This week’s parasha contains a full three chapters describing how Bil’am, the non-Jewish sorcerer and prophet commissioned by Balak King of Moab to curse the Jews, found himself incapable of cursing them. Instead, he bestowed on the Jews four tremendous blessings, some of which we even recite in our prayers today, and the last which foretells the Messianic redemption. In this week’s article we will focus on the mysterious powers of blessings and curses. Despite our affection for hard scientific facts, the spiritual world of curses and blessings seems to hold real powers. Bestowing our good wishes on others is an integral part of our social life – ‘mazal tov’, ‘may you see nachas’, ‘have a good day’ are offered on every occasion. What is the reasoning behind this seemingly simple social gesture? Is cursing a Jew forbidden? What about a deceased Jew, or even one’s own self? Unfortunately, we at batei din, occasionally see a disgruntled litigant cursing his opponent. Is it permissible? How does the halachic approach used in the din Torah affect the transgression? What happens to a Jewish person who blesses his fellow, and what happens to one who curses him?
Balak wished to harness Bil’am’s spiritual power to curse the Jewish people. Do regular people also have the power to effectively curse others? Do non-Jews have that power at all? Of this and more, in the coming article.
Cursing a Jew – The Prohibition
In Parashas Mishpatim we read: “You shall not curse a judge, neither shall you curse a prince among your people” (Shemos 22:27) and in Parashas Kedoshim we read: “You shall not curse a deaf person” (Vayikra 19:14). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 66a) deduces from these psukim that from the most prominent to the lowest simpleton, cursing a fellow Jew is forbidden. The Gemara presents an opposite assumption – perhaps the prohibition to curse only refers to the fringes elements of society – the very prominent or very simple, while there is no prohibition to curse a mediocre, run-of-the-mill character? To this possibility the Gemara presents another pasuk “You shall not revile G-d” (Shemos 22:27) – it is forbidden to curse any Jewish person.
Toras Kohanim (Kodshim 13:2) learns from the mention of the deaf that the prohibition refers only to the living, and no prohibition is involved in cursing the dead — only living people can be referred to as ‘deaf’.
The Shulchan Aruch defines a prohibited curse (Choshen Mishpat 27:1-2): a solemn utterance intended to invoke G-d to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something, or an offensive word or phrase used to express anger or annoyance that mentions any of the Devine references, either in Hebrew or any other language. Utterance of sentences such as “You should be cursed to G-d” or “G-d should smite you” is a transgression of a Torah commandment and is punishable by lashes. Cursing without a Devine reference still remains a transgression of a Torah commandment but is not punishable by beis din. Similarly, cursing by negating the positive, e.g. “X should not be blessed” is not punishable by lashes, but is a transgression of a Torah commandment.
The Blessed and The Cursed
Hashem promised Avraham Avinu (Bereshis 12:3): “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you”. Yitzchak blessed Yaakov Avinu (Bereshis 27:29): “Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed”. Bil’am, too, blessed the Jewish nation along the same lines: “Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed” (Bamidbar 24:9). These pesukim are not necessarily a blessing but a description of reality – blessing another Jew brings upon one blessing, and the opposite — curses. The Midrash spells it out (Tanchuma, Balak 12; Bamidbar Raba 20:19): “Whoever curses [the Children of Yaakov] is cursing himself, since it is stated (Bereshis 12:3), “and the one who curses you, I will curse.” It also says (Bereshis 27:29), “Those who curse you shall be cursed.”
The Mahral (Gur Aryeh Bereshis 27:29) differentiates between the psukim: When Hashem promised Avraham “And I will bless those who bless you” it was a future promise – Hashem promised to bless and curse those who would bless or curse Avraham. However, when Yitzchak and Bil’am pronounced their blessings it was a description of reality – one who blesses Yisroel is automatically blessed, and one who curses — cursed.
The Gemara Yerushalmi (Brachos 8:8) recounts a story on this topic: Rabbi Yishmael was walking along when he met a non-Jew. The non-Jew blessed him, and Rabbi Yishmael told him his words are said (accepted). Further on along the way, he met another non-Jew who cursed him, and again he responded that his words were accepted. Rabbi Yishamel’s students expressed their wonder at his response, and he answered: “The first non-Jew did not require my blessing because in his blessing me he automatically because blessed by Hashem, and what can I add to his blessing after Hashem blessed him? The same response was true for the one who cursed – in his words be made himself cursed, as the pasuk says: ‘and the one who cruses you I will curse’.”
Further on, the Gemara mentions a saying of Rabbi Tanchuma: “If a non-Jew blesses you, respond with ‘amen’ as it is written (Devarim 7:14) “You shall be blessed above all peoples.”
The Midrash Raba (Bereshis 39:12) writes: “Rabbi Yrimiya says: Hashem was more scrupulous with a righteous person’s honor that with His Own. With regard to Hashem’s honor it is written: ‘Those who despise Me will be disgraced’ (Shmuel I 2:30) — by others. But with regard to a righteous person’s honor it is written: ‘And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse’ (Bereshis 12:3) – one who curses a Jew is cursed by Hashem Himself. One who curses a Jew is essentially cursed, while the blasphemer is cursed by others.
Cursing a Public Figure
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 27:1) rules that including mention of G-d in cursing a public figure involves transgression of two negative commandments and punishable by two sets of lashings – one for the prohibition to curse a deaf person (i.e. any Jew), and the prohibition to curse a judge.
The Ra’anach (part 1 chapter 57) and Ketzos Hachoshen (27:1) include all public figures in this prohibition.
The Chida (Birkei Yosef Choshen Mishpat 27:4) disagrees and writes that the prohibition refers only to a tenured dayan. Even dayanim who serve as a random trio of arbitrators are not included in this prohibition.
Nowadays, whereas in most bati din proceedings take place under the rules of arbitration and not din Torah, whenever the beis din is a permanent institution, the dayanim heading it are public figures and cursing them is prohibited following the Ra’anach and Ketzos Hachoshen’s opinions.
The Aruch Hashulchan adds (Chosen Mishpat 27:1) that in addition to the prohibition to curse a dayan, scorning a dayan who rules according to the Torah is equal to scorning the Torah itself. This prohibition includes arbitration in accordance with the Torah, or any expression of despise for a Torah ruling.
The Gemara (Shvous 36a) teaches that one is forbidden to curse himself. The Rama mentions this ruling l’halacha (Choshen Mishpat 27:1).
Cursing the Dead
The Rama (ibid) rules that one who cursed a dead person is exempted from punishment. (Early sages have, however, issued a ban against slandering the dead.) The Tumim writes (footnote 4) that one who cursed a person thinking he was alive and he turned out to be dead, is exempted from lashes. The same goes for one who curses a person who has been handed a death sentence. The Chida (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 27:9) opines that this includes anyone sentenced to death either by a Jewish or non-Jewish court – since he is about to die, there is no Torah prohibition involved in cursing him because a curse cannot be realized on a person approaching death’s door. One who cursed a dying person is likewise exempted.
Cursing a Non-Jew or Wicked Jew
The Midrash (Tanchuma, Balak 1; Bamidbar Raba 20:1) contrasts Bil’am with Jewish prophets: while Bil’am set out to curse an entire nation for no reason, Jewish prophets, when shown a prophecy revealing the downfall of nations who harm Yisroel, express pain over their upcoming demise. The following psukim illustrate this clearly: “Therefore, my bowels shall moan for Moav like a harp” (Yeshayahu 16:11); “Therefore, my heart shall stir for Moav like flutes” (Yirmiyahu 48:36); “And you, son of man, take up a lamentation for Tzor” (Yechzkeil 27:2).
Yefe Toar (ibid) questions the expression of pain for nations who harm Yisroel. Does the pasuk not read (Mishlei 10:7): “The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing, but the name of the wicked shall rot”? He answers that although we are permitted to curse the wicked, as long as they are alive, we must pray for their repentance. Only after they die without repenting one is permitted to curse them.
The Chida (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 27:1) writes that cursing an idol-worshipper is not forbidden, as it is written: “The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing, but the name of the wicked shall rot” (ibid). However, elsewhere, he writes (Kisei Rachamim chapter 14) that according to the secretive parts of the Torah, the Kabala, uttering a curse is never recommended — even if directed towards the wicked.
Sha’ar Hamishpat (chapter 27:1) wonders why the Shulchan Aruch failed to mention that the prohibition to curse only pertains to people who act in accordance with the Torah, while Jews who do not follow the Torah are not included in the prohibition. In his opinion, despite the Shulchan Aruch’s failing to mention it, the prohibition to curse a Jew only pertains to those who behave in accordance with the Torah.
The Rama writes (Choshen Mishpat 27:2) that one who cursed is punished by beis din even if he is forgiven by the person whom he cursed since forgiveness cannot erase the sin. Cursing involves a double transgression – it causes another person pain and harm, and is a transgression of a Torah prohibition which no forgiveness can remedy. Nevertheless, one who cursed his fellow must certainly seek his forgiveness for the pain and potential harm he may have caused. Nesivos Hamishpat writes (footnote 4) that while no amount of forgiveness can erase a curse that transgressed a Torah prohibition and deserves lashes, one who cursed in a way that does not transgress a Torah prohibition can atone for his sin through by obtaining his victim’s forgiveness. While this kind of cursing does remain forbidden despite its lesser status, the prohibition stems from the prohibition to cause another pain, and if his friend forgives him, he is able to atone for his sin.
A Simpleton’s Blessing or Curse
The Gemara (Megillah 15a) notes the great power of a blessing: two great leaders of the Jewish nation were blessed by non-Jews, and their blessing was realized: King David — by Aravna the Jebusite, and Daniel — by the Persian King Darius. Hence, a simpleton’s blessing carries power.
The Gemara (Berachos 7a) describes a chilling scene:
Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said: Once, on Yom Kippur, I entered the Holy of Holies to offer incense, and in a vision I saw Hashem, seated upon a high and exalted throne.
And He said to me: “Yishmael, My son, bless Me.”
I said to Him the prayer that G-d prays: “May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger, and may Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, and may You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and may You favor them beyond the letter of the law.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, nodded His head and accepted the blessing.
The Gemara learns from this event not to take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly.
The Pnei Yehoshua explains that had there not been a rule that a simpleton’s blessing should not be taken lightly, blessing Hashem would have been a show of impertinence. However, since Hashem Himself instituted the rule that the lesser can bless those higher than themselves, when Hashem asked for Rabbi Yishmael’s blessing, Rabbi Yishmael did so.
The Netziv (Meromei Sade, Megillah 15a) points out that even the simplest Jewish person has power to bless others, and the statement that one should not take a simpleton’s blessing lightly is necessary for non-Jews, since their blessing stands a chance to be realized.
The Gemara (Megillah 15a) writes that the opposite, too, is true: a curse, even from a simpleton, also carries great power. This is learned from Avimelech who said to Sarah: “Behold it is to you a covering of the eyes” (Bereshis 26:16). These words were realized later on when her son, Yitzchak, became blind in his old age.
The Rahsba (Part 1, chapter 408) and Rekanti (Shemos 29:1) explain that the reason blessings and curses come true is because there is a Covenant of Lips (Moed Katan 18a; Sanhedrin 102a): words uttered by the lips carry power to alter reality, regardless of their source. The Rashba explains that this is the reason that dreams’ interpretation follow the meaning attributed to them (see Brachos 56b): words carry exceptional power. This, explains the Maharsha (Brachos 55b) and Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 231), is the reason for the prohibition to curse – the curse attaches itself to its subject and harms him.
The Seforno writes (Bereshis 32:1) that blessings of one who loves another with all his heart — such as a father and son – come true even if the father is a terrible person. This is why the Torah records Lavan blessing his daughters.
Kiddush for a Baby Girl
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch cites the Steipler’s advice to hold a kiddush in honor of the birth of a baby girl (Teshuvos V’Hanhagos, part 2, chapter 132). At a kiddush people come and bless the parents and their blessings carry great value, especially if coming from close friends, relatives or Torah scholars. One should, however, be careful not to make too lavish a kiddush so as not to cause jealousy – this only serves to invoke the Evil Eye.
Mazal for Blessings and Curses
Rabbenu Chaim Paltiel (Bamidbar 6:24) asks why Birkas Kohanim is necessary if the brachos mentioned in Parashas Bechukosai are already granted to those who keep the Torah. And the opposite – Parashas Bechukosai lists all the calamities that will befall the Jewish nation should they fail to keep the Torah. What can Birkas Kohanim do to change this bleak forecast? He answers that there are people who have special mazal to bless others, and their blessings come true. Others have mazal to curse, and their curses also come true. When Hashem promised Avraham Avinu: “and those who curse you I will curse” He did not promise to annul the curse, because there is a natural rule that curses (of specific people) cause harm. However, one who was blessed earlier with Birkas Kohanim is protected by the mazal of blessing. Then, no curse can harm him.
The Pa’anach Raza (Lech Lecha) explains that although nothing can be done to correct damage caused by a special person who has mazal to curse, Hashem blessed Avraham that even before that person would utter a curse he would become cursed, and consequently as a cursed individual, he has no power to curse others. This way, he will no longer have power to harm others.
Ba’al Haturim (Bereshis 12:3) points out the connection between Hashem’s promise to Avraham Avinu and Birkas Kohanim – “and those who bless you I will bless – ואברכה מברכיך” amounts to the same numerical value as the words “Kohanim coming to bless Your sons” (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 4). The other half of the pasuk: “and the one who curses you I will curse – ומקללך אאר” amounts to the numerical value of “Bil’am coming to curse Your sons” (Midrash Hagadol, Lech Lecha 3). This also explains why “those who bless you” is in the plural, while “the one who curses you” appears in the singular.
The Chida and Chasam Sofer cite Rabbenu Tam and the Rosh’s to explain the pasuk: R. Tam explained that a good, blessed person has the power to bless others, and one stricken by severe curse has more power to curse. Therefore, Hashem said that one who wishes to bless Avraham and his descendants is showered with more blessings beforehand so his blessings will come true, but the opposite – one who curses Avraham and his descendants is only cursed and ruined after he utters his words.
Refusing to Bless
The Gemara teaches (Brachos 55a) that the life of one who is offered “a cup of blessing” i.e. to lead the recitation of Birkas Hamazon and refuses, is cut short. Rashi explains that this is because the guest blesses his host as part of Birkas Hamazon, and the life of one who refuses to bless is cut short. The Magen Avraham (201:5) and the Mishna Brura (footnote 14) clarify that this only refers to a guest who turns down the offer to bless his host on a cup of wine as part of Birkas Hamazon. The Mishna Brura adds that one should never turn down a chance to become the conduit for blessing.
Similarly, the Gemara writes (Sota 38b) that a Kohen who recites Birkas Kohanim earns blessing, and the opposite: one who does not – is refused blessing.
Not only is the life of one who refuses to bless cut short, but he is cursed. The Eliya Raba (201:14) explains that the pasuk “and those who curse you I will curse” suffices to indicate the opposite – that he who blesses will be blessed. Therefore, the pasuk “and those who bless you I will bless” serves to teaches us that one who blesses will be blessed, and one who refuses to bless will be cursed. According to the Mishna Brura this teaches us that one who passes up on an opportunity to bless the Jewish people is cursed.
Transgression and Punishment
The Tashbetz (part III, chapter 115) was presented with an interesting question: the wayward son of a talmid chacham would often pick fights with different people and then curse them and their fathers. One of his opponents retorted with a curse of his own, calling him and his father wicked. Someone who overheard the talmid chacham being called wicked was aghast and demanded the rabbis ban the individual for showing irreverence to the Torah and its learners.
The Tashbetz answered that the troublemaker is indeed an evil person for ignoring the Torah’s directives and cursing other Jews. Therefore, his opponent was right in calling him “wicked”. In addition, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 52a) writes that a wicked person whose father is righteous can be called “wicked, son of a wicked man” because he disgraces his father with his horrible deeds. Hence, the opponent’s retort was in line with the halacha. Had he refrained from answering he would have merited great reward, however his words transgressed no prohibition that warranted placing him in a ban. The Tashbetz adds that whoever bans him falls into the category of “and those who curse you I will curse.”
The Maharik (chapter 9) wrote that a sage who is unsure if he should ban someone or not should not do so, because should he ban someone unwarrantedly, he would fall into the category of “and those who curse you I will curse”.
Blessing another Jew is very important and brings blessing to both parties. A Jews should always extend his good wishes and be a source of blessing to himself and his surroundings.
Cursing people, and especially Jews, is particularly harmful and is a terrible sin. One who curses another brings curse, judgment, and lack also upon himself. From early on, parents should teach their children to only offer their blessings, and ensure no curse words enter their language, first of all, by adopting this behavior themselves.