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Concern for Curses

Concern for Curses

Rare is the person who can state he was never cursed by anyone. In this week’s article we will address common concerns about curses. Do curses carry meaning? The Kohen Gadol’s mother distributed food to exiled murderers to prevent them from praying for her son’s death. Why was that necessary? When is a curse effective even if it was unwarranted? The Torah teaches us that some curses come back to afflict the one who issued them like a boomerang. When does that occur? Is preventing an undue curse something worth spending money on? Why were some Amoraim affected by curses even when they ruled correctly in court? Was there anything they should have done to prevent it? Of this and more, in the coming article.

Sources

This week’s Torah reading in Eretz Yisroel is Prashas Balak, in which we read how the Moabite king, Balak, tried to bring curses on the Jewish Nation but was miraculously prevented by Hashem. The prophet Micha reminds us of this hundreds of years later (Micha 6:5): “My people, remember what Balak king of Moav planned, and what Bil’am the son of Beor answered him.” The Gemara (Brachos 7a) comments on this occurrence: “Rabbi Elazar said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Yisroel: ‘Know how many acts of kindness I performed on your behalf, that I did not become angry during the days of Bil’am the wicked, for had I become angry, there would have been no remnant or survivor remaining among the enemies of Yisrael,’ a euphemism for Yisrael itself. Instead, G-d restrained His anger and Bil’am’s curse went unfulfilled.”

Outside of Eretz Yisroel the Torah reading also makes mention of Bil’am’s oral capabilities – the curses which he bestowed on Moav enabled Sichon to conquer large swaths of land from their kingdom. This convinced the Moabites of Bila’m’s extraordinary abilities and brought them, as accounted in the next parasha, to hire him for his next job – to curse the approaching Jewish Nation.

Many people express concern over curses – do they carry real ability to harm? Is a curse a reason for concern, or can one dismiss it as a puff of hot air?

Unwarranted Curses

The pasuk tells us (Mishlei 26:2): “Like a wandering sparrow and like a flying swallow, so will a vain curse come home.” This pasuk has the Masoretic double connotation: kri  — the spoken words, how this pasuk should be read; and ksiv  — the written words as they appear in the original text. This mechanism allows for several meanings to be incorporated into the text. In this pasuk the kri and ksiv involve the word לא-לו.  The word in the ksiv is לו – to him, while in the kri it is לא – not. Rashi explains that the pasuk means “a vain curse comes home: to the one who uttered it with his mouth.” The Alshiech and Malbim understand that the kri indicates that the curse will rest upon the one who cursed, while the ksiv indicates that the curse will not rest upon the accursed. So what actually happens? How do curses work?

Cursing the High Priest

In light of this pasuk, the Gemara (Makos 11a) asks why the mother of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) provides unintentional murderers, forced to exile to a city of refuge, with food and water. Simply understood, it was to prevent the murderers from praying for the High Priest’s death (to allow the murderers to return to their hometowns). The Gemara wonders why this was necessary if the murderers’ curses didn’t carry any weight, as seen from the above-quoted pasuk? The Gemara answers that the murderers’ curses are not undue – it was the High Priest’s obligation to pray that no one would be killed unintentionally while he is in office. Since he (obviously) didn’t pray properly, they have a claim against him, and their curses are effective.

Some Amoraim explain it differently. Indeed, there was no reason for the murderers’ curses. The reason the mothers provided them with food and drink was to encourage them to pray for their sons’ life. Why did the Kohen Gadon need their prayers? The Gemara explains that it is because the Kohen Gadol didn’t pray properly that no murder should occur in his times. His failure is so severe that it has the power to bring his death. His only protection is if the unintentional murderers’ themselves pray for his longevity.

Opportune Times

The Yerushalmi explains it differently. According to the Yerushalmi (Makos 2:6) generally unwarranted curses have no chance of coming true. However, there are some opportune times in which Hashem accepts every request, whatever it may be. While some take advantage of it to ask for blessings, both spiritual and physical, there are those who use it to curse others. This is what King David was referring to in his prayer (Tehilim 69:14) “But, as for me, may my prayer to You, O Lord, be in an acceptable time” – King David asks that every time he prays it should be an auspicious time and his prayers should be answered.

Murderers’ Curses

The Sefas Emes (Makos 11a) explains why the murderers’ curses had a chance of being effective. Those murderers were not merely praying for the Kohen Gadol’s death. These were exiled individuals, praying for a chance to return to their families and homes. This kind of prayer is a legitimate prayer, not a curse. However, since the only way for their prayers to be answered was by the Kohen Gadol’s death, the Kohen Gadol was concerned of it, and his mother would take measures to prevent their heartfelt prayers.

Effective Unwarranted Curses

The Gemara (Makos 11a) adds that while an unwarranted curse does not affect anyone, if the person uttering the curse was a talmid chacham, even if uttered by mistake, it is effective. Moreover, even if the curse was conditional, it is effective. In fact, the Gemara records several such instances of a talmid chacham who uttered a curse, and it came true. This concept is deduced from a pasuk (Koheles 10:5) “There is an evil that I saw under the sun, like an error that goes forth from before the ruler.”

In this light, the Shiyarei Korban (Sanhedrin 10:2) explains the above-mentioned Yerushalmi’s reference to an “auspicious time”. Only a curse uttered by a talmid chacham at an auspicious time stand a chance to become reality. But a regular person’s curse has no effect.

Timespan

How long does it take for a curse to be realized? The Alshiech (Mishlei 26:2) explains that the pasuk compares the curse to a sparrow and a swallow because at times the curse returns to the curser immediately just like a sparrow returns to its nest, while in other times, the curse can roam the world for a while until it comes back to haunt him – similar to the swallow that can fly around the world and only return to its nest after a while. In any case, the curse does not touch the cursed person at all.

Community Curse on Demand

In Babylon of the Geonic era, there were many instances where the government demanded that curses should be pronounced by the Jewish community against specific individuals, for various acts of misconduct. At times, it was declared against tax dodgers, and out of concern for their safety, the community was forced to pronounce curses and excommunication in accordance with the government demands. The Geonim were asked if these cases were any reason for concern (Teshuvos Hageonim, Sha’arei Teshuva 195). They ruled that the curses were unjustified and therefore no reason for concern.

In one of the cases, a Jew gave his friend some money for safekeeping. After being wrongfully accused and handed over to the authorities, the king confiscated all of his assets. Knowing that the accused had money that was being safeguarded by another person, the king forced the community to curse anyone who held on to the condemned man’s assets. The faithful friend didn’t want to hand the money over to the king, preferring to save it for the condemned man’s heirs. However, the curse caused him concern. The Geonim dissuaded him from handing over the money, explaining it was nothing but an empty curse which carried no weight, and furthermore – he would merit blessing for his faithfulness and righteousness, as the pasuk in Tehilim reads: “My eyes are upon the faithful of the land to dwell with me; he who goes on the way of the innocent, he will serve me” (Tehilim 101:6).

To Curse, Or Be Cursed

What is preferable – to curse or to be cursed? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 49a) teaches us that it is preferable to be cursed than to curse others, as we see that King David’s curse of Yoav was realized by David’s own descendants. Rashi and the Yad Rama explain that this is due to the above explained mechanism – an undue curse comes back and harms the curser.

The Maharal (Chiddushei Agados, Sanhedrin 48b) explains that a curse must be realized, the only question is on whom. Therefore, if there is any reason for the curse to rest upon the accursed, it will. However, if it is an unwarranted curse, since it cannot rest upon the accursed for no reason, it comes back to the curser like a boomerang, and harms him. This is similar to one who throws a rock. If it hits something soft – it causes harm. But if it hits something hard, it does not harm anything, ricocheting back to the one who threw it.

Although King David cursed Yoav for a reason, since his son Shlomo punished Yoav for that same action, there was no more reason for the curse — Yoav didn’t deserve both. Therefore, once the curse was no longer warranted, it came back and harmed King David’s descendants.

The Maharal explains that this is similar to the Gemara’s declaration (Shabbos 97a): “One who suspects a righteous person (of misconduct) is harmed in his body.” Suspicion is a reason for curse and destruction. If the suspicion is warranted, it rightfully harms the one upon whom it is directed. However, if he is suspected for no reason, it returns and harms the one who issued it, and he suffers bodily harm.

A Talmid Chacham’s Curse

King David uttered two curses – one on Achitophel, his rebbe, and the other on Yoav, his minister of war. The Aruch Laneir points out that the results of these curses seem contradictory:

In the first case, when the waters of the depths-tehom rose up and threatened to drown the world, King David announced that whoever knew if it was halachically permitted to throw the holy Name into the water to save the world and wouldn’t announce it would be choked. Out of fear from the repercussion, Achitophel rose up and conveyed the proof permitting it. The Name was thrown into the waters, and they receded. The curse, however, remained active and Achitophel ended his life by hanging himself, seemingly, despite the curse being unwarranted.

The second occasion was with Yoav, who was cursed appropriately for his behavior. Nevertheless, despite its appropriateness, the curse came back to haunt King David’s descendants and not Yoav’s.

The Aruch Laneir explains these occurrences in light of the above-mentioned explanation: A curse needs to rest upon someone, but it remains to be seen upon whom. Therefore, in Achitophel’s case, the curse was warranted – it was a conditional curse which would rest upon one who would not reveal the halacha. Therefore, even though Achitophel did eventually reveal the halacha in the end since the curse was warranted and the curse rested upon the accursed. However, with Yoav, who was cursed by King David and then punished for that same deed by Shlomo Hamelech, since he didn’t deserve a double punishment, the curse was no longer justified and came back to harm King David’s descendants.

The Ritva (Makos 11a) explains why Achitophel’s curse was warranted – originally Achitophel didn’t know of a source to permit using a holy Name to tame the rising waters. Only after the curse was pronounced did he invest the effort to find a source for it. Therefore, the curse was warranted, because King David suffered distress due to Achitophel’s laxity in immediately trying to find a source, only doing so only after the curse was uttered. This explains why the uttered curse had reason enough to be realized on him.

How to Curse

The Meiri writes that since a curse uttered by a talmid chacham, even one that depends upon a condition, is realized,a talmid chacham who is forced to excommunicate or curse someone for a specific action must pronounce a blessing as well – while the one who does the forbidden action should be cursed, one who refrains from should be blessed. This way, the result of the curse will be blessing if the condition was fulfilled.

The Riaz (Kuntress Harayaos, Makos 11a) explains that the curse came on Achitophel despite being blameless because he should have asked the sages to remedy it, but failed to do so. This teaches us that a conditional curse issued by a talmid chacham must be remedied, even if the desired actions were taken.

Losing Money to Prevent a Curse

Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein shlita (Chishukei Chemed, Eiruvin 47a) presents an interesting case. A broken-hearted widow had a son who took over the local bomb shelter and used it for a makeshift factory which he connected to the building’s electric grid. The neighbors spoke to him on several occasions about the electricity theft, but he wouldn’t hear of paying for it. The neighbors wanted to stop paying their joint electric bill, effectively causing the electric company to shut the electricity to the public areas in the building, including the bomb shelter. For lighting the staircase, the neighbors found a solution – each neighbor would connect a light bulb to his own private grid.

Despite having all the solutions in place, the neighbors were concerned – they knew the widowed mother would curse them, calling them “coldhearted neighbors who heartlessly torment a poor widow and her orphaned son.” Since the Torah records dire prospects for causing a widow and orphans to suffer, they approached the Rav for a solution.

In a similar case (Chishukei Chemed, Yevamos 3b) a widower with two children married a divorcee with three children. They lived together happily for seven years. One day, the wife was injured in a car accident, and was left in a vegetative state. She was moved to her widowed mother’s house. The mother took wonderful care of her, but her husband, who was collapsing under the burden of raising the five children, wanted to remarry. He turned to a beis din to arrange the proper heter and even found an appropriate match.

There was one hitch though – the widowed mother-in-law. She wouldn’t hear of it, and tormented him endlessly about abandoning his ill wife and marrying another woman, etc.

The husband wasn’t concerned of her words because he was desperate to remarry. However, the incoming woman was worried. Was there room for concern because of the mother in law’s disapproval? And if so, what could be done to appease her?

A Widow’s Curse

Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein settled both cases with sources from the Gemara (Gitin 35a): A din Torah appeared before Raba bar Rav Huna between a widow and another person. Raba ruled against the widow, who cursed him that he should fall from his chair (i.e. be removed from his position as a Dayan). Raba immediately turned his chair over, but it was useless. Raba became sick as a result of the curse.

In another instance, the Gemara recounts (Bave Basre 153a) that Raba ruled against a woman in court. She, in return, cursed him that his ship should capsize. Raba’s students submerged his clothing in water so that her curse should be realized in that, but it was of no avail. His ship capsized.

Habone (a commentary on Ein Yaakov) explains that the curses uttered by the widow were not unjustified — a dayan must look for ways to acquit a widow and an orphan. However, Shmuel was of the opinion that a dayan is forbidden to rule beyond the letter of the law when it came to a widow and orphan. Nevertheless, since he did nothing to reassure her, he was punished.

Rav Yitzchak mentions that his brother-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky zatal explained that he should have explained his ruling and offered the widow kind words of consolation. Since she was left with a broken heart and no appeasement, the Sages suffered punished.

In light of these stories, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein told both questioners to speak calmly to the widows and explain the situation. In the first case he explained it was important to verify she understood that her son was behaving inappropriately, and it had nothing to do with her. Then, if she still went ahead and cursed them it would be unwarranted, and they had nothing to be concerned about.

In the second case, if the mother in law’s claims are baseless, there is nothing to worry about. However, if there is a slight possibility she may be right – if perhaps the wife’s situation would have improved had her husband been more devoted to her, she must be calmed and placated. She must be explained that her son-in-law’s marrying is for her own grandchildren’s benefit — so they don’t grow up like neglected orphans and have someone to care for their physical and mental health. Pacifying a widow is important, especially a broken-hearted woman whose daughter is lying in a vegetative state, because hurt feelings can cause harm.

If she continues to object his remarrying, Rav Yitzchak suggests the couple visit the mother-in-law and offer to sign a statement in which they promise that when, im yirtze Hashem, her daughter recovers, they agree to divorce immediately to enable her daughter’s return. Then, her worries will be put to rest, and they can happily marry.

Summary

Curses are a dangerous weapon, and we must refrain from using it. An unjustified curse usually returns to haunt the curser. However, where there is even a slight chance it may be deserving of the accursed, it will harm him, even if in general he was correct.

We must take every precaution not to allow a curse to pass through our lips. Anger is no reason to curse another person. An unjustified curse is no reason for concern because it does nothing to the cursed unless the one who uttered it is a talmid chacham or tzaddik, or in other rare situations. However, it is always recommended to have the curse nullified and calm the person who uttered it because if there is any slight reason for it, the curse stands a chance of damaging someone.

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