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Blessing & Cursing

In the Bible these two antonyms have three meanings: (1) the invocation of good or evil; (2) good fortune or misfortune; and (3) the person or thing upon whom or which the fortune or misfortune falls.

Thus the first meaning is best represented in English by the terms benediction and malediction or imprecation. The most common formulas of invocation use the terms barukh and ʾarur. Despite the frequent assertion that words themselves were regarded as intrinsically power-laden, there is little evidence that biblical Israel was any more prone to such a view than is contemporary man. When, in the Bible, man does the invoking, the source of power is (explicitly or implicitly) the Deity; hence both blessings and curses are basic prayers. When the Deity pronounces either good or evil against anyone, the pronouncement is to be understood as a decree rather than a prayer; when man is the subject of the verb berekh and the Deity is the object, the verb denotes praise, for nowhere in the Bible is there any indication that the power of God is itself increased by man's pronouncements. As substantive good, blessing is most frequently represented by the terms berakhah, shalom, and ṭov; its most common antonyms are kelalah (qelalah) and raʿah. Blessings include health, long life, many and enduring progeny, wealth, honor, and victory. The dependence of Palestinian agronomy on rainfall is reflected in the use of berakhah for the rains in their due season. Curses, it follows, bring sickness and death, barrenness in people and cattle, crop failure, poverty, defeat, and disgrace. That the beneficiary of good fortune or the victim of ill fortune is himself sometimes regarded as a blessing or a curse is reflected in such passages as Genesis 12:2, "be a blessing" and Numbers 5:21, "may the Lord make you a curse." This use of the terms reflects the usage of beneficiaries of good or victims of evil as examples of felicity and disaster in benedictions and imprecations (Gen. 48:20; Jer. 24:9).


The basic term for imprecation in the Bible is ʾalah. In most instances it represents an adjuration, i.e., a conditional curse upon someone in the second or third person. As "imprecation" the ʾalah is implicitly present in every oath (shevuʿah), for an oath is by definition a conditional self-curse. The close relationship between these two terms accounts for the confusion of the two in many translations; indeed, by the operation of metonymy the term hishbiʿa, which normally means "to administer an oath," may have the meaning "to adjure." The root ʾrr (ארר; and the noun derived from it, meʾerah) shows traces of the concept of "spell," a malignant state in which the victim is barred from such benefits as a share of the earth's fertility, participation in a fellowship or society, and the like. Thus where ʾalah reflects the curse as formulation, ʾrr reflects the curse as operational. The third term most frequently associated with the idea of curse is the verb kallel (qallel; קלל) and the cognate noun qelalah. This term has a far broader connotative range. It reflects attitudes, behavior, and actions all the way from contempt, through verbal abuse, to physical violence; just as berekh (ברך) and kibbed (כבד; and the nouns derived from them) express respect, compliments and good wishes, and material benefit. The failure to recognize the broad range of meanings expressed by qillel resulted in the notion (as early as the Septuagint translation) that qillel ʾElohim means to "curse God" (cf. Ex. 22:27; Lev. 24:10–23). To avoid this horrendous formulation, the biblical text was altered: in I Samuel 3:13 from ʾElohim ("God") to la-hem ("to them"); in I Kings 21:13, and Job 1:5, 1:11, 2:9 the original qillel is replaced by the *euphemistic antonym berekh. The rabbinic tradition in Sanhedrin 7:5 also had recourse to a euphemism in an attempt to understand how imprecation against the Deity is possible in a monotheistic system. In fact, it has been demonstrated that the phrase translated "curse God," qillel ʾElohim, usually really means "show disrespect for God" – for the most part by disobeying His moral standards. The antonymous phrase is yareʾ/yirʾat Elohim, "to fear God," i.e., show respect for His maxims. Since both blessings and curses are types of prayers, it is not surprising that they are encountered everywhere in the Bible, in everyday contexts, legal and diplomatic proceedings. Salutations of greeting and departure are normally expressions of goodwill, hence the term b-r-kh (ברך) for such salutations. Recourse to prayer, i.e., an address to the Deity, is to be expected when human resources are exhausted or, by nature of the situation, unavailing. Hence one notes the employment of oath and adjuration in legal disputes and in treaty formulations.

Ancient Near Eastern treaties exhibit the feature of curses, in that the subjected power invokes its own god or gods to administer punishment in the event of failure to observe the agreed upon (i.e., imposed) terms of the treaty (cf. Ezek. 17:11–19). The formulation of the covenant between Israel and its God follows the pattern of such "vassal treaties." An examination of the curses in Deuteronomy 27:15–26 reveals the essential function of the curse, for all the enumerated breaches of provisions of the covenant are of such a nature that society would be unable to punish them. It follows also that the invocation of God in a curse (be it oath or adjuration) is not only blameless but also praiseworthy, for every such invocation is implicitly an acknowledgment of the Deity's sovereignty. This is made explicit in such passages as Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20, and Isaiah 45:23. Heinous, by contrast, is swearing or cursing "by the name of " other deities. A frequent formulation of biblical curses is Ko yaʿaseh YHWH ve-kho yosif ("May the Lord do such-and-such and worse if…"). Another formulation invokes the power of both king and Deity or of one of them only: "by the life (Heb. ḥai) of the king/the Lord." This formula is a frozen form, i.e., a relic of a concept no longer in consonance with the thinking of the people who continue to employ it. The earlier belief was that the life of the king or a god could be put in jeopardy by a solemn pronouncement in support of a promise or of the truth of an assertion; thereby involved in the outcome, the king or god (and his punitive power) was brought into an issue which might otherwise have been of no concern to him. (This type of thinking remains in evidence today when a person swears "by" or "on" something more precious than his own life, e.g., the head of his child, or his mother's grave.) Alternatives to ḥai in cursing/swearing by the life of God or king are nefesh ("life," "soul") and shem ("name"). Thus the Deity Himself is pictured as employing this oath form, swearing "by Myself " (Gen. 22:16, Jer. 22:5; 49:13) or "by My great Name" (Jer. 44:26).

[Herbert Chanan Brichto]

In the Talmud

The rabbis continued to stress the efficacy of blessings and curses. With regard to the former, they ordained that God's name be utilized in the blessing uttered when meeting or greeting people in accordance with the practice of Boaz (Ber. 9:5; Ruth 2:4). Continuing biblical traditions, the rabbis introduced blessings at circumcisions (Targum Uzziel to Gen. 48:20), at marriages (Gen. 24:60), and upon separating from an acquaintance one was advised to say, "Go unto peace" (Ex. 4:18; MK 29a). The sages declared that even "the blessing or the cursing of an ordinary man should not be lightly esteemed" (Meg. 15a). The Jew was also encouraged to respond "Amen" after the blessing of a Gentile (TJ, Ber. 8:9, 12c). Great emphasis was placed upon the blessing of an elder, and people were urged to receive their blessings (Ruth R. 6:2). Likewise, people were encouraged to bless the righteous whenever they mentioned them (Gen. R. 49:1). Abraham blessed everybody, and he was constantly blessed by God (Gen. R. 59:5). The ability to bless others was passed on by Abraham to Isaac (Gen. R. 61:6). All blessings were considered incomplete unless they were also accompanied by peace (Num. R. 11:7).


According to the Talmud, even an undeserved curse by a scholar is effective (Mak. 11a), and an undeserved curse will fall back upon him who utters it (Sanh. 49a and Rashi, ad loc.). The biblical prohibitions of cursing were elaborated in rabbinic halakhah to comprise (1) The cursing of God (see *Blasphemy ). (2) The cursing of parents (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9; cf. Prov. 20:20; 30:11; Sanh. 7:8). This prohibition applies to proselytes toward their unconverted parents (Maim. Yad, Mamrim, 5:11). (3) The cursing of judges and of the chiefs of the people: kings, heads of Sanhedrin, etc. (Ex. 22:27; Eccles. 10:20; Maim. Yad, Sanhedrin, 26:1). (4) The biblical prohibition of cursing the deaf (Lev. 19:14) was interpreted to include any poor, physically handicapped, or even any person in his absence (Sanh. 66a; Yad, loc. cit.). (5) The prohibition of cursing is extended to self-cursing (Shevu. 4:13; Yad, loc. cit.) (6) The cursing by a woman of her husband's parents in his presence is a valid reason for divorcing her without the repayment of her *dowry as stipulated in the *ketubbah ("marriage contract"; Ket. 72a–b; Sh. Ar., EH 115:4). Cursing is permissible only when prompted by religious motives such as the cursing of those who are guilty of reprehensible actions (Men. 64b), or who mislead the people by calculating the date of the coming of the Messiah (meḥasehvei kiẓẓin; Sanh. 97b). While rabbinic ethics does not go to the length of the New Testament demand to "bless them that curse you…" (Luke 6:27), it disapproves of cursing in general and the Talmud quotes a popular proverb, "Be rather of the cursed than of the cursing" (Sanh. 49a). These ideas found their expression in the prayer cited in the Talmud (Ber. 17a) and said thrice daily at the conclusion of the *Amidah : "O my God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to such as curse let my soul be dumb, yea, let my soul be unto all as the dust…."

The popular belief in the magical power of a curse, even if pronounced unintentionally, has led to the custom of reading the verses of the Bible, Leviticus 26:14–43 and Deuteronomy 28:15–68, called Tokheḥah ("chastisement"), in a low voice. Out of fear, people were reluctant to be called up to the Torah reading of these particular sections, so it became customary in some congregations to call for a volunteer (mi she-yirẓeh), or, when a beadle (shammash) was hired, it was agreed that it would be his duty to be called up for the reading of the Tokheḥah sections (see Isserles to Sh. Ar., OH 428:6). Some pious rabbis volunteered to read the Tokheḥah to prevent embarrassment to other people.


H. Blank, in: HUCA, 23 (1950–51), 73–95; Speiser, in: JAOS, 80 (1960), 198–200; H.C. Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible (1963); T. Canaan, in: JPOS, 15 (1935), 235–79; J. Scharbert, in: Biblica, 39 (1958), 1–26.

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