Emor: Blasphemy

Emor: Blasphemy

The scene at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) raises two questions:

  • Should someone with a non-Israelite father be treated differently than someone with two Israelite parents?
  • What should be done in a case of blasphemy?


Medieval manuscript detail on Lev. 24:10

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man quarreled concerning the camp.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10)

The opening line above does not specify the subject of the quarrel.  The Hebrew could also be translated as “in the camp”, leaving the subject completely open.  But one traditional suggestion is that man with the Egyptian father resents being forbidden to pitch his tent inside the Israelite camp.1

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Each man shall camp according to his banner with the signs for the house of his fathers.  Facing all around the Tent of Meeting they shall camp.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 2:1-2)

Camps of 12 Tribes and Levites, all facing the sanctuary

Each tribe, and each clan within the tribe, is assigned its own camping area.    Since an Egyptian father does not belong to any Israelite tribe, his son would not be allowed to camp with his Israelite mother’s family in the area allotted to the tribe of Dan.

… the name of his mother was Shelomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan.  (Leviticus 24:11)

The Torah does not say where the erev rav (the “mixed multitude” or “riff-raff” who left Egypt with the Israelites) camp, but it must be somewhere outside the ring of Israelite tribes, and therefore outside the camp proper.  “Outside the camp” is also where people with the skin disease tza-arat live2, and where dead bodies are taken.3

The fight or scuffle at the beginning of the scene probably began with the “Israelite man” insulting Shelomit’s son, denigrating him as a half-Egyptian who has to live outside the camp.


The son of the Israelite woman put a hole through the name, vayekaleil [him?  it?].  And they brought him to Moses.  And the name of his mother was Shelomit …  (Leviticus 24:11)

vayekaleil (וַיְקַלֵּל) = and he pronounced a curse on, and he denigrated.  (From the root verb kalal, קַלַּל = “belittled, was lightweight” in the kal form, and “denigrated, cursed” in the piel form.)

The Hebrew word I translate as “put a hole through” is vayikov (וַיִּקֺּב), a form of the verb nakav (נָקַב).  This verb is used literally for piercing, boring, and tunneling;4 and metaphorically for designating or cursing a human being.5  Only in the story about Shelomit’s son is the word a metaphor for using the name of God in a curse.  (“The name” without a modifier means the name and/or reputation of God.)  When Shelomit’s son is scuffling with the “Israelite” man, he metaphorically makes a hole through God’s reputation.  This is blasphemy.

Honoring God is an essential commandment in the bible, and lowering God’s reputation would harm the whole community by encouraging idolatry.

Shelomit’s son then denigrates or curses (vayekaleil) someone or something.  The Torah omits the object of his curse.  If he denigrates or curses God or God’s name, he is committing blasphemy a second time—but the penalty is the same no matter how many times he does it in one utterance.

If he had vilified his opponent, “the Israelite man”, without using the name of God, there would be no penalty.  In the Torah one must never curse or denigrate God, a chieftain of a tribe, or one’s own parents.6  Everyone else is fair game, as long as God’s name is not invoked.  But Shelomit’s son makes the mistake of including the name of God in his curse.

The Blasphemer Stoned,
from Figures de la Bible, 1728

This week’s Torah portion continues:

And they put him in custody, to get themselves a clarification from the mouth of God.  God spoke to Moses, saying: “Remove the mekaleil to outside of the camp.  Everyone who heard shall lean their hands on his head, and then the entire assembly shall stone him.”  (Leviticus 24:12-14)  

mekaleil (הַמְקַלֵּל) = the blasphemer, the one who pronounced a curse, the one who denigrated.  (Also from the root verb kalal.)

Before Shelomit’s son denigrates God, he lives outside the camp, where corpses are buried.  Now that he has committed blasphemy, he is killed outside the camp.

Why does everyone who heard the blasphemy lean or lay hands on the blasphemer’s head?  Words have power, and hearing blasphemy psychologically contaminates the listener.  Even today, it is shocking or sobering to hear intentional blasphemy (rather than the common practice of using the word “god” in expletives).  If I heard intentional blasphemy, I would instinctively whisper something apotropaic.  Then, if I knew the person, I would find a time for a conversation about it.  But the ancient Israelites portrayed in the Torah were more action-oriented.  The witnesses to blasphemy cast off their sense of contamination by putting their hands on the blasphemer’s head.  Then instead of talking with him, they kill him.

No Discrimination Regarding Blasphemers

And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: “Anyone who yekaleil his god shall bear his guilt.  One who puts a hole through the name of God shall definitely be put to death.  The whole community shall definitely stone him, foreigner or native-born alike; if he puts a hole through the name, he shall be put to death.”  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 24:15-16)

yekaleil (יְקַלֵּל) = he pronounces a curse, he denigrates.  (From the root kalal.)

This final ruling comes down against discrimination on the basis of parentage.  As in thirteen other passages in the Torah, a foreigner who joins the Israelites must follow the same laws and receive the same justice as native-born citizens, and vice versa.  (See my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant.)  However, other parts of the Torah discriminate against foreigners and children of foreigners.7  The ancient Israelites were divided on this issue, just as Americans are today.

The Torah’s view of blasphemy, however, is harsher than that of modern Western countries.

The Blasphemer, by William Blake, ca. 1800

The ancient Israelites in the Torah are insecure about their survival as a people, a country, and a religion.  Those three things are easy to separate today, but in the ancient Near East they were inseparable.  By attacking the religion, blasphemy attacked the whole social structure.  So the God-character in this week’s Torah portion tells Moses to get rid of the problem by killing the blasphemer.  This is a quick and definitive solution for people who are too afraid of the disintegration of their religion, and therefore of their whole society, to engage in compassion and consideration.


To me, both denigrating God and using a word for God in curses are part of normal life.  When I was a teenager, and the only “God” I knew about was the beard-in-the-sky variation, I often declared God non-existent.  When I swore, I preferred phrases using the word “god” over crude words for sex or defecation.

Now I know that denigrating someone else’s concept of God is a bad idea, since it belittles the person who believes that concept.  But swearing using the word “god” is so widespread in Western society that it is merely an expression of frustration, not serious blasphemy.8 Serious blasphemy is cursing the god you do believe in, or misusing a name of God that is sacred to you.

Within a community of fundamentalists, a young man might, like Shelomit’s son, commit serious blasphemy out of rage against the unfairness of his own people.  Or someone might utter serious blasphemy as a howl of anguish over a concept of God that can no longer be borne.  These blasphemers need sympathetic listeners, and sometimes advocates.  Punishment is no solution.

After all, at some point in our lives (often in childhood), we are all like Shelomit’s son, stuck with a group that excludes us.  Yet most of us find ways to live peacefully in the larger world.

I pray that someday no one will be too frightened of disintegration to tolerate blasphemy.  I pray that more and more people will develop the security and kindness to feel compassion for those who cry out in rage or anguish, and try to help them instead of punishing them.

  1. Vayikra Rabbah 32:3 and Torat Kohanim 24:235 are cited by Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and 19th-century rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in their explanations that Shelomit’s son petitions Moses to camp with the tribe of Dan, and when Moses rejects his petition, the man goes out through the Israelite camp in a state of anger.  His anger makes him ready to pick a fight with the next person who discriminates against him, and also ready to utter curses.
  2. Leviticus 13:45-46.
  3. Leviticus 10:4-5.
  4. 2 Kings 12:10 and 18:21; Isaiah 36:6; Habakkuk 3:14; Haggai 1:6; and Job 40:24 and 40:26.
  5. Genesis 30:28; Numbers 1:17, 23:8, 23:25; Isaiah 62:2; Amos, 6:1; Proverbs 11:26, 24:24; 1 Chronicles 12:31, 16:41; and 2 Chronicles 28:15, 31:19. The book of Job also mentions cursing a particular day (3:8) and someone’s door (5:3).
  6. Exodus 20:7, Exodus 21:17, and Exodus 22:27.
  7. For example, Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 23:4-7 are directly discriminatory. The list of campsites in Numbers 2:2 neglects to provide a camping area around the sanctuary for converts who left Egypt with the Israelites.
  8. This was probably true even in 11th-century France, when Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote that “he put a hole through the name” in Leviticus 24:16 means the death penalty applies only to one who pronounces the four-letter sacred name of God, not to someone who curses using another name for God.

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