OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi – Blasphemy in Judaism.


Question.   A Christian woman in Pakistan is being tried for blasphemy. She is accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam and if found guilty she could be put to death. What does Judaism say about blasphemy?

Painting by Alex Levin

Answer.   As early as the Seven Laws of the Sons of No’ach there was a strict Jewish prohibition of “Bir’kat HaShem”, “cursing the Name of God”. (These Seven Laws are the Bible’s first code of law, even more basic than the Ten Commandments.) The Hebrew “bir’kat” literally means “blessing (of)”, but here it is a euphemism. The same euphemism is used later in Tanach in relation to sedition: in the story of Jezebel, Naboth is told, “berachta Elo-him vamelech”, “You have blessed (i.e. cursed) God and the king” (I Kings 20:10).

Ex. 22:27 says, “You shall not revile God”, which not only prohibits cursing God but cursing the judges who are sometimes called “Elohim” (e.g. Psalm 82:1), because human judges are regarded as partners with God and serving His purposes (Shab. 10a).

The third of the Ten Commandments is a broad rule against taking the Name of God in vain (Ex. 20:7), which safeguards the sanctity and honour of the Divine Name, but it does not provide a definition of blasphemy.

Lev.24:16 says that anyone who blasphemes God’s Name is to be put to death. However, the rabbinic sages understand this as publicly cursing the Divine Name (not just any synonym for deity, but the authentic sacred Name), and Mishnah Sanhedrin lays down the procedure if someone is accused of committing this act. Unless a person has specifically done what the law prohibits, it is not blasphemy in the technical sense, though it is certainly a grave moral wrong.

For a Jew to make derogatory remarks about Judaism as a whole is certainly wrong, but it is not technically blasphemy. Similarly, saying negative things about another religion is not blasphemy in the eyes of Jewish law, nor does Jewish law prohibit a gentile saying something that has the effect of reviling his/her own deity or prophet or criticising his/her own religion.

Judaism takes it for granted that human beings give respect to their religion but would not impose the death penalty on someone who failed to act in this way, whether to their own or someone else’s religion.

Some years ago there was national debate in Australia about whether blasphemy should remain on the statute book (it was an early British import) and I was amongst those who argued that the blasphemy law had no place in a  modern democratic society in which the marketplace of ideas included the airing of many points of view.

If persons made hurtful comments that brought a particular religion into contempt or incited racial, religious or ethnic hatred – not to speak of violence – there were other legal sanctions and means of redress available.


Question. I didn’t ask to be born, so why should I have to keep the commandments?

Answer.   Pir’kei Avot 4:22 says:

“Despite yourself you were born, despite yourself you will die and despite yourself you have to account for your life.”

The Vilna Gaon was asked,

“If life and death are imposed on a person, why should they have to give account and reckoning for how they spend their life?”

The Gaon replied,

“There is a rule that if a person has a field without a fence but a neighbour erects a fence around three sides of it, the owner of the field does not have to pay towards the fence because the field is still open on the fourth side. But if the neighbour fences in the fourth side, the owner of the field has to pay towards the fencing on the other three sides, since the fence gives him a benefit.

“Likewise, though we are not asked if we want to be born, while we are alive we do not want to die. Our birth was despite us, but we still get some benefit from the fact that we are alive, and we have to use our life properly.”


Question. My mother was born Jewish but married a gentile and I was baptised and as a child was brought up as a Christian. I now want to be recognised as a Jew out of conviction. Do I need to re-convert?

Ancient Mikvahs (ritual baths) in Jerusalem. Credit: www.chabad.org

Answer.   Because of your maternal background you are Jewish according to Jewish law. But the matter is complicated by the fact that you were officially received into Christianity and practised it (though you do not tell me whether you have followed the Christian faith in the years since your childhood). Therefore your acceptance of Judaism needs to be confirmed by means of immersion in a mikvah and a declaration of acceptance of the Torah.

In the first instance you should consult an orthodox rabbi and follow his advice. It is unlikely that any obstacles will be placed in your way. In fact the return to Judaism which you seek is bringing an increasing number of people back to the Jewish fold. If all or even most of the people in your situation re-asserted their Judaism, both they and we would be immensely strengthened.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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