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Behaalotacha: A Variety of Enemies ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Updated: Nov 4, 2022



The Torah mentions a special prayer which Moshe would say when the Ark of the Covenant would begin to travel (we say this prayer when taking Torah Scrolls out of their ark). He would say, “Arise G-d, and let Your enemies (oyvecha) be scattered, and Your enemies (sonecha) shall flee from before You” (Num. 10:35). In this passage, the Torah uses two different words to mean enemy: oyev and soneh. As we know, the Hebrew language is intrinsically holy and each word carries its own nuanced explanation; no two words can mean the exact same thing. What, then, is the difference between these two words which both seem to mean “enemy”?

The word oyev denotes an enemy who actively tries to harm his victim—or at least contemplates doing so. The Malbim explains that even if the oyev does not attempt to actively damage the victim of his hatred, he will not withhold his joy if such misfortune would befall him because he has already at least actively imagined causing such harm to the object of his enmity.

The word soneh, on the other hand, is derived from the root sinah, which means “hatred”. Instead of “enemy”, a more accurate translation of soneh can be “a hater”. His hatred remains internal and is not outwardly expressed. This word appears in another context: “Do not hate (soneh) your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17), even sheer hatred of a fellow Jew is forbidden, whether or not that static hatred turns kinetic. The hater’s attitude cannot be discerned by what he does, rather by what he does not do. Accordingly, when the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 3:5) rules that a “hater” is disqualified from giving testimony about someone whom he hates, it defines a “hater” as someone who has not spoken to his friend out of spite for three days. His hatred is only manifested outwards by his lack of action, not by a proactive negative deed. Thus, the soneh is an enemy whose hatred remains in the realm of the theoretical, while an oyev is an enemy who tries to act upon his hatred.

The Vilna Gaon offers a slightly different approach. He explains that an oyev is an enemy who wishes to hurt his victim’s physical existence (e.g. to physically damage his body or cause him to lose his money), while a soneh is one who wishes to hurt his victim’s spiritual existence (e.g., he wishes to cause his victim to stray from the path of G-d). While it might seem counter-intuitive, the Vilna Gaon teaches that the soneh is a more dangerous enemy than an oyev because he poses a risk to one’s spiritual well-being.

There is a third word for enemy: tzar. The commentators explain that while an oyev is an enemy who tries to harm his victim, he still attempts to hide his hatred beneath a façade of empathy. So, the oyev, like the soneh, is not an overt enemy, but a clandestine enemy. Conversely, the tzar hates his victim with such great passion, that he overtly tries to harm him, even willing to sacrifice his own reputation or exhaust his own resources in doing so. For example, Haman, the infamous villain of the book of Esther is described as a tzorer of the Jews (Est. 9:10.

Malbim explains that the oyev of G-d is one who actively denies His existence and opposes His G-dliness. A soneh of G-d, it would seem, does so only in heart, but not in practice. Thus, in his special prayer at the time that the Ark would travel, Moshe would pray that G-d vanquish both types of His enemies and allow His glory to continue spreading unimpeded.

R. Moshe Shapiro (d. 2017) explains that the level of an oyev’s opposition different from that of the soneh. The oyev simply detests the object of his enmity such that he refuses to have anything to do with him and seeks to sever any preexisting connection with him. The soneh on the other hand does not simply want to cut himself off of the recipient of his hatred, but the very existence of that party bothers him to no end.


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