Category Archives: Balak

Cursing and swearing

So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me… (Bamidbar 22:6)

There are many different prohibitions in the Torah against cursing another person. The primary source is found in Leviticus and specifies the law against cursing a deaf person (Leviticus 19:14). Another verse states ‘You shall not curse a judge; neither shall you curse a prince among your people’ (Exodus 22:27). In both cases, the prohibition seems to be limited to cursing specific individuals, in this case the leaders of the Jewish people.

The Midrash and Talmud explain that in the latter verse, the phrase ‘among your people’ is superfluous to the simple meaning and therefore includes a general prohibition against cursing others (Sifra 2:13 and Sanhedrin 66b).

Why then did the Torah specify two very particular prohibitions; one against cursing someone who is deaf and another against cursing Jewish leaders, when a general prohibition would have sufficed.

The Sefer HaChinuch (attributed to Rabbi Aharon ben Yosef HaLevi, d. 1290) explains that the verse which prohibits cursing the deaf teaches us that it is forbidden to curse anyone even if they are not in earshot and are therefore effectively ‘deaf’ to the invective (Sefer HaChinuch 231). One might have thought that since the intended victim is not directly affected, the gravity of the misdeed is weakened, yet this is not the case.

The Talmud offers a different approach. The Torah deliberately brings examples from the two ends of the societal spectrum; the powerful and the vulnerable. The message is that maledictions damage equally regardless of the status or stature of their target (Sanhedrin 66b).

Moreover, while receiving a curse is clearly harmful and upsetting, since the prohibition equally applies when the victim is unaffected, there appears to be another dimension to this act.

Maimonides (d. 1204) highlights that the damage of cursing someone not only affects the victim but is detrimental to the character of the one delivering the curse (negative commandment 317). As we see from Bilaam, someone who curses others denigrates himself to an even greater degree than the one he intends to harm.

Cruelty to Animals

The angel of God said to him: ‘Why did you strike your donkey these three times? Behold I went out to impede you, for you had hastened on a road to oppose me. (Numbers 22:32)

Maimonides (d. 1204) cites the act of Bilaam striking his donkey as an example of tzaar baalei chaim – causing unnecessary pain and distress to an animal, which is prohibited by the Torah (Guide to the Perplexed III:7). Yet what is perplexing is that Bilaam was a non-Jewish prophet. While he may have had the ability to communicate with God, he was surely not bound by Torah law.

The Torah does not only forbid causing unnecessary suffering to animals, but it demands that we act positively to promote their wellbeing. For example, it is forbidden to couple different species of animals together to prevent the distress which could be caused to the weaker animal (Deuteronomy 22:10).

The Talmud, based on a verse in Deuteronomy (11:15) records the law that it is forbidden for a person to eat before he has fed his animal (Brachot 40a).

Maimonides explains that we are commanded to send away the mother bird before removing the young from the nest (Deuteronomy 22:7) because living creatures instinctively care for their young and suffer just like humans when they see their young taken away or slaughtered (Guide to the Perplexed III:48).

Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook (d. 1935) indicates that the laws which prohibit cruelty to animals and promote their well-being are designed to not only minimise animal suffering but are necessary to guard us against becoming desensitised. The safeguards which protect animals also encourage us to develop our sense of compassion towards every living creature (Chazon HaTzimchonut V’HaShalom Chapter 14).

This is why Bilaam was culpable; laws pertaining to animal cruelty are axiomatic and form part of a universal morality of which Bilaam should have known instinctively. The fact he cared more about his mission than the pain he might cause to his donkey revealed his true nature as a callous, self centred and cold-hearted individual (Horeb 17).