Take out the blasphemer to outside the camp. All who heard should
press their hands upon his head. The entire congregation shall stone
How The Torah Was Given1
Rashi: They say to him, “Your blood is upon your own head. We will not be
punished for taking your life, because you are the cause.”
Gur Aryeh: The placing of hands on the blasphemer is an anomaly. It is not
part of any other court-ordered execution.
Some wish to explain this as an artifact of the way the blasphemer is tried
in beis din. Ordinarily, the two eyewitnesses are separated, and
individually subjected to a series of questions regarding details of their
testimony. If the answers of the two do not coincide, or in some cases if
the witness cannot remember some detail, the two witnesses are not approved
as a unit of admissible testimony. The procedure is changed at the trial of
a blasphemer. Only one of the two witnesses is encouraged to repeat the
exact words he heard from the accused. We do not allow a repetition of those
words by the second witness. He merely signifies that he heard the same as
his partner testified, without articulating the precise words.
Because we do not allow the second witness to repeat exactly what he heard,
the opportunity to catch some contradiction between the two is diminished.
Such a contradiction would have invalidated the testimony, conceivably
resulting in an acquittal. We therefore turn to the accused and tell him,
“Indeed, you had fewer chances than others to beat the charges. We, however,
take none of the blame for this – and for the death penalty that will now be
imposed upon you. Your own actions left the court no choice. You are the one
at fault, not us.”
This explanation is entirely off-base. Witnesses who are examined prior to
their testimony about blasphemy never pronounce one of the holy names of G-d
to which the blasphemer directed his curse. They always use some
substitution for the name of G-d that the blasphemer employed. This does
not hamper the beis din in its attempt to look for inconsistencies during
the pre-testimony interview. They are certainly able to subject the two
witnesses separately to the two panels of questions that are ordinarily put
to witnesses. It is only when the two witnesses formally testify before the
court that we ask only one of the pair to repeat the exact words of
blasphemy, and suffice with the second witness indicating that this is also
what he heard.
A much better explanation of the laying of hands is based on the premise
that death penalties prescribed by the Torah match the severity of the
crime. While a Shabbos violator is put to death, his demise cannot be said
to occur because his sin has make death cling to him. He dies because HKBH
commands the beis din to punish him, not because he has sinned so terribly
that he has destroyed himself from within, so that his blood is truly on his
own head. That can only be said about a sin which is so terrible that it has
no peer, where no other transgression can claim to be more severe. Only
blasphemy fits that description, because it is aimed at, and as it were
attempts to diminish Hashem Himself. (Even idolatry does not do that. While
it adds deities and honors non-existent “competitors” alongside Hashem, it
does not try to directly detract from Him.) Therefore it is only in the case
of blasphemy that those present lay their hands on the criminal and tell him
that he, and only he, is the cause of his demise.
Another way to view this distinction is that blasphemy impugns G-d at His
source, His essence. For this reason, the blasphemer’s death is truly upon
his own head, meaning the ultimate head and source of his own existence as
well as that of all things: Hashem Himself. By rejecting his Head, he loses
his connection to existence, and thus brings about his death.
Halachically, we are still uncertain how to approach this episode. No one
can be executed by beis din without explicit warning to the perpetrator
before the commission of the crime. 2 According to one opinion,
3 the warning must include the exact form of execution that
applies to the crime. If so, why were the blasphemer and the gatherer of
wood on Shabbos4 executed. The Bnei Yisrael at the respective
times of the two transgressions did not yet know about the death penalty for
blasphemy and the method of punishment for the violation of Shabbos!
It is appropriate to assume that in both instances the perpetrators were
warned. They were told, “Do not do as you threaten. If you do, you will be
guilty of a crime, and dealt with through whatever punishment G-d will
specify.” Because the Torah had not yet been given in its entirely, that
form of warning sufficed.
It would not suffice after the halacha had become fully clarified through
Moshe’s teaching it to the Bnei Yisrael. If such a vague, generalized
warning were given today, the perpetrator could argue that he had no idea
that the specified form of execution applied to his crime. This argument
would be sufficient to block his execution. At the time of the two biblical
episodes, however, a person could not argue that he did not believe he would
be punished in a given manner, because at that moment any form of punishment
was possible, if Hashem would indicate as much.
We could also answer (although the previous answer is to be preferred) that
we should not apply later halachic categories to these episodes. They were
special cases, in which Hashem Himself specified how the criminal should be
punished. They did not have to match the rules of a human court.
We are still surprised by the doubt surrounding these two episodes. We
believe that when Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, he was instructed in
the fullness of each mitzvah – its general principles, as well as all its
halachic detail. 5 How could the Bnei Yisrael not know how to
deal with a Shabbos violator or a blasphemer?
We must conclude that when Chazal tell us that all of the halachic detail of
every mitzvah was given at Sinai, they do not mean that Moshe received a set
of halachic conclusions. Rather, everything came from Sinai in the sense
that Moshe was shown how all halacha was already resident in the text,
waiting to be explicated by the application of the methods of derashah that
Hashem showed him. The details of halacha were “given” not in fixed, final
form, but as a methodology of derivation.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Vayikra 24:14
2. Sanhedrin 8B
3. Sanhedrin 80B
4. Rashi Bamidbar 15:34
5. R. Akiva in Sotah 37B