Question #1: Nasty Neighbor
Mrs. Goodhearted asks: “I have a neighbor who seems a bit disturbed and often spews out abusive invective against me. I am concerned that her cursing may bring evil things upon me. What should I do?”
Question #2: A Friend in Vain
Mr. Closefriend inquires: “A close friend of mine often makes comments like ‘for G-d’s sake,’ which I know are things that we may not say. I wanted my friend to be one of the witnesses at my wedding, but an acquaintance mentioned that my friend may not be a kosher witness, because he uses G-d’s Name in vain. Is this really true?”
This week’s parshah, Va’eschanan, mentions several mitzvos that involve respecting the sanctity of Hashem’s name, including not swearing falsely and not cursing people. This provides an opportunity to study many of the laws about oaths, curses, and the proscription against taking Hashem’s name in vain. (For clarification: although both “swear” and “curse” are often used to mean “speaking vulgar language,” for this entire article I will not be using these words in this sense, but will use “swear” in the sense of “taking an oath,” and “curse” to mean “expressing desire that misfortune befall someone.”)
The Rambam counts a total of thirteen different mitzvos, ten mitzvos Lo Saaseh and three mitzvos Aseh, that involved oaths and curses. The ten Lo Saaseh prohibitions are:
1. Not to break an oath or commitment that one has made. (The Torah’s commandment concerning this law is located at the beginning of Parshas Matos. It is counted and discussed in the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos as Lo Saaseh #157 and in the Sefer Hachinuch as Mitzvah #407.)
2. Not to swear falsely (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #61; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #227). This is derived from the words, lo sishav’u bishmi lashaker, “you shall not swear falsely in My name,” which appear in this week’s parshah.
3. Not to deny falsely, with an oath, that one owes money. This mitzvah is also located in this week’s parshah and is derived from the words lo seshakru ish ba’amiso, “do not lie to your fellowman,” which Chazal interpret as a prohibition against swearing a false oath denying that one owes money (Bava Kama 105b; Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #249; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #226).
4. Not to swear an oath that has no purpose (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #62; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #30). This mitzvah is derived from the words of the Aseres Hadibros, you shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain.
5. Not to cause someone to swear in the name of an idol (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #14; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #86). This mitzvah is derived from the words vesheim elohim acherim… lo yishama al picha, “You should not cause the names of other gods to be used in an oath,” in Parshas Mishpatim (23:13; see Sanhedrin 63b).
6. Not to curse Hashem (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #60; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #70).
7. Not to curse one’s parents (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #318).
8. Not to curse the king of the Jewish people or the head of the Sanhedrin, who is called the Nasi (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1; Sefer Hamitzvos 316; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #71). This mitzvah is derived from the words venasi be’amecha lo sa’or in Parshas Mishpatim.
9. Not to curse a dayan, a judge presiding over a beis din proceeding (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #315; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #69; Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1). This mitzvah is derived from the words Elohim lo sekaleil in Parshas Mishpatim.
10. Not to curse any Jew (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1; Sefer Hamitzvos 317; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #231). This mitzvah is derived from a verse in Parshas Kedoshim, since it is included under the Torah prohibition do not curse a deaf person. As the Sefer Hachinuch explains the mitzvah, “do not curse any Jewish man or woman, even one who cannot hear the curse.”
Four in one
We should note that the above-mentioned mitzvos are not mutually exclusive, and one could violate several of them at the same time. For example, the son of the Nasi of the Sanhedrin who curses his father violates four different Lo Saaseh prohibitions: for cursing: (1) a Jew, (2) his father, (3) a dayan, (4) the head of the Sanhedrin (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #231).
As we will see shortly, violating most of these prohibitions is punishable by 39 malkus, lashes (Temurah 3b). This is highly surprising, since violating a Torah mitzvah through speech does not usually lead to a sentence of malkus (Temurah 3a). However, the laws of swearing and cursing are exceptions to the usual rule, which demonstrates the severity of these prohibitions.
Three positive mitzvos
In addition to the ten Lo Saaseh mitzvos that this topic covers, there are also three positive mitzvos involved:
1. A mitzvah to fulfill something that one has accepted to do (located at the beginning of Parshas Matos; Sefer Hamitzvos, Mitzvas Aseh #94; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah # 406).
2. Fearing Hashem, which includes treating His Name with respect (see Temurah 4a).
3. The Rambam counts a positive mitzvah of swearing, which we will soon explain (Sefer Hamitzvos #7).
What does a curse accomplish?
At this point, I would like to explain a very important and often misunderstood concept. When someone curses an innocent person, the curse causes no harm. To quote Rav Moshe Feinstein, “When someone curses his fellowman, the prohibition is not because it causes harm to the other person. First of all, Heaven will ignore a curse that was performed in violation of the Torah. Second of all, a curse without basis does not bring harm.” Rav Moshe refers to the verse in Mishlei (26:2): an unjustified curse affects only the one who uttered it. Rav Moshe continues “a curse of this nature causes no harm” (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 3:78).
Furthermore, even the curses and evil intended by sorcerers (kishuf) do not affect Jews, since we are directly connected to Hashem, and therefore not affected by kishuf (Ramban, Bamidbar 24:23).
Rav Moshe concludes that one who cursed a fellow Jew is punished because he embarrassed someone, and because he acted with disdain for Hashem’s Holy Name. However, Rav Moshe explains that there is a difference in halachah between cursing someone else and cursing oneself. Someone who curses himself indeed will bring upon himself punishment and harm (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 3:78).
Based on Rav Moshe’s analysis of the mitzvah, we can now understand several other halachos of cursing. Cursing a child old enough to understand what was said is liable to the same level of punishment as cursing an adult. This is because it is prohibited to hurt a child’s feelings, just as it is forbidden to insult an adult. However, cursing a dead person is exempt from the punishment of malkus (Toras Kohanim on Parshas Kedoshim; Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1-2). This is because the dead feel no pain when someone curses them. (There is one situation in which cursing a dead person is indeed punished — cursing one’s parents after their demise is a fully culpable crime [Sanhedrin 85b, quoted by Kesef Mishneh, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:2].)
Cursing without using Hashem’s Name
Cursing a person without using G-d’s Name does not incur the punishment of malkus. However, the beis din has the halachic right and responsibility to punish the offender in a way that they feel is appropriate (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:5).
Having heard Rav Moshe’s explanation of the mitzvah, we can now explain why someone who curses without using Hashem’s Name is not liable. The most severe violation, which incurs the punishment of malkus, is violated only if one committed both aspects of the sin – he demonstrated total disregard both for G-d and for man, by desecrating G-d’s Name and by offending someone. However, one who cursed without offending anyone living, or who cursed without desecrating Hashem’s Name is spared from receiving corporeal chastisement, because his infringement was not of the highest level.
At this point, we can address our first question above. Mrs. Goodhearted asked: “I have a neighbor who seems a bit disturbed and often spews out abusive invective against me. I am concerned that her cursing may bring evil things upon me. What should I do?”
I would advise her to avoid her neighbor when she can, but for a different reason. Mrs. Goodhearted is concerned that she will be damaged by the neighbor’s curses – but according to Rav Moshe, there is no cause for concern. However, if her neighbor is sane enough to be responsible for her actions, the neighbor will be punished for cursing and for hurting people’s feelings, and Mrs. Goodhearted should try to avoid giving her neighbor an opportunity to sin.
Cursing in English
Does cursing using G-d’s Name in a language other than Hebrew violate this prohibition? The Rambam rules that cursing someone using a vernacular Name of G-d is also prohibited min haTorah and chayov malkus (Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:3; see also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 27:1).
What type of oath?
Having discussed the prohibitions against cursing one’s fellow Jew, let us now discuss the prohibitions against swearing in vain. What type of oath did the Torah prohibit taking?
In general, the Torah prohibits taking any type of oath, even when the oath is true, because it is an oath that has no purpose (Temurah 3b). For example, someone who swears truthfully that he did not eat anything today violates the Lo Saaseh, you shall not take Hashem’s Name in vain, since this oath accomplishes nothing.
Someone who swears an oath that is false, such as one who falsely swears that he did not eat breakfast that day, violates both the proscription for swearing a false oath and also for swearing a vain oath, since it serves no purpose.
There are two instances when the Torah permits someone to swear a truthful oath (Temurah 3b). This is derived from the fact that the Torah says in two different places (Devarim 6:13; 10:20), uveshmo tishavei’a, “in His Name, you may swear.” We will see shortly that the halachic authorities dispute whether the words uveshmo tishavei’a should be translated as “in His Name, you shall swear” or as “in His Name you may swear.”
Encouraging mitzvah observance
What are the two exceptional instances in which the Torah permits someone to swear an oath?
(1) The first is when someone swears an oath as an incentive to support his efforts at growth and self-improvement. One may take an oath to encourage himself to perform a mitzvah that he might otherwise not perform (Temurah 3b). For example, one may swear to donate to tzedakah or to say a chapter of Tehillim every day.
Bear in mind that, in general, although permitted, it is not a good idea to create oaths or vows upon oneself (see Nedarim 22a). Someone who takes an oath or a vow is now bound to observe it, and failure to do so is a grievous sin. Therefore, although reciting such an oath (that has a purpose) does not violate the Torah’s prohibition against taking Hashem’s Name in vain, it is usually recommended not to do so.
A better approach is to accept the new practice bli neder, which means that one is hoping and planning to observe the new practice, but without the obligation and inherent problem of making it an obligation on the level of a shavua or a neder, a vow.
When required in litigation
(2) The second situation in which the Torah permitted swearing an oath is within the framework of halachic litigation. There are instances in which the psak halachah, the final ruling of a beis din, requires a litigant to take an oath in order to avoid paying or to receive payment. When the beis din rules that one is required to take an oath, the Gemara (Temurah 3b) concludes that the person swearing does not violate the Torah’s prohibition against swearing unnecessarily.
Permitted or a mitzvah?
It is important to note that in this last situation, the authorities dispute whether the halachah is that one may take an oath, but there is no mitzvah to do so, and we would discourage the oath, or whether in this situation it is a mitzvah to swear an oath. The Rambam (Hilchos Shavuos 11:1 and Sefer Hamitzvos, Positive Mitzvah #7) contends that someone who swears because of a din Torah fulfills a positive mitzvah of the Torah, uveshmo tishavei’a, “in His Name, you shall swear.” Others contend that this verse means simply “in His Name you may swear,” but that there is never a mitzvah of taking an oath (Ramban, Sefer Hamitzvos, Positive Mitzvah #7). Still others contend that even though the verse says, “in His Name you may swear,” this does not mean it is permitted to swear, but that one who swears is not punished for taking an oath (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #90). Thus, this last authority contends that one should avoid taking an oath even under these circumstances, and thereby explains why the custom is to pay large fees or fines rather than swear an oath that is fully truthful.
Testimony without oaths
It is worthwhile to note that testimony in halachah does not require one to swear an oath. This can be juxtaposed to the secular legal system, in which one must take an oath or pledge for one’s testimony to be considered binding. A Jew’s word is sacrosanct, and any time he testifies or makes a claim in court, whether as a litigant, as a witness or as an attorney, he is halachically bound to tell only the truth. It is therefore a serious infraction of the Torah for someone to file a legal brief including statements that are not true. In addition, filing these statements may involve many other violations including loshon hora, rechilus, motzi shem ra, machlokes and arka’os.
Oath without G-d
Does swearing an oath without mentioning Hashem’s Name qualify as an oath? This question is discussed extensively by the Rishonim, who conclude that someone who commits himself to doing (or refraining from doing) something, using terminology that implies an oath, is now bound to observe the pledge, whether or not he mentioned Hashem’s Name (Rambam, Hilchos Shavuos 2:4; Rashba, Shavuos 36a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 137:1). Nevertheless, according to most authorities, swearing an oath that mentions Hashem’s Name is a more serious violation of the Torah (Rambam, Hilchos Shavuos 2:4).
Taking Hashem’s Name in vain
It is also prohibited min haTorah to use Hashem’s Name unnecessarily, even when one is not taking an oath. This is prohibited as a mitzvas Aseh, since it violates the words of the Torah, es Hashem Elokecha tira, “You shall fear Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 6:13). Thus, it is prohibited min haTorah for someone to say as an expletive, “For G-d’s sake,” “Oh, my G-d in Heaven” or similar exclamations.
In this context, the following halachic question is raised:
“Is there anything wrong with what the common folk say: ‘Just as G-d is True, so this is true!’ Does halachah consider this to be an oath?”
This question, which may sound very contemporary, is discussed almost five hundred years ago by the Radbaz (Shu’t #17), who writes that these types of declarations are very serious infractions of the Torah and are considered blasphemous. Anyone who makes such statements should be severely reprimanded and punished, so that he realizes how sinful this is and will take it upon himself to do teshuvah for his crime. The Radbaz states that it is very wrong to compare the existence and truth of anything else to Hashem’s existence and truth. Furthermore, someone who makes such a declaration about a falsehood denies the Creator and forfeits his share in the World to Come.
A Friend in Vain
At this point, we have enough introductory information that we can examine Mr. Closefriend’s question posed above:
“A close friend of mine often makes comments like ‘for G-d’s sake,’ which I know are things that we should not say. I wanted my friend to be one of the witnesses at my wedding, but an acquaintance mentioned that my friend may not be a kosher witness, because he uses G-d’s name in vain. Is this really true?”
Although Mr. Closefriend should convince his close friend that this callous referring to Hashem and His Holy name is prohibited, it does not qualify as making an oath in vain, but as a violation of the Mitzvas Aseh of fearing Hashem (Temurah 4a). As such, there is a difference in halachah.
The halachah is that there are two categories of people who are disqualified as witnesses because they are sinners. One is someone who has demonstrated that he will compromise halachah for monetary benefit (Rambam, Hilchos Edus 10:4). The other category is someone who violates a sin so severe that, during the time of the Sanhedrin, he could be punished with malkus (Rambam, Hilchos Edus 10:1-3; Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh 286; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 75). Such individuals may not serve as a witness to a wedding ceremony. Similarly, someone who curses people using G-d’s Name or one who swears is not a valid witness at a wedding ceremony. However, although it is highly sinful to violate mitzvos Aseh, one who violates them is not invalidated as a witness.
In addition to the above-mentioned reasons why one should be careful how and when one uses Hashem’s Name, the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 231) mentions the following reasons not to curse people. Cursing creates conflict, something we certainly want to avoid. Furthermore, we want to train ourselves not to be vengeful, and to learn to develop our self-control.
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