Elijah the Thin-Skinned

“A bashful person cannot learn, nor can a kapdan teach.”
Pirke Avot 2:6

A wise psychiatrist pal once told me, “The only people I can’t treat are the hyper-defensives.”

Everyone knows a “hyper-defensive.” They’re easily offended, ready to be outraged at the slightest hint of personal affront so you walk on eggshells around them. They think your most innocent comment or suggestion is a critique aimed at them, and you never know what’s going to set them off. They are too busy protecting themselves or scanning the environment for attack to be sensitive to others. And if you do set them off, get ready to be attacked.

Remarkably, Elijah, one of the most revered Jewish figures, was one. At least, that’s the way the Talmud presents him in the very last page of Sanhedrin.

King Ahab spreads idolatry through Israel. The outraged prophet Elijah vows to punish Ahab by withholding rain.[1] In the Talmud’s re-telling of the story from I Kings, God gives Elijah the power to make good on his pledge by granting him control of rain, one of the three “keys” to the cosmos that only God holds and has never loaned to any other agent, human or angel.[2] But He has made an exception just this once because He wants to back up his prophet Elijah, who has put God on the hook. Elijah immediately uses the key to create a drought. But drying up the rain afflicts everyone. So, “Since God saw that there is suffering in the world and Elijah was insensitive to it,” God sends Elijah off to Zarephath so he has to return the key.[3]

Yosei of Tzipporah extracts a lesson from the tale while trying to be deferential to the mighty prophet. “Father Elijah,” he taught, “was difficult.” The word he uses in his diagnosis is kapdan [קפדן], a beautiful and strange term meaning both too thin-skinned and aroused to anger.[4] The English word umbrage (from the Latin umbra – ‘shadow’) comes closest to capturing this sense of a specific anger caused by the shadows of real injury or slights.

In a lovely tale (aggadah), the Talmud then tells us that Elijah would come to R. Yosei every day. In one of these visitations, presumably right after R. Yosei renders his sermon, Elijah arrives in a peeve, miffed that R Yosei accused him of being easily miffed, of course proving the point at the same time he denies it. R. Yosei has punched his button. It’s a great ironic passage, illustrating the tar-baby tangle of trying to deal with a hyper-defensive that I leave to psychiatrists to unknot in all its nuances and paradoxical blindness.

Talmud doesn’t usually follow a recognizable Western idea of narrative logic and shape. Those of us who had a secular education filled with classic narratives plunged into the great river of Talmud are likely to see it – before we find its decidedly non-Western narrative logic – as a digressive, associative stream of loose connections. What strikes me here, though, is this last tale of the soaring volume of Sanhedrin is so fitting and artful a finale.

Sanhedrin is devoted to justice. Much of Sanhedrin, maybe most of the Talmud, is devoted to the measured, well-reasoned application of the Torah’s law to circumstances, and in doing so tempers and restrains vindictive and punitive instincts.

The other occurrence of this episode and the word קפדן in another volume of the Talmud illustrates the point.[5]  In that passage, R. Eliezer, a student of the famously strict Shammai, holds that judges are required to be a kapdan (exacting). Elijah acted exactly as he should have when he got the key to rain. On the other hand, R. Akiva, a student of the famously lenient Hillel, says that one should always act with humility, avoiding anger and cultivating empathy. Judges should be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.[6] Rambam the Medieval doctor’s practice obviously included healing mind and body. He is particularly keen on the weakness and intemperance of the kapdan. He counsels mercy as a spiritual practice, a kind of therapy where halacha meets self-help:

“It is forbidden to be cruel and to refuse to be appeased. Rather, one must be easy to appease and difficult to anger. When the sinner asks forgiveness, the hurt party should forgive with all his heart and desire. Even if the person sinned greatly, the victim should not bear a grudge or take vengeance.” [7]

The story of Elijah and his misuse of the divine key to rain is a fitting and literary conclusion to this volume about human vs divine justice, retribution, and mercy. Elijah’s abuse of his power to pass judgment and punishment contrasts with God’s mercy and sensitivity. It signals that the sages of the Talmud were keenly aware of the pitfalls of interpreting what’s in God’s mind – playing the game of Divine Telepathy – when rendering judgment that affects real people. The story of the thin-skinned Elijah is a cautionary tale of what happens when mere mortals, angry, thin-skinned and vengeful, are given the keys to enacting divine justice on Earth. King Ahab, the avatar of evil weakness, deserves every punishment imaginable. Yet Elijah, one the greatest of humans, the mighty prophet who will usher in the Messianic age, is comically human in prosecuting him. He takes things too personally to stay dispassionate.

Sanhedrin up to this point considers how to punish other evils: criminals subject to beheading, stoning, burning and strangling, the irredeemably wicked son, the entire subverted city that has turned to idolatry, the heretic. They are all theoretically supposed to be terminated with extreme prejudice. But how can mortals, even the superior judges of the Sanhedrin, prosecute the greatest evils if even Elijah fails? No wonder there is no record of these punishments carried out. That calculus is ultimately decided in Heaven.


With thanks to R Feldman and my classmates in his Talmud shiur for seven glorious, inspiring, mind-blowing and all-too-short years of learning Sanhedrin

[1] I Kings 17:1

[2] The three keys are the powers to conceive life, to control rain and to resurrect the dead.  God gets the key back from Elijah by giving him a second key, revival of the dead, when Elijah revives the boy in the next scene of I Kings.  The Talmud explains that it would be absurd that “one student got two keys” at the same time.

[3] Sanhedrin 113a

[4] The etymology of the word is uncertain. The Grammar of Modern Hebrew (Lewis Glinert Cambridge UP: 1989 – p. 488) defines kapdan קפדן as “fussy” as in “overly-meticulous,’ but offers no origin. When I was at the Technion in 1993-4, I edited a book with about using precise language as a route to peace. But perhaps because I stared at the word too long, it seems it could be a sly, self-reflexive allusion to Sanhedrin itself. The word is a compound of (kap) and judgement (din) or a mashup of קפד (a gathering in Biblical Hebrew) and דן (judgment). The Sanhedrin was a gathering of chief (head) judges.

[5] Yoma 75. http://www.dafyomi.co.il/yoma/halachah/yo-hl-075.htm  

[6] See “Ma’avir Al Midosav,” https://www.aishdas.org/asp/maavir-al-midosav: “Whoever is “ma’avir al midosav”, ma’avirin lo, they pass over his sins for him. As it says, ‘… forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression’ (Mikha 7:18). “To whom does He forgive iniquity? To the one who remits transgression.” – Rosh Hashanah 17a

[7] Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:10