Friday, September 12, 2014

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Exodus 20:7,13; Deuteronomy 5:11, 17

Your assignment was to read Exodus 20:7 and 13, and Deuteronomy 5:11 and 17.
In case you don’t remember the chapter numbers, we are now back in the Big Ten and I am about to blow up another urban legend.
Commandment 5 about taking the Lord’s name in vain is NOT about cursing.  The rabbis clarified that it means making a vow about something impossible.  If you make a neder performance oath that you will fly over a house just by flapping your arms, that is impossible.  The rabbis call it an oath in vain.  Likewise if you made a neder oath that you saw a Tyrannosaurus rex yesterday walking down the main drag of your town, that is also an oath in vain.
What’s more, this commandment is about praying for things that can’t happen without a disruption in the laws of nature.  The classic description is, if a man finds out his wife is pregnant and prays that the child is a boy, that is a vain prayer.  Before modern pregnancy tests, a woman usually didn’t know if she was pregnant until about the third month.  But the rabbis knew that by that time, the gender of the child has already been determined.  So it’s a vain prayer.  Likewise, according to the classical description, if you come home from a trip and hear loud lamentation, it’s a vain prayer to pray that it doesn’t affect your family.
That is a limitation on free speech and Jewish law could sanction people for this after due process.
Commandment 9 is not about lying in general.  It is about false testimony in court.  You already saw that courts could punish false testimony.
When Jews think of lying in general, they most often think of Leviticus 19:14 which says not to curse the deaf and not to put a stumbling block in the path of the blind.  The first part of the verse is bringing up Gd’s name in vain; a curse isn’t valid without the Lord’s name in it, and the deaf person can’t hear it, so the curse is in vain.
But the second part of the verse grows in importance in Jewish law, to the point where the rabbis defined it to mean doing or saying anything that takes advantage of a handicap, including lack of knowledge.  That is the fundamental aspect of lying: trying to get away with saying something false on the assumption that the other person will think it is true.   
Jewish law does not protect cursing under its free speech rights, and that gets into an important area of any legal code so I will save it for next time.  For now, read Exodus 22:27 and 23:1-3, also Exodus 23:6-10 and Leviticus19:15-16.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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