the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
The Man who Cursed
Prof. Shaul Regev
Combined Program in Jewish Studies
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 (Lev. 24:10).
This passage raises several questions among commentators, of which these are the principal ones:
1. “There came out” – from whence did he come out?
2. Over what was the fight between him and the Israelite man?
3. Why is it noteworthy that he was the son of an Egyptian?
4. How is this passage connected to the preceding one, dealing with the priestly service?
The Midrash, followed by Rashi, says that the accounts of the person caught gathering wood on the Sabbath and the person who cursed G-d had originally been in a single chapter, but the Torah separated them: “And he was placed in custody (ibid. 24:12), but the person who had been gathering wood was not place in custody with him, although the two episodes happened in the same chapter” (Sifra, Emor, ch. 14. Rashi on Lev. 24:12, s.v. va-yanihuhu). The question arises why the story of the blasphemer was presented here, of all places?
“There came out”
Two different approaches are taken in the exegesis on the verse in the first question. One is that the half-Israelite came out physically, in person; as the son of an Egyptian man he had not been allowed to pitch his tent within the encampment of the tribe of Dan, to which his mother belonged, but had been moved out to the camp of the mixed multitude; the fight between him and the Israelite man that caused him to come out of the camp was over this issue.
The second approach is that the ‘coming out’ meant he revealed his true beliefs; the blasphemer came out in scorn of the Sanctuary service, especially the shew-bread, the ritual details of which are presented in the adjacent previous portion, 24:5-9. According to Scripture, the bread is given to the priests to eat after it has stood on the table for an entire week, and only after it has been replaced by fresh bread. Being the son of an Egyptian man, he was familiar with the Egyptian religious rituals, according to which the priests received fresh bread daily (Leviticus Rabbah, ch. 32.3), and therefore he was scornful of this practice. This explanation aso answers the fourth question, on the connection between the adjacent portions (semikhut parshiot).
The Fourth Question
Abarbanel’s commentary on Leviticus (page 150) relates primarily to the fourth question, the juxtaposition of passages, but his response also provides an answer to the first and third questions:
Having commanded and admonished them in the preceding passages to safeguard His honor and not treat it lightly, He gave the Israelites commandments especially for them, and the priests commandments unique to them, and also commanded the Israelites, the levites and the priests regarding observance of the festivals … and laying out the shew-bread on His table – the purpose of all this being that they safeguard and not desecrate His honor. Therefore, as an illustration of practical application, Scripture presented the case of what happened to a specific person who blasphemed His name and was ordered by the Lord to be stoned to death …That is to say, he came out disrespectfully against the Name, coming out in desecration of His name and taking himself out of the generality of Israelites by ignoring that of which they had been admonished.
Rabbi Shabtai ha-Cohen (Siftei Cohen, II, 59a) combines leaving the camp physically with spiritually removing himself from the generality of the Israelites and their faith. He reads verse 10 as raising a question: There came out – since he was the son of an Egyptian man, what had he to do amidst the Israelites? He adds, however, that in the wake of the argument about his place among the Israelites, the blasphemer revealed his true nature: denying faith in G-d, as expressed by blaspheming the Name.
Rabbi Shabtai ha-Cohen also relates to the negative outcome of the fight, except that he places it in the religious, not the social, dimension. The fight caused the blasphemer to lend expression to the heretical ideas that were apparently within him. Being the son of an Egyptian man, his early upbringing had been in Egyptian society and even when he joined Judaism he did not forget his former culture completely: “The heresy that had been in him in potential came out into the open due to the fight.”
The Second and Third Questions
Three commentators relate to historical aspects of the incident, touching in their remarks on the second and third questions and also relating to the difficulty Moses had in himself passing sentence on the blasphemer – “and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them” (Lev. 24:12). Rabbi Isaac Caro (Toledot Yitzhak, Parashat Emor) provides the context for the blasphemer’s action. According to the Sages, the Egyptian man, the father of the blasphemer, was the same “Egyptian man” (ish Mizri) whom Moses had killed when he saw him hitting a Hebrew. The Midrash notes that Moses had killed the man by invoking the name of G-d.
Now, in the course of the fight between the son of the Egyptian man and the Israelite, the Israelite revealed to him how his father had died. In Rabbi Isaac Caro’s opinion, it is a well-known Jewish trait that in time of argument things long forgotten are recalled, especially grievances and family faults, even as far back as ten generations. When the son heard how his father had died, he wanted to take revenge, as it were, against the Divine Name that Moses had used to kill his father. That is also the reason why Moses asked the Holy One, blessed be He, how the blasphemer should be punished; for had he not asked, the onlookers might have thought that Moses was taking revenge on the half-Israelite because of his being the son of the Egyptian man. After the punishment was pronounced by the word of the Lord in the presence of the people, everyone saw that this was the law according to divine command.
Rabbi Moses Alsheikh alludes in his commentary to the same questions as Rabbi Isaac Caro, including the family history of the blasphemer. He explains the blasphemer’s mother’s name: “Shelomith daughter of Dibri – a gossiper [Hebrew dabranit from the root ‘to talk’].” According to Alsheikh, one could have known how to punish the blasphemer from the laws in the Torah, without having to inquire of the Lord as to what should be done to him; however, because of the family relations of this son, Moses wished to be completely clear of any talk about him which might impute that he had been unduly harsh in his judgment of him. Therefore he brought the case to the Lord in the presence of the entire community, so that everyone would hear and see that this severe sentence was not of his own doing (commentary on Leviticus 24:12). A similar interpretation is also given by Rabbi Eliyahu ha-Cohen ha-Itamari (Megaleh Tzefunot, 141b):
Moses knew that his sentence was death by stoning, however he did not wish to pass the sentence, but rather preferred to wait until the Holy One, blessed be He, explicitly handed down the sentence, so that he not be suspected, since he had been the one who had killed his father, … and on account of him he had fled from Egypt, … and people might say that he was killing the son out of hate, to revenge himself for the hardship that had befallen him on account of his father. Therefore, to avoid any such thoughts by the people, he waited until the Holy One, blessed be He, handed down the sentence.
Most commentators are agreed that the blasphemous words of the son of the Egyptian were directed towards the Lord, and that he was punished for this. Two commentators focus on the blasphemous act itself and practically ignore all the other questions that we raised. Ralbag’s interpretation is similar to that of Rabbi Isaac Caro, emphasizing that he “cursed the Lord using the Name,” i.e., the tetragrammaton which Moses had used to kill the Egyptian.
A Double Curse
In contrast with all these interpretations, Rabbi Solomon of the House of Levi, in his commentary on Parashat Emor (Divrei Shelomo, 18a), explains that the person cursed not only G-d, but also Moses. Rabbi Solomon draws this conclusion from a close reading of the text: “The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name [va-yikkov … et ha-Shem] and cursed [va-yekallel].” Other commentators view the two verbs, va-yikkov and va-yekallel as pertaining to the same act, whereas Rabbi Solomon views them as two separate actions, one aimed at G-d, the other at Moses.
Regarding the first action va-yikkov, the Hebrew root also being related to nekevah=female, Rabbi Solomon explains, following the Zohar, that a proper match between husband and wife has a corrective impact in the Zoharic sefira of Malkhut (Kingship), whereas an improper pairing of man and wife creates a flaw in this sphere. The pairing that took place between the Egyptian man and the Israelite woman created such a flaw, and the son, by his very existence, symbolized this flaw and therefore was as if blaspheming the name of G-d.
The second action – that of cursing – was directed at Moses, who had killed the man’s Egyptian father, and therefore those who heard the blasphemer seized hold of him and brought him to Moses. As an interested party, Moses did not wish to judge the person himself, but needed a divine judgment to be given so that he not be accused of being unduly harsh in his judgment. The divine judgment was, “Take the man who cursed [ha-mekallel] outside the camp,” not “take the blasphemer [ha-nokev].” It was as if the Holy One, blessed be He, while not standing on his own honor, nevertheless would not let Moses’ honor be offended.
Rabbi Solomon draws a distinction between the punishment due to this particular man for cursing, and the punishment due others who curse. Further on (verse 15) it says, “And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his G-d shall bear his guilt.” He who curses “his G-d [Heb. elohim]” – the word elohim here having the biblical Hebrew meaning of judge or justice – shall bear his guilt, but is not subject to the death penalty. In this particular case, however, as a requirement of the moment due to Moses’ honor, the punishment was death.
Rabbi Solomon also calls attention to the precise use of language, in this way distinguishing between verses 15 and 16. In 15 we read “his G-d,” and not the Name of the Lord or G-d. Therefore we interpret “judges.” But in 16, he who “pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death” – whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death no matter what. Here Rabbi Solomon returns to the usual meaning of nokev – pronouncing the name of the Lord in blasphemy.
The Role of the Community
Two commentators – Rabbi Isaac Ibn Arroyo and Rabbi Moses Albelda – call our attention to another aspect of the incident, namely the role played by the community in the entire story. Ibn Arroyo presents an interesting view regarding the act of bringing the blasphemer to Moses and the sentence given him. He relates to verse 11, “and he was brought to Moses,” and verse 14 – “let the whole community stone him.” The entire community brought the blasphemer to Moses, and the entire community had to execute his punishment. This was due to the differences of opinion regarding the act. Some people thought he deserved the death sentence for what he had done, since if stoning was the punishment for someone who cursed his parents, all the more so the death sentence ought to be given someone who cursed G-d. Others thought that no punishment at all ought to be given the person who cursed G-d, since that is an act of folly which causes no harm, since there is no human curse that can hurt G-d. In Ibn Arroyo’s opinion, the object of the divine command to execute the blasphemer expressed the idea that even though no harm was caused to G-d, harm was caused to the society, since such an action leads to disregard for Heaven, and therefore a severe punishment was given as a deterrent. For this reason the entire community had to participate in carrying out the sentence, thus expressing everyone’s consent to the punishment, including those who had thought there was no harm in the act itself (Tanhumot El, 98b).
Rabbi Moses Albelda (Olat Tammid, 181b-182a) continues the line of thought of Ibn Arroyo regarding the controversy among the people over the punishment deserved by the blasphemer. In his opinion, however, the controversy among the people was between those who believed the earthly punishment of death sufficed for the severity of the act, and those who believed that it did not suffice and that the blasphemer ought to receive an eternal punishment in the World to Come. In Albelda’s opinion, however, the Torah emphasizes the punishment in this world because punishment in the World to Come cannot serve the function of teaching all the Israelites a lesson, since it takes place on another level. Therefore, G-d’s command was that the blasphemer first receive a limited punishment in this world, so that it could serve a didactic purpose for the entire people, and afterwards he would also receive his punishment in the World to Come, which is deduced by the Sages from the continuation of the text: “he shall bear his guilt” – in the heavenly court, receiving eternal punishment for which there is no forgiveness.
The Moral Lesson
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi’s interpretation deals with an original issue not raised by other commentators: the law of the blasphemer is embedded within a legal portion specifying punishments for killing and various bodily injuries. “If a man kills a human being… One who kills a beast… If anyone maims his fellow… eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted shall be inflicted on him” (Lev. 24:13-22). In his opinion, the aim of the story is to teach us a lesson in morality – how careful people must be with their tongues, even in the midst of a fight, and even when angry. Therefore, after instructing what punishment was due the blasphemer, the Torah proceeds to discuss bodily harm that one person might cause another, since sometimes anger can lead a person to commit irreversible actions for which no amends can be made save death (Ma’aseh Ha-Shem, Ma’aseh Torah, ch. 17).
Since the message being taught was of a general moral nature, the Torah did not specify the subject of the fight between the Egyptian and the Jew. The subject matter was of no significance at all; the only issue of significance was the result likely to ensue from uncontrolled anger during a fight.