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Divine or Human? The Dire Consequences of Curses

Divine or Human? The Dire Consequences of Curses (Deuteronomy 31 Vayeilech)

By Joe Nalven


Parashat Vayeilech[i] (“and he went”), Deuteronomy 31, tells about Moses’ last day of life. He says to all of Israel: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’’ Moses anoints Joshua as his successor. He tells everyone not to worry for God will destroy all the nations that are in their way.

God tells Moses that the people will turn away from their covenant with Him. God sees Israel going astray, following foreign deities, breaking the covenant and being unfaithful to God. In response, God becomes angry, forsaking them, hiding his face.

God asks Moses to sing to them and have them memorize this song as a reminder, a “witness for me against them.”

Shabbat Shuvah: The Puzzle before Yom Kippur

Shabbat Shuvah is the Sabbath before Yom Kippur. At Yom Kippur, we are expected to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness from those we have offended and from God. When we speaking of God, what do we make of such verses:[ii]



We have caused God to be angry with us;



We have turned away from God’s Torah;

On one side of the coin, we are created in God’s image. On the other side, we created God as an anthropomorphic extension of ourselves.

So, is our anger God’s anger? Are our emotions ─ our jealousies, fears, dismay, irritations ─ those that God experiences? We have been created in his image and we experience what God experiences. Or, from an anthropomorphic view, God experiences our emotions because we have imposed them on God.

Two sides of same coin of emotions . . . Is this the real problem?

Emotions, alone, may not be problematic beyond the ocean of feelings that swirl within us and in Torah narratives. What is problematic are the dire consequences that may, and do, flow from those emotions.

We can see the analogy of God’s emotions and dire consequences to our own. See the Table of Dire Consequences below.

Before examining those emotions – anger, jealousy, fear, regret –  and the resulting dire consequences flowing from them, it is worth looking at explanations about how this cause-and-effect mechanism works; it is useful to consider a rational theology, such as Maimonides, and a cultural anthropology. In both perspectives, humans and the divine take advantage of supernatural ways to control events in the social world around us. The most dramatic evidence of this supernatural control is seen in dire consequences – people die or get sick, they lose their wealth or family, there is war and conflict:  Curses and other magic flow from the emotions that we, and the divine, share in our actions to control social reality.

Put aside, for the moment, logical objections and the implausibility of magical thinking. Let us enter into the realm of the fierce world of emotion, both divine and human; let us illuminate how this emotional force attempts to overcome the frustrations encountered in a people who fail to keep their covenants or in others we encounter who stubbornly resist what we want of them.


How Not to Understand God’s Attributes

Maimonides argues that saying more than God is One places a limitation on God.[iii] God is unfathomable and, at best, human knowledge can only say what God is not. This is similar to the Hindu formulation ─ tat tvam asi ─ that thou art. End of discussion? Yes and no. If God is truly unfathomable, then our highest praise is silence. But religion would not work very well with silence. Praising God is appealing ─ that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, slow to anger, and merciful.

Even Maimonides discusses the 13 attributes of mercy. But, Maimonides does not ascribe mercy as one of God’s attributes. We cannot know that. God is unfathomable. What we can only know are the effects of God’s actions:

God is merciful to the extent that the order of nature (what God created) exhibits merciful characteristics and angry to the extent that it is harsh toward things that do not take proper care of themselves. The point is not that God possesses emotions similar to ours but that the effects of God’s actions resemble the effects of ours. Maimonides refers to these qualities as attributes of action and identifies them with the goodness God revealed to Moses at Exodus 33. In that passage, God refuses to let Moses see the divine face (which Maimonides identifies with essence) but allows him to see God’s backside (which Maimonides identifies with the consequences or effects that flow from God). We can therefore praise God as long as we realize that all such praise is indirect and leaves God’s essence undescribed and unknowable.[iv]

Thus, we find an interesting theological detour. We cannot speak of God’s attributes directly since we cannot know God directly. However, we can observe how God governs the world by God’s ways or activities. Such are the divine ‘attributes’ identified in Exodus ─ not as middot (qualities), but as derakhim (ways) exemplified in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.[v], [vi]

Even with Maimonides approach to understanding God and God’s ways, we read the compelling narrative of Ha’azinu[vii] near the conclusion of the Torah. We read of God expressing anger to Jeshurun (also known as Israel)[viii]:

23 “I will heap calamities on them
and spend my arrows against them.
24     I will send wasting famine against them,
consuming pestilence and deadly plague;
I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts,
the venom of vipers that glide in the dust.

If we step outside of this epistemology (of the impossibility of knowing God directly), we are confronted with a visceral description of God’s anger and action. These, and other words of Torah, have motivated generations of worshippers to heed prescribed ways of action, inviting us to give a different explanation.

One direction argues that God does in fact experience emotion ─ a divine pathos.[ix] This view is expressed in ancient prophets such as Hosea as well as modern thinkers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel. In this view, the prophet enters into a relationship with God, underscoring that God is affected by humanity and not detached from it.[x]

Quite a different direction leaves behind the theological analysis of whether God has emotions; instead, anthropology looks to comparative cultural analysis, drawing on history, archaeology, psychology and biology.

The rhetoric used Torah, for an anthropologist, take the path of analogizing divine and human emotions, including those that result in dire consequences. The two sides to this inquiry are:

1) Did man’s being created in God’s image result in the human experience of emotions, such as anger, jealousy, regret, dismay, along with actions such as lashing out with curses and other magical calamities?  Or,

2) Did man create God, thus imposing the range of human emotion and magical thinking on God?

Consider these words from Deuteronomy 32:

I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts,
    the venom of vipers that glide in the dust

We feel the divine anger and the curse or prophetic warning sent to the wayward Israelites.

We can also take an example from a very different culture, from a different time and place:  Consider the Yanomami shaman in Southern Venezuela. This shaman enters into a trance to use his sorcery (magical words) to kill a neighboring tribesman.

Both the ancient text with its divine anger and the Yanomami shaman with his language of sorcery try to reach a similar, real-world goal; an anthropologist would view both as seeking to change the world with magical thinking ─ magical insofar as no scientific cause-and-effect has or can be detected.[xi]

The benefit of an anthropological inquiry is to draw out the common humanity of the pre-modern and the modern, of ancient texts that claim other than natural origins with texts that are common to surrounding cultures; the further benefit for Shabbat Shuvah and the discussion of Vayeilech is to explore our motivations for atoning, confessing and fasting during the Days of Awe. Are our motivations a continuation of human magical thinking?[xii] Or something else?

Emotions and its Projections as Dire Consequences

I am of the school of cultural anthropologists that sees curses, like mythology and religion, as universally human.[xiii] These elements take us into the realm of magic and the supernatural, often attaching themselves to ritual. However we define humanity, we will find curses. Curses are a useful psychological mechanism to aim our hatreds, jealousies, angers, fears and regrets to others.[xiv]

Late 19th century social theorists, such as Edward Tylor and James Frazer, postulated the evolution of human society from the primitive to the civilized. Magic was seen as part of that evolution as a way of controlling the environment. However, with the greater ability to control the environment with advancing technology, it was thought that science would replace magic[xv], and even religion.

Subsequently, that evolutionary scheme turned out to be founded on the fantasy of scientific racism[xvi]; in fact, advances in technology did not represent advances in the structure or processes of the brain, nor how humans conjured the social and material reality around in which they were embedded.

This rethinking of the human mind has been underscored by continuing archaeological discoveries:

[A]rtifacts recovered over the past decade in South Africa— such as pigments made from red ochre, perforated shell beads and ostrich shells engraved with geometric designs—have pushed back the origins of symbolic thinking to more than 70,000 years ago, and in some cases, to as early as 164,000 years ago. Now many anthropologists agree that modern cognition was probably in place when Homo sapiens emerged. [xvii]

Human cognition is not a simple rational exercise.[xviii] It runs alongside emotions, and as previously discussed, emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear, regret. But our discussion looks to ensuing action, especially dire consequences which humans project with magical thinking, such as found in curses and prophesies.

If we see curses as part of magic and sorcery, as a way to control the environment, to charm or harm others ─ at least in the absence of other technology, then why would humans ever relinquish this psychological tool? We have certainly pushed back the boundaries of what could not be controlled ─ from bacteria, to transportation over large distances, to agriculture and distribution of food in large and complex society, and the like. But pushing back those boundaries still leaves vast areas of the material environment and the behavior of other individuals that we have yet to control. And in those areas, curses and magic can be a useful resource to give comfort, to lash out in frustration, to impose a psychological control, and how we imagine ourselves in the presence of others. We are still fans, or fanatics; we still idolize celebrities; we fantasize, glorify, demonize. All of these share the realm of the magical.

In this sense, curses and magical thinking help fill in the gaps of the unknown and the unknowable; they are our attempt to bring the unknown and the unknowable  into the realm of the controllable.[xix] This makes sense for humans. But what about a God that is all-knowing and infinitely powerful? Why would such a God curse? That would be understandable if God was a projection of humans, an anthropomorphic reality.

In the following sections, we will consider curses in an ancient text that preceded the divine rhetoric found in the Torah, curses used by Talmudic rabbis and curse tablets common to that geographic region. These examples will offer a comparative backdrop to the transformation of God’s curses at the beginning of the Torah and its ending.

Cursing in history

Let us take a look at cursing at different historical moments that are bracket, as it were, the five books of the Torah: first, from the Middle Eastern culture that preceded the composition of the Torah with the Epic of Gilgamesh; next, a general view of cursing in that geographic region, focusing on curse tablets; and then, the Talmud in which Rabbinic culture explored the rituals described in the Torah beginning in the Roman occupation of Syria Palestine.[xx]

The Oldest Curse in Written Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh[xxi] (2100 BCE)

 In the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is the King of Uruk and represents the city-bred persona of a warrior-king. By contrast, Enkidu represents the wild or natural persona. Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage in a wrestling match and Enkidu is defeated, becoming Gilgamesh’s friend. Gilgamesh involves Enkidu to kill Humbaba, the demon of the forest, whose father is Enlil, the god of earth, wind and air. Before being slayed, Humbaba asks to be spared, willing to become Gilgamesh’s servant, but Enkidu hurries Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. Humbaba curses Enkidu suggesting that Enkidu fears that Humbaba would supplant Enkidu in Gilgamesh’s affection. Throughout the epic, several curses are aimed at different individuals, but perhaps the one having the most impact is the one imposed on Enkidu by Humbaba.[xxii] A second transgression occurs in which Gilgamesh spurns the goddess Ishtar to become his wife. She sends the Bull of Heaven to wreak havoc in Uruk, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu also mocks Ishtar by throwing a bull’s leg at her. Enkidu links her curse to his death.[xxiii]

May he not live the longer of the two,

may Enkidu not have any old age more than his friend Gilgamesh!

Then [Enkidu] called to Gilgamesh, ‘My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame. I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame.’ And Gilgamesh wept over Enkidu.

Enkidu was doubly cursed by the gods.


Defixiones[xxv] / Curse Tablets

Archaeologists have discovered numerous small tablets, made of lead, wax, ceramics, occasionally gold or silver strips and the like. They are called defixiones or curse tablets. Written on these tablets were magical words to change the outcome of a sporting event, a business transaction, a love spell or seeking to harm someone. Often, they were folded and pierced by a nail, buried deep in water or other location that might affect the intended victim. The core meaning is to bind up the person.

At the same time, other objects or amulets could be used to ward off the harm of a curse. Eye and phallus designs have a long history for protection against evil spirits.[xxvi] Amber pendants from 10,000 to 8,000 BCE in Denmark appear to have been used for protection. In Egypt’s Middle Kingdom around 2,000 BCE scarab beetle designs were used in such amulets.[xxvii]

A recent translation of an amulet or curse tablet was found some seventy years ago in Antioch (now Turkey) under a hippodrome. Apparently, Jews also sought to use the magic of a curse. Rivka Elitzur-Leiman[xxviii] translated the curse written in Jewish Aramaic dialect with Hebrew letters.

Curse tablets for horse racing were common but were previously only found in Greek and Roman writing. This lead tablet was the first found in Hebrew. It asked for help from the Angel who stood in front of Balaam’s ass seeking to drown the competing horse in mud.

Today, one can purchase a wide variety of spells online[xxix] as well as how to place a curse on someone[xxx] and how to break a spell.[xxxi]

Talmudic Curses

The Talmud[xxxii] expands the understanding and application of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and constitutes a central text of rabbinic Judaism[xxxiii] until the advent of modern Judaism. The Oral Torah was compiled in the Mishnah in or about 200 CE  and subsequently elaborated in the Gemara from the 3rd to the 5th centuries CE.

The Talmud exists in two distinct versions in two different geographic areas and two different theological schools of thought, the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud generally takes a legal approach to understanding how Jewish principles should be applied in six different areas: agriculture, sacred times, women and personal status, damages, holy things and purity laws.[xxxiv]

While the analysis reflects a finely crafted discussion, generally with each rabbi respecting each other, at times their annoyance and anger with different opinions finds its way into insults and curses.

Arthur E. Helft described nearly 200 abrasive comments in Talmudic Insults and Curses.[xxxv]

The curse can take effect as direct action ─ as a simple stare; an evil eye that kills the victim.  It can also be in the ultimate demise of the person according to the way in which the curse is composed, or simply stated as venomous warning.

The Blind Rabbi[xxxvi]

Rav Sheshet, who was blind, went to greet the king. Along the way he met a Sadducee, symbolic of those individuals who did not believe in spirits or angels, but only in the literal. The Sadducee challenges the blind Rabbi as to why he would he would go to see the king if he were blind. The Rabbi demonstrates how he could tell and avoids the traps the Sadducee sets in front of him ─ ‘here comes the king now’ was one of the deliberate lies, but the blind Rabbi knew this was untrue. Finally, Rav Sheshet blesses the king while the Sadducee continues to mock the Rabbi by asking why bother to bless someone you cannot see. Upon that, “Rav Sheshet gazed upon him and turned him into a pile of bones.”

We have entered the realm of magic and sorcery. While one can object that there were no words used, but simply the direct action of a stare, the psychological effect is the same. There are many ways to impose magic ─ with or without ritual, with or without special ingredients, with or without words.

The Death of Rabbi Akiva[xxxvii]

To see how the effect of a blind Rabbi’s stare is the same as one who uses words to curse, let us turn to a debate between two respected Rabbis ─ Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Their disagreement turned on whether requirements for the Passover sacrifice can override the requirements for observing the Sabbath. Who knows best? At one point, Rabbi Eliezer is frustrated by Rabbi Akiva’s responses saying, “You are making a mockery of me by implying that I don’t know that slaughtering of the Passover sacrifice is permitted on the Sabbath. Your death shall be by slaughtering. And so it was. R. Akiva died a bitter death by the Romans.”[xxxviii]

Words have effect, just as stares do. But, we need to reflect, whether the ‘effect’ is one of magic or science in connecting those words or stares to the outcome.

We might object that the confirming outcome of Rabbi Eliezer’s curse was merely angry words. Curses are often uttered out of anger. We might take another example that actually sets out a declaration that imposes a punishment on those who violate it.

Rabbi Yishmael and Ritual Impurity of Blood[xxxix]

There are five shades of blood that are identified in the Mishnah which can cause a menstruating woman to become ritually impure. Rabbi Chanina used a method of looking at a sample of earth to compare with the blood to see if it was ritually impure. “Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Jose cursed anyone who followed this practice, declaring that they should be inflicted with askerah (diptheria?).”[xl]

These examples help us see the curses in the Torah as part of a historical context. The Epic of Gilgamesh is from the same Middle Eastern cultural complex of gods and their nettlesome relationships with humans. Narratives such as the Epic of Gilgamesh illustrate the magical effect of curses. The writing of the Torah follows Gilgamesh by several centuries. But these two examples are not isolated. We can see similar magic psychology at work in curse tablets, tabulae defixiones; these tablets show the widespread use of curses to magically affect outcomes in the real world. Given Greek, and later Roman, dominance of the region, we see further resonance of this cursing practice as the Talmud was developing in Jewish culture. Whether written or spoken, curses were an added tool to affect societal outcomes.

Let us now turn to the Torah and God’s cursing.

Transformation of God’s Cursing:  Genesis versus Deuteronomy

God curses; so do we. It is not important whether humans projected emotions onto God or whether we took these emotions as part of our being created in the image of God. What is important is that God’s and our emotions seem to be mirror images of each other. And that includes the forces that drive curses ─ the fears, the jealousies, the hatreds and the angers.

The first set[xli] of curses in the Torah are bound up with the serpent, Eve and Adam. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge began the process of Adam and Eve having a greater awareness of who they were. God was angered by their personal self-discovery, symbolized by knowing they were naked, and of the serpent’s role in facilitating it.

God curses the serpent; Eve is impliedly cursed to having painful childbirth and to being ruled over by her husband; Adam is not directly cursed – it is the ground on which he will walk that is cursed, making it difficult to get what is needed for sustenance.[xlii] Life outside Eden will be difficult.[xliii]

If we jump to the end of the Torah, the juxtaposition of a difficult life with its finality in death has changed. The last set of curses in Deuteronomy[xliv] is no longer about the material difficulty of living. The juxtaposition of what life and death means has now been transformed:

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.[xlv]

God’s message now urges us to choose life ─ that life itself is a blessing. That is a far cry from the Greek mythological figure, Silenus,[xlvi] who said of life, that it is best not to have been born at all. God’s invitation to choose life is radically different from the message to Adam or that ancient Greek wisdom. Talmudic rabbis debated this as well.[xlvii]  Given the curse imposed on the ground on which Adam walked, we might reconsider whether life’s struggle is worth having been born: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.[xlviii]

But Deuteronomy transforms our understanding of life’s struggle and its value.

The act of choosing life in Deuteronomy now becomes the blessing. But choosing life does not mean choosing the adversity of hardship; rather ‘choosing life’ has a ritual meaning ─ it means following the covenant with God, following God’s commandments. By doing so, one avoids the curse of a material life as encountered by Adam. Failing to follow the covenant triggers God’s divine curse.[xlix]

Deuteronomy 28:45

All these curses will befall you, pursuing you and overtaking you to destroy you because you did not obey the Lord, your God, to observe His commandments and statutes which He commanded you.

We read God’s curses in the Torah. So, too, the Gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh which preceded the Torah by hundreds of years. Humans curse as well ─ in the Talmud, hundreds of years after the Torah, and to the multitude of curse tablets discovered in that region broadly defined. All of these curses are wrapped up in felt human emotions ─ the anger, the fear, the jealousy, the regret. The Torah, Gilgamesh, Talmudic curses and curse tablets are of the same fabric.

But, of all the things that we can say about humans being made in God’s image, curses might be one of the last things we would say that connects us to God. Nevertheless, the written record suggests this is so. And, if we reversed the process and said that God was the result of human anthropomorphism, we would get the same result ─ that we projected our curses onto God.

We are connected, the eternal and infinite with the time bound and finite, by a multitude of consequences, with curses being an important one. (See The Table of Divine Consequences)


The Table of Dire Consequences

Exhibited as a Curse, Direct Action or Prophecy

Torah Talmud Emotion
Curse:  Genesis 3:14-19

The snake is cursed to crawl on the ground; Eve is impliedly cursed to have a painful childbirth; the ground upon which Adam will walk is cursed.


Curse: Niddah 20A referencing Mishnah 19A

Rabbi Yishmael cursed anyone who followed the practice of determining whether a woman’s menstrual blood was impure without using water to dissolve a comparable colored earth, declaring that they should be inflicted with askerah.

Genesis 3

Anger or a disapproving dismay at the snake, Eve and Adam)

Genesis 3:22

Fear of man becoming immortal (before banishment from Eden)


Niddah 20A

Anger or Jealousy (at other Rabbis deviating from his practice)


Direct Action:  Genesis 6:6 – 7:24

The flood that destroys human life and animals except for those on Noah’s Ark.

Direct Action:  Berachot 58A

The blind rabbi is angered by a Sadducee’s challenge to what he knows even though he cannot see. The blind Rabbi’s eyes stare upon the Sadducee and burns him to a pile of  bones.

Genesis 6:6




Berachot 58A


Prophecy:  Deuteronomy 32

God sees that Jeshurun (Israel) will fall away from the covenant and suffer many dire consequences.


Prophecy:  Pesachim 69A

Rabbi Eliezer is angered by Rabbi Akiva from what R. Eliezer thinks is R. Akiva’s suggestion that he does not know about slaughtering the Passover sacrifice on the Sabbath. R. Eliezer says that R. Akiva will die in this way.

Deuteronomy 32:22-24

Jealous anger



Pesachim 69A

Irritation, dismissive censure



Today is not only the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it is also 9/11 and the day of destruction twenty years ago that was inspired by a fatwa (Islamic religious directive).[l]  We pause in this moment to reflect on life and to seek forgiveness and atonement. This moment is one in which experience the simultaneity of the good, the bad and the ugly.

We might wonder from whom we are seeking forgiveness and atonement beyond those in our immediate social circle.

If our emotions are inextricably bound up with God, and if we believe we have created an anthropomorphic being, are we simply asking ourselves to forgive ourselves? Alternatively, if God was our creator and we were created in God’s image, what would that mean? In both realities, we share strong emotions, often resulting in dire consequences.

Each of us confronts that puzzle; each of us affirms our reasoning for why and to whom we are atoning.[li] We do this in a common space, each of us thinking that we are doing what everyone else is doing.

But are we?

One might expect a more profound conclusion. There is none.

I would like to thank Rabbi Jonathan Stein and Rabbi Jason Nevarez for their comments. Any errors that remain are solely those of the author.

[i] In 2019, my dvar on Shabbat Shuvah, also parashat  Vayelech, focused on Incomplete Leadership Models.

[ii] Ashamnu text of viddui confession: My Jewish Learning, Text of Yom Kippur Viddui, ; See also, My Jewish Learning discussion of the Viddui confession, A first step toward repairing a wrong.

[iii] Seeskin, Kenneth, “Maimonides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Jan 24, 2006; substantive revision Thu Feb 4, 2021

[iv] Id. See also, Herschel Raysman, Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,

[v] Wikipedia, Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,

[vi] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. One can find demonic lists of God’s attributes. Richard Dawkins, a de facto atheist and biologist describes God in the Hebrew Bible: “The God of the Old Testament is . . .  jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

[vii] Deuteronomy 32, Ha’azinu. This is Moses’ song to the assembled Israelites before they cross over into the Promised Land.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Kenneth Seeskin, Hosea: Divine Pathos (in) Thinking about the Prophets: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS Essential Judaism), 2020. Citing Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets 1962.

[x] Id.

[xi] The comparison is of the intent of the magical thinking, not of any psychological affect that a listener might adopt.

[xii] Leviticus 23:27-32.  “For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the LORD your God. Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin; and whoever does any work throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people . . .”

[xiii] Contemporary examples, likely with historical roots, can be found in such cultures as:  Z.C. Peter, African Curses, ; Gary Swanson, Wendy Swanson, Skinwalkers Shapeshifters and Native American Curses, ; The Asian American Literary Review, Book of Curses, ; and historical perspectives, Curse, ; Bheegi (Ed), Curses In Mahabharat, ; The Epic of Gilgamesh, Maureen Gallery Kovacs (Translator), .

[xiv] Samantha Olson, The Brain Science Of Cursing: How Swear Words Work To Inflict And Relieve Pain, Apr 30, 2015 ; Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz, The Science of Swearing, April 25, 2012,

[xv] James Frazer, What replaces magic? ; see also, Edward Tylor on Primitive Culture, .

[xvi]  Scientific Racism,

[xvii]  Erin Wayman, When Did the Human Mind Evolve to What It is Today? June 25, 2012,  Smithsonian Magazine,

[xviii] Gerald L. Clore,  Psychology and the Rationality of Emotion, 2011, ;  Gabriele Lakomski, Cognition versus Emotion? Revising the Rationalist Model,,independent%20from%20reason.%20This%20picture%20is%20now%20changing

[xix] The explanation here echoes Bronislaw Malinowski’s analysis of magic, illustrated among Trobriand Islanders. When the Trobriand Islanders fish in the inner lagoon, there practical knowledge suffices. However, as they venture outside to the open sea, magic takes on importance. See a discussion about magic and religion in George Homans, “Anxiety and Ritual: The Theories of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown,” American Anthropologist  43:164-172   (1941).

[xx] Halyna Romanivna Didycka, What did the Romans call Israel?

[xxi] The Epic of Gilgamesh, which includes the Death of Enkidu. Obelisk Art History, 2021, ; see also, ; and, Battle against Humbaba: the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu ( ;

[xxii] Tablet V, Gilgamesh. (V, 69-70)

[xxiii] Gilgamesh, Tablet  VI, 127:  “Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of Heaven.

.[xxiv] Photograph by Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 fr,

[xxv] Grahame Johnston, Defixiones: Curse Tablets, 13 Dec 2019, ;

[xxvi]  Scarabs, phalluses, evil eyes — how ancient amulets tried to ward off disease, September 14, 2020,

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] The Times of Israel, May 16, 2018 ; 1600 Year Old Amulet Cites Biblical Balaam to Curse Chariot Races (

[xxix] Revenge spells,

[xxx] Wikihow, How to Put on a Curse on Someone,

[xxxi] Simple curse breaking for the beginner,

[xxxii] Talmud. Wikipedia,

[xxxiii] See also, the legal code compilations in the 16th century CE, Shulchan Aruch, Wikipedia,

[xxxiv] Talmud. My Jewish Learning,

[xxxv] Arthur E. Helft, Talmudic Insults and Curses, Expanded edition, 2018.

[xxxvi] Id. Berachot 58A, p. 124.

[xxxvii] Id. Pesachim 69A, p. 193.

[xxxviii] Id. See Berachot 61B for a description of how Rabbi Akiva died by the Romans: “At the hour that they were bringing out Rabbi Akiva for execution, it was the time of the reciting of the Shema, and they were flaying his flesh with iron combs; and he was accepting upon himself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom.”

[xxxix] Id. Niddah 20A referencing Mishnah 19A.

[xl] Id.

[xli] The first curse in the Torah is found at Genesis 3:14. And the LORD God said unto the serpent: ‘Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

[xlii] Genesis 3:14-17.

[xliii] Aristotle, Eudemus (354 BCE), surviving fragment quoted in Plutarch, Moralia. Consolatio ad Apollonium, sec. xxvii (1st century CE) (S. H. transl.); The Greek mythological figure Silenus speaks to the same difficulty of life: “[F]or humans, the best for them is not to be born at all . . . if choice we have . . . to die as soon as we can.”

[xliv]  Comparing Curses, Marc Zvi Brettler,  The curses in Leviticus 26 are often compared to those in Deuteronomy 28 [and I would add Deuteronomy 32]. However, those in Leviticus 26 are escalating ones, while in Deuteronomy 28 they get unleashed at one time; Leviticus is arguably more optimistic with the persistence of the covenant while Deuteronomy is seen as more pessimistic with the possibility of Israel being destroyed.

[xlv] Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xlvi] Op cit. Aristotle, Eudemus.

[xlvii]  Talmud Eruvin 13b: “For two and a half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. The School of Hillel said: “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.” The School of Shammai said: “It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created.” (Discussed in) Rabbi Victor Urecki, High Holiday Sermon Yom Kippur 2006 Cong Bnai Jacob,

[xlviii] Genesis 3:17.

[xlix] Christianity echoes this sentiment. Following and believing in Jesus provides the blessing of everlasting (spiritual) life. See: John 3:16 ESV, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

[l] The 9-11 Commission Report, (2004); see also, Spanish clerics issue fatwa against bin Laden [for attack on Madrid railway station in 2005), CBC News, Mar 11, 2005,

[li] If one followed the thinking of Maimonides and apophatic theology, one cannot say that God is wise (a positive attribute), but that God is not ignorant. God is described through negative attributes. Our sacred texts are best understood metaphorically.  In the context of this dvar, one would have to say that neither gives blessings, nor curses. These are a pair in the Torah. An interesting discussion of how blessings and curses are discussed in Torah is Rabbi Yaakov Menken, Blessings and Curses Parshas Bechukosai, May 23, 2003 (5763). “Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra questions why the curses are so much longer than the blessings [in Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34]. There are eleven verses of blessing, while the section of curses is three times as long. This is strange, especially because we find throughout Jewish thought that G-d’s attribute of goodness is stronger than any attribute of punishment.” Another formulation, and one which I prefer, is the Hindu statement about the supreme reality is tat tvam asi {that thou art).’ Thus, we cannot explain the supreme reality, or our own, but both are ‘real.’ However, that is not the issue in this dvar; rather, the puzzle in this essay grapples with the sacred text in its relation to human psychology.


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