Parshat Emor

The Blasphemer- The chronicles of a halacha

“And the son of an Israelite woman blasphemed the name and cursed, and they brought him to Moshe… and they left him in custody, so that it would be declared to them by the word of God.” 

The story of the blasphemer is a fascinating chapter in the history of halachic development. Ostensibly, the event occurred before there was an explicit prohibition against “blessing” God. (Using the euphemism “bless” instead of “curse” is an example of lashon sagi nahor, literally “language of much light,” a phenomenon common in Jewish texts where a term is used to express its opposite, often to change the literal translation of a phrase from something negative to something positive.) Apparently, the blasphemer’s actions elicited revulsion and panic among the witnesses; everyone there knew what he had done was forbidden. Still, they did not have a clear source to point to. Such is the Chizkuni’s explanation for the words, “So that it would be declared to them according to the word of God:” 

“It seemed to them that he deserved to be stoned, for it says, ‘If he curses his father or mother, his blood is upon him,’ kal vachomer (all the more so) [if he curses] the Shechinah. But we do not learn punishments from kal vachomer.” (Chizkuni Vayikra 24,, 12) 

From the Chizkuni’s explanation it’s clear inconceivable that one would be permitted to do something to God that they are prohibited from doing to their parents. His explanation follows the train of thought the People of Israel took when they brought the blasphemer to be judged. He describes the back and forth halachic arguments surrounding the punishment of the blasphemer as if they are the protocols of the scholarly discussion that took place after the event. Through the insertion of this aggadic discussion into the events related by the Torah the Chizkuni makes it clear that even though there was no explicit prohibition, the blasphemer was brought to Moshe because there are certain things we intuitively know are wrong. And yet, these rational arguments are not enough to dictate halachic practice on their own, we still have to find a halachic anchor to give weight to these intuitions. While practical halacha does not allow for a kal vachomer argument to dictate punishments, this does not detract from the logic of the kal vachomer. It is still a valid argument that stands on its own merit. 

God’s responds in two stages. The first part consists of detailed instructions for what to do in this case: “Take the blasphemer out of the camp… and the whole congregation shall stone him.” (24, 13) The second part of the response is an explicit prohibition based on this incident: “And speak to the Children of Israel saying, ‘Every man who curses his God, he will bear his sin, and one who blasphemes the name of God will be put to death, the entire congregation will stone him…” (ibid, 16-17) 

The chronicle of this halacha does not stop with the Written Torah. Chazal further explicate this halacha in the Oral Torah, clarifying the prohibition by formally defining the wording of such a curse. The mishnah in Sanhedrin states that the blasphemer is not obligated until he explicitly states God’s name. The braita further specifies that not every type of curse falls into this category, rather it is only “once he ‘blesses’ the Name with the Name.” (T.B. Sanhedrin 56a) The curse must be constructed in such a way that the blasphemed is also the blasphemer. The curse must be said in the mold determined by the sages (hamatbeya she’kavu hachachamim), a mirror image of the halachot of brachot. 

The halachic discussion does not end there. There are further debates concerning the way the witnesses are questioned and how they are able to repeat the blasphemy as part of their testimony without themselves incurring punishment for their words. The discussion continues in order to streamline the procedure for dealing with this sin so that it fits in with the general protocols for capital punishment. The halachic discussions continue on and on and the prohibition of blasphemy is “regulated” until it fits into the normative system of prohibitions: the curse has clearly defined content, the evidence must be brought in a certain way, and the standard rules of court apply. It may seem that through all this codification and regulation we have lost the original sense of clarity, the intuitive knowledge that such an act is unacceptable. 

On the other hand this intuitive understanding is no longer necessary; in its place we have clear rules that regulate the discussion and determine the fate of the offender. 

It bears mentioning that there are similar chronicles that describe the development of laws in other contexts. In the State of Israel and in places all over the world there are times when a horrific incident eventually becomes just another section of the penal code. One incident that comes to mind concerns a man by the name of Mr. Bash who left an old refrigerator outside of his house. Tragically, two neighborhood children were found dead after going into the refrigerator when they were playing. (196/64, Psak Din Hayoetz hamishpati N. M. Bash) 

The case centered around the question of whether or not Mr. Bash could have foreseen such a tragic outcome and done something to prevent it. Until that point there was no clear law that prohibited people from leaving out refrigerators like this. After the court findings in his case and his indictment a new provision was added to the penal code that prohibits leaving refrigerators out while their doors are still attached. The codification of the law into a clear prohibition took the natural shock and sadness that resulted from this event and turned it into just another law like any other.

In some ways turning something like this into law makes it seem that we as a society do not see the need for people to rely on their intuition and conscience. It minimizes the general demand we make from all people to be responsible for their actions and think about the consequences. As law books get longer and more extensive they leave less room for natural human ethics. It may seem like we lack faith in society. At the same time there is value to the codification. Through the enactment of the law the courts declare that the accused must bear responsibility for his actions. If he had been careful he could have averted such a tragedy. 

In the time of the blasphemer the questions the people had were clearly answered directly by God. The case of Mr. Bash was also decided by the lawmaker. Every once in a while we experience a similar confusion. The translation of intuition into clearly defined halacha involves a complicated process. We are left with many questions. Must halacha be adjusted so it is consistent with new realities and changes in circumstances? Are we obligated to translate the Torah into the vernacular based on societal changes in attitude? And should we try to make halacha fit our intuitions and instincts, or maybe we should continue to act within the formal framework in the same way that it was accepted in the past, and trust the general public to act within the bounds of what is moral and ethical?




Wed, January 17 2018 1 Shevat 5778