the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Understanding Rashi: Why Did He Curse?
Professor Haim Genizi
Dept. of General History
And the son of an Israelite woman,
whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of
The formulation of the first verse is problematic. According to the plain sense, the order of the words ought to have been as follows: “The son of an Israelite woman came out (Heb. Vayetze) among the Israelites, and he was the son of an Egyptian man.”  Various commentaries have been written on this verse, attempting to answer such questions as from where did he come out? what was his status? wherein had he sinned? etc. 
Ibn Ezra, adhering to the plain meaning of the text, said he “came out” of his tent. Nahmanides took the same approach, and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, in his commentary on Leviticus, followed Ibn Ezra, providing substantiation for his view from Numbers 16:27 and from Esther 4:1: “he went through the city.” 
Unlike Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides, Rashi preferred to follow the Midrash. He chose three different interpretations from Midrash Tanhuma (Emor 23) and Sifra (Emor, par. 235):
“The son of an Israelite woman, … went out”: From where did he come out? Rabbi Levi says, from his world. Rabbi Berakhyah says, from the previous passage; he came to make fun and said in wonderment, “It is written ‘He shall arrange them every sabbath day (Lev.23:8).’  Kings eat fresh hot bread every day. Is He [the Almighty] to eat cold bread nine days old?!” In a matnita (i.e. baraita) we learned: he came out of Moses’ court, which had found against him. He had come to pitch his tent in the encampment of Dan, and they had asked him, “What is you business here?” He had answered, “I am of the Dannites.” They had said, “It is written, ‘Each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestors [Heb., “fathers”] house’ (Num. 2:2).”  So he took his case to Moses’ court, where the court found against him. [Thereupon] he stood up and cursed.
In this article we shall attempt to understand Rashi’s commentary.
In asking, “From where did he come out?” Rashi intended to reject the possibility that the blasphemer came out from a physical place, from the camp, since all the Israelites were in the camp together and there would be no point in relating this information, as Malbim observed:
One might be tempted to interpret the phrase, “there came out… among the Israelites,” similarly to “he went through the city” (Esther 4:1) [the same verb and preposition, va-yetze. . . betokh, are found in both]; but, to be precise, this expression [vayetze. . . betokh bene yisrael] would have to mean “someone who comes out and goes from person to person and from place to place”. Moreover, the entire expression seems superfluous.  Therefore, the words, “there came out among the Israelites and ... a fight broke out in the camp” were unnecessary.
The views that Rashi cited indicate to us that he was looking for the cause of the argument, not for its location. Why, in the midst of a fight between two people, was one of them led to blaspheme G-d?
The first opinion is that of Rabbi Levi, who said, “He came out of his world,” an explanation which proved difficult for Bible commentators to explain.  Nehamah Leibowitz maintained that Rabbi Levi did not seek to explain what led the person to commit such a terrible transgression; rather, he sought to explain the act itself.” However, it seems to us that Rabbi Levi, like Rabbi Berakhyah and the baraita (the two other interpretations cited by Rashi), indeed was addressing the question of what caused the son of the Israelite woman to do such an egregious thing as to curse G-d.
Perhaps the expression, “he came out of his world,” means he acted not himself, exceeding his usual bounds and not in his usual way. Sometimes a person who is in the midst of a heated argument loses his head, loses his self-control. It also happens that great anger and strife cause temporary loss of sanity. While the claim of temporary insanity is often made in courts of justice in our day, and sometimes even accepted by the judge, the Torah orders the person who cursed G-d to be stoned. Losing one’s balance and even being temporarily insane are not accepted defenses in the case at hand, for the Torah demands that our impulses be curbed. We must see to it that we do not reach a state of loss of self-control. Therefore the person who cursed G-d received the death sentence.
Thus, Rabbi Levi was of the opinion that losing one’s sense and stepping beyond the usual bounds can lead a person to curse G-d. The difficulty in this explanation is that it does not relate specifically to the subject at hand in the weekly reading, but could be applied to any transgression a person commits. As Resh Lakish said, “A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly has overcome him.”  Perhaps Rashi found this explanation insufficient precisely for such a reason, and therefore cited two other opinions.
The second interpretation presented by Rashi is that of Rabbi Berakhya, who rested his interpretation on the juxtaposition of this episode to the discussion of the showbread which immediately precedes it. The Midrash asks: “From where did he come out? From the previous passage. For it is said, … ‘He shall arrange them before the Lord regularly every sabbath day.’ He said, ‘It is the way of kings to eat fresh hot bread every day. Is He to eat cold bread?’”
Note that when Rashi cited this homily, he altered the wording of the Tanhuma , adding the word ligleg, “he came to make fun.” We re-cite Rashi’s version: “He came to make fun (ligleg) and said in wonderment: ‘He shall arrange them every sabbath day.’ Kings eat fresh hot bread every day. Is He to eat cold bread nine days?”
According to Rashi’s understanding, Rabbi Berakhyah thought that being scornful was what caused the person to do such an extreme thing. Lack of faith and refusal to accept the logic of the Torah’s commandments provide the wicked with an excuse for being scornful, like Korah’s mockery of tzitzit.  He made fun of important things, which might even be held sacred by others. His concern, as it were, for the honor of the King of Kings, who “eats nine-day old cold bread,” in contrast to human kings, who eat fresh bread daily, reveals the cynicism and wickedness of this man. For G-d does not “eat” the showbread. Furthermore, the showbread, which was made of unleavened bread a handsbreadth thick, surely did not dry out very quickly. Thus, scorn for the Torah’s commandments, which are not always understood by us, and belittling things which are holy to others are likely to lead to committing the serious transgression of blasphemy.
Rashi , however, was not entirely satisfied with this explanation, even though it was built on the juxtaposition of texts, since it did not relate directly to the verses in the passage on the person who cursed G-d. In order that the commentary be based on the verses of this episode itself, Rashi included another midrash, from Sifra (Emor par. 235): “Matnita: he came out of Moses’ court, which had found against him.”
Remember that we are dealing with a person whose father was Egyptian and whose mother was Jewish – “Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.” Since nationality, according to the halakhah, follows the mother, by Jewish law this man was an Israelite,  and as such was he was obligated by all the commandments of the Torah; if he were to transgress any of them, he would be punished. As a person to whom all the Torah’s injunctions applied, he wished to belong to the Israelites. Since his association with the Israelites was through his mother, and she was from the tribe of Dan, he sought to pitch his tent in Dan’s encampment. But the Dannites would not let him join them: “‘What is you business here?’ He answered, “I am born of a Dannite woman.’ They said, ‘It is written, “Each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestors [Heb lit., fathers’] house” (Num. 2:2).’” (Thus in Sifra.) Although nationality was determined by the mother, tribal encampment was determined by the father. The son of the Israelite woman found himself in Catch 22: on the one hand, he bore all the obligations of an Israelite, yet on the other, he was denied the privileges of living within Israelite society. Where was he to go? To the mixed multitude of Egyptians, were his father was? There he could live free of the burden of the Torah’s commandments. In despair, he turned to the highest authority – to Moses’ court of justice. But, to his great disappointment, the court found him bound by the Torah’s commandments. This person truly suffered at the hands of the law and asked himself, what sort of law this was, that found him bound by all the obligations but not entitled to enjoy the privileges? He concluded that there was no justice in this law, and since the law was not just, the Lawgiver, G-d, was not behaving justly.
This, in the opinion of the baraita, is what brought the son of the Israelite woman to curse G-d. It was not loss of control in a fight, nor scorn for the commandments of the Torah, but great pain over the injustice in the laws of the Torah, as he himself experienced them. The matnita’s interpretation provides a rational explanation of the factors causing a normal person to exceed his bounds and do such a grave thing.  Nevertheless, G-d ordered, “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and ... let the whole community stone him” (Lev. 24:14). The hardship the blasphemer faced was not taken into consideration, since the law serves to protect the majority; any society will always have a small minority who suffer on account of the law. But if the minority were to break the law and blaspheme the lawgiver, no society could survive. Every social framework is built on a system of laws that regulate relations among the majority in the society. If a minority is hurt, they must try to find ways to change and improve the law.
The Torah seeks to teach us that an individual who suffers is not entitled to express his protest by cursing G-d. That is not the way to bring about an improvement of the law. There are other ways, as in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, who came to Moses and petitioned for the right to inherit (Num. 27:1-11).
The interpretation of the matnita (= baraita) provided a more appropriate explanation than the two interpretations preceding it insofar as it related to explicit remarks in the episode it set out to explain. As Rashi pointed out in his commentary on Lev. 24:10, the fight in the camp concerned affairs related to the camp itself: the right to pitch his tent in the encampment of the tribe of Dan.
Thus we see that Rashi presented three views on the question of what led the son of the Israelite woman to curse G-d. The first interpretation, given by Rabbi Levi, was too general and far from the text. The second, of Rabbi Berakhyah, was closer to the text insofar as it relied on the previous passage about the showbread. But only the third interpretation, of the matnita, related specifically to the subject of the fight which led to cursing G-d. By presenting these three commentaries in succession, Rashi showed a process of refining, step by step, one’s interpretation of the text.
 This difficulty has been addressed by the translation new JPS translation (The Torah: New Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1962), second edition, p. 227): “There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian; and a fight broke out in the camp between the half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.” It is also addressed by Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah (New York and Jerusalem, 1981), p. 365: “The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Lev. 24:11, s.v.
“now his mother’s name”: “At that time
she was the only woman in
 David Tzvi Hoffman, Leviticus (Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem 1954), Vol. II, p. 213.
 Speaking of the twelve loaves placed on the table in the Sanctuary once a week.
 Since his father was an Egyptian, he had no right to pitch his tent among the tribe of Dan.
 Malbim, Leviticus, 335.
 Nehamah Leibowitz (Studies…, p. 382 [of Hebrew edition]) cites four views on this: Rabbenu Bahya believed every person is a world unto himself, and so the one who cursed “came out of himself”, left his nature; Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi explained that he left the world of “Supreme wisdom which dwelled among them, and that was his world”; Matnot Kehunah maintained that he “turned aside his ways and distanced himself from other men”; Rabbi David Lurie, similar to Ashkenazi, said “he came out of his world, which is the stronghold of the Lord.” Also cf. Siftei Hakhamim, on Lev. 24:10, s.v. “He came out of his world.” Midrash Tanhuma continued the words of Rabbi Levi: “As it is said of Goliath (I Sam. 17:4): ‘A champion of the Philistine forces stepped forward (Heb. va-yetze); his name was Goliath of Gath.’” It should be remembered that Goliath, too, cursed G-d.
 Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 3a. One could view Rabbi Levi’s words, “he came out of his world (Heb. me-olamo yatzah),” as relating to the previous passage, since it ends with the words hok olam, a due for all time (Lev. 24:9). See Siftei Hakhamim, s.v. me-olamo yatzah.
 See Rashi’s commentary in the wake of this midrash, Numbers 16:1, s.v. along with Dathan and Abiram.
 “Since there was some doubt whether those born before the Torah was given also follow the mother, Rashi wrote: “S.v. among the Israelites – this indicates that he had converted.” See Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on this verse.
 The homily hints that the Sages might have felt somewhat uncomfortable because of the failure to find a solution for the son of the Israelite woman, who had been hurt by the law.