Kelala (Cursing)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Balak

Kelala (Cursing)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory


In this week's parasha, we read that Balak, king of Moav, called upon Bil'am to curse Am Yisrael.  Bil'am responded that he must wait and follow God's instructions.  After Bil'am was told not to curse this nation, "for they are blessed," he exclaimed, "How can I curse, God has not cursed" (BaMidbar 23, 8) and thereby incurred the wrath of Balak.  It seems that Bil'am realized that cursing people has no real physical effect at all, while Balak thought that curses could be effective and enable him to overcome Am Yisrael.


The Torah forbade us to curse judges and princes (Shemot 22,27), and elsewhere prohibits cursing parents, a prohibition punishable by death (Shemot 21,17). Another prohibition forbids cursing a deaf person (VaYikra 19,14).  Commenting on this prohibition, Rashi (ad loc.) cites the Midrash Halakha that this verse actually forbids cursing any living person.  The Ramban (ad loc.) explained that the Torah found it necessary to specify that one may not curse even a deaf person, who does not hear the curse and is therefore not angered or upset by it.  A fortiori, it is forbidden to curse a person who can hear and may thus suffer humiliation and distress upon hearing someone curse him.


The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (231) acknowledges that he does not fully understand how curses affect the victim, but does state quite clearly that a curse can cause harm.  He therefore writes, "The root of the mitzva is that we should not verbally harm others, just as we may not harm them through actions."


The Chinukh then cites the Rambam's position, that the reason for this mitzva is to eliminate the emotions of anger and vengeance from people's hearts.  The Chinukh deduces from this explanation that the Rambam does not agree with his view, and maintains that curses have no effect at all.  Therefore, this prohibition is merely an educational device to improve our middot.  The Chinukh concludes that he is more comfortable with his own position, but nevertheless accepts the opinion of the Rambam.


The Rambam also wrote (Guide to the Perplexed, part III, chapter 41) that the masses consider verbal damage more severe than physical damage.  He implies that although the masses indeed entertain such a notion, it is not true, and only due to this general impression is this prohibition unusually severe.  Cursing is one of the only three instances of a transgression that involves no action but is nevertheless punishable by makkot (lashes).


The Rambam (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 26,1) wrote, "It appears to me" that one violates this prohibition even if he curses a minor. Had the Rambam agreed with the Chinukh, that cursing causes actual damage, this halakha would be readily obvious, and the Rambam would have no need to write, "It appears to me."  But since in the Rambam's view no damage is involved, and this transgression is due only to the humiliation suffered by the victim, one might have, intuitively, discounted the shame suffered by a minor and limit the prohibition to curses uttered against adults.  The Rambam therefore clarifies that in his opinion, the Torah forbids even cursing a minor.  The reason for this law could be that the educational element of this mitzva applies to the sinner, and does not involve the victim at all.  Alternatively, the Rambam perhaps felt that a minor also experiences shame.  The practical difference between these two explanations would arise in a case of a small child too young to even be aware of his having been cursed.  In the standard editions of the Rambam, the text reads, "He who curses a minor who is shamed," whereas in the Frankel edition, the text merely says, "He who curses a minor."  It seems that the variant texts revolve around our two possible interpretations. 

Instinctively, we might prove that one is liable for cursing even a very small child from the fact that the prohibition applies to cursing a deaf person.  In both cases – of speaking about a small child and about a deaf person – the victim will not suffer humiliation as a result of the curse.  Furthermore, if the law is educational in nature, it should not depend at all upon the identity of the "victim."  On the other hand, the Rambam codified that one who curses a dead person is not liable (ibid. 26,2).  If the purpose of the law is to educate, what difference should it make if the "victim" is alive or dead?  The answer perhaps is that when a person curses the dead, there really is no victim at all.  Or, perhaps the Rambam felt that cursing a dead person is also forbidden, but there is a technical exemption from punishment in such a case.


We generally divide mitzvot into two categories: mitzvot between Man and God and mitzvot between Man and his fellow Man.  The Vilna Gaon (commentary on the beginning of Yeshayahu) explained that there is a third category: between Man and Himself.  There are mitzvot whose purpose  is to develop positive character traits.  It seems that the Chinukh classified the kelala prohibition as a mitzva between Man and his fellow Man, while according to the Rambam, it is a mitzva between Man and Himself, geared to help refining our characters.


The Mishna (Shevuot 35a) establishes that one may not even curse himself.  The Gemara (ibid. 36a) bases this halakha on the verse, "Beware for yourself and guard your soul" (Devarim 4,9).  According to the Chinukh, we would explain that since cursing may cause harm, Halakha forbade even cursing oneself, as a person is not permitted to cause himself harm.  However, according to the Rambam, why should a person not be allowed to curse himself?  After all, no damage is done.  And if we assume that in terms of developing character traits, the "victim's" identity is of no consequence, then why do we need that verse in Devarim to introduce this prohibition?  This source strongly implies that one may not curse himself because it may cause him physical harm.


Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim III p. 390) explains that generally speaking, cursing does not really hurt anyone.  Words are certainly capable of hurting people, but God would not heed the curse of someone who curses needlessly and thereby transgresses this prohibition.  Rav Moshe therefore explained that the prohibition is intended to avoid humiliation and disgrace.  However, Rav Moshe writes, a person who curses himself may indeed cause himself harm and will thus be punished by God for transgressing and cursing himself.  The Torah forbade us from cursing ourselves because of the obligation to maintain our physical well being, as indicated by the commandment, "Beware for yourself and guard your soul."


If we accept Rav Moshe's reasoning, we should actually count cursing oneself as a separate mitzva, independent of the prohibition against cursing others.  Rav Perla (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Le-Rabbeinu Sa'adya Gaon, Vol. 2, p. 81) cited a number of Rishonim who indeed count cursing oneself as a separate mitzva.  In fact, as he mentions, the Tashbetz questions why the Rambam did not do so.  The Tashbetz (Zohar Ha-Rakia 218) commented that although the Rambam seemingly tried to avert this question by saying, "Cursing oneself is included in [the prohibition against] cursing others." (ibid.), nevertheless, it seems from the Gemara that it constitutes a separate prohibition.


The Or Ha-Chayim (Bamidbar 23,8) adopted a median position, in between the Rambam and the Chinukh.  He explained that under normal conditions, a curse is totally ineffective.  Presumably, he would, therefore, explain the prohibition according to the Rambam.  He adds, however, that if a person is deserving of punishment, sometimes God, in His mercy, would postpone or even cancel the punishment.  In that particular case, a human curse could incite God, as it were, to punish the cursed person in accordance with what he deserves.


Bil'am could not curse the people of Israel at all according to the Rambam, since no one can actually curse anyone.  According to the Chinukh, we would explain that even if a man's curse is effective, God's berakha overcomes everything.