Words matter: The importance of not cursing any person

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18)

The word Mishpat in Hebrew can have many meanings.  One simple meaning is that a Mishpat is a sentence. The word Mishpat can also mean ordinance or judgement. The plural of the word Mishpat is Mishpatim.  This week’s Torah Portion which contains 53 of the 613 commandments in the Torah, is called “Mishpatim,” and it is certainly an appropriate name. Most of the numerous commandments found in this week’s portion, are interpersonal laws, which we naturally understand to be the prerequisites of a civilized society.  The majority of “Judgments” here are under the category of Mitzvot Bain Adam L’Chavero –  commandments that are between man and his fellow human being.

Although in everyday speech cursing is often confused with merely foul language, its more precise meaning, according to the Torah, is to “put a curse upon someone.” Such everyday expressions as “Go to Gehenim” would therefore come under this heading. There are many references to curses in the Torah often placed side by side with parallel blessings. In this weeks parsha of Mishpatim, we find the verse “You shall not blaspheme the L-rd (Elokim) and curse a leader in your people” (Exodus 22:28).

Translating this verse presents a serious question. The Hebrew word Elokim means ‘a higher power’. I sometimes refers to a human ‘higher power,’ namely a judge who sits in court or on a Beth Din. (as in verse 22:8 ) Usually, though, it refers to Hashem/G-d. So, which does it mean here? In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 66a) Rabbi Akiva says that in our verse “Elokim” has its usual meaning of G-d, whereas Rabbi Yishmael claims that it refers to a judge. After much debate, the Talmud concludes that the word “Elokim” is actually a double entendre and the first phrase therefore prohibits both cursing G-d and a human judge!  As a result our verse forbids cursing Hashem or G-d, or cursing judges or our politicians. Many social media bloggers and news media commentators might take heart to this “Mishpat.”

So. why did the Torah single out judges and political leaders as the subjects of this prohibition?

It is certainly true that judges and politicians are in the public eye and are easy targets for peoples’ curses, but does this mean that everybody else is fair game? Is the Torah solely concerned with protecting those in positions of authority or in the public eye? The answer to this question is to be found in a different verse in the book of Leviticus 19:14 “You shall not curse a deaf person….”

The deaf man lies right at the opposite end of the spectrum to those in power. He cannot even hear the curse let alone respond.  As Ramban – Nachmanides, the great commentator, points out, it is these two classes, the powerful and the powerless, who are most often the subjects of abuse by those of us who are the average guys on the street and the “vocal majority”. In fact the Talmud (Sanhedrin 66a) goes on to teach us that all members of society from each end of the spectrum are covered by the prohibition. It is even forbidden to curse yourself!  There is only one exception. The phrase “in your people” which ends our first verse is explained as meaning only as long as the individual acts as one of the people and conforms to the norms of society and the values of the Torah. Hence the verse does not forbid cursing those who deliberately bash Torah and Jewish law and publicly show pride in doing so.

We all have heard the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. But, this not the Torah’s attitude, which, in Leviticus 25:17, forbids verbally hurting or offending others at all.

Maimonides, The Rambam,  in his Sefer Hamitzvot uses this verse, Leviticus 19:14, “You shall not curse a deaf person….” to teach that even when it is impossible that the curse will be heard, as in the case of the deaf, that it is still forbidden. (Negative prohibition #317)

One point emerges. As far as the Torah is concerned, curses, and all forms of speech, are extremely powerful and can make a major impact on others and on ourselves. As such, we must always measure our words and their consequences very carefully.  

Rabbi Doug Zelden is the Rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago, host of the weekly TV Show “Taped with… Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com), and chaplain at Home Bound Hospice.       

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