The Torah prohibits us from cursing: "You shall not curse the deaf" (Levit. 19:14). In the Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides explains, at some length, the nature of the act and the reasons for its prohibition.This is quite an extreme application of the idea that the Torah works within the intellectual framework of the Bnei Yisrael. Even though Rambam only explicitly invokes the principle of dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam with anthropomorphisms, he is effectively using the same concept here - but in a much more radical sense.When a person is moved by a desire to revenge himself on one who has wronged him by inflicting upon him an injury of the kind which he believes he has suffered, he will not be content until he has requited the wrong in that fashion; and only when he has had his revenge will his feelings be relieved, and his mind cease to dwell on the idea. Sometimes a man's desire for revenge will be satisfied by merely cursing and reviling, because he knows how much hurt and shame this will cause his enemy. But sometimes the matter will be more serious, and he will not be content until he has completely ruined the other, whereupon he will be satisfied by the thought of the pain caused to his enemy by the loss of his property. In yet other cases the matter will be more serious still, and he will not be satisfied until he has thrashed his enemy or inflicted bodily injury upon him. Or it may be even more serious, and his desire for revenge will not be satisfied except by the extreme measure of taking his enemy's life and destroying his very existence. Sometimes, on the other hand, because of the lightness of the offense, the desire for vengeance will not be strong, so that he will find relief in uttering angry imprecations and curses, even though the other would not listen to them if he were present. It is well known that hot~tempered and choleric persons find relief in this way from the (annoyance caused by) trivial offenses, though the offender is not aware of their wrath and does not hear their fulminations.
Now we might suppose that the Torah, in forbidding us to curse an Israelite, (was moved by) the shame and the pain that the curse would cause him when he heard it, but that there is no sin in cursing the deaf, who cannot hear and therefore cannot feel hurt. For this reason He tells us that cursing is forbidden by prohibiting it in the case of the deaf, since the Torah is concerned not only with the one who is cursed, but also with the curser, who is told not to be vindictive and hot-tempered.
The upshot of this ethical-psychological explanation, which emphasizes the desire for revenge and the ethical shortcoming of the one who curses, is to deny the efficacy of the act: cursing is not really effective in the sense that it produces malevolent results. It is prohibited because it reflects moral weakness of the one who utters the curse.
In the Moreh Nebukim, in the context of his discussion of criminology and penology, Maimonides again has occasion to discuss the nature of the act of cursing. Having stated that severity of punishment according to the halachah is commensurate with the severity, frequency, and enormity of the culpable act, Maimonides notes that transgressions in which there is no action are not even punishable by flogging for they "can only result in little harm... and it is also impossible to take care not to commit them for they consist in words only." Why then is cursing one's fellow man one of the three exceptions to this rule? Maimonides answers parenthetically, almost nonchalantly, that the Torah dealt stringently with cursing "for in the opinion of the multitude the injury resulting from curses is greater than that which may befall the body." The popular view, "the opinion (and imagination) of the multitude," erroneous and without foundation in truth or reality, is sufficient reason for the law. In a word, the Torah takes into account psychological tendencies, fears, and beliefs, and popular perceptions which, even though philosophically unfounded, exert influence and, therefore, have their own "reality."
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
A Curse Upon Thee!
Here is a fascinating extract from Prof. Twerksy's article on Ibn Kaspi (minus footnotes), regarding Rambam's view of the nature of curses: