BLASPHEMY, in the broadest (and least precise) sense any act contrary to the will of God or derogatory to His power. Blasphemy is the term employed to translate the Hebrew verbs ḥeref, giddef, and ni'eẓ (e.g., Isa. 37:6, gdf, where the servants of the king of Assyria denied the Lord's power to save Israel; and Ezek. 20:27, where it refers to Israel's sacrifices on the High Places). In the narrower and more precise sense, the word is used to mean speaking contemptuously of the Deity. The classic instance in the Bible is Leviticus 24:10–23, where the pronouncement (nakav, naqav) of the name of God appears in conjunction with the verb killel (qillel). God (Elohim) also appears as the object of the verb qillel in Exodus 22:27 (see also I Kings 21:10, 13, where qillel is euphemistically displaced by its antonym berekh, "to bless" or "to renounce"; see *Euphemism and Dysphemism). The rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 24:10–23 and Exodus 22:27 as wishing (i.e., wishing harm, Sanh. 7:5) establishes a definition of blasphemy such as to render the actual perpetration (and the application of the penalty, capital punishment) out of the realm of probability. The verb qallel rarely means "to curse." Rather it subsumes a wide range of abuse, often nonverbal in nature. "To curse" the Deity meant to repudiate Him, to violate His norms; blasphemy on the part of an Israelite, in the narrow sense, is a concept alien to biblical thought.

[Herbert Chanan Brichto]

In the Talmud

The Mishnah (Sanh. 7:5), rules that the death sentence by stoning should be applied only in the case where the blasphemer had uttered the *Tetragrammaton and two witnesses had warned him prior to the transgression. In the Talmud, however, R. Meir extends this punishment to cases where the blasphemer had used one of the *attributes, i.e., substitute names of God (Sanh. 56a). The accepted halakhah is that only the one who has uttered the Tetragrammaton be sentenced to death by stoning; the offender who pronounced the substitute names is only flogged (Maim., Yad, Avodat Kokhavim, 2:7). In the court procedure (Sanh. 5:7 and Sanh. 60a) the witnesses for the prosecution testified to the words of the blasphemer by substituting the expressions "Yose shall strike Yose" (yakkeh Yose et Yose). Toward the end of the hearing, however, after the audience had been dismissed, the senior witness was asked to repeat the exact words uttered by the blasphemer. Upon their pronouncement (i.e., of the Tetragrammaton), the judges stood up and rent their garments. The act expressed their profound mourning at hearing the name of God profaned. The custom of tearing one's clothes on hearing blasphemy is attested to in II Kings 18:37, where it is told that Eliakim and his associates tore their garments upon hearing the blasphemous words of the Assyrian warlord *Rab-Shakeh (Sanh. 60a). It is codified in Shulḥan Arukh (YD 340:37) that whoever bears a blasphemy whether with the Tetragrammaton or with attributes, in any language and from a Jew, even from the mouth of a witness, must rend his garment. The second and any successive witnesses only testified: "I have heard the same words" (Sanh. 7:5); according to the opinion of *Abba Saul, whoever utters the Tetragrammaton in public is excluded from the world to come (Av. Zar. 18a). Besides the sacrilege of God, vituperation against the king, God's anointed servant, was also considered blasphemy (cf. Ex. 22:27 and I Kings 21:10). Gentiles, too, are obliged to refrain from blasphemy since this is one of the Seven *Noachide Laws (Sanh. 56a, 60a). Maimonides also classified as blasphemy the erasure of God's name written on paper or engraved on stone, etc., which was to be punished by flogging (Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 6:1–6). After Jewish courts were deprived of jurisdiction in those cases where capital punishment was applied, excommunication (see *ḥerem) was the usual sanction against a blasphemer (J. Mueller (ed.), Teshuvot Ge'onei Mizraḥ u-Ma'arav (1898), 27a, responsum no. 103 by Amram Gaon).


Eisenstein, Dinim, 68.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.