By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva
And he that smites his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. And he that steals a man, and sells him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. And he that curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. (Shmot 21:15-17)
Commentaries raise two fundamental questions regarding these verses. Why does the punishment for kidnapping appear between two punishments for violence towards parents? Would it not be more reasonable for all the parent related laws to appear without interruption? Ramban cites R. Sa’adya Gaon’s answer that a kidnapper causes a child to curse his parents since captivity prevents the child from knowing who his parents are.
Perhaps the point is deeper than the potential causal relationship between kidnapping and cursing parents. This biblical section revolves round the sanctity of the family and the need to not violate the sacred parent child relationship. Children breach that relationship if they hit or curse their parents. An outsider assaults the family unit if he forcefully removes one of its members. Thus, kidnapping belongs in the context of crimes against the notion of family.
Abravanel powerfully extends the point by explaining the verse as referring to a kidnapper who snatches a child, thereby acting with violence towards parents. Taking away a beloved child, claims Abravanel, can cause more pain than murder. These verses outline three consecutive crimes consisting of violence to parents.
The second question contrasts the punishments for striking and cursing parents. According to Chazal, both transgressions merit the death penalty but the child who curses his parents receives a more severe form of death penalty. Why should cursing receive harsher treatment than physical assault? Ramban provides two explanations that point to diverse themes in the philosophy of punishment.
Cursing may occur more frequently than striking; therefore, it requires a stronger deterrent. Alternatively, cursing also includes desecrating the name of God invoked in the oath so it actually reflects the more serious offense. The two approaches highlight the potential presence of deterrent and retributive themes in halachic punishments. Severity of punishment reflects either the need to deter more ubiquitous crimes or the terrible nature of the act in question.