Parashas Re’eh opens with blessings and with curses: Hashem places before the nation of Israel a blessing if they uphold the Torah, and a curse if they fail to do so. The nation is instructed that, as they enter the Holy Land, they are to place the blessings and the curses upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival.
The mention of curses leads us to discuss, in the present article, the question of cursing others. In which manner is it forbidden to curse somebody else? Which type of curse is forbidden? Is it sometimes permitted to curse somebody? And should one fear another’s curse?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Torah Prohibition
The Torah mentions a prohibition against cursing somebody in three distinct contexts. The Torah forbids a person from cursing the deaf: “You shall not curse the deaf” (Vayikra 19:14). The Torah also states, “You must not curse elohim [referring to a judge], and you shall not curse a prince among your nation” (Shemos 22:27).
Another instance of cursing is prohibited by the instruction (Shemos 21:17), “And he who curses his father and mother—shall surely die.”
Also prohibited is cursing Hashem, which is included in the verse mentioned above. Based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 66b), the Chinuch (Mitzvah 69) explains that the Torah refers to judges as “elohim” to imply the prohibition against cursing Hashem (which Chazal refer to a birchas Hashem, “blessing the Name”).
Although the verses refer to specific objects of cursing—the deaf, judges and leaders—Chazal explain that the prohibition includes cursing any Jew. As Rashi (commentary to Vayikra 19:14) cites from Toras Kohanim, the words “among your nation” (Shemos 22:27) mean to include anybody who is part of “your people.”
The Rambam (Sanhedrin Chap. 26) writes:
“Anyone who curses one of the judges of Israel transgresses a negative commandment, as Shemos 22:27 states: Do not curse a judge. Similarly, if a person curses a nasi, whether the head of the Supreme Sanhedrin or a king, he transgresses a negative commandment, as the verse continues: Do not curse a prince among your nation. This prohibition does not apply only to a judge or a nasi. Instead, anyone who curses any other Jew receives lashes, as Vayikra 19:14 states: Do not curse the deaf.”
The Rambam asks (as do Chazal): If the prohibition applies to every Jew, why does the Torah specifically mention of the deaf? He answers: “To teach you that even when the person who is being cursed cannot hear, and thus will not be bothered by being cursed, the person pronouncing the curse is lashed.”
Note that it is forbidden even to curse oneself, which the Gemara (Shevuos 36a) derives from the verse, “only guard yourself and greatly beware for your soul” (Devarim 4:9). Somebody who curses others to their face will also transgress the prohibition of onaas devraim—causing them grief and hurt (Temura 3b).
The Rationale Behind the Prohibition
The Rambam, both in his above-cited words and in Sefer Hamitzvos, explains that the Torah prohibits cursing others since doing so evinces negative emotions of anger and vengeance, and it is this that the Torah means to prohibit.
The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos 317) explains that this is the reason the Torah forbids cursing somebody even when the victim is unaware of the curse: “For the Torah is not particular about the victim alone, but is particular even concerning the person who curses, in warning that he should not bring his spirit to revenge, nor accustom it to anger.”
Absent from the Rambam is the explanation given by the Chinuch (231), which is that the curse has a metaphysical effect on its victim. According to the Chinuch, “We are commanded to refrain from damaging others with our mouths, just as it is forbidden to damage with our actions.” By contrast with the “philosophers,” the Rashba (Meyuchasos Le-Ramban no. 286) cites several sources in Chazal demonstrating the potential damage of curses. According to the Chinuch, this potential damage underlies the Torah prohibition.
Several commentaries agree with the Chinuch (see, for instance commentary of Rekanati, Vayikra 19:14). However others, such as Abarbanel, question the power of curses to affect others, and side with the Rambam (see commentary to Bereishis 27:1; Bamidbar 22:7; see also Meshech Chochmah, Bamidbar 22:20).
Especially interesting is the approach adopted by Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe (Shut Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 3, no. 78) writes that the rationale behind the prohibition of cursing oneself is different from that of cursing others. It is forbidden to curse oneself because perhaps the curse will take effect and cause damage, and thus it is derived from the verse, “only guard yourself and greatly beware for your soul.” By contrast, a curse on others will surely not do any damage, for the curse is against the will of Hashem (it is forbidden, and also is unwarranted) and cannot have effect. Rather, the prohibition is because of the derision and disdain shown to the curse’s victim.
The Chinuch adds another reason. Even when the curse is uttered in the absence of its target, it is possible that the victim will find out, and this will create fighting and dispute among Israel.
In which Manner is it Forbidden to Curse
The full severity of the Torah prohibition against cursing refers specifically to cursing with the Name of Hashem. Thus, if a person says that “so-and-so should be cursed by Hashem”—using one of Hashem’s Names which may not be erased—he transgresses the full severity of the prohibition.
In discussing the prohibition against cursing Hashem, the Gemara cites a dispute between Rabbi Meir and the Sages concerning whether cursing with a secondary name of Hashem (a kinnuy), but not with an actual Name which may not be erased, involves the full severity of the prohibition. According to Rabbi Meir it does, while the Sages maintain that the death penalty in relation to cursing Hashem applies only to a full Name. Cursing with a kinnuy is also biblically prohibited, but does not carry the full severity of the death penalty.
Concerning cursing one’s fellow, the Rambam rules (Sanhedrin 26:3) that the full prohibition applies to cursing with any Name or kinnuy of Hashem. The Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 27) explains that this also includes references to Hashem in foreign languages (such as G-d). The Raavad, however, disputes this and writes that the full prohibition—with liability to receive Torah lashes—applies only to somebody who curses with the Shem Hameforash, the Tetragrammaton.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 27:1) rules like the Rambam:
“One who curses somebody of Israel (and even himself) with a Name or a kinnuy, or with one of the non-Jewish references to Hashem—if this was with witnesses and warning, he receives one set of lashes, on account of, ‘you shall not curse the deaf.’ If the object of the curse was a judge, he receives another set of lashes because of ‘you shall not curse Elohim.’ The expression arur is considered a curse.”
Cursing Without a Name of Hashem
The Tur seems to state that even when no Name or reference to Hashem is made, there remains a full Torah prohibition against cursing somebody else.
The Beis Yosef explains that although the principal prohibition refers to cursing with the Name of Hashem, there remains a Torah prohibition even when a curse is stated without a Name. The Shulchan Aruch (27:2) rules accordingly: “If there was no warning, or if he cursed without a Name or kinnuy, or if the curse was only by implication, such as ‘so-and-so should not be blessed to Hashem,’ he does not receive lashes, but there remains a prohibition.”
The Shach (27:1) writes (citing the Bach) that there will therefore be a Torah prohibition to state “so-and-so should die”—even without a reference to Hashem.
Although some Rishonim dispute this, and the Vilna Gaon (27:8) states the basic reading of the Gemara implies that there is no Torah prohibition where a Name or kinnuy of Hashem is not used, one should of course be stringent in this matter of a Torah prohibition.
Note that the Chazon Ish (Sanhenrin 20:10) rules that if a person states, “It should be the Will that so-and-so die,” this has the status of a curse with a kinnuy, since the expression “it should be the will” is a clear reference to Hashem’s Will. The ruling also teaches us that an expression of prayer or a wish can be considered a curse.
- It is a Torah prohibition to curse anybody (any Jew); one who curses with the Name or kinnuy of Hashem transgresses the full severity of the prohibition.
- Somebody who curses a Torah judge transgresses an additional Torah prohibition.
- The Shulchan Aruch rules that even one who curses without the Name of Hashem transgresses a Torah prohibition, though he would not be liable for punishment. Some authorities dispute this.
- It is even forbidden for a person to curse himself.
- The prohibition does not apply to the wicked and sinners of Israel (see Chazon Ish, Sanhedrin 20:10).