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Notes from Moishe House


Rabbi Joel Levy

The UK is currently in the process of has just* abolishing its centuries-old blasphemy laws—the whole thing started with David Blunkett deciding it was not right that Britain had blasphemy laws defending only Christianity. The question was whether to extend it to all religions, or, as it turns out, to remove them and replace them with laws against incitement to religious hatred.

* These notes sat on the side for a while before being finished off.

The last successful blasphemy prosecution in 1977, Whitehouse vs. Lemon: The editor of Gay News who published James Kirkup's poem "The Love That Dared to Speak Its Name", which portrayed Jesus as gay. (There were unsuccessful, attempted, prosecutions since, as recently as 2007, in re the Jerry Springer opera.)


Blasphemy is conceived very different in the Bible and the Talmud. The primary Toraitic source is Leviticus 24:

Leviticus 24:1-24:23 ויקרא כד א־ויקרא כד כג
The son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel. This half-Israelite and an Israelite man strove together in the camp; and the half-Israelite blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. So they brought him unto Moses (his mother's name was Shelomith bat Divri, of the tribe of Dan), and they put him into custody, that the mind of the LORD might be shown them. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Take the curser outside the camp; and let all those who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. Now speak to the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the LORD's name shall surely be put to death: all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the foreigner as the native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. ויצא בן אשה ישראלית והוא בן איש מצרי בתוך בני ישראל וינצו במחנה בן הישראלית ואיש הישראלי׃ ויקב בן האשה הישראלית את השם ויקלל ויביאו אתו אל משה ושם אמו שלמית בת דברי למטה דן׃ ויניחהו במשמר לפרש להם על פי ה׳׃ וידבר ה׳ אל משה לאמר׃ הוצא את המקלל אל מחוץ למחנה וסמכו כל השמעים את ידיהם על ראשו ורגמו אתו כל העדה׃ ואל בני ישראל תדבר לאמר איש איש כי יקלל אלהיו ונשא חטאו׃ ונקב שם ה׳ מות יומת רגום ירגמו בו כל העדה כגר כאזרח בנקבו שם יומת׃

This is the first piece of narrative of any description for a long time in the Torah; it follows reams upon reams of laws about sanctity. Then it discusses the case of what to do with someone who rejects the notion of sanctity. It's inevitable, in that case, that the blasphemer has to die, in this culture that venerates sanctity so highly.

The law is played out in the context of a narrative; it doesn't just present it in a void. The blasphemer is the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian; he's one of the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt with the Israelites. It might be suggesting here that blasphemy is the act of someone who sees themselves at the edge of the community. (People right in the centre would never think to do so; people outside of the community altogether don't know to do so.) Cf. how easily Westerners nowadays act in a way Muslims interpret as blasphemous—they know just enough to be act to talk about it, but not enough to know how to talk about it.

What does the blasphemer do? The text says "ויקב". The Talmud gives three possible meanings: to curse, to pierce or to pronounce; for all of which textual proofs can be found in the תנ״ך (see below).

Because the curse is separately mentioned, it looks like the פשט is to pronounce—though the Talmud doesn't want you to interpret it that way. looking at the punishment too, it looks like there are two separate things going on: cursing G-d, and being נֹקֵב against the name of G-d.

This is one of the few cases where they don't know what to do with the sinner.

"Every man who curses his God shall bear his sin." Why his God? It could be a general prohibition on cursing gods. There is a tradition that goes in this direction: Zohar Section 3 p. 106b:

איש איש כי יקלל אלקיו ואע״ג דפולחנא נוכראה הוא כיון דאנא פקודת לון ממנא לדברא עלמא מאן דלייט ומבזי לון ונשא חטאו ודאי דהא ברשותי קיימין ואזלי ומדברין בני עלמא׃ אבל ונוקב שם יי׳ מות יומת לאו ונשא חטאו כמה לאלין אלא מות יומת׃

"'Anyone who curses his god,' even if it's a foreign worship." The Zohar understands this verse as saying everyone should be respectful towards the sanctity in his society; and should be punished according to the punishment for disrespect in his society: a public order act!


Midrash Tanḥuma, Emor 23 מדרש תנחומא

And the son of an Israelite woman... went out: From where did he go out?

R. Levi said: He went out of [i.e. forfeited] his [share in] eternity/the world [to come?]. As it is stated [1 Sam. 17:4], "And there went out a champion from the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath."

R. Berakhya said: From where did he go out? From [i.e. he repudiated] the prevoius paragraph [in the source text], where it is stated, "You shall take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes of it... Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually." [Lev. 24:5-8]. [The blasphemer] taunted: Kings are served with hot, freshly baked loaves, not stale ones!

ויצא בן אשה ישראלית׃ מהיכן יצא?

רבי לוי אומר, מעולמו יצא, כמו דאמרת, ויצא איש הבינים׃

רבי ברכיה אמר, מהיכן יצא׃ מפרשה של מעלה, שנאמר, ולקחת סולת ואפית אותה שתים עשרה חלות׃ אמר, דרך המלך לאכול פת חמה, שמא צנינא׃

Midrash Tanḥuma, Emor 24 מדרש תנחומא

And the son of an Israelite woman... went out:

Rabbi Ḥamah bar Abba said: From dealing with matters of personal status.

He had sought to pitch his tent in the midst of the camp of Dan, but they had pushed him away saying: [Sifra: By what right do you pitch in the camp of Dan?] You are the son of an Egyptian. The Torah states: "Every man of the Children of Israel shall pitch by their own standard, with the ensigns of their fathers' houses" [Num. 2:2] and not their mothers' houses! [Sifra: He appealed to the court of Moses but lost his case whereupon] he immediately began to utter the Name and to curse it.

ויצא בן אשה ישראלית׃

רבי חמא בר אבא אמר, מפרשת יוחסין יצא׃

שכשבא ליטע אהלו במחנה דן, דחוהו׃ אמרו לו, בן מצרי אתה, וכתיב, איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם, ולא לבית אמותם׃ מיד התחיל לנקוב את השם ולקללו׃


The Babylonian Talmud also buys into this notion; and it becomes the jumping off point for the discussion of blasphemy in the Seven Noachide Laws, the seven rules for non-Jews living in Jewish society.

As for the death penalty for cursing the name YHVH, does this mean the death penalty applies for other names of G-d too? There is a big מחלוקת here between the Rabbis and Rabbi Meir in the period of the Mishna. The Rabbis all say no.

What is the status of the Noachide Laws today in the UK? In the UK, not much, but in America there has been an attempt to convince non-Jews that they have to keep them. (There are voices in the Talmud which say this too.)

Note that the verse immediately after the blasphemy laws is "Any man who kills a man shall surely be put to death": even though the death penalty is prescribed for blasphemy, people are not to take the law into their own hands.

The primary Mishnaic source for the laws of blasphemy can be found in Sanhedrin 55b:

The blasphemer is punished only if he utters [the Divine] Name. R. Yehoshua ben Qorḥa said the whole day [of the trial] the witnesses are examined by means of a substitute for the Divine Name, thus, "May Yossi smite Yossi." When the trial was finished, the accused was not executed on this evidence, but all persons were removed [from court], and the chief witness was told, "State literally what you heard." Thereupon he did so, [using the Divine Name]. The judges then arose and rent their garments, which rent was not to be resewn. The second witness stated, "I too have heard thus" [but not uttering the Divine Name], and the third says, "I too have heard thus." המגדף אינו חייב עד שיפרש השם א״ר יהושע בן קרחה בכל יום דנין את העדים בכינוי יכה יוסי את יוסי נגמר הדין לא הורגין בכינוי אלא מוציאין כל אדם לחוץ שואלין את הגדול שביניהן ואומר לו אמור מה ששמעת בפירוש והוא אומר והדיינין עומדין על רגליהן וקורעין ולא מאחין והשני אומר אף אני כמוהו והשלישי אומר אף אני כמוהו׃

This is a solution for how you can put someone to death for blasphemy without repeating the Divine Name. (Cf. Life of Brian.)

What's "May G-d smite G-d"? It's because "He blasphemes G-d" appears twice in the Biblical verse (24:16), so they said the name of G-d has to appear twice.

The Gemara quotes a ברייתא:

It has been taught: "[The blasphemer is not punished] unless he 'blesses' the Name, by the Name."

From where do we know this? Samuel said: The Torah says, "And he that blasphemes [נוקב] the name of the LORD... when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death."

תנא עד שיברך שם בשם

מנהני מילי אמר שמואל דאמר קרא ונוקב שם וגו׳ בנקבו שם יומת

This is the accepted norm in the Mishnaic period for what it means to blaspheme G-d.

What's going on here? Part of it is trying to limit the penalty—unless you use a very specific phrase, the death penalty does not apply.

The other way of reading this is: blasphemer is quintessentially the act of someone who curses G-d by using G-d's name: someone who's enough of a Jew to know how to curse G-d. When you curse, you use G-d's name; but you hate it enough to curse G-d. The act of someone who is in and out at the same time. Eskimos cannot blaspheme. It's only Jews who can really hate Judaism.

There then follows a discussion on what exactly נוקב means.

How do you know that the word נוקב means a "blessing"?

From the verse, "How shall I curse [אקב] whom G-d has not cursed?" [Num. 23:8] whilst the formal prohibition is contained in the verse, "You shall not revile God." [Ex. 22:27]

But perhaps it means "to pierce",

as it is written, "So Yehoiadah the priest took a chest and bored [ויקב] a hole in the lid of it [2 Kings 12:10], the formal injunction against this being the verses, "You shall destroy the names of them [idols] out of that place. You shall not do so unto the LORD your G-d" [Deut. 12: 3ff].
The Name must be 'blessed' by the Name, which is absent here!
But perhaps the text refers to the putting of two slips of parchment, each bearing the Divine Name, together, and piercing them both?
In that case, one Name is pierced after the other.
But perhaps it prohibits the engraving of the Divine Name on the point of a knife and piercing therewith [the Divine Name written on a slip of parchment]?
In that case, the point of the knife pierces, not the Divine Name.

But perhaps it refers to the pronunciation of the ineffable Name,

as it is written, "And Moses and Aaron took these men which are expressed [נקבו] by their names" [Num. 1:17], the formal prohibition being contained in the verse, "You shall fear the LORD your G-d" [Deut. 6:13]?
Firstly, the Name must be "blessed" by the Name, which is absent here;
and secondly it is a prohibition in the form of a positive command, which is not deemed to be a prohibition at all.
And alternative answer is this: The Torah says, "And the Israelite woman's son blasphemed [ויקב] and cursed", proving that blasphemy [נוקב] denotes cursing.
But perhaps it teaches that both offences must be perpetrated?
You cannot think so, because it is written, "Bring forth him that has cursed" [Lev. 24:14] and not "him that has blasphemed and cursed," proving that one offence only is alluded to.

ממאי דהאי נוקב לישנא דברוכי

הוא דכתיב מה אקב לא קבה אל ואזהרתיה מהכא אלהים לא תקלל

ואימא מיברז

הוא דכתיב ויקב חור בדלתו ואזהרתיה מהכא ואבדתם את שמם לא תעשון כן לה׳ אלהיכם
בעינא שם בשם וליכא ואימא דמנח שני שמות אהדדי ובזע להו ההוא נוקב וחוזר ונוקב הוא ואימא דחייק שם אפומא דסכינא ובזע בה ההוא חורפא דסכינא הוא דקא בזע

אימא פרושי שמיה

הוא דכתיב ויקח משה ואהרן את האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות ואזהרתיה מהכא את ה׳ אלהיך תירא
חדא דבעינא שם בשם וליכא ועוד הויא ליה אזהרת עשה ואזהרת עשה לא שמה אזהרה ואיבעית אימא אמר קרא ויקב ויקלל למימרא דנוקב קללה הוא ודילמא עד דעבד תרוייהו לא סלקא דעתך דכתיב הוצא את המקלל ולא כתיב הוצא את הנוקב והמקלל שמע מינה חדא היא׃

All of these are seemingly legitimate explanations. The meaning "to curse" is the one that wins. They reject the "piercing" interpretation because it is not possible to pierce the name of G-d with the name of G-d. They also bend over backwards to reject the "pronunciation" interpretation, giving four or five reasons. Hence merely pronouncing the name of G-d does not constitute blasphemy.

Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a

Our rabbis taught: "'Any man that curses his G-d shall bear his sin' [Lev. 24:15]: [It would have been sufficient to say] 'A man, etc'. What is taught by the expression 'any man'? The inclusion of non-Jews, to whom blasphemy is prohibited just as to Israelites, and they are executed by decapitation; for every death penalty decreed for the Children of Noah is only by decapitation."

Now, is [the prohibition of blasphemy to non-Jews] deduced from this verse? But is it not deduced from another, "The LORD" [Gen 2:16] referring to the "blessing" of the Divine Name!

R. Isaac the smith replied; this phrase ["any man"] is necessary only as teaching the inclusion of substitutes of G-d's name, and the ברייתא is taught in accordance with R. Meir's views; for it has been taught:

"'Any man that curses his G-d shall bear his sin' [24:15] Why is this written? Has it not already been stated, 'And he that blasphemes the name of the LORD, shall surely be put to death'? [24:16]* Because it is stated, 'And he that blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death,' I might think that death is meted out only when the ineffable Name is employed. From where do I know that all substitutes [of the ineffable Name] are included?

"From the verse, 'Any man that curses his G-d'—showing culpability for any manner of blasphemy [even without uttering the Name, since the Name is not mentioned in this sentence]:

תנו רבנן איש מה תלמוד לומר איש איש לרבות את העובדי כוכבים שמוזהרין על ברכת השם כישראל ואינן נהרגין אלא בסייף שכל מיתה האמורה בבני נח אינה אלא בסייף

והא מהכא נפקא מהתם נפקא ה׳ זו ברכת השם

אמר ר׳ יצחק נפחא לא נצרכא אלא לרבותא הכינויין ואליבא דרבי מאיר

דתניא איש איש כי יקלל אלהיו ונשא חטאו מה תלמוד לומר והלא כבר נאמר ונוקב שם ה׳ מות יומת לפי שנאמר ונוקב שם מות יומת יכול לא יהא חייב אלא על שם המיוחד בלבד מניין לרבות כל הכינויין?

תלמוד לומר איש כי יקלל אלהיו מכל מקום

* This is the first source trying to split the two halves of the verse and make sense of the two.

"This is the view of R. Meir. But the Sages maintain: [Blasphemy] with use of the ineffable Name is punishable by death; with the employment of substitutes, it is the object of an injunction [but not punishable by death]." דברי רבי מאיר וחכמים אומרים על שם המיוחד במיתה ועל הכינויין באזהרה

There is no hint in the Mishnaic material that non-Jews might be held more accountable than Jews in the blasphemy laws.

This view [of R. Isaac the smith] conflicts with that of R. Miyasha, for R. Miyasha said: If a son of Noah blasphemed, employing substitutes of the ineffable Name,* he is in the opinion of the Sages punishable by death. ופליגא דרבי מיישא דאמר רבי מיישא בן נח שבירך את השם בכינויים לרבנן חייב

* Any of the names of G-d.

† We are really sensitive about our religion!

Why so? Because it is written, "as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land [when he blasphemes the name of the LORD, shall be put to death]" [24:16].* This teachers that only the stranger [i.e. a proselyte], and the native [i.e. a natural-born Israelite] must utter the ineffable Name; but the non-Jew is punishable even for a substitute only. מאי טעמא דאמר קרא כגר כאזרח גר ואזרח הוא דבעינן בנקבו שם אבל עובד כוכבים אפילו בכינוי

* But this is saying that the law is the same for Jews and non-Jews! In Babylonia גר meant a convert. They effectively made a new midrash of the text: if even Jews and converts are liable for the death penalty for uttering the Divine Name, then non-Jews are held to a higher standard! This eventually became the accepted opinion. Note, however, that in Babylonia the Jews were politically impotent—no one was going to be putting anyone to death! The Jews can say anything they want and feel confident no one is going to do anything about them. Cf. the chareidim in the UK, where they are safe, and in Israel, where they are scary because they have real power.

But how does R. Meir interpret the verse, "as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land"? It teaches that the stranger and the citizen are stoned, but a non-Jew is decapitated. For I would think that, since they are included [in the prohibition], they are included [in the manner of execution too]; hence we are taught otherwise.

Now how does R. Isaac the smith interpret the verse, "as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land", on the view of the Rabbis? It teaches that only a strange and a native must revile the Name by the Name, but for a non-Jew this is unnecessary. Why does the Torah state any man? The Torah employed normal human speech.

Our rabbis taught: "seven precepts were the children of Noah commanded: social laws, to refrain from blasphemy; idolatry; adultery; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal."

ורבי מאיר האי כגר כאזרח מאי עביד ליה גר ואזרח בסקילה אבל עובד כוכבים בסייף סלקא דעתך אמינא הואיל ואיתרבו איתרבו קא משמע לן

ורבי יצחק נפחא אליבא דרבנן האי כגר כאזרח מאי עביד ליה גר ואזרח הוא דבעינן שם בשם אבל עובד כוכבים לא בעינן שם בשם איש איש למה לי דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם

תנו רבנן שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח דינין וברכת השם עבודה זרה גילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים׃

If Jews curse G-d, that's okay: Jews are always moaning about G-d—but if someone else does it, that's different!

There also a sense in which if you are a minority community, and you feel threatened—like the Muslim community today—you develop very sensitive antennae against blasphemy.

In the Amoraic period, they've essentially reframed blasphemy from a Jewish crime to a more non-Jewish one. The Jews in Babylon were terrified of blasphemy because they felt vulnerable, and they wished to displace it onto non-Jews. This speaks to the condition for Muslim in Europe now.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-07-13 12:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grumpyolddog.livejournal.com
Thank you, another enlightening read. It won't stop me from freely blaspheming, though.

Tell me something - in your opinion, could a law against incitement of religious hatred be used against somebody trying to incite a hatred of religion?

Date: 2008-07-13 12:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Thank you, another enlightening read. It won't stop me from freely blaspheming, though.

Your right to do so is enshrined in law, after all...

Tell me something - in your opinion, could a law against incitement of religious hatred be used against somebody trying to incite a hatred of religion?acting on such incitement would be open to prosecution on the grounds of discrimination on the basis of religion.)

That said, such anti-theists as I've come across have tended to be insightful rather than inciteful...

Date: 2008-07-28 03:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
When it just talks about men are not allowed then women can blaspheme as much as they want. (Hehe!!!)

It is still not clear to me what is seen as blasphemie. I am glad to hear that saying the name of God (which we do not how to pronounce, anyway) is not considered as blasphemie.


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