Not To Curse Another Jew Using God’s Name

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Balak

No mitzvot in Sefer HaChinukh’s count for Balak, so we turn to R. Achai Gaon’s She’iltot, where he says Jews are commanded not to curse fellow Jews using God’s Name. The verse is VaYikra 19;14, you may not curse a deaf person (expanded to all Jews, as we will see). She’iltot adds one more interesting piece, the prohibition applies equally to cursing oneself [similar to how Judaism includes suicide in murder, a reminder we do not own our bodies and persons to the extent Westerners often think]. Sefer HaChinukh 231 sources that to Devarim 4;9, guard yourself and care for your souls greatly, banning us from calling down any kind of negative outcomes on ourselves.

Rambam agrees, his Prohibition 317 saying much the same. He discusses why at greater length than seems to me usual for Sefer HaMitzvot, says people set on revenge are not calmed until they cause what they deem proportionate damage to the other. Sometimes, the person will persist until s/he destroys the other financially or even bodily, to the point of loss of limb or life.

Cursing the other is the first step along a path of anger, whether or not the target hears. We might think the Torah cared about the hurt feelings and social rift created, says Rambam; if so, however, there should be no problem with cursing a deaf person. The Torah prohibits exactly that to reveal the true concern, the character of the one uttering the curse, its turning him/her slightly more in the direction of anger and vengeance.

Rambam agrees about the prohibition including oneself, but only when a Name of God was invoked. [Based on Rambam’s understanding of the goal/reason of the mitzvah, the Name of God should not have been essential to defining a violation. The halakhic facts seem to have forced him to say only a curse that uses God’s Name is angry/aggressive enough to be a character problem, for reasons he does not share. Or, he took for granted Sefer HaChinukh’s idea, the prohibition applies without God’s Name, only the punishment requires it. Were use of the Name an issue of what rises to the level of capital punishment, it matters less.]

More Prohibitions For More Kinds of People

The previous two prohibitions in Rambam’s list were the prohibition to curse a judge or a leader of the Sanhedrin, so the end of this one notes there would be three lashes were a Jew to curse the head of the Sanhedrin. Prohibition 318 adds yet another, the ban on cursing one’s father or mother, a stoning offense even if the parent has already passed away, where cursing other Jews is only Biblically prohibited in their lifetimes.

Ramban thinks the differences among the prohibitions do not justify counting separately. Parents (and judges and the head of the Sanhedrin, he says) are basically Jews, just adding and/or changing the punishment. [I could imagine someone agreeing about a parent, whose difference consists only of a particular relationship with this person, but disagreeing about a judge, whose public position could justify an added or separate prohibition, such that the Jew who curses him has committed two separate offenses. I don’t think Ramban meant that].

Aside from disagreeing, Ramban argues Rambam has violated his own principles, because he, Rambam, had disagreed with Behag’s counting a separate adultery prohibition for each of a betrothed na’ara (young woman aged twelve to twelve and a half); a fully married one, and a kohenet, a woman of the priestly clan, because of their differing punishments.

Here, Rambam did the same, Ramban thought.

Curses Work, and That’s the Problem

Sefer HaChinukh veers far from Rambam. He concedes we do not know exactly how curses work, but assumes they do, the reason people worry when others curse them, supported by Mo’ed Katan 18a saying the lips were granted power. Instead of a rule meant to foster better personal character, he argues this lav is about the power of human speech. Speech being what makes us human, Onkelos’ idea of what divine spirit God breathed into us, it has power, the more accomplished a person, the more powerful his/her curses.

As is known to all advanced thinkers, Sefer HaChinukh says, a reminder that we all operate with the best “science” of our day, perhaps doomed to be looked down on as primitive 800 years later. Then, almost a seeming sop to the more rationalistic among us, he says it stops strife, too, because even a curse pronounced in total private eventually gets out, causes fights. He also knows Rambam’s ideas, is happy to accept them, but insists what he wrote was true.

Cursing a Parent and Defining God’s Name

Our mitzvah being one of those places where God’s Name is central to an element of the sin, it gives us a chance to review what counts. Certainly the four letter one (YHVH, as people put it in English) and the one that starts with aleph-daled are Names, Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh De’ah 241;4 tells us, and cursing a parent with such a Name incurs the death penalty. The kinuyim, “characteristics” of God such as chanun or rachum, also count, and names non-Jews use, in their language, are included in kinuyim, and would bring about lashes [Saying “God damn you” to someone, and meaning it as a real curse, seems to be included in this prohibition, I think.]

The prohibition regarding a parent, 260 in Sefer HaChinukh, extends to administering a shevu’at ha-ala, serving as the court official to extract an oath from the parent where the oath includes warning the person of curses that will rain down on him/her should s/he lie. For all that the child in this case will only be warning the parent of a possible curse, he cannot do it.

The prohibition includes any kind of denigration of a parent, says Sefer HaChinukh, not just formal cursing, and a court can administer the punishment it sees fit. Although he does not give a formal reason for this mitzvah, either, halakhic facts he includes seem to me to push more towards Rambam’s view: the inclusion of all verbal abuse; the prohibition applying to a mamzer, despite their having burdened him with eternal marriage handicaps by bearing children from a relationship prohibited at a karet or death penalty level; and the fact that the prohibition continues even after the parent’s death; all seem to me to favor Rambam’s idea of it being about the person’s character. (Arukh HaShulchan adds the case of a parent being taken out to be killed by a court; as long as the parent has repented the sin leading to the death penalty, the child is again fully prohibited from cursing. I note also the reason given for the mamzer’s inclusion is that he will inherit from these parents, an interesting idea that suggests that inheritance signals more than a financial solution to what to do with someone’s assets after they pass away. If the mamzer will continue their legacy of possessions, they have done enough in his life for him not to be allowed to curse them, for Rambam separately and more than other people); Sefer HaChinukh does not address the point.

We may not curse other Jews, even more so use God’s Name to do so, and authority figures in our lives, parents, judges, heads of court, have special standing in this regard. While Sefer HaChinukh sees it as a way to keep the peace, Rambam turns the focus to us, to how we develop our character well or poorly. Cursing others out of anger or frustration is not the kind of character the Torah to want us as Jews to develop. Peace and character, two excellent values for us to consider as we watch Bil’am’s counterexample to both in this weeks parsha.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter