Shabbat-Table Talks: Emor

By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil

[This week's Table Talks is dedicated in memory of Meyer Tawil.]

Value: Not to abuse the gift of speech by cursing or insulting. One of the most important differences between man and animals is the power of speech. It allows for nuanced communication of ideas and feelings. Speech can create special feelings for someone or for situations. Let us recognize the power of speech and never abuse it by cursing or insulting someone.

Context: In the midst of portions whose major concern is law, a brief narrative is the occasion of some very important laws concerning the power of speech. Two people were fighting and in the heat of the fight one cursed God. He is sentence to death by God and stoned to death by the Children of Israel.

Text: (Leviticus 23:10-16,23)

Now the son of an Israelite woman went out—he was (also) the son of an Egyptian man—amid the Children of Israel; and they scuffled in the camp, the son of the Israelite woman and the (fully) Israelite man. Now the son of the Israelite woman reviled the Name, and insulted (it), so they brought him to Moshe…and they put him under guard, to clarify it for them by order of Hashem.

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Take-out the insulter, outside the camp, let all those who heard (the curse) lean their hands on his head and let the entire community pelt him! And to the Children of Israel you are to speak, saying: Any-man, any-man that insults his God—he shall bear his sin. If he also reviles the name of Hashem he is to be put to death, yes, death, the entire community is to pelt him, yes, pelt him; as the sojourner, so the native, when he reviles the Name, he is to be put-to-death!…

Thus spoke Moshe to the Children of Israel. They took out the insulter, outside the camp and they pelted him with stones; so the Children of Israel did as Hashem had commanded Moshe.

Discussion: Ask: What was the insulter’s punishment? (He was stoned to death. Begin with an easy question to get participation.)

Why do you think the punishment was so severe? Do you think that God was "hurt" in any way by the man’s cursing? (Of course, in the physical or even emotional sense God can never be "hurt." Blaspheming or insulting God weakens the impression of God in the society. Having a strong sense of accountability to a just God is a pillar of morality. When the idea of God is weakened in the society, moral relativism sets in. This erodes the moral underpinning of society.

Why do you think that all those who heard the insulter have to lean their hands on the insulter’s head? (It is a way of transferring all guilt of even hearing God insulted to the guilty one.)

The whole community stones the person to death because he threatened the whole society by denigrating God.

[Note that the Tanakh (Job 1 and 2) and the Rabbinic tradition even refer to the offense euphemistically as "blessing" God. During the blasphemer’s trial, the witnesses do not pronounce the exact words that they heard from the blasphemer. Instead they use a euphemism. Yet, before the court can convict they must hear the precise words that the blasphemer said. They remove everyone from the court and tell the most important of the witnesses, "say explicitly what you heard," and he says it." The judges stand up on their feet and rip their garments and do not ever sew up the rip. The effect of even hearing the words repeated requires a reaction of the severest mourning.]

Cursing God is one of the seven Noahhide commandments incumbent, according to tradition, on all the world’s peoples. Belief in and reverence of a just God is a fundamental part of Judaism’s understanding of the world.

So, even though nothing physical or even emotional was done to God, insulting God has a detrimental effect on society and deserves the most severe punishment that the human court can mete out.


To younger children:

Words can hurt. We must never use words to curse or insult one another. Our sages have taught us that even calling someone by a nickname can be a terrible insult. We should be very careful with the way we use our words. The saying: "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me," is simply not true. Insulting words can harm in a very real way. We must use God’s gift of speech in a way that promotes friendship and fear of God, and not in ways that detract from these important society-building values.

To older children:

Symbols are important. In the earlier part of the discussion, we learned that even though he does not affect God, the blasphemer is punished severely because of the impact that his words have on the society. Similarly (lehavdil elef havdalot), symbols in our society should be respected. For example, our custom of kissing a Torah book when we finish using it or when it falls might appear irrational, yet it is a very strong symbol of the reverence and appreciation we have for our holy books. [By the way, secular symbols are very important as well. For example, we salute the flag of the United States of America and are pained at its "desecration." Not because the piece of material on a pole has any inherent importance, but because it symbolizes the values of our society ("one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.")]


For all:

The language a person uses says a lot about his character, upbringing, education, refinement and many other aspects of the person. It is part of the impression that we make on the world. Using foul language never, reflects well on a person.



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