Blasphemy means reviling God. In Hebrew it is known as birkat hashem, literally “blessing [euphemism for cursing] the Name [of God].” The one guilty of this offense is called a megaddef (blasphemer).
In the two main passages in the Bible (Leviticus 24: 10-23 and I Kings 21: 8-13) the penalty for this offense is stoning to death. It is, however, none too clear what exactly is involved in the offense. Does it mean to insult God, or does it mean to curse God?
According to the Gospels of Matthew (26: 63-6) and Mark (14: 53-64) Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin on a charge of blasphemy, but New Testament scholars have puzzled over both the question of the historicity of the event and the precise nature of the offense.
Even more puzzling is the definition given in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7: 5) that the penalty of stoning for the blasphemer applies only where he used the Tetragrammaton with which to curse God by this name: “Let the Tetragrammaton curse the Tetragrammaton.” This would make the whole offense impossible in practice, to say nothing of the extreme psychological difficulty involved in the whole idea of requesting God to curse Himself.
To be sure, the Jewish tradition obviously holds that it is a severe offense to revile God and the medieval courts placed a ban on anyone guilty of this, but so far as the full offense of blasphemy is concerned it all remained purely theoretical. The same applies to Talmudic statements that the prohibition of birkat hashem is one of the seven Noahide laws.
To insult the Torah or Moses, the other prophets, or the sages of Israel is also held to be a serious offense but this is, at the most, an extension of the original blasphemy law and is not covered by the death penalty, even in theory. In Christian Europe the Church, on the other hand, extended the law of blasphemy to Blessings and Curses cover any denial of God or denigration of the Christian religion, and Islam regarded it as covering any attack on the personality of Muhammad, as in the Salman Rushdie case.
The whole subject is more than a little obscure so far as Jewish law is concerned and there is hardly any evidence that trials for blasphemy took place among Jews in post-biblical times.
Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.