You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol; and you must fear your God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:14)
kaleil (קַלֵּל) = curse, belittle, vilify. (The actual Hebrew is lo (לֺא) = not + tikaleil (תְקַלֵּל) = you will curse, belittle, vilify.)
mikheshol (מִכְשֺׁל or מִכְשׁוֹל) = stumbling-block, obstacle, hindrance.
This commandment appears in what scholars call the “Holiness Code”: Leviticus 18:1-18 in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“holy”). The Holiness Code presents about 40 commandments, depending on how you count them. It begins:
All but one or two of the 40 or so commandments in the Holiness Code are about human interactions.2 While the Ten Commandments are a list of ten important things God wants us to do, the Holiness Code gives instructions on how to be holy through ethical behavior, culminating with loving other people.3
Each rule in the Holiness Code can be analyzed in terms of how it helps us to love others. “You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol” appears to prohibit cruelty against the disabled. Certainly an obstacle in the path of a blind person could result in physical damage. The deaf might suffer psychological pain if they found out that someone had vilified them, or saw the angry faces of those cursing them. But what if they never found out?
The Talmud compares “You must not kaleil the deaf” with an earlier biblical verse: “You must not kaleil God, nor put a curse on a chieftain among your people” (Exodus/Shemot 22:27). The chieftains were among the most respected members of society, while the deaf are an example of “the most wretched”. “From the fact that it is prohibited to curse even those people, it can be derived that it is prohibited to curse anyone.”4
According to Sefer Hachinukh, “we do not have the power to know in which way a curse impacts upon the one cursed … we know more generally that people are concerned about curses …” Therefore curses may indeed have a mysterious effect on their targets.5
Maimonides wrote that the deeper reason for the prohibition is to rescue the person who is inclined to vilify others. While one person might get revenge against someone who wronged him by “cursing and reviling, because he knows how much hurt and shame this will cause his enemy”, others are satisfied with blowing off steam, “uttering angry imprecations and curses, even though the other would not listen to them if he were present. It is well known that hot-tempered and choleric persons find relief in this way …”6
Is there anything wrong with this? Yes, according, to Maimonides. “Cursing is forbidden [even] in the case of the deaf, since the Torah is concerned not only with the one who is cursed, but also with the curser, who is told not to be vindictive and hot-tempered.”
Vindictive and hot-tempered people might love some of their fellow humans some of the time, but they also are inflamed by hatred. The Holiness Code instructs them not to act on their hatred, even when they could get away with it.
Similarly, “you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol” refers not only to people who are literally blind, but to all people who are metaphorically near-sighted, particularly those who are incompetent, caught up in craving, immoral, or overwhelmed by passion. They can easily be diverted into doing bad things by a stumbling-block.
Sifra interprets “blind” metaphorically, and says: “If he asks you for advice, do not give him advice that is unfit for him. Do not say to him ‘Leave early in the morning,” so that robbers should assault him, [or] ‘Leave in the afternoon,’ so that he fall victim to the heat.”7
Those who give bad advice to naïve or slow-witted people in order to harm them may have cooler tempers than those who erupt in curses, but in both cases the perpetrators are treating people they dislike with contempt.
One must not deliberately give bad advice in any circumstance. But according to Sefer HaChinukh, one must give what one believes is good advice. “Guiding people and giving them good advice for all of their actions [is needed for] the ordering of the world and its civilization.”8
The Talmud also applies the prohibition about the blind to offering a cup of wine to a nazirite, someone who has made a vow not to drink wine.9 (See my post Haftarah Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) 20th-century commentator Nehama Leibowitz pointed out that in this case the target “knows that the host’s offer contravenes his Nazirite vow. There is no deception involved. The host might plead: Did I force him or command him to drink? Is he not to take it or refuse it? But this is not so, the victim being blinded by his passions.”10
Similarly, the “blind” person who is already a highwayman or a Jew-hater already knows that if he buys weapons, he is likely to use them to kill. According to the Talmud, one is forbidden to sell weapons, chains, or weapons-grade iron to either Jewish bandits or hostile gentiles.11 That would be a case of placing a mikheshol in front of someone blinded by immorality.
The Talmud also counted provoking a dangerous passionate reaction also counts as placing a mikheshol, a hindrance, in front of the blind. “It was related that the maidservant in Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s house saw a certain man who was striking his adult son. She said: Let that man be excommunicated, due to the fact that he has transgressed the injunction: You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The rabbis agreed, “as the son is likely to become angry and strike his father back, thereby transgressing the severe prohibition against hitting one’s parent.”12
Leibowitz deduced that in this case, “no enticement is involved, but the mere provocation renders the father responsible for his son’s crime.”13
You must fear your God
Thus “You must not kaleil the deaf” means you must not curse, belittle, or vilify anyone, whether your target finds out or not. Venting your vindictive hatred prevents you from reaching the condition in which you “love your fellow as yourself”.
“You must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol” means you must not divert anyone into bad behavior. You are responsible, and therefore guilty, if you do anything that deceives, tempts, encourages, or provokes other people to do things that harm themselves or others.
Why does the Torah add: “and you must fear your God”? Rashi answers that those who vilify the “deaf” or make the “blind” stumble could plead that they meant well, and did not know their actions would have such awful results. “Therefore, concerning this, it says, and you must fear your God, who knows your thoughts!”14
When we vent our hatred, and when we cause others to misbehave, we can plead that we meant well. We can get away with it, though the more perceptive people around us are likely to either shun us or reprove us.
But we will never be holy, and we will never be able to love our fellows as ourselves. We will always be constricted by our own narrow-mindedness. That is punishment enough.
May we all learn to redirect our petty angers and moral carelessness, so that we may all become holy, loving, and free.
- See my post Yitro: Not in my Face.
- The only rules in Leviticus 19:1-18 that do not directly involve human relationships are the prohibition against idols (Leviticus 19:4), and the requirement that the roasted meat from a wholeness-offering (shelamim) must be eaten within two days (Leviticus 19:5-8). However, the two-day deadline forces the person making the offering to invite guests and household members to eat.
- See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.
- Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 66a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.66a?lang=bi .
- Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 231, in sefaria.org/Sefer_HaChinukh?lang=bi. This book explaining 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible was published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century CE.
- Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam), Sefer HaMitzvot (317). Translation from Rabbi J. Kapah, Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1958, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 301.
- Sifra, Kedoshim section 2, sefaria.org/Sifra?lang=bi. Sifra is a collection of commentary on Leviticus compiled in the third or fourth century CE.
- Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 232, ibid.
- Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 22b, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Pesachim.22b?lang=bi.
- Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, translated by Rafael Fisch & Avner Tomaschoff, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 310.
- Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 15b & 16a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Avodah_Zarah?lang=bi.
- Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 17a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Moed_Katan?lang=bi.
- Leibowitz, ibid.
- 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, commentary on Leviticus 19:14.