Talmidav Shel Aharon
9-5769: Mitzvah N-44
February 2, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 44 – This is a negative commandment: Do not curse another Jew
Hafetz Hayim: This prohibition is derived from the verse, “you shall not curse the deaf.” (Lev. 19:14) It speaks of a deaf person to make a stronger point – that even though this individual does not hear and suffers no distress from the curse; nevertheless one transgresses by cursing him. If a person curses himself, he likewise violates this. However, one who utters a curse does not commit the transgression unless he does so with the Divine name or a substitute name of God. If it was even with any term by which non-Jews call the Holy One, blessed be He, that is like any of the substitute holy names. This applies in every place and time, for both man and woman.
The Sages noted that with the verse quoted above, cursing the deaf is not like putting a stumbling block in front of the blind. A stumbling block causes the blind man to be hurt and hurts his feelings as well. The deaf person, who does not hear the curse, suffers no harm at all. Why then is it forbidden? Here we have one answer. It shows us that if we are not permitted to curse the deaf, how much more so we are not permitted to curse anyone at all. It is even prohibited to curse oneself, as this would be an act that would, at the very least, destroy one’s self esteem. Since curses were considered to have power, it would be as if the person was being self destructive and this is forbidden.
So what is this “curse”? Cursing, to the Rabbis was not about using foul language or nasty speech. A curse is a specific statement of harm that invokes God’s retribution on the person who is the object of the curse. It is a severe statement of ill will that is almost unknown in modern life. In ancient days, words were believed to have more power than they do today. We see only a small part of this idea when we come across a young child who lashes out with angry words to a parent just before some terrible thing happens to the parent. The child is frightened because the child thinks that his or her words caused the terrible thing to happen. We adults may understand that it is all a coincidence, but to the child, the words have more power then he or she can believe.
The key to a curse is the use of God’s name. “I hope you fall into a pit” is not a curse. “May God reach out and throw you into the pit” is a curse. “May you rot in hell” is not a curse. “May God let you rot in hell” is a curse. The key is changing our angry message into a “prayer” that God should punish the offender on our behalf. Since physically harming another person is forbidden, this is a way of bringing harm to another by invoking God to validate your anger by harming the person on your behalf. Note, that it does not matter what name you invoke God with, what matters is that you have the intention to invoke God in this matter.
So what are we to make of this ancient prohibition? We learn that we should watch our anger, so that we never invoke upon another person this kind of punishment. It is a stain on our soul that we should be so angry and bring hurt and perhaps embarrassment upon the person we are cursing. It is permitted to get angry from time to time, but we need to set limits on our anger and not invoke God into our personal relationships.
One last note, as usual, the Hafetz Hayim only applies this law to cursing other Jews. In our multi-cultural world, in a world where we must all live together in peace, it should be extended to all human beings. Even our worst enemies should not be subject to these kinds of curses for all the reasons listed above.