What can be done to correct a curse uttered by mistake? Can nullification be done via messenger? If curses are so potent, why did several Amaoraim in the Gemara pronounce curses? And if they are powerless, why is it forbidden to curse a Jew? How does one repent for uttering a curse? What can be done if one’s curse came true? Is he obligated to beg his victim for forgiveness? Of this, and more, in the coming article.
Curses in the Parasha
This week’s Torah reading in Eretz Yisroel describes Bila’am’s end. Outside of Eretz Yisroel, we hear of Bil’am’s wicked scheme to annihilate the Jewish nation. Last week we cited the Gemara describing how Hashem protected His people during this dangerous period. Why was it necessary? In this week’s article we will continue learning about our verbal powers, with focus on correction. What can be done once a curse has been pronounced?
Last week we learned of the severity of cursing. As Emily Dickenson famously wrote, “[A word] just begins to live that day (it is said)”, words have real power. A curse has results because it unleashes the negative powers of the sitra achra (the Satan) to damage.
There are several possibilities for a curse to be realized on the accursed:
1) The accursed deserves the curse.
2) If, for any reason, the cursed afflicted the curser, he may be punished more severely because the curse.
3) A curse uttered by a talmid chacham can be realized even if it was unjustified, or even if it depended upon a condition, which may or may not have been fulfilled.
4) According to the Yerushalmi, there is a specific time in which all curses are effective. Harmful words uttered at this auspicious time can cause real damage. Bil’am knew this exact moment and wished to utilize his knowledge to annihilate the Jewish people.
Considering the above, one who received an unreasonable curse has nothing to worry about if it was not uttered by a talmid chacham, because unjustified curses rarely come true. And on the contrary – it is the one who uttered the curse that should be worried. However, one who is nonetheless concerned, or cursed another unjustifiably and fears the boomerang effect has several steps he can take.
The easiest and simplest way to annul curses is to perform a ceremony called Curse Nullification. This is done the presence of ten Jewish males, and if impossible – three, one being a talmid chacham or G-d fearing Jew. The assembled sit while the accursed stands and asks them to annul all the curses that rest upon him — those where he was cursed, and those that he cursed others. The assembled repeat mutar lach three times (see Chida, Tziporen Shamir 12:206). If the assembled have time, they can also recite the text that appears in the Chida (ibid).
The Chida (Shiyurei Bracha YD:211) notes that the Rashash instituted performing this rite as a weekly custom in his yeshiva for Kabala studies, Beit-E-l. Every Erev Shabbos all curses would be annulled for all participants and their families. He found a manuscript from 1509 that describes how Rabbi Avraham Avzardael would do so on the day before Yom Kippur, and whenever he suspected it was necessary. This was also the custom of Mahari de Leon. He quoted his rebbe, Mahari Knapton, that there was once a man already on his deathbed for whom this rite was preformed, and he was saved. Therefore, this should be done for any ill person.
One who lives where it is difficult to find ten Jewish men, or a woman for whom it is hard to appear before ten men, can appoint others to represent him or her. In Tochachot Chaim (Parasha Vayechi) we read of Rabbi Chaim Palagi who served several times as a representative to annul another’s curses.
Repenting for Sin, Annulling the Curse
The Chazon Ish (YD 205) writes that an intentional sinner can be cursed. Furthermore, a degradation of the Torah must be met by a curse to ensure the display of disrespect does not erode the innate reverence Jews have for everything holy. This is the reason why several Amoraim in the Gemara uttered curses. These curses are relevant if the sin remains in place and the sinner doesn’t repent for his deed. However, when the sinner repents, the curse is automatically annulled.
Therefore, one who is concerned he may have sinned, thus allowing a curse to rest upon him, should repent. With his teshuva, the curse is will be automatically cancelled.
Cursing another Jew violates several negative commandments: “You shall not curse a judge, neither shall you curse a prince among your people” (Shemot 22:27), and “You shall not curse a deaf person” (Vayikra 19:14). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 66a) explains this prohibition pertains to any Jew – from the most venerated such as one’s father and a nasi (minister), down to a deaf person – the lowest segment in society. Cursing any Jew is forbidden. One who did so must, first and foremost, repent for transgressing a Torah prohibition. But first, it is important to understand the nature of the prohibition.
Cursing the Deaf
The Rambam (Sanhedrin 26:1) and Ramban (Vayikra 19:14) explain that the pasuk, “You shall not curse a deaf person” teaches that cursing the deaf is forbidden even though he does not hear it and suffers no shame. The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, negative mitzva 317) explains the reason for the prohibition: People have a natural desire to take revenge. At times, the urge can be so strong it won’t rest until the enemy is wiped off the face of the earth. Sometimes, it involves inflicting physical pain, or screaming. The lowest, least painful, is cursing in private. But taking revenge is forbidden entirely. Jews are to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and taking revenge ruins one’s refined nature. Acting upon it reinforces those neural pathways until they are ingrained in our personality. Adapting cursing as a method for reducing the consuming urge for revenge is dangerous and harmful to oneself.
Sefer Hachinuch (231) points out that according to the Rambam’s explanation, cursing unjustifiably causes no harm. However, in his opinion, cursing can cause damage — the more one’s soul is connected to Hashem, that much more he has power to curse effectively. As it is written (Moed Katan 18a) “An oath is given to the lips”. Therefore, the Torah forbids cursing altogether, because it can cause damage.
Non-Damaging, Still Forbidden
The Tumim (27:4) follows the Rambam’s opinion that the unwarranted curses do not harm. So, why in fact, is it forbidden to curse a deaf person? If he suffers no harm, not even emotional pain, why is it prohibited? After all, the only one harmed by the curse is the curser himself?
Damaging to the Soul
The Tumim answers that the prohibition to curse has nothing to do with the damage it causes to the accursed. Cursing in and of itself is a damaging action — it warps the mind and fuels the heart with a burning hatred and evilness. Since the Torah obligates us to love our fellow it is forbidden to fill our hearts with hatred.
Considering this approach, we find a real chiddush: cursing is only prohibited when it infuses hatred in our interpersonal relationships. Therefore, the prohibition does not include a dead man, because, the Tumim explains, there are no feelings for a dead man. Once the person is gone, all feelings connected to him are also lost. However, one who cursed another thinking he was alive, and it turned out he had already died, has transgressed the prohibition because the prohibition to curse is due to ruining one’s own soul. This does not depend on the reality, but on the curser’s perception of it.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC III 78) explains along the same lines the difference between cursing oneself and cursing someone else. Although both are prohibited, there is a difference: cursing oneself is a transgression of the prohibition, “But beware and watch yourself very well” (Devarim 4:9) — the prohibition to endanger one’s life; cursing another person falls under the prohibition: “You shall not curse a deaf person” (Vayikra 14:19) – the prohibition to humiliate another. He proves this understanding from the Rambam (Sanhedrin 26:1): the transgression for cursing a person under bar/bas mitzva depends on his understanding. If he was old enough to be embarrassed from it, the curser is flogged. However, if the young person is too young to understand that he was shamed and will not know of it, cursing is not prohibited. If cursing is prohibited because of the damage it causes, it wouldn’t have any connection to the accursed’s age, because even a day-old baby must not be damaged.
Repenting for uttering a curse includes not only teshuva for causing damage or humiliation. One must repent for cursing even if nobody heard it, and it must consist real effort to change one’s character so as never to repeat this utterance again. In repenting for cursing another person, one must first and foremost make amends to the accursed, then work out a plan to refine his middos so he is filled only with love and honor for all Jews.
Curse Come True
Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chishukei Chemed, Rosh Hashana 17b) was approached once concerning a young boy, just before bar mitzva who, jealous of his successful rich classmate, prayed that the classmate’s mother should die. The mother, who had been terminally ill, died, and the successful classmate sank into depression. Later, several terrible occurrences took place in the curser’s family, and he was concerned it was somehow connected to his curse. The curser asked for a way to somehow correct what he had done. Was there anything he could do?
Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein answered that since Sefer Hachinuch writes that words have power, the boy must repent and do everything he can to help the orphaned family. He then quotes the Pele Yoetz (kina’a): “Jealousy is a terrible attribute as the Tana writes ‘Rabbi Elazar HaKapor would say: Envy, lust and honor drive a man from the world’ (Avos 4:21). A jealous person’s heart desires evil for others and wishes to be the best in his generation in wisdom, actions, wealth and honor. When there is another person either like him, or better than himself, he is jealous of him and wishes to harm him. And hatred that is born of jealousy is like fire that cannot be extinguished. Such terrible things can result from jealousy, and one who has this bad attribute suffers his entire life, has no friends, fights with everyone, rejoices in another downfall, and wants to see others fail. And his transgressions and sins are innumerable.”
One must work on improving his middos, which are, according to the Rambam, Tumim, and Igros Moshe, the crux of this prohibition.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein recounts that in a Beis Medrash in Vienna there was a Jew whom everyone called “The Silent Man”. He was always quiet, never saying an unnecessary word. The mispallelim didn’t know the reason for his silence and thought he was born a quiet man, but once a relative came to the city and told them the reason for his silence:
When he had been a young man he once got angry at his wife, and in his anger cursed her, “farbrent zalstu veren” (You should burn). A few hours later his curse came true, G-d forbid. The man travelled to Rabbi Yisroel of Tchortkov to ask him how he could correct his sin and he told him to take upon himself silence. And indeed, from then on, he was always quiet.
Therefore, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein suggests the young man take upon himself never to speak unnecessarily and to learn daily lessons in mussar sefarim about correcting jealousy until he uproots the bad midda.
Asking for Forgiveness
Rabbi Zilberstein is, though, unsure if one is obligated to ask for forgiveness if his curse came true.
On the one hand, the Rambam lists cursing as one of the interpersonal sins that cannot be corrected without asking for forgiveness (Hilchos Teshuva 2:9). However, the Kehilos Ya’akov writes (Bave Kama 45) that a prayer or curse can only come true if granted heavenly permission. Therefore, the result of a curse is not only because of the curse, but rather a heavenly decree. The curse was only the catalyst for making it become reality.
Rabbi Zilberstein notes that his father-in-law, Rav Eliyashiv rules that the Rambam only refers to someone who cursed another in his presence, in which case he must appease him for the humiliation he caused him. However, for the fact that the curse came true there is no need to appease anyone.
The Rambam writes (Hilchos Teshuva 4:3) that cursing a crowd is irreparable because one doesn’t know from whom to ask for forgiveness. According to the explanation of Rav Eliyashiv this only refers to one who cursed the crowd in their presence. However, one who cursed a crowd in private can repent and has no need to ask for forgiveness, because nobody was shamed by it.
Where a curse seems to have become reality Rabbi Zilberstein writes that there is no need, and it is even improper, to inform the accursed of it, because it will only cause him anger and increase animosity between them.