“The Blasphemer – A Midrashic View”
(Updated and revised from Emor 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Emor, is, for the most part, concerned with the laws that apply to Kohanim–the Priests. These priestly instructions, are followed, in Leviticus 23, with laws regarding the observance of the various Jewish festivals. The final chapter of the parasha, Leviticus 24, concludes with three seemingly unrelated themes: the kindling of the Menorah (the Temple candelabra), the placing of the Show Bread on the Tabernacle table and the fascinating and tragic saga of the מְגַדֵּף , m’gadef-the blasphemer.

The story of the blasphemer opens in Leviticus 24:10. The Torah relates that, וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְהוּא בֶּן אִישׁ מִצְרִי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל , The son of an Israelite woman who was [also] the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel. This son of the Israelite woman fought in the camp with an Israelite man. During the quarrel, the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the name of G-d and blasphemed.

The blasphemer was then brought to Moses for judgment. The Torah identifies the blasphemer’s mother’s name as Shlomit the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. Since Moses did not know how to deal with the blasphemer’s transgression, the man was put under temporary arrest to await the legal ruling. After consulting with G-d, Moses instructs the people to take the blasphemer outside the camp. The witnesses, who had heard him blaspheme, were told to place their hands on the blasphemer’s head, and all the people were instructed to stone him to death.

Trying to explain the strange juxtaposition between the tale of the blasphemer and the laws of the Show Bread, Rashi, on Leviticus 24:10, cites the Midrash Tanchuma 23, that maintains that the blasphemer had gone about the camp of Israel scoffing at the Show Bread, saying: “A king normally eats warm, fresh-baked bread. Why should G-d have old, cold bread in the Tabernacle?” After being rebuked by an Israelite for speaking so disrespectfully, the two came to blows and the son of the Israelite woman uttered the curse in the name of G-d.

The Midrash, cited by Eliyahu KiTov in his weekly parasha studies, develops the elaborate story of the blasphemer, placing its actual origin back in Egypt. The story begins 60 years before the Exodus from Egypt, and concludes either two years, or 39 years, after the Exodus.

After Moses was weaned by his biological mother and returned to his stepmother, Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithya, he spent his youth and adolescence as a prince in the palace of Pharaoh. Bithya had raised Moses with a strong Jewish consciousness. Although Moses knew of his Hebrew brothers’ suffering, travail and slavery, he had never gone out to actually see them. In order to help the Israelite slaves, Moses arranged to be placed in charge of Pharaoh’s workers, and made it possible for the people of Israel to not work on Shabbat. He explained to his Egyptian compatriots that without proper rest, the overworked slaves would die of fatigue and Egypt would be left with no workers.

When Moses first started going out to look after his brothers, he wore a disguise so that he wouldn’t be recognized. One day, Moses overheard the Egyptian taskmasters complaining about how powerless they were. They were especially upset by Pharaoh’s decree that there may be no sexual contact with the Israelite women, so that the pure Egyptian pedigree not be contaminated. One taskmaster, however, reported that there was one Hebrew woman who was unusually friendly. Whenever she brought food to the fields for her husband, she talked and gossiped with everyone, “How are you, dear Taskmaster?” “How are you, officer?” “Hello, husband.” In fact, she was called “Shlomit,” because she always asked for the “Shalom”–the well-being, of everyone.

The very next day, the Egyptian taskmaster came to Shlomit’s house. Ordering her husband to leave and report to his labor, the Egyptian persuaded Shlomit to have relations with him. When the husband realized what was happening, he returned to confront the Egyptian. In response, the Egyptian taskmaster attempted to kill the man.

Moses, however, had gone out without his disguise, to keep an eye on the scheming Egyptian. When Moses saw the Egyptian taskmaster beating the husband, he looked (Exodus 2:12), “this way and that,” and killed the Egyptian by uttering the Tetragrammaton–the ineffable name of G-d.

The husband of Shlomit, whose life Moses had saved, was named Datan. Moses was not concerned that Datan would reveal what he had done to the Egyptian, after all, Moses had just saved the man’s life. Datan, on the other hand, looked upon Moses as a traitor to his brothers for he, Moses, had many previous opportunities to intervene on the peoples’ behalf, but had never done anything for them. Datan, in fact, was greatly concerned that the Jews would be blamed for Moses’ violence. So, he went home and told his brother, Abiram, what had happened.

Abiram concurred with Datan’s concerns. The brothers then schemed to quarrel publicly the next day, expecting that Moses would intervene. When Moses berated Datan, (Exodus 2:13), calling him a wicked man for beating his brother, Datan immediately ran to Pharaoh to reveal that Moses had killed an Egyptian, forcing Moses to flee to Midian.

This terrible incident of Mesira (talebearing to the authorities) indicated that the Jews were not yet ready for redemption. During the next 60 years, Datan and Abiram were oppressed along with all Jews, but their fierce resentment toward Moses did not diminish. When Moses returned to redeem his people, after spending 60 years in Midian, Datan and Abiram confronted him and warned him that his overtures to Pharaoh had only made things worse for the Jewish people, and that G-d would look down upon him, judge him and punish him.

After her intimacy with the Egyptian, Datan’s wife, Shlomit, had become pregnant. Datan himself was not sure whether Shlomit was a victim of coercion or had willingly given herself to the Egyptian. Despite this uncertainty, Datan continued to support his wife and helped raise the child as his own. In fact, no one knew the secret of the child’s birth, except for Datan and his brother Abiram. Although Datan eventually took another wife and told his subsequent children the secret concerning the child, they were very discreet about the matter.

The child of Shlomit grew up thinking that he was a Jew, especially since he was enslaved with the rest of the Israelites. The young man witnessed all the great miracles that occurred in the process of the Exodus from Egypt. He even merited to have a portion of Manna come down specifically for him in the wilderness, and he settled among his “father’s” tribe, the tribe of Reuben.

It was only when many Reubenites joined in the rebellion of Korach, that the true wickedness of Datan and Abiram became apparent. When the earth opened to swallow Korach and his followers, Datan and Abiram, their wives and their children were consumed as well. Shlomit’s son, however, the child of the Egyptian taskmaster, remained alive. Only then did it become evident to all that the boy was not the true biological offspring of Datan.

Having no remaining family, the boy tried to settle among the other members of the tribe of Reuben. The Reubenites, however, rejected him, saying that he was not one of them. When he tried to join his mother’s tribe, the tribe of Dan, he was also rejected. He then went to court to insist that he be accepted among one of the twelve tribes, but the judges decreed that he had to live outside the camp, with the “mixed multitude”–the Egyptians who had joined the Israelite people at the time of the Exodus. Distraught by the decision, the man began to quarrel.

The rabbis say that the language found in Leviticus 24:10: וַיֵּצֵא –literally—describing that he [the blasphemer] went out, indicates that the son of the Egyptian man had for all intents and purposes, “lost it.” He “went out” of the court, he “went out” of the world, he “went out” of the Torah–he, in essence, rejected the Jewish people and their faith! After all, he said, “A king normally eats fresh bread every day. Are you going to give stale bread–nine days old to your G-d? I don’t believe in Moses or his commandments!”

Say the rabbis, had he not been an אִישׁ מִצְרִי –an Egyptian, in his heart, he would have accepted upon himself the judgment imposed on him, because in judgment there’s always a loser. Had he been sincere about his commitment to the Jewish people, the blasphemer would have been able to turn his loss into a win. Had he paid attention to the previous parasha (Leviticus 24:1-4), concerning the Menorah, he would have realized that every Jew needs to ask G-d for enlightenment, and that no person is ever outside the purview of G-d and His world. Had he only paid scant attention to the previous portion (Leviticus 23:33-44) concerning the Sukkah, the blasphemer would have known to cover himself in the shadow of G-d. But, he rejected it all, and cursed, using the name of G-d, the ineffable name of G-d.

Of great interest, is the rabbis’ discussion of the halakhic status of the blasphemer. They learn from the words (Leviticus 24:10), describing the blasphemer as being, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל , “among the children of Israel,” that the blasphemer had actually converted to Judaism. Why, they ask, should he have to convert to Judaism, after all, his mother was Jewish? They respond, saying that since his birth occurred before the giving of the Torah, the blasphemer was actually considered to be a Noahide, and Noahides follow patrilineal descent.

Ramban maintains otherwise, claiming that starting with Abraham, all of Abraham’s biological descendants are considered Jewish. The reason that the Egyptian son was converted, maintains Nachmanides, was only because it was felt that he was somehow blemished by his Egyptian lineage.

Why was the blasphemer put to death? The rabbis suggest, because he attempted to use the ineffable name of G-d, that he had heard at Sinai, to wipe away his blemishes. He, apparently, never really understood the basic principles of Judaism. He felt no need to be cleansed internally. He was put to death, because he could not accept either the lifestyle or the philosophy of the people of Israel.

Jewish tradition maintains that from the bitter can come sweet, and that only through rigorous labor can there be true accomplishment. In Judaism, there are no shortcuts to Teshuva (repentance). Only sweat and hard work can lead to forgiveness, perfection and correction.

The blasphemer could not be accepted among the people of Israel unless he acknowledged and accepted that responsibility. But, he refused. Despite the disadvantaged background of the blasphemer, he was given many opportunities to learn. However, he chose not to.

This is the challenging message of the Midrash, and the challenging message of the blasphemer.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Thursday night, April 29th, and continue all day Friday, April 30, 2021. The Omer period, starts from the second night of Passover and continues for 49 days through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer, is considered a special day of rejoicing because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.