Sanctifying (or Profaning) Hashem’s Name, Prophesying in the Name of Idolatry as Exodus-Related Issues

Sixteen Nisan

In Vayikra 22;32, the Torah warns us against profaning Hashem’s Name, and tells us that that Name must be sanctified among the Jewish people. (I write it that way because the Torah uses a passive verb, perhaps because the starkest case is allowing ourselves to be killed rather than violate the Torah. More below.) Hashem then declares that I (Hashem) am the One Who sanctified you.

As stated, this seems a perfectly formed mitzvah, no obvious holes in its presentation. Hashem sanctified us with Torah and mitzvot, included in which are these two obligations.Yet in the next verse, the Torah adds that Hashem took us out of Egypt to be our Lord.

What does that add to our understanding of the mitzvah? To answer, we have to define these commandments a little more fully. While the verse puts the prohibition of profanation first, it’s easier to speak about the obligation to sanctify.

Sanctifying Hashem’s Name—the Extreme Version

Rashi in Vayikra already mentions perhaps the most well-known aspect of the mitzvah, that Jews are sometimes obligated to die rather than transgress the Torah. At the strictest level, Jews are obligated to die rather than commit alien worship, murder, or sexual immorality. That requirement extends to any commandment that has become the target of specific religious attack.The term in Hebrew is שמד, shemad, an attempt to destroy the Jewish religion, but it doesn’t have to be aimed at the whole religion—any element of the religion that comes under specific attack becomes a point of שמד, and our obligation to avoid transgressing it is then heightened by the need to sanctify Hashem’s Name.

It’s hard to offer unequivocal examples, but if a country or municipality were to decide that religious objections to eating non-kosher meat were unacceptable, and to coerce the eating of such meat, Jews would plausibly be obligated to refuse, even at the cost of their lives (which is not true, for example, if they decided to require eating that meat for other reasons). We are obligated to dig in our heels in the face of specific attacks on our religion, with the same stubbornness as we always have to show over murder, sexual improprieties, or alien worship.

To understand why, let’s look at an everyday (and more pleasant) version of the mitzvah.

Sanctifying Hashem’s Name Daily

A Mishnah in Megillah 23b lists ceremonies that require the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten male Jews. These include saying Barechu, Kedushah in the repetition of the Amidah, the priestly blessings, reading the Torah and/or haftarah, and sheva brachot in celebration of a wedding (kaddish was added later).

The Gemara cites our verse, which says that sanctifying Hashem’s Name must be בתוך בני ישראל, among the Jewish people. Since these are devarim she-bikdushah, matters of sanctity, they must be among the Jewish people, and a minyan is the smallest representative grouping of the entire people.

Rambam’s formulation of the commandment,Sefer haMitzvot, Obligation 9, explains how both can be matters of kiddush Hashem. He renders the obligation as being to “publicize this true faith in the world, and not fear injury (or damage) from any injurer (source of damage).” Mostly, we publicize this faith through communal acts announcing Hashem’s Presence, such as the various dvarim she-bi-kedushah. But when an oppressor comes, we must not mislead him or her into thinking pressure could ever lead us to deny Hashem or any of His mitzvot.

The Exodus Component

As defined so far, however, it’s not clear why this obligation is limited to Jews. If an oppressor tried to make non-Jews violate the Noahide laws, why wouldn’t they need to stand up for their fealty to the Divine Will as much as Jews? Why is it all right for them to yield to the duress of transgressing serious sins? Sifrato Emor 9 points to the verse’s mention of the Exodus for the answer.

Sifra says non-Jews do not have to forfeit their lives in Hashem’s Name because they weren’t taken out of Egypt. Part of Hashem’s taking us out was that it made us the nation who would sanctify His Name by spreading word of it and by holding fast to our adherence to Hashem’s commands, even in the face of death.

This obligation to be at the forefront of representing Hashem in this world, set up by the Exodus, also explains the flip side of this mitzvah, the prohibition of profaning Hashem’s Name.

Three Versions of Chillul Hashem

When I was a child, adults spoke of חילול ה', profaning Hashem’s Name, any time a Jew embarrassed the religion (like when boys wearing kippot were too noisy on a subway). Our discussion of sanctifying the Name shows where we could get that impression (Rambam makes this explicit, noting in Sefer haMitzvot Prohibition 63 that the two are opposites; if קידוש ה is doing our part to declare Hashem’s Name, disgracing that Name isחילול ).

Shabbat 33a includes chillul in a list of mitzvot whose violation brings social consequences like rampant wild animals, a plague among domesticated animals, a reduction in human population, and roads becoming deserted. It is also one of the few commandments for which Yoma86a assumes we can only get full atonement with death.

Rambam shows three ways to commit חילול. First, we might yield to duress when we were supposed to resist, as we saw earlier. It’s not a full violation of whatever prohibition we committed, because it was coerced, but it does count as full-fledged chillul Hashem.

Willful or Exemplary Violations of the Torah

Rambam adds that when a Jew violates the Torah for no reason other than to shuck off the yoke of Heaven, that is also a chillul Hashem. Walking down the street, a Jew decides to eat a cheeseburger, not out of hunger but to express how chafing he or she finds Torah. That would be a chillul Hashemin addition to a full violation of the prohibition.Rashi seems to agree, since he interprets ולא תחללו “do not profane” as “לעבור עליו מזידין, to transgress purposely.” He means, I think, that the person violates for that reason alone, not because of any other urges.

The third version of חילול Rambam mentions (as does Rashi to Shabbat 33a) is where a notable person acts in ways that give a wrong impression. Rambam’s example is from Yoma 86a, an important person taking meat without paying for it (in a situation where credit wasn’t well known) or walking a short distance without either speaking Torah or wearing tefillin. Rashi says this will teach others to treat Torah and observance lightly—if that person doesn’t see a reason to be careful, why should I?

The formulation might apply to each of us at our own level. Most of us impact some others with our caring for Torah, or lack of it. In those circles, there would seem room to argue that we run the risk of חילול ה'as well, even without committing actual sins. If I am seen as a a paragon of Jewish observance in my place of work, for example, giving my coworkers the sense that I’ve treated Torah lightly might also count in these terms of chillul Hashem.

That’s the subway example—publicly identified Jews represent Hashem’s Torah, so even the misbehavior of talking too loudly could profane Hashem’s Name in just this way.And, once again, the Torah grounds our responsibility to avoid this on the Exodus, not just an amorphous general obligation we bear towards Hashem.

Prophesying in the Name of Alien Worship

Devarim 13; 5 closes a discussion of a prophet who promotes alien worship by saying that the prophet should be put to death, because s/he has spoken ill of (or, incited rebellion against) Hashem, who took you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery. Sifre notes that that our relationship with Hashem, grounded in the Exodus, should render us immune to the exhortations of such a prophet.

Rambam, prohibition 28, phrases that as prohibiting even considering the prophet’s call to alien worship. Ramban seems to agree, in his Commentary to the Torah, where he says that the verse means that Hashem’s having performed the various miracles in Egypt should mean that we know, for all time, not to worship anything other than Hashem, and that could therefore never be a prophecy that would tell us to do so.

Sefer haChinuch 456 follows Rambam in counting a prohibition to even listen to the prophet, let alone to follow him/her. Sefer haChinuch says the weakness of our intellects, the ease with which someone can mislead us, means we cannot even debate a putative prophet,for fear that s/he will prove more convincing than we are—despite being prophesying a complete falsehood.

I find that particularly interesting in a time when people’s confidence (in multiple realms, including Torah) often far outstrips their right to that confidence. A proper humility about our ability to recognize truth or falsehood wholly through the lens of our intellects part of what’s necessary to avoid being drawn in by a false prophet, realizing s/he can convince us even when it’s blatantly false. The Exodus was supposed to be a bulwark against that, shoring up our defenses against any obviously contra-Torah ideas.

Three more ways the experience of Egypt affects our everyday life: the obligation to take our part in a people who sanctify Hashem’s Name, in whatever way is called for at that time, the ban on profaning that Name, in any of the various possible ways, and our need to carry the Exodus with us so fully that it makes clear the falsity of any prophet who claims we should worship anything other than Hashem.