Curses: Part II

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: I really enjoy your website and have used it as a valuable tool for many years. I have some questions about what you wrote in last week's article, that words and curses are powerless. In light of your article and your previous one ( can you explain Rashi's statement, "and from that curse, Rachel died on the journey  (Gen. 31:32) ". It seems that, according to Rashi, if Yaakov didn't say to Lavan, "whomever you find the idol with shall  not live…" then Rachel would have not died on the way. Rashi, seems to say, that even if she deserved it, that Yaakov's words of a curse has some effect. Did Rashi believe that Yaakov's words have value? And if so, does that make it a valid Mesora? (I noticed you list Rashi twice as a fundamental Mesora of Judaism)

Rabbi: A wise Rabbi once explained. When Rachel heard Yaakov's response, "whomever you find the idol with shall  not live…", she realized from Yakov's strong condemnation that stealing her father's idol jeopardized the lives of the entire family. This stress weighed heavy on her. And when she was weak during Benjamin's pregnancy, this stress took its toll and she passed away. So we are consistent: words have no power. This is explained psychologically.

Reader: Can you explain the gemara (Bava Kama 93a) "One should not take an average man's curse lightly," and it goes on to quote  that Avimelech's curse  was fulfilled in her Sarah's child, Isaac?

Rabbi: "One should not take an average man's curse lightly."  This means that if one curses you, he may be doing so, as he sees something unsightly in your personality, regarding which you are wise not to ignore (take lightly) but to correct it. No need to assume a curse possesses powers. The same applies to Avimelech (Gen. 20:16), but let's first understand that case…

Avimelech took Sarah to be his wife. He was under the impression that she was in fact only Abraham's sister, as this is the story Abraham and her presented as they traveled in alien countries. This story would protect Abraham from being murdered, as is done when a beautiful woman is found married, and the alien king desires her. Murdering the husband is the solution to obtain her as queen. But if the man is only a brother to the beautiful woman, they will offer him gifts, feeling certain that he will reciprocate such good will and be agreeable to his "sister" marrying the king. However, as the story went, God told Avimelech in his dream that she is married and to return her to Abraham. Avimelech did so. And to honor Sarah (as in a divorce where one grants a Ketubah sum of money) and not simply drive her out empty-handed as is the fame with concubines…Avimelech gave one thousand silver pieces top Abraham to "cover the eyes". This covering of the eyes refers to covering any false reputation that Sarah was a concubine. Avimelech meant to show he desired her properly, as a wife, and this sum of money he gave Abraham embodied the same treatment of a wife who is sent away honorably.

However, the Talmud records a Rabbinic saying, a medrash. They scripted a fiction that Avimelech was upset with Sarah for concealing her marriage. This caused Avimelech pain. He therefore cursed her seed, that just as Sarah concealed something, her seed too should have "covered eyes" as retaliation. Thus, Isaac became blind in his old age. 

Now, of course Isaac didn't suffer for others peoples' actions. Nor did Avimelech have this conversation, as the plain reading is that he intended only good for Sarah by giving that silver. Neither do curses work. We explain this as follows…

The Rabbis are trying to teach us that there was some negative aspect to Abraham's and Sarah's story that they were siblings and not married. Although they had no other recourse and were properly justified to lie to protect their lives, nonetheless, a coverup generates negative feelings. In order to teach this negativity, the Rabbis scripted this dialogue, as if Avimelech's curse worked. But all this really means is that there was real basis for his ill feelings, as if a curse was real too! To give "reality" to the negative effects of lies, the Rabbis equate it with something "real"…Isaac's blindness. Perhaps, as the concealment by Abraham and Sarah was concerning marriage; Isaac as a product of that marriage, reflected the flaw of concealment in his blindness

Reader: In your article ( you concur that there is a value in praying for someone else who is sick. But, if words are not causative, what natural occurrence happens when we pray for someones health?

I looked for an article you may have written but could not find it…pardon me if you have already written about this already. Thanks for your time and Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi: True, words are not causative, and neither is prayer. But in prayer, it is God who causes the change…not our words. But a curse is not prayer request, and God does not simply fulfill the words of any person's curse.