To Wield a Metaphysical Sword

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Shemos

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Is one culpable for killing someone through supernatural means?

Some time after that, when Moshe had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moshe was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known!
(Exodus 2:11-14)

What did this Egyptian man do to deserve Moshe responding with lethal force instead of only incapacitating him? One possibility is that a gentile who assaults a Jew is indeed liable to the death penalty (see Sanhedrin 58b). However, according to those, such as the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 10:6), who understand that the gentile is only liable to “death by the hands of Heaven,” it remains difficult to understand why Moshe resorted to such an extreme measure.

To answer this, we need to highlight the method that Moshe used to slay the Egyptian. Rashi (Ex. 2:14), who cites the Medresh (Shemos Rabbah 1:30), which informs us that Moshe killed the Egyptian by invoking a special name of God known as the Shem Hameforash. This secret iteration of God’s name possesses potent properties that can accomplish supernatural feats, such as taking the life of those who it is used against. R. Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, “The Brisker Rov,” explains that Moshe specifically invoked the Shem HaMeforash because using the name of God to carry out this act of justice would actually be a precise fulfillment of “death by the hands of Heaven,” which was the correct verdict in this circumstance.

However, based on the following Talmudic episode, there may be reason to question whether Moshe’s choice of method was appropriate. The Talmud in Avodah Zarah (4b) tells us:

A certain heretic would distress Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi [by incessantly challenging him as to the meaning] of verses. One day, he took a rooster and placed it between the legs of the bed and looked at it. He thought: When that moment [of God’s anger] arrives, I will curse [the heretic and be rid of] him. When that moment arrived, [Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi] fell asleep [and missed the opportunity to curse the heretic.] He said: I can conclude from [the fact that I fell asleep that it is] not proper conduct to do this, [to curse people, even if they are wicked, as the verse:] “And His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:9) is written [even with regard to sinners]. And it is written: “Punishment, even for the righteous, is not good” (Proverbs 17:26).

Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 4b, s.v. Shema Minei) inquire that if one is permitted to physically kill a heretic then why should cursing, which is mere speech, be any more problematic than a physical deed? They suggest that when the Gemara uses the wording “it is not proper conduct,” it means to convey that it is not appropriate “to force the hands of Heaven” to take the life of someone who they did not single out for death. 

Based on the this incident, the Moshav Zekeinim L’Ba’alei Tosafos pose a challenge: If one is not supposed to “force the hands of Heaven,” to take someone’s life, how then was it appropriate for Moshe to invoke the Shem HaMeforash, thereby utilizing Heavenly powers, to kill the Egyptian? 

(1) One resolution is offered by the Moshav Zekeinim L’Ba’alei Tosafos themselves, who distinguish between motives: There is a pivotal difference between harnessing Heavenly powers to fulfill a mitzvah versus misappropriating it for personal gain. In the Talmudic story, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi sought to harness the power of Heaven to address a personal problem he had with a heretic who was harassing him. However, as we established earlier, the Egyptian was actually liable to death by the hands of Heaven – so not only was Moshe not forcing the will of Heaven, he was actually facilitating it.

(2) R. Mordechai Carlebach approaches this question from a different angle, and instead distinguishes between chanting an imprecation versus invoking the Shem HaMeforash. He cites R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, “The Steipler Gaon,” (Kehilos Yaakov, Bava Kamma, no. 45) who explains that cursing someone, similar to prayer, is an indirect act. First the request must come before God, and then God chooses whether to accept and thereby act upon it. Whereas the Shem HaMeforash (and, lehavdil, forms of sorcery) contain inherent power. The Sefer Halachos Ketanos (2:95) go so far as to assert that we should see no halachic distinction between one who kills with a physical sword versus a metaphysical sword. Accordingly, one who does so could be halachically charged with murder!

With this distinction in mind, we can understand why Moshe was not guilty of “forcing the hands of Heaven” to do his bidding, as the invocation of the Shem HaMeforash is classified as the act of the wielder of the “metaphysical sword,” as opposed to bending Heaven to do one’s personal bidding.

While many commonly assume that words cannot harm, it is clear from Torah literature that words have the power to affect people both emotionally, and sometimes even physically. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to select our words with utmost care.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter


The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

Archives

Categories