Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, the Torah tells the story of the blasphemer and conveys God’s instructions about how to deal with him. We will not discuss the entire section here; rather, we will focus on these instructions.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name “God,” he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death. If anyone strikes any human being mortally, he shall be put to death. One who strikes an animal mortally shall make restitution for it, life for life. If anyone injures his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who strikes an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who strikes a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike, for I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 24:13-22, translated based on the following Seforno).
The subject of this section is clear – the law regarding one who blasphemes his God. This law begins the section and establishes that “stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.” The context, both before and after the law, is an actual case of a blasphemer. The story concludes with the carrying out of his sentence: “Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as God had commanded Moses.”
In light of this, it is surprising that the heart of the section is a sequence of laws which relate to killing and injuring. These laws do not seem related to the law of the blasphemer, since they concern a physical attack against a person or animal. In contrast, a blasphemer’s attack is not a physical one, and is not against a mortal but against God.
In order to address this problem, I would like to present the wonderful commentary of the Seforno on this section.
The Seforno brings up another, serious problem. There is no doubt that blaspheming God is a purposeless action. A person does not have the power to hurt God, so by definition his blasphemy can be categorized as meaningless speech. What, then, is the punishment for?
The Seforno answers with a principle:
The same evil action will result in different punishments, depending upon whom the action targets. This is true to such an extent that a punishment can range from a mere monetary penalty to corporal punishment or even death. It all depends on who is targeted.
An action is measured not only by its characteristics and ability to harm, but also in accordance with the person it victimizes. Therefore, an action which targets one person will bring in its wake a certain punishment, while the same action aimed at a less important target will carry a lighter punishment. In order to illustrate this principle, the Torah gives a list of laws which includes three examples. The Seforno elaborates on these three.
1) The case of killing. Someone who kills a person is liable to the death penalty. In contrast, someone who kills someone’s animal is liable only to a monetary penalty.
The act of killing is identical whether you are killing a person or an animal, but the punishment for killing a person is more severe because the target of the action is more important.
2) The case of injury. Someone who causes injury to a person should be subject to corporal punishment. However,our rabbinic tradition recognizes that we are unable to apply such punishment fittingly, so we are forced to substitute monetary punishment. Nevertheless, a person who injures another person is obligated to pay a hefty sum of money – five types of penalties – in accordance with the rabbinic tradition. In contrast, someone who injures an animal is subject to only a small monetary penalty.
The act of injuring a person or an animal is identical, but according to the letter of Torah law the severe punishment of “an eye for an eye” should apply when the victim is a person. Even according to Chazal, who explain that the punishment is monetary, it is five-fold (damage, pain, embarrassment, medical expenses, and unemployment). In contrast, one who injures an animal pays only for the damage done.
3) The case of injury to a parent. One who injures a parent is liable to death, while one who injures anyone else is liable to monetary penalty. It goes without saying that injuring an animal carries only a very light penalty.
The Seforno explains the second half of the verse, “One who strikes an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who strikes a human being shall be put to death,” as referring to the case of someone injuring a parent. This explains why he is subject to the death penalty and not a monetary penalty. Here we have another example where the identity of the victim leads to a more severe penalty.
Let us now return to our initial question. The Seforno answers that it is true that the action of the blasphemer is not one that harms; nevertheless, since the target of the action is God, the punishment is very severe. The blasphemer must be put to death.