The Secret Jewish Technique to Defeat Anger
Illustration: Elderly Man Prays At The Kotel In Jerusalem by U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Mikhail Berlin [Public Domain]
Is it possible to overcome anger and be free of its clutches? Everyone faces this challenge in moments of their lives at some level. Anger’s primal burning pulse, often amplified by blinding justifications, entraps the senses and — if we are not careful — can control our actions with destructive results.
The Jewish sages (Chazal) considered anger to be like a foreign god, which one has allowed into the heart to then serve idolatrously. In the Gemara they taught (Shabbat 105b):
“One who rends his garments in his anger, or who breaks his vessels in his anger, or who scatters his money in his anger, should be like an idol worshiper in your eyes, as that is the craft of the evil inclination… What verse alludes to this? ‘There shall not be a strange god within you, and you shall not bow to a foreign god’ (Psalms 81:10). What is the strange god that is within a person’s body? Say that it is the evil inclination.”
Commenting on this teaching, the Rambam warned against becoming accustomed to the trait of anger, advising “do not be easy to anger” (Rambam on Pirkei Avot 2:10:1). The Chafetz Chaim provided one of the best explanations of the dangers of anger in his work Shemirat Ha’Lashon (Book 1, 13:3-6), noting the teaching that even the Divine Presence (Shechina) is meaningless for one who is angry, and stating that such a person is hopeless “unless he sees to it to uproot this evil trait from himself.”
But how do you remove anger from your heart, particularly after it has gained a strong foothold? Fortunately for men and women today, the Jewish scholars have bequeathed several largely unknown techniques to succeed in this constant battle.
The Arizal’s Technique
The famous Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Arizal, taught a secret tikkun (repair) for the trait of anger that was recorded by his student Rabbi Chaim Vital in Pri Etz Chaim (Gate of the Recitation of the Shema 26:3).
The Arizal elucidated that the words “corner” (כנף, kanaf) and “anger” (כעס, ka’as) share the same value of 150 according to the Hebrew numerical system of gematriya. The divine name Ehyeh spelled out with the letter hey (אל”ף ה”ה יו”ד ה”ה) equals this same value of 150 plus one, which is a standard technique of revealing connections in gematriya. Furthermore, the value of the word “corner” multiplied by four, representing the four corners of the tzitzit (ritual knotted fringes), equals 600 — which is exactly the value of the word tzitzit (ציצית).
Based on these connections, the Arizal explained his special technique to combat anger as follows, originated for men who pray in the morning wearing a tallit:
During the morning recitation of the Shema, when Jews accept the yoke of Heaven on themselves, you hold the four tzitzit to your chest near the heart, as at this time kindness and benevolence (חסדים, chasadim) are revealed there. You should have the intent of “sweetening” your anger — which is the numerical equivalent of “corner” — with the trait of kindness that emanates from your heart when the four corners of the tzitzit are held against it.
Armed with this secret technique and intention, you can begin your day in the Shacharit morning prayers from a place of conquering your anger and holding it at bay. This can significantly increase the chances of successfully combating this destructive trait throughout the day.
The Shelah’s Method
But what can be done during the course of the day, when the vagaries of life present particularly strong challenges causing you to lose this morning intent? For such cases, an adaptation of the Arizal’s technique exists that can be used at all times of the day, whenever anger rears its head.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his work Shnei Luchot Habrit (Aseret Ha’Dibrot, Tractate Yoma, Derekh Chaim, 89) from which he obtained his moniker the Shelah, revealed this modified technique, for those wearing tzitzit:
“And I have found in the books of the Arizal [that] to remove anger it is good at the time of anger to have an intention of the name Ehyeh [written] with the letter hey — אל”ף ה”ה יו”ד ה”ה — which is equal to the word ‘anger’ (ka’as). And I say, it is also good to do an action that negates him from the anger; in other words, he should hold the corner of his clothing with the tzitzit that hang from the corner. For ‘corner’ (kanaf) is equal to ‘anger’ (ka’as), and a strange god enters the heart of one who is angry. And tzitzit cause the Divine Presence to dwell, as it is written: ‘That shall be your fringe; look at it (can also be read as “look at Him,” i.e., G-d — Ed.)’ (Numbers 15:39).”
From the Shelah we learn that the Arizal’s mention of the divine name Ehyeh contained a meditation that can be implemented at all times; namely, focusing on the name Ehyeh to conquer “anger,” which has an equivalent value in gematriya as mentioned above — although Ehyeh’s value is greater by one, indicating the One true G-d. This intent can return your heart and mind to G-d when the “foreign god” of anger strives to control them.
In perhaps a more practical implementation, the Shelah also outlined a modified physical technique to “negate anger” based on the Arizal’s secret teaching on the tzitzit during the recitation of the Shema. In the Shelah’s method, you overcome bursts of anger simply by holding a corner of the tallit katan that is worn at all times, whenever you feel anger growing inside. It stands to reason that grasping the front left corner of the tzitzit with the left hand would be most effective, given the more direct connection of the left hand to the heart that is generally on the left side of the chest.
On a mystical level, the left hand represents the trait of gevurah, or strength, which limits and focuses. Thus you create a physical manifestation of the trait of strength holding and constraining the trait of “anger,” which is equivalent in gematriya to the “corner” in your hand. This action stems from the heart on the left side of the chest, from which benevolence (chasadim) emanates when employing the technique by the Arizal as detailed above.
The combination of physical action and the consequent mental focus generated by it can pull you out of the spiral of rage, negating the “foreign god” and reinstating the Divine Presence to appear before your eyes and guide your actions. Ultimately this is the explicit goal of the commandment (mitzvah) to wear tzitzit, as G-d said (Numbers 15:39-40):
“That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d.”
Ingathering From the “Four Corners” of Exile
This practical technique can help you gain the upper hand on anger. But in order for it to have a true long-lasting effect, it is important to grasp the deeper spiritual implications of the Arizal’s teachings about overcoming anger while holding the four corners of the tzitzit.
In the Shacharit morning prayers, we gather the “four corners” of the tzitzit while supplicating G-d to speedily bring us from the “four corners” of the earth to our Holy Land of Israel. Afterwards, during the recitation of the Torah passage containing the commandment to wear tzitzit on the “corners” of our garments — at which point we kiss the tzitzit and gaze upon them — we are to fulfill the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the ingathering of the first exile (galut).
In both of these actions with regards to the tzitzit that are the core of the Arizal’s technique, the concept of ingathering from exile figures prominently. This theme is highlighted again shortly afterwards in the prayer for the ingathering of the exiles from the “four corners” of the earth, which is recited during the Amidah standing prayer.
Clearly there is a parallel between the ingathering from the four corners of the earth to the sanctity of the Holy Land where the Divine Presence rests, and the gathering of the four corners of the tzitzit to the heart in order to strengthen the connection to the Divine Presence.
This parallel goes deeper, because like one who submits to the “foreign god” of anger, the Jew in exile is also said to be like one who is engaged in idolatry. As the sages said, “Anyone who resides outside of the Land of Israel is considered as though he is engaged in idol worship” (Ketubot 110b). Just as exile represents a physical distancing from the place of connection to the Divine Presence and living under foreign rule instead, anger creates a spiritual distancing from the seat of one’s connection to G-d, allowing a “foreign god” to reside in their heart in His place.
Just as there is a commandment to conquer the Land of Israel and end the exile, as clarified by the Ramban (Hasagot Ha’Ramban on Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandments Omitted by Rambam 4), similarly one must defeat anger.
This is done by gathering in the corners of the tzitzit with the trait of compassion overcoming anger, just as G-d gathers in the Jews from the four corners of the world with His mercy overcoming His wrath and anger, as it were. In other words, in His interaction with the world, G-d gives the attribute of benevolence and forgiveness prominence over the attribute of justice, which would demand that the punishment of exile continue given our continued sins.
From Corners to Horns
Another parallel exists to the Arizal’s technique: Just as you hold the four corners of the tzitzit in order to be saved from the blight of anger, in a case of unintentional manslaughter one can hold onto one of the four horns of the altar for sanctuary from a blood redeemer.
This halakha (Jewish law) is derived from Exodus 21:14 and Kings I 2:28, where we learn that intentional murderers are not spared even when they are holding the horns of the altar. Inferring from this, unintentional killers who grasp the horns are given sanctuary, as elucidated by the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Murderer and the Preservation of Life, 5:12-14) who explained the horns of the altar are considered like a city of refuge.
As in the parallel to the ingathering from the exile, the Arizal’s technique shares a connection to the refuge at the altar on a deeper level. Anger is compared to idolatry, which is one of the three cardinal sins in Judaism — as is murder. Just as a person who succumbed to anger had no conscious intent to commit idolatry by becoming a vehicle for the “foreign god” of rage, the person who unintentionally kills another had no intent to commit murder.
Anger can unintentionally lead to all kinds of destructive results even including murder, G-d forbid, and can also cause other people to seek revenge for your actions that were taken under the influence of anger. But even if anger does not lead to physical murder, ultimately it murders your soul — as it were — by robbing you of a positive outlook on the world around you that is abundant with G-d’s blessings, eventually relegating you to a bitter shell of your former rich spiritual self. In this way anger is a form of self-murder, although it is unintentional as one who is angry does not have this in mind.
But as long as this anger was not intentional and you simply let it get the better of you without struggling hard enough to fight it off, then it is similar to unintentional murder without intent to kill — and there is a chance of redemption.
By grasping one of the four corners of the tzitzit — which is like one of the four horns of the altar that is within arm’s reach at all times — you can flee to your "city of refuge" and take sanctuary from your anger and its disastrous results. In doing so you turn the tzitzit that cover you — and in essence, turn yourself — into an altar, a place of worship of the One true G-d. Thus you banish the “foreign god” of anger and purify your altar of self into a fitting site for divine service, just as the altar in the Temple was purified for ritual service.
The Rambam’s Technique: Suppression
The Arizal’s technique, and particularly the Shelah’s modified version of it, is highly useful in combating oncoming bouts of anger and redirecting yourself, thereby taking control of anger in its most salient and volatile moments of materialization. The aforementioned symbolic and spiritual insights into the technique likewise heighten its potency.
However, truly affecting a deep change in your inherent nature requires a comprehensive approach that deals not only with the symptoms of localized behavior, but also with the underlying character traits that fuel them. This is similar to treating an illness: Medications and external interventions can help block flare-ups and even be life-saving in times of crisis, but when properly implemented, a holistic approach of analyzing and altering your lifestyle and diet can banish an ailment in a way that no band-aid solution ever can.
This is an important concept particularly given an additional significant limitation of the Arizal’s technique, namely that it is not of much use for those who do not wear tzitzit, in particular women.
Fortunately, there is another Jewish teaching on how to implement a more fundamental change in dealing with anger by comprehensively working on your traits.
A version of this approach was introduced by the Rambam in his Halakhic work Mishneh Torah, in which he wrote that one must counter bad traits such as anger by suppressing feelings of insult and humiliation, and after doing this for a while a balance will be reached:
“He who is of a hot temperament should be taught to demean himself this way: If he be smitten and cursed, he must not feel the insult at all, and follow this way a long time until anger will be completely rooted out from his heart.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 2:2)
Uprooting sensitivity to insult certainly can limit bouts of anger. However, the Rambam’s technique raises several points of concern. The implementation of this apparent “turn the other cheek” approach may not lead to the “middle-way” as the Rambam suggests in his writing there, since there is no side opposite anger between which one could find a middle ground. Rather, he appears to suggest a mid-point between anger and emotional self-negation, moving in the direction of a deadening of the emotions — which in psychological terms is known as suppression.
Accepting all physical and verbal assault risks inculcating a sense of worthlessness, potentially leading to depression and despair. This risk is also highlighted in the Rambam’s advice vis-à-vis the trait of haughtiness in that same passage, where he urges the arrogant to subject themselves to a life of “extreme self-abasement,” dressing in rags and causing themselves shame in order to overcome the negative trait.
The practicality of whether people can actually implement such self-abuse and benefit from it, without quitting the practice or despairing first, is questionable. But on a more basic level, this approach of forcing yourself to “not feel” seems to contradict an important concept in Judaism.
“And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh,” says the prophet (Yechezkel 36:26). This verse highlights the value of being impressionable and attentive to G-d’s word, and by extension, to the world around us through which He communicates with us.
Anger can be said to be the product of a “heart of stone,” in that your rage makes you insensitive as a rock to the intentions, motivations, and limitations of others, judging them harshly and disconnecting from them. But the Rambam’s technique also appears to cultivate an unfeeling “heart of stone,” developing a cool indifference not only to the words and actions of others — their “smiting and cursing” — but also to your own emotions, for as the Rambam says, “he must not feel.”
From Yechezkel’s prophecy we learn that what G-d desires for us is a “heart of flesh,” a sensitive and complete repertoire of human emotions through which you connect with G-d and His world that He placed us in. We are commanded to love G-d “with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and in his commentary on the verse, Rashi cites the Jewish sages’ teaching that this means we are to love and serve G-d with all of our positive and negative inclinations and emotions, as derived from the duplication of the letter bet (whose value is 2 in gematriya) in the word “heart.”
This indicates our task is to channel all of our traits and emotions to a positive use in serving G-d. We must replace our “heart of stone” with a “heart of flesh,” tempering the trait of anger — or tempering our temper as it were — in order to balance and control our emotional existence, not to diminish or negate it. But how does one do that?
The Vilna Gaon’s Technique: Flipping One’s Traits
Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo, known as the Vilna Gaon or the Gra, taught a powerful and unique approach with some similarities to the Rambam’s but one critical difference. Instead of overcoming a negative trait through self-negation — in other words, suppression — the Vilna Gaon’s technique defeats negative traits by striving for the opposite positive extreme trait. In this way, you perfect your soul by countering negative traits with their opposites in order to reach a balance.
In his commentary on Song of Songs 1:5, the Vilna Gaon specifically mentions anger and teaches:
“The traits are on the outside, they are like a garment for the commandments, and they are the essence of the Torah, as it is said, whoever is angry is like one who engages in idolatry (Shabbat 105b), and whoever is proud etc. [‘Any person who has arrogance within him is considered as if he were an idol worshiper’ (Sotah 4b)]; and they are not written in the Torah [explicitly], because they are the basic rules of the Torah… Whoever wishes to conquer any lesser trait — it is necessary that he incline himself to the opposite extreme, such as from anger he needs compassion, and from pride to humility, and afterwards he will come to the middle path [between the two extreme traits], and this is as it is stated, ‘Who is a Torah scholar… one who knows to flip his garment’ (Shabbat 114a), and they [the garments] are [his traits], as it is said, ‘He shall dress in his linen garment (mido)’ (Leviticus 6:3), and [the sages] said, ‘His garment (mido) according to his measurement (midato; can also be read as “His garment is as his trait” — Ed.)’ (Yoma 23b), and he will place it according to his path as it needs to be; in other words, on the middle path [between the two extreme traits].”
From the Vilna Gaon’s words we learn his approach of “flipping one’s traits.” Whoever wishes to overcome anger must adhere to the opposite positive trait of compassion, and only after consciously striving towards this opposite extreme will they be able to truly escape anger’s control once and for all, finding a proper balance in “the middle path.”
Unlike the Rambam’s “middle-way” between a negative trait and repression, this way provides a positive alternative to build towards, and eventually a middle ground between two contradictory traits in which each finds appropriate measured expression.
In his book Even Shlemah (1:3), the Vilna Gaon is even more specific in detailing how exactly to go towards the opposite extreme:
“One should not skip at once to the opposite extreme, [rather] one should simply go slowly by degrees; afterwards he will stand at the medium point [between the extreme traits] according to the Torah, until it will truly be as his nature. For if he goes according to the medium path to begin with, he will go back and deviate from it, G-d forbid, for his inclination has already overcome him on that path.”
While you must aim for the opposite extreme — since anything less would not be drastic enough of a change to uproot your already ingrained negative trait — the Vilna Gaon makes clear that this transition must be taken as part of a process, and not all in one go. Doing so allows the change to sink in and influence your very nature at the core level.
The Vilna Gaon advocates having patience and going “slowly by degrees,” indicating that you should take gradual concrete steps in moving towards the opposite trait of compassion to counterbalance anger. These steps can be tailored to your individual circumstances. They may involve general actions such as seeking opportunities to help others in need, volunteering for charitable causes, and donating to the needy.
More specifically regarding anger, these steps might include making conscious efforts to view those who upset you with greater understanding and compassion, not shouting or raising your voice even when provoked, and intentionally doing kind acts to people you are having trouble getting along with. The main thing is to build this positive trait of compassion, and distance yourself from the opposite trait of anger and hostility to others.
The “War Room” of Compassion
One final thought bears consideration in the constant war against the destructive trait of anger. According to the Vilna Gaon, the opposite trait of anger that you must strive for is compassion, which is chemlah (חמלה) in Hebrew. By embracing compassion, it is possible to weaken anger and find a balance in these traits.
In modern Hebrew, there is an abbreviation chamal (חמ”ל) that is composed of the same letters as the shoresh (word root) of compassion (chemlah). Chamal literally means “war room” (חדר מלחמה), and refers to the operations room in the army where reports from the front are fielded and the various forces are coordinated and directed in carrying out their mission.
In waging war on anger, you should keep in mind the intention that you are directing your emotions, traits, and spiritual forces with your inner war room (chamal), which is guided by the trait of compassion (chemlah). By correctly managing these forces in the chamal of chemlah, it is possible to defeat the enemy that is anger, likened to a “foreign god” seeking to conquer and take root in your heart, expelling G-d’s presence. This was noted by the Chafetz Chaim as cited above, when he quoted the Jewish sages as saying: “If one gets angry, even the Divine Presence is meaningless to him.”
This is a constant battle of spiritual life and death, and whoever guides their forces wisely is assured victory over anger, as they will protect and maintain their heart as an actual dwelling place for the Divine Presence.
While such an achievement may seem like hyperbole, it is indeed possible. We learn from the sages that the Jewish Patriarchs reached this wondrous spiritual level, becoming as chariots for G-d in His world (Bereshit Rabah 82:6):
“‘G-d arose from him’ (Gen. 35:13) — Reish Lakish said the Patriarchs were themselves the chariot (merkava), as it was said: ‘G-d arose from Avraham’ (Gen. 17:22); ‘G-d arose from him’ (Gen. 35:13); ‘And the Lord was standing (nitzav, נִצָּב) on him’ (Gen. 28:13); ‘And Ya’akov set up a pillar (matzevah, מַצֵּבָה) etc. [at the site where He had spoken to him, a pillar of stone,] and he offered a libation on it and poured oil upon it’ (Gen. 35:14) (according to Reish Lakish’s interpretation this could be read as: “And He (G-d) set Ya’akov [as] a pillar... and He (G-d) offered a libation on it and poured oil upon it” — Ed.) — with the entire mouth of the cruse.”