SALT - Friday, 5 Iyar 5776, Omer 20 - May 13, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Towards the end of Parashat Emor, we read the law condemning to capital punishment one who curses the Name of God (“ve-nokeiv sheim Hashem mot yumat” – 24:16).

            The Gemara, in Maseches Sanhedrin (56a), discusses the pragmatic issue of how the court hears testimony to such an offense.  In order for the Beit Din to sentence an offender to punishment, they must hear clear and precise testimony of what occurred.  In the case of blasphemy, of course, we do not wish to have the witnesses repeat verbatim the words which they heard.  The solution, as the Gemara instructs, is that throughout the proceedings, the witnesses repeat the curse they heard with a kinui (“nickname”); that is to say, they substitute God’s Name with a different name.  (The example given by the Gemara is “Yossi.”)  This way, they are able to testify to having heard words of blasphemy without actually repeating them.  However, even this does not suffice for the Beit Din to act upon the testimony.  The Gemara teaches that after the court reached its decision to convict the alleged blasphemer, it would still not carry out the sentence until hearing the precise words that he spoke, without any distortion.  The judges would therefore send everyone out of the courtroom, and ask one of the witnesses to repeat precisely what he heard.  Upon hearing the blasphemy, the judges would stand and rend their garments.  The other witnesses would then say, “I, too, heard what he heard.” 

            The Tolna Rebbe noted the significance of the fact that Halakha requires the witness to repeat the words of blasphemy without any changes.  This occurred at the end of the judicial process, after the Beit Din had thoroughly interrogated and cross-examined the witnesses, and after intensive deliberation.  As we know, a Beit Din would not sentence a suspected violator to capital punishment if there was any question whatsoever surrounding the truth and accuracy of the witnesses’ testimony.  And thus by the time the judges reached the point of instructing one witness to repeat the curse verbatim, they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the blasphemer’s guilt.  Yet, this did not suffice.  This thorough process of interrogation did not allow the judges to act upon their sentence until they heard the precise words without modification.  Halakha demands the extraordinary measure of requiring a witness to repeat words of blasphemy, which then necessitated the judges’ rending of their garments, because of the minuscule possibility that there was some mistake or misunderstanding.

            The Tolna Rebbe drew upon this fascinating halakha to underscore the importance of delaying judgment upon hearing negative information about others.  If this is how far the Torah goes in considering the remotest possibility of a mistake, then certainly we should react skeptically to rumors and murmurings about other people.  It is wrong to jump to conclusions about people based on hearsay or our impressions.  We must always consider the possibility – even the remote possibility – that there was some mistake or misunderstanding, that the situation is not precisely as it was reported, or there are some mitigating factors involved.  The Torah here teaches us of the need to view others favorably and find any basis we can to cast their actions and words in a positive light, and to avoid as much as possible assigning guilt and blame.