barbarians, humanity’s copy-cats; these are the same accusations that you launch against us Jews».”

The Holocaust experience and all its aftermath, however, do not offer similar responses to the Sephardic experience.

To avoid the reciprocity victim/aggressor, the Jew turns to what I think is the humanly hardest parts of our ethical system in the sine-qua-non requirements for humility. Among the Gaonic material included as Pirqe Abot, we find:

“He is modest and patient, overlooking offence, for the Torah raises him and make him superior to all material concern.” [PA 6:1]

In Jewish Law, this is expressed in the following:

“General Rule: Be of the persecuted, not of the persecutors; be of the insulted, never those who insult. Every one who does according to these actions, and similar to these, about them is says the written: ‘My servant are you, O Israel, in whom I glorify Myself!’—Is 49:3.” [MT Sefer haMaddá, Hilekhót De‘ot 5: 28]

And rabbi Shem Tob de Carrión, probably expanding from this very principle, says:

“1025 A man can have no habit more praiseworthy than suffering hardship–but let him no receive it angrily and thus have to undergo suffering a second time.

1029 He who understood his suffering as a sign of [divine] disfavor, things turned out better for him in the end.”

For most of our masculine-geared civilizations, this Jewish ethic would be seen as having an almost stoic passive quality, one that would be most unacceptable and thrown as an outcast of the weak and effeminate who in the end will not survive.

Yet Judaism does not see this reaction as neither effeminate nor weak, but as a source of strength and upstanding behavior. In Latin cultures, this action–often connected to the feminine gender, particularly the mother figure–is called abnegación or abnegazione. That is, the quality to suffer with a stoic (silent and non-retaliatory), almost content, countenance. In the end, it means not to absorb the wrong and keep going forward in upstanding behavior with a kind and good disposition, regardless of the blows that life deals you.

Although being an inventory of Judaism’s most noble ethical aspirations for millennia, all these qualities of self-effacing humility, discreet charity, compassionate forgiveness and reciprocity were summarized, exemplefied and promoted as abnegazione by the quintessential Sephardic rabbi Sábato Morais (1823-1897), a Livornese rabbinic and renaissance-imbued scholar who came to make the United States his home and most fervent patriotic promoter of this country’s noble ideals, and perhaps the most celebrated religious figure in U.S. history. In the words of Penn State scholar Arthur Kiron:

“More specifically, there is one discernible clue in Morais’ life and writings which also figures prominently in the outlook of Benamozegh: the concept of abnegation, abnegazione in Italian, humilité (in French), ‘anavah (in Hebrew). For Morais the concept of abnegation contained several nuanced layers of religious and political, as well as personal meaning: selflessness, sacrifice, duty and service.” [Livornese Traces in American Jewish History, p. 47]

In his inaugural Sabbath derasháh (homiletic) on March 21, 1851, Morais himself would put it as follows,

“True worship resides in the heart, and truly it is by purifying our hearts that we best worship God; still, the ordinances [mitsvot] which we are enjoined [commanded] to perform aim but at this object: to sanctify our immortal soul, to make it worthy of its sublime origin … We must also be on our guard lest the essential should become secondary; we must take heed not to confound true devotion with false piety. [True worship] is simple, modest, it does not strive to attract the attention of men, but like the devoted Hannah, it speaks with the heart, the lips move and the voice is scarcely audible. [False piety] is clamorous, affected, full of ostentation.” [Ibidem, p. 58]

Salvatore De Benedetti would express the following of Samuel Morais, Sábato’s father, “[H]is was a real abnegation, the exercise of virtue illumined by an acute sense of duty, not something done in the hope of reward (‘Pero fu vera abnegazione la sua, esercizio di virtu per istinto e coscienza del dovere, non per isperanza di prerruo’).” [Ibidem, p. 54]

So how can all this show in real life?

Once, news came to me of a person who was in the midst of two dilemmas. One had to do with his friends, another with his work place.

The person, Fulano, had two friends to whom he showed tokens of help whenever they needed him. Fulano never said no to the first friend when came asking for help, the second friend always kept making promises he would turn in kind, yet never did. It came a time when Fulano needed the help of his friends. None of them ever responded or even showed interest, and always made-up excuses.

Yet another time, again, the two friends of Fulano again asked for help. What should Fulano do? Imitate the indifference of his so-called friends or help them?

The second dilemma of Fulano, this time at the work place, was even more delicate as it could mean the loss of his livelihood. Fulano served his boss, Sutano, with the same expediency and loyalty he would show to his friends, even doing things that were not part of his job description. Sutano was a demanding boss that wanted things done a certain way, and made no qualms about calling stern attention to Fulano should he made a mistake. But Sutano neither held back any orders that officially Fulano was not supposed to do.

One day, Fulano needed a day off, very important and urgent to him. Sutano denied the request. What should Fulano do? Quit being the loyal and servicing worker he has always being? Quit and never be the same, as goodness never pays off?

Through our lives, all of us are faced with challenging decisions. Sometimes, these have to do with blows that deeply affect us emotionally, often when the source of these blows show carelessness for our well-being, even though we hold the people perpetrating the blow in great esteem and respect. Some people would advice Fulano to quit the friends and the boss acting in such way, and move on.

Yet, Fulano decides to the contrary. He does not want to identify with the indifference nor the tyranny. For the moment, he decides to stoically accept such fate and “not return the favor”, sort of speak. As in Jewish ethics, he does not take vengeance or bare a grudge; while this may seem to the Macho mentality as passive and weak, in reality it takes a whole of psychological strength in preventing, at least for most of us, instinctive reactions of grudge and vengeance.

But in the process, he has to be careful. According to Shem Tob:

“489 If a man is mild, they will drink him up like water; and if he tastes bitter, they will all spit him out.

493 If only to protect himself from cunning men, he should often vary his habits.

517 Today ferocious, tomorrow gentle; today humble, tomorrow proud; today generous, tomorrow stingy; today on a hill, tomorrow on a plain;

529 It is unbefitting to act the same with everyone; rather, [one must react] to some with good and to others with evil.

537 [One must] take the least amount of evil and the greatest amount of good: this is befitting to all, bad and good.

541 To honor the good man for his goodness is excellent; and a bad man [too], to be protected from his evil.

553 Thus, it is not fitting to be humble toward everyone; but [rather be] today fast, tomorrow slow, at times bad, at times good.”

This is an echo of Maimonides’ codification in the Laws of Behavior (2:6) , where he refers to brash outward behavior, while remaining calm inside, in the venues of providing corrective measurements to an individual or community.

The balancing play of humbleness and silence–key aspects of abnegazione–in Jewish ethics is a careful orchestration against succumbing to evil, and at the same time abuse; but without ever becoming or absorbing the same evil and imitating the same abuse.

A modern society that takes into consideration the fallen and less fortunate as a matter of individual and communal legal duty–without the thought of profit (physical or political)–has yet to come to existence. To find a single human being capable of the entire loving human potential for which he was created is hard to find or muster. At one point in one’s life, one cannot avoid the desire of expectation for what one has done for others in the general or in the particular, no matter how small this may be. Goodness for goodness sake is a hard task to master in its purest unattached form.

Even Moses, a man who in our tradition is described as exceedingly humble and who worked extremely hard to lead a largely complaining and difficult people, pleaded tirelessly to God to receive his reward promised to his forefathers, to enter the Holy Land. The tragedy, from our perspective, is that he never did.

But neither position should make us quit from trying. These should not be impediments from trying to reaching our altruistic potential, as Moses did.

What do you think?

I thank my friend Uriel Hernández-Abarbanel for raising such an important point, one that prompted me to write the present article.



Ed. Cohen, A. The Soncino Chumash; the five books of Moses with Haphtaroth; Hebrew text and English translation with an exposition based on the classical Jewish commentaries. Hindhead, Surrey: Soncino Press, 1947.

De Sola Pool, David. “Saying of the Fathers (Pirqe Abot).” Book of Prayer: According to the Custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. New York: Union of Sephardic Congregations 1974.

Faur, José. “Antisemitismo en la mente sefaradí.” La Rassegna Mensile di Israel terza serie, Vol. 49, No. 5/8, La Cultura Sefardita (Maggio-Giugno-Luglio-Agosto 1983), pp. 394-418. Published by: Unione delle Comunitá Ebraiche Italiane. All translations into English are mine.

Faur, José. In the Shadow of History: Jews and conversos at the Dawn of Modernity. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Kiron, Arthur. “Livornese Traces in American Jewish History: Sabato Morais and Elia Benamozegh.” In Per Elia Benamozegh. Ed. Alessandro Guetta. Edizioni Thalassa De Paz, 2001.

Maimonides, Moses. “The Laws of Behavior (דֵּעוֹת הִלְכּוֹת)”. Web. 2012. My translation from the Portuguese.

Perry, Theodore Anthony. The moral proverbs of Santob de Carrión: Jewish wisdom in Christian Spain. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

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