Why the Rabbis Said We Should Censor the Bible


According to Jewish law, embarrassing someone is akin to murdering them. And this idea is taken so seriously that the Mishnah actually recommends censoring some Bible stories, because they are embarrassing for the characters involved.

Tractate Megillah 4:10 lists some stories that shouldn’t be read in the synagogue, and some that can be read in Hebrew, but shouldn’t be translated. So what are these shameful stories? The ones that can be read and not translated are when Reuven sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and the second part of the story of the Golden Calf, where Moses scolds Aaron. Which stories are neither read nor translated? Tamar’s rape by her half-brother Amnon (in Samuel 2:13), and the story of King David pursuing Bathsheba (Samuel 2:11), who was married to another man. Both stories show a sad and ugly side of King David and his family, and so they are censored.

But the censoring of these stories only goes so far. The rabbis don’t suggest that they shouldn’t be studied, just that they shouldn’t be read from the bimah in the synagogue. Even embarrassing stories have important lessons to teach us.

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