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Blasphemy: Jewish Concept


There is no one standard Hebrew term for blasphemy, indicating that blasphemynamely, speaking impiously or irreverently about God or sacred thingsis not recognized as a distinct, prohibited category of speech in traditional Judaism. In fact, some activities or statements that might appear to members of different religious traditions as blasphemous toward God are part and parcel of Judaism. Thus, although one might think that arguing with God is a blasphemous activity, the precedent of Abraham's bargaining with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn. 18:1633) legitimized the Jewish convention of disputing with God, most notably in modern Hasidism. Some medieval Christians found certain rabbinic utterances about God to be blasphemous, but this was partially the result of a Christian desire to find reasons to outlaw the Talmud (the accusation of blasphemy was used as a justification for Christian censorship of Jewish books). Jews, however, accepted the ostensibly objectionable statements, even if they sometimes appeared to be peculiar, as a legitimate part of Judaism (although they were often explained allegorically by Jewish rationalists). Although one cannot say that Judaism allows complete freedom of speech, it would seem that the rabbis were more concerned with language that offended humans (e.g., idle and malicious gossip) than with language that might have been taken as offensive to God.

There are, however, certain actions that the Jewish tradition might consider a type of blasphemy, some of which are more culpable than others. These actions can be categorized, from the more specific and punishable to the more general and unenforceable, as: (1) cursing God and God's name; (2) using God's name in vain, pronouncing it illicitly, or destroying its written form; (3) saying inappropriate things about God; and (4) acting in a manner that would bring disrepute upon the God of Israel (and, therefore, upon the people of Israel).

Cursing God

The holiness of God's name was such that an offense against that name was considered a severe crime. The gravity of the act was so great that a euphemism was often used to describe the transgressionfor example, cursing God was referred to as "blessing God." The first mention of the prohibition in the Bible (Ex. 22:27) links reviling God (Elohim ) with the cursing of a ruler (nasi ), but no punishment is prescribed, and Jewish tradition has generally, but not unanimously, understood Elohim in this passage to mean judges and not God. A more specific reference occurs when, as a result of an altercation in the desert camp of the Israelites, the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man enunciated the Name (ha-shem, presumably the tetragrammaton, YHVH) and cursed. Moses did not know what to do with the miscreant, but God informed him that the community was to put him to death by stoning after those who heard the curse placed their hands on the head of the sinner. Furthermore, those who curse God (Elohim ) are culpable, and those who enunciate the name of YHVH are to be punished by stoning. The fact that the offender was not a full Israelite did not mitigate the severity of the crime, since the law applied to both the native born and strangers. The sentence was then carried out (Lv. 24:1023). Commentators are divided as to the exact nature of the offense for which this half-Israelite/half-Egyptian was executedwas it, for instance, pronouncing the name, cursing it, or both? In any event, it would appear that the man committed a transgression specifically against God's name, an act that could be construed as blasphemy and that was punishable by death.

The Bible provides other examples of this offense. When King Ahab fell into a deep depression after being unsuccessful in convincing Naboth the Jezreelite to sell him his ancestral vineyard, Ahab's wife Jezebel conspired to have Naboth executed by inciting false witnesses to accuse him of having cursed (literally, blessed) God (Elohim ) and the king (melekh ). This would indicate that the prohibition of Exodus 22:27 was enforced as a capital offense (1 Kgs. 21:117). Job's wife thought Job's troubles would be over if he "cursed [literally, blessed] God and died" (Jb. 2:9).

The consequences of cursing God were felt not only by the executed malefactors, but also by those who heard the curse and by the community. The accusation against Naboth was accompanied by a call to public fasting (1 Kgs. 21:9, 12). When the Assyrian army commander came to the besieged Jerusalem and made highly unflattering statements about the God of Israel (YHVH), and said them in Hebrew (literally, Judean) so that the beleaguered people would understand him, his Israelite interlocutors rent their garments (2 Kgs. 18:37; Is. 36:22). The punishment for the Assyrians was a plague that destroyed their army, wiping out 185,000 soldiers (2 Kgs. 19:35; Is. 37:36).

The Bible, then, seems to consider offensive speech against God serious and actionable both by human courts and by God. Hellenistic Jewish literature described such offensive speech with the Greek term blasphemy and understood the concept as including any offense against the sovereignty of God. The Septuagint used the word blasphemy in its translation of a number of biblical passages that have reference to reviling or insulting God (2 Kgs. 19:4, 6, 22; Is. 52:5; Ez. 35:12; Dn. 3:29). The Syrian-Greek attempt to eradicate Judaism and replace it with idolatry is seen by the author of 2 Maccabees as a form of blasphemy. After the author described the deadly illness of King Antiochus as divine punishment for his sins, he wrote: "So the murderer and blasphemer, having endured the most intense suffering, such as he had inflicted on others, came to the end of his life by a most pitiable fate" (2 Mc. 9:28). In the wars between the Syrian-Greeks and the Judeans, the former are portrayed as uttering insults about the God of Israel, namely blaspheming, and this action inspired the Maccabees to fight more fiercely (2 Mc. 10:3435; 12:1415). Judah Maccabeus prayed to God that his contemporary blasphemers suffer the fate of the 185,000 Assyrian troops who had attacked Jerusalem (2 Mc. 15:2224).

This expansive use of the concept and term of blasphemy was not adopted by the rabbis of the Talmud, who had a more limited view of the crime of offensive speech against God, restricting it specifically to cursing God. They also made it almost impossible to execute someone for this action. In general, although the Bible prescribes capital punishment for a number of crimes, rabbinic law was instrumental in limiting the possibility of judicial executions. In order to put someone to death, the offense must have been committed before two eyewitnesses who had previously warned the criminal explicitly against the act and had received his acknowledgment of their warning. In the case of cursing God, the rabbis added further restrictions, including the fact that the case is a capital one only if God's personal name, the tetragrammaton, was used both as the one who curses and the accursed. In rabbinic parlance, this meant that the miscreant must say something in the form of "May Yossi smite Yossi," in which Yossi is used as a euphemism for the divine name. The euphemism is used until the very end of the judicial procedure, but since a person could not be executed on the basis of an accusation consisting only of a euphemism, the eldest witness would then be asked to say exactly what he had heard. At this point, the judges rend their garments irreparably, and the younger witnesses say: "I also heard it like this" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5). A Talmudic rabbi opined that hearing other names of God cursed did not require tearing the garments, since "if that were the case, one's garments would be full of rents" (Babylonian Sanhedrin 60a).

It is unclear whether this punishment was ever carried out by rabbinic courts, since by the time of the editing of the Mishnah (c. 200 ce), Jews no longer had authority to impose capital punishment upon malefactors. Medieval discussions of this capital offense were certainly theoretical and do not reflect applied case law. Maimonides (d. 1204), whose code dealt with all of Talmudic law, whether it was pertinent in his own day or not, extended the capital prohibition to the main substitute for the tetragrammaton (ADNY), whereas cursing God using other holy names was forbidden but not actionable by a human court (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 2:710). Later codes, which are not as inclusive and do not treat of capital offenses, omit this prohibition all together, but they do obligate those who hear God's name cursed, even if only a substitute for that name (and perhaps even in a foreign language), to rend their garments (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, 340:37).

Using God's Name in Vain, Pronouncing It, or Destroying It

The third commandment reads: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord shall not clear one who takes His name in vain" (Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11). The Jewish exegetical tradition generally understands this prohibition as using God's name for making a false oath and not necessarily as solely misusing God's name (Maimonides, Book of Commandments, Negative Commandment 62). The exact nature of what false oaths are is also a matter of dispute, although some would understand the prohibition as any unnecessary use of God's name when swearing. Avraham ibn Ezra (d. 1167) noted that this injunction is the most violated of the Ten Commandments, which is the cause of the continued exile. The violation is so widespread that even if one points out to people that they are swearing by God's name, they will swear by God's name that they are not doing so (Long Commentary on Exodus, 20:7).

A different prohibition is pronouncing God's name. The tetragrammaton was understood as God's personal name, and, therefore, it was imbued with particular holiness. Pronunciation of the name became increasingly rare, and, according to later sources, by the Second Temple period it was articulated only once a year on Yom Kippur in the Temple's Holy of Holies. In general usage, the tetragrammaton is replaced by Adonai (Lord) or Ha-Shem (the Name); someone who attempts to pronounce the tetragrammaton by its letters is said not to have a portion in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). Today, there is no agreement as to the correct pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, and therefore the prohibition is more or less moot, even though there are some who would forbid attempts at saying the name lest one come up with the correct pronunciation. Because of the perceived holiness of divine names, observant Jews generally refrain from any full pronunciation of these names, even those used instead of the tetragrammaton, except in specific ritual actions. As alternate divine names or notations become widespread, they too are imbued with sanctity, and there is a tendency to seek further substitution for them.

Because of the sanctity of the divine name, it is forbidden to destroy its written form. This is the reason why Jewish written materials that include divine names are generally buried (in a geniza, a special repository for this material) rather than destroyed. Maimonides lists seven such names that are not to be destroyed, and anyone who erases even one letter of these names is punished by lashes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, 6). Just as one does not pronounce divine names in everyday speech, one also does not write divine names fully for fear of profaning them. There is a difference of opinion as to whether this caution is to be applied to divine names in languages other than Hebrew, but the most stringent employ substitute formulations and spellings even in non-Hebrew writing and speech. It is also incumbent to treat both a Torah scroll and traditional Jewish books with reverence lest one show disrespect to God by demeaning the divine word.

Saying Inappropriate Things about God

Before one can prohibit blasphemy as a form of saying inappropriate things about God, one must first determine what exactly it is that is inappropriate to say. Since Judaism has always placed greater stress on observance of the law rather than on correct beliefs, there is a wide latitude in Jewish theology and no central authority to decide on questions of faith. Thus, it is difficult to define that which is inappropriate to say about God. For instance, Maimonides wrote that one who says that there is one God, but that God has body and form, is a heretic who has no portion in the world to come. This statement was highly criticized by Rabbi Avraham ben David of Posquières (RABaD, d. 1198) as unfair to those "greater and better" than Maimonides who held such views (Mishneh Torah, Law of Repentance, 3:6). Obviously, one person's blasphemy can be someone else's deep-seated pious belief. The Middle Ages witnessed a large number of controversies between rationalist and more conservative Jews as to which statements about God are meant literally and which are to be taken allegorically.

The medievals debated the question of heresy as well. Although there are many terms in post-biblical Hebrew for heretic (the Bible, itself, does not mention the concept of heresy), there is no agreement in rabbinic or medieval literature as to what makes one a heretic. The rabbis deny a place in the world to come to someone who negates the beliefs in the divinity of the Torah or the resurrection of the dead, or to the Epicurean (Hebrew, apiqoros apparently one who denies divine providence, but traditionally one who is disrespectful to the sages; Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). Although this statement cannot necessarily be used to define the rabbinic view of heresy, it did influence medieval discussions of Jewish dogmatics. Maimonides' Thirteen Principles were formulated as part of his commentary on this statement, and they seem to be based upon them. Other authors of dogmatic systems, however, did not always use them as a means of identifying heretics, and Judaism never achieved unanimity as to the parameters of heresy. There were also disagreements as to the status and culpability of the inadvertent heretics (those who are unaware of the heresy of their beliefs). Thus, in the absence of clear definitions of heresy, there could be no identification of heretical statements with blasphemy.

Acting in a Manner That Would Bring Disrepute upon the God of Israel

The Torah provides remedies for those who transgress God's law unintentionally, but the Book of Numbers (15:30) states that intentional disobedience by a native-born Israelite or by a stranger is considered a form of insulting God (giduf) and is punishable by excision (karet ), a sanction that is apparently a divine, rather than human, punishment. Since this verse seems to expand unreasonably the sanction of excision, in contrast to other biblical punishments, the rabbis generally restricted its application to the prohibition of idolatry. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel cited Israelite idol worship as an example of this type of insult to God, and he predicted that God would punish the people for their sin, forcing them to acknowledge the sovereignty of God (Ez. 20:2744).

More broadly, the Bible enjoins Jews to sanctify God's name and to refrain from desecrating it (e.g., Lv. 22:32). This has been interpreted in the Jewish tradition as the responsibility Jews have to act in such a way as not to bring discredit upon God and Israel, God's people. Sanctification of God's name can include such actions as doing business honestly (so that the non-Jew is impressed by the influence God has on everyday transactions and on Jewish honesty), or being willing to die rather than convert to another religion (so that the non-Jew is impressed by the Jewish loyalty to God's religion). Conversely, actions that bring dishonor upon God (a Jew's acting dishonestly in business or not choosing death over coerced conversion) are understood as desecrating God's name and bringing dishonor upon Israel. It is difficult, however, to define clearly either sanctification or desecration of God's name, and human punishment for the latter would thus be hard to enforce. In general, desecration of God's name is more a moral category than a legal one, and it is not punished, for instance, as cursing God is. Yet, desecrating God's name in the ways mentioned might be considered, by extension, a form of blasphemy.

Jewish law provides outlines as to how one is to act to prevent public desecration of God's name. Thus, even if one may generally transgress a commandment under duress (except for the prohibitions of idolatry, murder, and adultery and incest), if that duress is public, for the purpose of offending God and the people of Israel, then Jews are enjoined not to violate minor proscriptions as well, even at the pain of death. Sanctification of God's name is one of the most important commandments that a Jew can perform, and as such it is almost the exact opposite of the offense of blasphemy.

See Also



There is no comprehensive study of blasphemy in the Jewish tradition. Leonard W. Levy's Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993), contains very little Jewish material, only reinforcing the statement made here that blasphemy is not an important concept in Judaism. A discussion of biblical terms for cursing is found in Herbert Chanan Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia, 1963), but it omits giduf, one of the terms that is often translated as "blasphemy." Menachem Kellner's Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel (Oxford, 1986) reviews Jewish views of the principles of Judaism and heresy, illustrating that there was no one Jewish position on this question.

Daniel J. Lasker (2005)

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