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Taking Responsibility

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

This week's parsha, parahat Emor, concludes with the incident of the blasphemer, the mekalel.

"And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp.

And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother's name was Shelomit, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.

And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of HaShem.

And HaShem spoke unto Moshe, saying:

Bring forth him that hath cursed outside the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.

And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curses his G-d shall bear his sin.

And he that blasphemes the name of HaShem, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him; as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.

And he that smites any man mortally shall surely be put to death.

And he that smites a beast mortally shall make it good: life for life.

And if a man maims his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him:breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he hath maimed a man, so shall it be rendered unto him.

And he that killed a beast shall make it good; and he that killed a man shall be put to death.

Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born; for I am HaShem your G-d.'

And Moshe spoke to the children of Israel, and they brought forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. And the children of Israel did as HaShem commanded Moshe." [1]

This episode raises many questions: how are we to understand the placing and context of this parsha here in parshat Emor; why the Torah relates the event of the mekalel in order to teach it's laws, what's the significance of the identities of the people involved, why the uncertainty of the law; what is the relevance of the laws of damages here, and the list could go on.

In this shiur I would like to address just one peculiarity. The punishment of the mekalel is stoning. However, before the stoning is performed, all those who heard the blasphemy are to place their hands on the blasphemer's head: "and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him."[2]  This is an exceptional law regarding only the case of blasphemy as the Rambam states: "Only a blasphemer - and none of the other offenders executed by the court - has [the judges and witnesses] place their hands upon his head".[3]  

The obvious question is: why? What is the meaning of the action of placing the hands on the blasphemer's head and why is it necessary?

In addition, Rashi quoting Chazal adds, that when placing their hands on the blasphemer the witnesses say to him: “Your blood is on your own head! We are not to be punished for your death, for you brought this upon yourself!” What it is the meaning of this declaration? Is it not obvious that the blasphemer is to blame for his actions? Are not all people punished by the Sanhedrin guilty of their crime and held responsible for it?

Many commentators[4] suggest that the reason for the above stems from the fact that the blasphemer has caused the witnesses and the judges to be involved in his terrible sin. Firstly the witnesses have to repeat what they heard, causing them to blaspheme in the context of their testimony, and secondly the Judges have to hear these terrible words in court as well. The act of placing the hands on the blasphemer is therefore similar to the "semicha" done on a korban by the owner before it is sacrificed. The difficulty in this explanation is that the witnesses say to him: "you brought this upon yourself!” emphasis on "yourself", whereas we want to blame him for what he caused "us" – the witnesses.

Rabbi D.Z. Hoffman says as well that it is an act reminiscent of bringing a korban, however the "korban" is necessary to atone for the apathy displayed by those present who heard the curse and did not react forcefully against the blasphemer. A difficulty would arise though in cases where those that heard did act forcefully, yet this would not change the law.

This concept of people not responsible for a crime having to come forward and declare their innocence reminds me of a similar law regarding "Eglah Arufah". In Sefer Devarim the Torah instructs us:  If a man is found dead in an empty field and we don’t know who killed him, the elders of the city that is closest to the corpse should kill a young calf, wash their hands over it and proclaim, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]. Atone for Your people, Israel, whom You have redeemed, O L‑rd, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among Your people Israel.” Rashi comments: But would it enter one’s mind that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [they declare:] We [ourselves] did not see him and let him depart without food or escort [which would have indirectly caused his death, leaving this man to the elements and to robbers[.

Ibn Ezra suggests that the elders of the city performed the ceremony because they were to some extent suspected as being the background cause of the murder: had they successfully led the city according to the Torah's strict moral standards such a murder would have never happened in the first place.

There is therefore, within the very utterance of non-guilt, admittance to bearing some guilt for the rise of this tragic situation. Here as well, this ceremony is reminiscent of a sacrifice for atonement for their guilt.

Without doubt, we learn from the incident of the Mekalel, the blasphemer, that one is held fully responsible for the decisions one makes and extenuating circumstances cannot excuse one from the consequences of ones actions. However, it's possible that the Torah is teaching us as well, that if a Jew has reached a stage in life that leads him to blasphemy, complete rejection of Hashem, the surrounding group of people have to also reflect on themselves and ask : did we do everything we could to avoid this situation?

One of the explanations offered by Rashi as to what caused the blasphemy is: "The Baraitha states: He “went out” of Moses’ tribunal [with a] guilty [verdict. How so?] He had come to pitch his tent within the encampment of the tribe of Dan. So [this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” [claiming lineage through his mother, who was from the tribe of Dan]. They said to him, “[But Scripture states (Num. 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each man by his grouping according to the insignias of his father’s household,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moses’ tribunal [where his case was tried], and came out guilty. Then, he arose and blasphemed."

True he was free to choose to respond differently, and for that he paid the price, however, was it not the duty of the community to ensure he would find a place to encamp, to console him and comfort him?

This I think is the daunting meaning of the placing of the hands of the witnesses and judges on the head of the blasphemer. Chilul Hashem does not appear out of nowhere. There are reasons and instigations for it. It is our duty to prevent them and to be a source of Kidush Hashem.

'And thou shalt love the Lord thy God' (Deut. 6, 5), i.e., that the Name of Heaven be beloved because of you. If someone studies Torah and Mishnah, and attends on the disciples of the wise, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to persons, what do people then say concerning him? Happy the father who taught him Torah, happy the teacher who taught him Torah; woe unto people who have not studied the Torah; for this man has studied the Torah: Look, how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds! Of him does Scripture say: 'And He said unto me: Thou art My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' (Isa. 49, 3) But if someone studies Torah and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? Woe unto him who studied the Torah, woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah! This man studied the Torah: Look, how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways; of him Scripture says: In that men said of them: 'These are the people of the Lord, and are gone forth out of His land.' (Ezek. 36, 20)"[5]

Shabbat Shalom


[1] Va'yikra 24;10

[2] Ibid, 24;14.

[3] Mishne Torah, Avodat Kochavim 2;10.

[4] Rosh, Chizkuni and others.

[5] Talmud Bavli. Yoma 86b.


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