Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Emor 5768/ May 10, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Laying of Hands


Itamar Dagan





In this week’s reading we are commanded, “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the Lord who sanctify you” (Lev. 22:32).  In contraposition to this prohibition, the end of the parasha describes an event in which the name of G-d was profaned (Lev.24:10-12).   In the heat of argument between two antagonists, one of them – the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother – pronounced the name of G-d and cursed Him.   Apparently, cursing the name of G-d greatly shook the community, and it was clear to all that the man who uttered the curse must be punished.  Since it had not been spelled out “what should be done to him,” he was put in detention, on the assumption that in the meanwhile his sentence would be clarified.   Indeed, some time later the Lord revealed his punishment to Moses and spelled it out:  “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him” (Lev. 24:14).

The punishment of the blasphemer consisted of three stages:  removing him from the camp, having those who heard him lay their hands on him, and finally, the whole community stoning him. [1]   Of these stages, the laying of hands stands out as unique.  Removing the culprit outside the camp and killing him by stoning are familiar actions that are taken for many crimes, but the action of laying hands on the person only appears in the law of the blasphemer, as Maimonides notes, “In none of the executions by court verdict do we find a laying of hands, save the case of the blasphemer” ( Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 2.10).

The fact that the Torah did not add any description to the command of laying hands (on a person or an animal’s head) leaves the significance of this act unclear. [2]   Given the Torah’s silence in this matter, presumably Sifra Emor was prompted to provide the interpretation (Finkelstein edition, 19.2) that when they laid their hands the witnesses and judges were supposed to say, “Your blood be on your head, for you have caused this.” [3]   By adding this declaration the Sages sought to fill the gap left by Scripture, which called for a gesture without any explanation. According to the tannaitic Midrash, the gesture and the verbal declaration became a single unit.

Below we discuss four possible understanding of the gesture of laying hands and the verbal addition to this gesture.

1.  Transferring guilt from the witnesses and judges

The Tosafist commentaries on the Torah explain the significance of the verbal addition that appears in Sifra by referring to other derashot in Midrash Halakhah.  An interpretation in Sifra (18.14) presents Rabbi Joshua b. Korha’s opinion that in the course of the blasphemer’s trial the witnesses are forbidden to repeat the words of the blasphemy, as they actually heard it; rather, they must say it using a euphemism, i.e., replacing the name of the cursing deity and of the cursed deity with other names, [4] in order to reduce to a minimum contempt for the name of G-d.   In R. Joshua’s opinion, only when the trial concludes does the most senior of the witnesses repeat the curse as he heard it from the blasphemer, while all the other witnesses reinforce his words, saying, “I, too, heard the same as he heard.”

Next to Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah’s interpretation is an anonymous comment (19.1) that the inclusive language of the Torah,  speaking of “all those who heard,” indicates that the gesture of laying hands is required of everyone, even those who heard at second hand – i.e., the judges who heard the curse when testimony was given. [5]

In line with these interpretations, the Sages drew a connection between the beginning and end of the comments in Sifra, and interpreted that the addition of the words, “Your blood be on your head, for you caused this,” was intended to awaken the blasphemer to the fact that his grave act caused another two transgressions:   repeating the curse during testimony by the witnesses, [6] and having the judges hear it.  Those who lay their hands on the blasphemer make it clear to him that these transgressions are accounted to him, even though others made them, since he caused them to happen. [7]   According to this interpretation, laying hands was intended to cleanse the witnesses and the judges of the guilt that they necessarily incurred and to transfer the responsibility for it to the blasphemer.

The Tosafists on the Torah developed the notion of transferring guilt and explained that putting the guilt on the head of the blasphemer by laying of hands was borrowed from sacrificial ritual and was intended to portray the blasphemer as a sacrifice. [8]   In their opinion, repeating the curse in the presence of the judges is considered sinful, and to be cleansed of this sin they must bring an atonement offering in the form of the blasphemer; the laws concerning him are made to resemble the laws of sacrifice:   just as hands are laid on an animal prior to slaughtering, so, too, hands must be laid on the blasphemer prior to stoning. [9]

2.  Appointing the accused as the agent of those who lay their hands.

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (in his commentary on Leviticus) is of the opinion that those who heard the curse sinned through their thundering silence.  In a situation where the name of the Lord is disrespected one would expect those who hear this to kill the blasphemer out of a spontaneous sense of zeal, as happened in the episode of Zimri (Num. 25:6). The lack of an appropriate response on the part of those who heard looks like acquiescence to the transgressor’s act.  Support for this view can be found in the laws pertaining to a person found guilty of a similar transgression.  The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9.6) rules that a person who curses the name of G-d in magical incantations (“in the name of idolatry,” so Rashi), is not to be brought to trial; rather, “zealots are to batter him.”

Hoffman availed himself of the well-known idea that every sacrifice is restitution for the person offering it (Nahmanides, Lev. 1:9).  Thus he explained that laying hands places the sin of society’s indifference and indulgence on the head of the transgressor.  Those who lay their hands unite their identity with the identity of the sacrifice and thus make the transgressor into restitution for themselves, so that when he is put to death they themselves are punished, as it were, for the sin of their complacency.

3.  Expressing consent to execution of the blasphemer.

The verbal formulation mentioned in Sifra is cited by Rashi with the addition of the words, “and we are not to blame for your death.”  This addition indicates that Rashi views the verbal addition as a psychological means of salving the conscience of the witnesses and judges, cleansing them of a feeling of self-guilt.   In his opinion, laying hands was a way of emphasizing that the reason for the severe punishment was the criminal behavior of the transgressor, and that the witnesses and judges were not to blame. [10]   Even if we accept Rashi’s interpretation of the gesture of laying hands, his remarks do not explain why this gesture is only performed in the case of the blasphemer and does not apply to all those who are sentenced to death, for in all cases of the death sentence the witnesses might have pangs of conscience.

Hence, we tend to agree with the commentators on Rashi who explain that the need to salve the conscience of the witnesses is greater in the trial of a blasphemer.   In their opinion, had the Torah not explicitly stated that the punishment for a blasphemer is death, we could not have imposed the death sentence on him according to usual legal procedures.  These commentators relay on the position taken by Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.5), discussed above, and in the latter’s opinion the witnesses in the blasphemer’s trial are forbidden to repeat the words of the curse as originally heard, but must use a euphemism for the holy name.   This approach, attempting to reduce to a minimum disrespect for the Lord, indirectly leads to an encroachment on the rights of the accused to a fair trial.  The fact that the testimony rests almost in its entirety on a curse which is only alluded to obliquely, not in the least similar to the original words of the curse, adversely affects the chances of the investigators to find contradictions in the testimony of those who witnessed the curse, thus making the accused’s chances of acquittal very slim.   This exceptional circumstance in legal procedure led one of the commentators to the conclusion that the verbal addition interprets the laying of hands as expressing apology for the severe sentence, which was passed in proceedings that involved a curtailment of rights. [11]   “Therefore they effectively say:   You are the one who caused us not to go into such detail in your case as is done with other capital cases, examining and cross-examining two witnesses, who easily can be shown to have contradicted one another.” [12]

The apologetic tone of the witnesses is all the more noticeable in view of the remarks of Rabbi David Pardo, [13] who adds a theological consideration in defense of the blasphemer:   since the deity is perceived as mighty and omnipotent, He necessarily can not be harmed by curses uttered by mortals, as pointed out by Elihu in his advice to Job (35:6):  “If you sin, what do you do to Him?  If your transgressions are many, how do you affect Him?”  So we see that cursing G-d has no value, and ostensibly there is no reason to punish a person for that.  Hence the witnesses and the judges express these words of apology to the blasphemer, making it clear to him that even though his curse is of no value they are compelled to execute him, since that is what the Torah decrees.  At the same time as they make this apology, they note to him that their hands are clean, since he himself brought about his execution through his serious misdeed.

4.  Emphasizing the deep connection between the crime and its punishment.

The Maharal of Prague views the laying of hands as a symbolic action that helps explain the deep connection between the crime and its punishment. [14]   Laying hands expresses the idea that the blasphemer’s execution is a natural result that follows from his actions, since the sin of heresy is extremely grave. [15]   Laying hands attests that the death penalty for this transgression has to do with the very person of the blasphemer, and therefore the clarifying statement is made, “Your blood be on your own head.”   Aside from this, by laying hands the witnesses and judges apply the principle of retributive punishment, or “measure for measure”.  Following homilies of the Sages stressing that the term “heretic” [kofer ba-ikkar] applies especially to the transgression of blasphemy, [16] the Maharal explains, through a play on words, that since the blasphemer showed contempt for the name of the Lord, who is the First [ rosh] and Ultimate [ikkar] Creator, therefore the witnesses and judges seek to place the blasphemer’s punishment on his head [rosh], which is the principle part [ikkar] of a human being.

Our discussion has focused around two principle questions – the reasons given for laying hands on the blasphemer’s head, and the attempt to discover the significance of the verbal formulation that was added to this gesture.  The overview of ideas presented here indicates consensus regarding the educational aspect of laying hands.   Approaches differ regarding the object of the gesture.  Some view laying hands as a demonstrative action by which the witnesses symbolically transfer their own sin to the responsibility of the convicted, as their sacrifice or their appointed emissary.  Others see laying hand as a means of explaining to the transgressor the arguments that led to the court pronouncing such a severe punishment, be it by way of apology or by way of emphasizing the principle of retributive punishment.


[1] Only the presence, not the active participation, of the entire community is required.

[2] Jacob Licht, Encyclopedia Mikra’it, vol. 8, Jerusalem 1968,  p.1054.   Licht adds that the gesture of laying hands was intended to express the thoughts and emotions of those who perform the gesture and those who are watching. For this reason the Torah gave no verbal expression, which likely to limit the significance of the gesture.

[3] Maimonides accepts this addition (Mishne Torah, Laws of the Priestly Service, 2.10).   It should be noted that use of the expression, “Your blood be on your head,” is a paraphrase of David’s words, who said to the expiring young Amalekite, “Your blood be on your own head!  Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I put the Lord’s anointed to death’” (II Sam. 1:16).

[4] The example given by Rabbi J. ben Korhah is:  “May Yose strike (=a curse word, as in Deut. 28:22; also see Tractate Shevuot 4.13, and the parallel variant in Sanh. 7.5) Yose.”   Rabbi Meir ha-Levi Abulafia, in his commentary Yad Ramah, is of the opinion that the choice of the name Yose, spelled with four letters, hints at the Tetragrammaton.   Rashi notes in his commentary on the Mishnah that the reason for choosing the name Yose as a euphemism was that the gematria of this name comes out the same as Elohim, hinting at the Tetragrammaton, according to the baraitha in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 66a:  “The blasphemer is not given the death sentence unless he has cursed G-d using the Name,” i.e., until he curses the name of G-d using one of His special epithets.

[5] Ascribing guilt to those who heard the curse is undoubtedly a considerable innovation in view of the fact that hearing is not in a person’s control.

[6] It turns out that in the opinion of Sifra it make no difference whether the contempt for the name of the Lord took place in the course of the argument between the two people who were fighting or in the course of testimony given in court, for in both instances the result is the same, namely that the name of the Lord is held in contempt.

[7] The interpretation of the Tosafists is presented in the commentary of Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel) on the Torah, Leviticus 24:14; Da’at Zekenim mi-Ba’alei ha- Tosafot, loc. sit.; Rabbi Hizkiah ben Manoah, Hizkuni, loc. sit.; Rabbi Hayyim Paltiel’s commentary on the Torah, J. S. Lange ed., Jerusalem 1981, p. 445.

[8] This view first appears in Riba (R. Isaac ben Asher ha-Levy), in Perush Rabboteinu Ba’alei ha- Tosafot al ha-Torah (Warsaw 1876, photocopy New York and Jerusalem 1944, p. 383), and Perushei R. Joseph Bekhor Shor al ha-Torah, ed. Y. Nevo, Jerusalem, p. 229.

[9] Italian exegetes such as Rabbi Isaac Samuel Reggio (Torat ha-Elohim, ed. Yosef Shelomo  Harari, Jerusalem 2004, p. 251, and Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato (Perush Shaddal al Hamishah Humshei Torah, Tel Aviv 1966, p. 429), compared this to laying hands on the head of the scapegoat that is sent off to Azazel (Lev. 16:21).

[10] Likewise in Perush Ralbag al ha-Torah, R. Y. Levy ed., 3, Jerusalem, p. 351.

[11] Ba’er Heitev in Mikraot Gedolot, Ha-Meorot ha-Gedolim edition, Jerusalem 1992, pp. 306-307.

[12] Mahara of Prague, Gur Aryeh, Hartmann ed., vol. 6, Jerusalem 1993, pp. 199-200, notes that it is inconceivable that those who heard the curse were not properly questioned and therefore, in his opinion, this interpretation (of Ba’er Heitev) is “corrupt.”

[13] Maskil le-David, Jerusalem 1968, Lev. 24:11.

[14] Gur Aryeh, loc. sit.

[15] On heresy, see E. E. Urbach, Haz”alPirkei Emunot ve-De’ot, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 21-22.

[16] Sifre Deuteronomy 221; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 6, 9 (23c).