The Torah portion of Kedoshim
contains 40 mitzvot (according to the Sefer HaChinuch), one of which is to not curse another Jew, as the verse says (Levit. 19:14
), “You shall not curse a deaf person.” Our sages (Sanhedrin 66a) understood that the prohibition includes all Jews and that the deaf person is merely chosen as an example.
The commentaries suggest several reasons that the Torah singles out the deaf person as one whom we may not curse. Here are some of their explanations:
says that the Torah speaks about a deaf person who by definition is alive to teach us that the prohibition of cursing a fellow-Jew applies only to living people.
The Ibn Ezra
says that the Torah is teaching us that we may not abuse the weak or those who cannot defend themselves, such as a deaf person.
points out (based on Sanhedrin 66a
) that in this Torah portion we are instructed not to curse a deaf person while in the Torah portion of Mishpatim (Exodus 22:27
) we are told not to curse a leader. By writing about the most respected and the most downtrodden members of the community, the Torah is teaching us that one may not curse any Jew, whether the most prestigious, the most rejected, or anyone else in between.
- Even Though He Cannot Hear
In addition, the Ramban explains that the deaf person is singled out as one may be tempted to curse him since he cannot hear the curse and defend himself (or curse back).
The Chatam Sofer
points out that when one curses a person who can hear, that person has the opportunity to forgive the offender. As a result of this forgiveness, the one who cursed is not cursed himself despite the verse that says (Gen. 27:29
), “Those who curse you will be cursed.”
On the other hand, one who curses a deaf man will likely not be forgiven as the deaf person is not aware that he was cursed. The result of this will be that the one who uttered the curse will be cursed himself (as mentioned in the verse above). This will have a negative impact on the (deaf) man who was cursed as well since he was an indirect cause for another Jew to be punished, as the Talmud (Shabbat 149b
) says, “One whose fellow gets punished on his behalf may not enter into the presence of the Almighty.” We should avoid this by being (especially) careful not to curse the deaf.
The Kli Yakar
explains that the status of a deaf man (in those days) might have been so low that it was as if he were not alive. This is why the Torah singles him out and specifically forbids one to curse him despite the fact that it is not technically forbidden to curse a man who is actually dead. (Although cursing the dead is a negative act, it does not cause the same damage to the individual since he or she is not alive to feel ashamed or embarrassed by the curse.)
Defining a Curse
One who curses a fellow-Jew using G-d’s name (in any language) is liable for lashes (in ancient times) while one who curses his fellow without using G-d’s name has trangressed a (Rabbinic) sin, but he is not punishable by a human court (Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 231).
Reasons for the Mitzvah
Why is it forbidden to curse another Jew? After all, why should the curse affect that person at all? Is it not just words?
The commentaries give several reasons for this mitzvah:
- Bad for the One who Curses
According to the Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot Lo Ta’aseh 317), the reason for this prohibition is that cursing someone will cause the one cursing to become even angrier and to take revenge. In addition to the harm that it can cause to others, these behaviours are all bad for our own character traits, and we must therefore wean ourselves away from them.
The Sefer HaChinuch 9ibid) suggests that the reason for this prohibition is that if the person who was cursed hears about it (as the verse says in Kohelet 10:20, “The bird of heaven can pass on the words”), this can lead to an argument and a feud.
In addition, the Sefer HaChinuch explains that a curse can negatively impact the one who was cursed since, according to our sages, a curse can impact the real world. As such, it can affect both the one who was cursed and the one who cursed (see the Chatam Sofer quoted above).
A Covenant with the Lips
The Talmud says (Moed Kattan 18a
), “There is a covenant (assurance) that words uttered by the lips have an impact.” It recounts an incident where a sage said to his brother, “If you were in mourning, would you cut your nails?” Shortly after this comment, the sage’s brother had a death in his family, and he was, in fact, in mourning. He attributed this sad event to his brother’s passing comment. On the other hand, the Talmud recounts that Avraham’s saying (Gen. 22:5
) before the Akeidah (the binding of Yitzchak) that he would “return with the lad” impacted the course of that event and contributed to the survival of Yitzchak.
Power of Speech
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the power of speech is a uniquely human power which is associated with our souls. This can be derived from the translation of Onkelus who translates the verse (Gen. 2:7), “וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה (and man became a living being)” as וַהֲוַת בְּאָדָם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָא – “And there was in man a soul that spoke.”
As such, this power can impact the world in both positive and negative ways.
Do Not Open the Mouth to the Satan
Along a similar line, the Talmud (Berachot 19a
) says that one should never “Open one’s mouth to Satan,” meaning that one should not explicitly talk about a bad occurrence that may take place. This is derived from the fact that in Isaiah (1:9) it is recounted how the Jewish people said “We were almost as bad as Sodom.” Soon after this, the prophet compared them to Sodom, as the verse (1:10) says, “Listen to the word of the L-rd, rulers of Sodom.”
Another source for this can be found in the words of King David (Tehillim 34:13-14). “Who is a man who desires life? One who guards his tongue from [speaking] evil.”
Here are several examples from the Tanach of people who used negative expressions about themselves and their words were fulfilled. (See Reishit Chochmah, Chapter 3 of the section on Derech Eretz).
1) The Generation of Dispersion
When building the Tower of Babylon, the people said (Gen. 11:4) “Lest we be spread out across the earth.” This is, in fact, what happened, as the verse says (ibid 8), “And G-d spread them out.”
2) The Generation of the Desert
The Jews who had left Egypt complained to Moshe and said (Exodus 14:11), “Did you take us out to die in the Desert?” This is exactly what happened, as it says (Numbers 14:35), “You will be destroyed in this desert.”
3) Yehu ben Nimshi
In his effort to root out idol worship among the Ten Northern tribes of Israel, King Yehu, son of Nimshi used a trick, saying (Melachim II, 10:18), “Achav served the Ba’al a little, Yehu will serve him a lot.” Although he did this in order to gain their trust and find out who the idolatrous priests were so he could kill them, his words were eventually fulfilled, as the verse says (ibid 31), “Yehu… did not stray from the sins that Yeravam had done to make the Jews sin.”
4) The Generation of Tzidkiyahu
The Prophet Yechezkel (11:8) said about the generation of Tzidkiyahu (during which time the first Beit HaMikdash was destroyed) “You feared the sword, and I will bring the sword upon you…”
This concept is codified in Halacha in several places.
The Shulchan Aruch writes (Yoreh De’ah 376:2
) “One should not tell a mourner, ‘Sit,’ as this can imply that he should remain in a state of mourning, G-d forbid.”
The Rama adds, “A man should not say, ‘I was not punished in accordance with my evil deeds,’ or anything similar to these words, for a man should never utter anything in such a way as to give Satan an opening.”
The Sefer Chassidim (Siman 479
) writes, “One should not say to one’s fellow, ‘Drop dead’ or ‘Go become an apostate’ or ‘You’re behaving like a priest.’ (Although one may criticize someone for negative behaviour [in the right manner], it is not appropriate to ever refer to a Jew as a priest.) These words can have an impact and can be fulfilled either in oneself or one’s children, G-d forbid.
The Curse of a Sage
The curse of a sage is considered even more damaging than that of a regular person, as the Talmud (Makkot 11a
) says, “The curse of a scholar is fulfilled even if it was uttered conditionally or without cause.” The holier one is, the more one’s soul is connected to the Almighty, and the more power is found in their words. As such, a Torah scholar should be particularly careful to not utter negative words about other Jews.
May We Merit to Give Blessings Only and to Receive the Same!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!