Slowness to Anger - Middah Erech Apayim

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Erech Apayim translates as "Slowness to anger." The word erech comes from the Hebrew root aleph-reish-chaf, which means "to lengthen" or "to stretch." The word apayim comes from the Hebrew word aph, aleph-fey, which means "anger."

"Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools!" (Ecclesiastes 7,9)

Our text comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes, known as Kohelet (preacher) in Hebrew. The authorship of this book of the Hebrew Bible has been traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. It gives us a very clear message about this week's middah, erech apayim. Just as it is necessary to control one's words, it is also important to control one's emotions. A person who loses his or her temper quickly and becomes angry tends to hold onto that anger and is considered a fool! Notice that we are not told that it is wrong to feel angry or to express that anger - only that we must have control over our anger. The Talmud adds to this understanding by suggesting that "if a clever man is angry, his wisdom quits him." (Talmud, Nedarim 22b)

In a commentary written about this middah, we read why erech apayim (slowness to anger) is considered one of the 48 virtues.

"Calm, persevering patience is generally a virtue, but especially so for Torah study, for anger causes errors in judgment and leads one to forget one's learning." (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.416)

This middah is first mentioned in the Torah as one of the attributes of God:

"Adonai, Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin." (Exodus 34:6)

Rabbi Susan Freeman suggests that if we are created in the image of God, and God is slow to anger, then we, too, should strive to be slow to anger. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, Freeman p.86)

In Pirkei Avot, we learn that there are four kinds of temper: there is the person easy to provoke and easy to appease—the loss is cancelled by the gain; hard to provoke and hard to appease—the gain is cancelled by the loss; easy to provoke and hard to appease—that person is wicked; hard to provoke and easy to appease—that person is saintly. (Avot 5,11) Once again, there is an assumption in this passage that everyone loses his or her temper and becomes angry on occasion. It is the degree to which one is able to control one's temper that makes all the difference.

To Talk About

  1. In the Book of Proverbs, we find the following quotation about anger: "Better to be slow to anger than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city. (Proverbs 16:32) What does this teach us about the biblical view of anger in relation to power, and to possessions? Do you think that most people would agree or disagree with this statement? Why? Or why not?
  2. The great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, wrote that it is wrong for a person never to feel annoyance, for such a person is akin to a corpse. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development, 1:4) Compare Maimonides' view of anger with that of Ecclesiastes. Do you think that Maimonides would agree or disagree with the text from Ecclesiastes? Why? Do you think that Maimonides would agree that erech apayim is one of the middot necessary to acquire Torah? Why or why not?
  3. Reread the quotation from Pirket Avot about the four kinds of temper. Which kind of temper do you think you have? Think about a situation that might provoke anger. An example might be that someone has taken one of your belongings without permission. Ask participants to role-play one of the four kinds of temper and to respond to the imaginary situation accordingly.
  4. The Book of Numbers describes an episode in which Moses becomes enraged at the Israelites' constant whining about their lack of water. God directs Moses to speak to a large rock, which will then yield water. But Moses instead hits the rock, shouting, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" (Numbers 20:10) Because of his angry outburst, Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. Can you think of something that you have said in anger that you now regret?
  5. "Slowness to anger results in much understanding; impatience brings about folly." (Proverbs 14:17) Explain the meaning of this proverb in your own words. Share an example in your own life when this statement applied to you.

To Do
A medieval Jewish text known as Reishit Chochmah (The Beginning of Wisdom) suggests a simple technique for those who can't seem to control their anger: "Decide on a sum of money that you will give away if you allow yourself to lose your temper. Be sure that the amount you designate is sufficient to force you to think twice before you lose your temper." Over the next month, every time you express anger that is out of proportion to the incident, make a donation to charity. As Reishit Chochmah notes, the sum has to be enough to inhibit you, and should be over and above the amount of tzedakah you would normally give. (Adapted from The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)