Emor: Third Commandment

Don’t Blaspheme

Parsha Emor contains the disturbing episode of the blasphemer in the camp. A Jew (who has an Egyptian father) gets into a fight with another Jew and curses the name of God. Recall the Third Commandment: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” (Ex. 20:7, Deut. 5:11) Punishment is swift: God tells Moses to take the blasphemer out of the camp, “and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the community leadership stone him.” (Lev. 24:14).

The Torah says that blasphemy is a death penalty offense, and then defines murder also as a death penalty offense. Next in the Torah are laws about injuries to animals and humans. Why is blasphemy in the same category of crime as physical abuse and murder? Uttering words in a moment of emotion that don’t hurt anybody seems like a lesser sin than taking someone’s life.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that a man who has no fear of God has nothing to keep his darkest inclinations in check. He is in a spiritually debased state and can rationalize any behavior. The crimes of murder, assault and property damage are linked to the sin of blasphemy because without a strong belief in God, people and societies are at higher risk of becoming wicked and violent. 

Note: like other death penalty offenses that don’t involve assault or murder, it’s highly doubtful that capital punishment for blasphemy was ever imposed by a Jewish court. It’s in the Torah to emphasize that disrespecting God is a serious transgression.

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