I thought that when the Jewish cycle of readings reached the book of Leviticus, I would be too busy moving my 92-year-old mother to write a post. I also thought there was nothing about the Ten Commandments in the book’s first Torah portion, Vayikra.
I was wrong on both counts. But next week the packing and moving begin!
The Third Commandment
The “Ten Commandments” appear both in Exodus (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy (in the portion Va-etchanan). The first commandment prohibits other gods, and the second prohibits idols. The third commandment reads:
You must not raise the name of Y-H-V-H, your God, for a worthless reason,1 since Y-H-V-H will not acquit anyone who raises [God’s] name for a worthless reason. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)
“Raising” the name of God means using God’s name in an oath, vow, or promise, according to the Talmud tractate Shevuot (“Oaths”). This tractate distinguishes two kinds of worthless oaths:
- empty oaths that use God’s name to declare something true when it is either false or impossible;2 and
- false oaths that use God’s name to make a promise that the speaker does not carry out.3
One Talmudic example of an empty oath is attaching God’s name to the declaration: “If I did not see a camel flying through the air!”4
Kedoshim: Any Name
Does the third commandment prohibit swearing by any of God’s names for a worthless reason, or only swearing by God’s four-letter personal name? The text is ambiguous. A command from God in the “holiness code” which appears later in the book of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim elaborates:
Velo tishavu in my name for a falsehood; then you would profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19:12)
velo tishavu (וְלֺא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ) = and you must not swear, vow, or pledge. (From the root verb shava.)
The author of Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus from early in the Talmudic period, wrote that the third commandment could be interpreted as forbidding a worthless use only of God’s personal name Y-H-V-H. Therefore the command in Kedoshim says “in my name” — any name that I have. 5
According to this reasoning, the Torah tells us not to profane any name of God by misusing it. Yet people who are in the habit of swearing might argue that they are not demeaning God when they say something harmless.
A deceitful vow is unethical whether the speaker swears by God or not. But is it really so bad to use one of God’s names in an empty way?
Yes, according to both this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and the later portion Kedoshim.
Vayikra and Kedoshim: An Empty Oath
This week’s Torah portion lists the correct offerings to bring to the altar for various purposes, including two types of atonement for inadvertently disobeying God’s rules: a reparation-offering (chattat, חַטָּאת), and a guilt-offering (asham, אָשָׁם).6 The section on reparation-offerings specifically addresses a harmless or empty violation of the third commandment:
… Or a person tishava with the lips, to do evil or to do good—whatever a human [says] bishevuah—and it was hidden from him; and then he realizes that he is carrying guilt because of one of these [oaths]; then it shall be that he shall accept guilt for one of these, and he shall confess what he did wrong concerning it. (Leviticus 5:4-5)
tishava (תִשָׁבַע) = swears, vows, or pledges in God’s name. (A form of the verb shava, שׁבע = swore an oath, vowed, or pledged using God’s name.)
bishevuah (בִּשְׁבֻעָה) = in a oath or vow using God’s name. (Also from the root verb shava.)
In this case the person is guilty merely of misusing God’s name, even if the outcome is good. The text goes on to prescribe that after the person realizes what they said and confesses to using God’s name for a worthless reason, they must bring a female sheep or goat to the altar as a reparation-offering.
What needs to be repaired? Swearing a pointless or empty oath is like swearing a false oath in the portion Kedoshim; it “would profane the name of your God.” 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote:
“Now the one who is constantly swearing, although there is no need for him to do so publicly, desecrates the name of God without deriving any benefit from his act.7
This forbidden act is different from the ninth commandment, which prohibits a witness in court from affirming a falsehood. Violating the ninth commandment can harm another person. Violating the third commandment cannot harm God, but it does demean God.
Vayikra: A Compounding Oath
The section on guilt-offerings in this week’s Torah portion considers a case in which one person inadvertently takes or keeps the property of another, and then the perpetrator swears they did nothing wrong.
And it shall be when he does a misdeed and realizes his guilt, then he will restore the robbed item that he robbed, or the deposit that was deposited with him, or the lost item that he found, or anything that yishava about falsely. And he will make amends for it by its principal and a fifth of it in addition; he will give it at that time to the one whose it is, as compensation for guilt. (Leviticus 5:23-24)
yishava (יִשָּׁבַע) = he swears in God’s name. (Another form of the verb shava.)
This time the perpetrator must compensate the victim, and also bring a ram as a guilt-offering to God.
And the priest will make atonement for him in front of God, and he will be pardoned for everything that he did to incur guilt. (Leviticus 5:26)
The third commandment says God will not acquit anyone who swears an empty or false vow in God’s name. Yet God’s instructions in Vayikra say that after making recompense and offering the appropriate animal to God, the perpetrator will be pardoned. In other words, although the person who swears falsely will not be declared innocent, that person may still be forgiven.
This week’s Torah portion sets out the requirements for forgiveness: perpetrators must realize what they did wrong, confess it, compensate their victims, and make a public offering to God.
This model for forgiveness from God can also work to get forgiveness from a human. Although some crimes seem unforgivable to us, we are generally willing to forgive people for committing lesser crimes or doing personal harm if they recognize what they did, apologize, provide whatever recompense is possible, and—if they violated a civil law—serve their sentence.
Although confession, apology, and forgiveness can be done all year round, Jews set aside the month of Elul (in the late summer or early fall) for searching our consciences, apologizing to our fellow humans, and accepting the apologies of others. After Elul ends, we confess our sins against God and beseech God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.
I find that in real life, only some of the people who have harmed me apologize. I figure the others do not realize that they said anything wrong—but although I can pardon them for their ignorance, I do not fully forgive them in my heart.
This week’s Torah portion does not say what to do if someone transgresses inadvertently and does not realize it. But the portion Kedoshim, later in Leviticus, says:
You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your comrade, and then you will not carry guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)
One standard interpretation of this directive is that you must alert your fellow human beings to the consequences of their bad behaviors, so they become motivated to change their ways. But perhaps it is also good to let people know what they did that hurt you, so they receive an opportunity to realize it and apologize to you.
I wonder if I will ever be both brave and thoughtful enough to provide this kind of information, gently, to someone I wish I could forgive?
- lashaveh (לַשָּׁוְא) = for a worthless reason; in emptiness or in falsehood. (The traditional English translation is “in vain”.)
- Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
- Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
- Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 29a, Mishna.
- Sifra is a commentary on Leviticus written in 250-350 C.E. that influenced the Talmud. This quote is from Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:6, translated in sefaria.org.
- See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
- Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.