The Blasphemer

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein




With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzva,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise



Parashat EMOR



The Blasphemer

Translated by Kaeren Fish




A reading of the episode of the blasphemer in our parasha raises two questions. The first pertains to the location of this unit within Sefer Vayikra, which is mainly legal, rather than narrative, in character. In fact, there are only two stories in the whole Sefer: the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and the blasphemer. What is the connection between these two incidents, and how does the episode of the blasphemer fit into the continuum of the content?


The second question pertains to the related unit that is incorporated into the story of the blasphemer: why does the Torah repeat the laws of murder, injury and damages, which have already been set out in Parashat Mishpatim? And even once we understand why it is necessary for these laws to be repeated, we must still ask why the repetition is included within the narrative about the blasphemer, rather than after his sentence is carried out.




We shall answer the first question briefly. Sefer Vayikra is about sanctity. It concerns bringing sanctity down from heaven to earth, to the midst of the camp of Israel, via the Mishkan and the sacrificial service. The episode of Nadav and Avihu and the story of the blasphemer present two different, diametrically opposed responses to the manifestation of Divine sanctity.


The repetition of the laws of murder, injury and damages in this context is meant to offer a new and different perspective on these laws. Parashat Mishpatim deals with the monetary aspect of these laws, the dimension that pertains to the relationship between man and his fellow. In our parasha, the focus is different: the laws are reiterated within the context of the blasphemer. The background to the laws in our parasha would seem to suggest that the harm that one person causes to another affects not only the inter-personal dimension, but also the relationship between man and God – as in the case of the blasphemer. Just as the blasphemer “insults” God, as it were, so does a person who causes harm to someone else. How and why is this so?


Man is God’s most prized creation, and as such anyone who harms him, “harms” God, as it were. The appearance of these laws in this context therefore represents a clear statement: acts and laws in the realm of human relations, even those that appear to be utterly devoid of any Divine dimension, do in fact affect the man-God relationship; they do include a dimension of sanctity.


Now we must address the qualitative difference between the sons of Aharon and the blasphemer. Nadav and Avihu, as sons of the Kohen Gadol, grew up in a world of sanctity. Their whole life was about the Mishkan and its service. Their sin lay in their attempt to sanctify something that was not worthy of being sanctified – “foreign fire which [God] had not commanded them.” Concerning the blasphemer, in contrast, we read: “The son of an Israelite woman… went out…” – from where did he go out? One of the opinions cited by Rashi is that he proceeded “from the preceding parasha” – the unit concerning the showbread (lechem ha-panim). Who is this man? He is “the son of an Egyptian man” who had converted – a person with a most problematic background, in terms of sanctity. In Egypt there was no sanctity, certainly no sanctified sacrifices; after all, the sheep itself was a god. This Egyptian converted, then, apparently seeking spirituality. And the critical moment, for him, is when Bnei Yisrael build a Mishkan – God’s “home” on earth.


The Mishkan is divided into two parts – the azara (courtyard) and the heikhal (sanctuary). The courtyard is meant to be the place where human activity – the sacrificial service – takes place, i.e., the physical dimension of the Divine service. The inner sanctuary, on the other hand, is meant to be the place where the Divine Presence rests – the spiritual dimension. Inside the sanctuary are the table, the incense altar, and the menora. The menora and the altar create an atmosphere of light and fragrance, both manifestly spiritual concepts. The table, however, holds bread, and this is difficult for the blasphemer to grasp. How is it possible that bread – the very symbol of physical, material subsistence – is to be found in God’s sanctuary?


What the blasphemer was seeking, it appears, was not necessarily Torah, but rather the opposite of Egyptian debauchery. He could not allow for any sanctity to be attached to things that apparently belong to the profane realm. Therefore, he “went out” and blasphemed, denouncing the idea that the profane can become sanctified – a fundamental concept of Judaism. Nadav and Avihu, out of their great love for God and their desire to increase sanctity in the world, tried to sanctify something that was not worthy of being sanctified, and thereby violated the boundaries of sanctity. The sin of the blasphemer was the inverse: he denied and denounced the sanctity of the everyday, profane reality of the camp of Israel, which represented a violation of the same boundary in the other direction.


Thus, the two narratives that are included in Sefer Vayikra – the story of Nadav and Avihu, on the one hand, and the incident of the blasphemer, on the other – come to teach us the proper attitude towards sanctity. In particular, they show us two opposite invalid reactions to man’s encounter with sanctity within the camp – whether it is sanctity of man, sanctity of time, or sanctity of place.