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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Sacuto (Zakuto), Moses B. Mordecai
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The act of profaning or violating sacred things. The prohibition of sacrilege was primarily in connection with the sanctuary (Leviticus 19:8, 21:23). The services in the Tabernacle or Temple could not be relegated to any one other than the priesthood (ib. 31:17; Numbers 1:51), nor could anything used in the sanctuary be appropriated for common purposes. Even the following for secular use of the formula of the sacrificial incense was prohibited (Exodus 30:32,37). It was equally forbidden to copy the model of the Tabernacle or Temple,the candlestick, or any of the holy vessels; and the use of such vessels except in the sacred services was especially prohibited. If a man unintentionally committed a trespass on any of the sacred things or sacrifices he was required to make full restitution, with the addition of one-fifth of the amount of the damage, and to offer a sacrifice in expiation of the sin (Leviticus 5:15,16). Joshua consecrated the spoils of Jericho to the treasury of the sanctuary; and Achan, who committed a trespass in stealing some of them, suffered capital punishment (Joshua 6:17,24; 7:20-25).


The Talmud treatise see see ME'ILAH explains the nature and details of trespass in regard to holy things. According to R. Akiba, any benefit derived from a sacred thing is punishable under the law of me'ilah. The ḥakamim divide me'ilah into (1) benefits and (2) damages to the value of a peruṭa (the smallest copper coin). Under this classification the use of gold vessels or ornaments of the sanctuary for profit is forbidden; but the use of garments or eatables is permitted provided they will not be damaged or consumed to the value of a peruṭa (Me'1:5:1). The amount of the profit or of the damage is to be paid in full with the addition of one-fifth; and a sacrifice worth two silver shekels must be offered for the sinful trespass ("asham me'ilah"). The law against sacrilege in the sanctuary applies to the sacred things pertaining to the sacrifices on the altar ("ḳodshe mizbeaḥ"), and to the sacred treasures and the material for repairing the sanctuary ("ḳodshe bedeḳ ha-bayit"). For larceny of the Temple sacred vessel called "ḳiswah" (bowl for libation), the culprit may, if caught in the act, be killed by zealots (Sanh. 9:6,81b; see Rashi ad loc.). This, however, is explained by Geiger as an exceptional punishment provided in the case of Sadducees, who opposed the water libation (see Suk. 48a). "One who profanes sacred things has no share in the world to come" (Ab. 3:15).

The opinion prevails, however, that the law concerning sacrilege lapsed when the Temple was destroyed, and that it has no force in exilic times. It is not operative in the synagogue, which is considered merely as a charitable institution; and its infraction is liable to civil action only (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 95, 1; 212, 8; Asheri, Responsa, rule 13, Nos. 1, 8). Nevertheless, the house of prayer or of learning may not be made a drinking-place, nor may it be commonly used as a conveniently short passageway ("compendiaria"; Ber. 62b). Scrolls of the Law that become unfit for reading, mantles of the Law, and covers of holy books (Meg. 26b), as well as all unused Hebrew manuscripts and torn leaves of printed books containing the name of God ("shemot") are placed in the genizah, it being considered sacrilege to make indiscriminate use of them.

Grave and Corpse.

The Rabbis extend the law of sacrilege to the cemetery, and prohibit the derivation of any benefit from a corpse, a coffin, a shroud, or a grave. No frivolity, feeding of cattle, picking of flowers, or cutting of trees is permitted in the cemetery, nor may a canal for the purposes of irrigation be run through it (Meg. 29a). The disinterment of a body, except under certain conditions and regulations, is prohibited. Wood, straw, or other merchandise may not be stored in the cemetery (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 361, 364, 368).

Contempt of Scripture.

Another sort of sacrilege is the bringing into contempt of things that are holy. The first record of such a sacrilegious act is that of Esau selling his birthright (Genesis 25:33). The literary misuse of the Holy Scriptures is sacrilege: "No one may recite the Song of Solomon as he would secular poetry, or quote verses at inappropriate times or in drinking-places. When this occurs the Torah laments and complains before the Almighty, saying: 'Master of the world! Thy children have made a lyre of me for the amusement of the scorners'" (Sanh. 101a). Imitation of the style of the Bible or even of the Talmud was looked upon as sacrilege. Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto was censured for such an act of sacrilege. It is claimed that he composed 150 psalms in the style of the Book of Psalms, and that he did not dare publish them for fear of incurring from the Jewish community a charge of contempt (F. Delitzsch, "Zur Gesch. des Jüdischen Poesie," p. 90, Leipsic, 1836; "Toledot M. Ḥ. Luzzatto," Lemberg, 1879); at any rate two such psalms by him appeared in print (in "Bikkure ha-'Ittim," 1827, 7:99). In 1863 M. L. Lilienblum composed "Massa' Polin," a poem against the Polish revolt, with vowels and accents in the style of the Scriptures, which style of imitation was condemned by the Rabbis ("Ḥaṭṭe'ot Ne'urim," pp. 45, 48, 69, Vienna, 1876). The Talmudic imitation of Masseket Kelim by Rabbi Gershon Enoch Henach was censured and its sale forbidden by the rabbinate of Wilna because in form and style the book resembled the ordinary Gemara. It was sacrilege, the Rabbis claimed, to put the work of Rabina and R. Ashi on a level with the work of a latter-day rabbi ("Ha-Maggid," [1875], Nos. 32, 33; "Ha-Lebanon," , No. 34; Hillel Noah Steinschneider, "'Ir Wilna," p. 60, Wilna, 1900).

For sacrilege in profaning the name of God BLASPHEMY; for sacrilege in dedicating a book to God PREFACES AND DEDICATIONS. See also Desecration; DISINTERMENT; ME'ILAH.

J. D. E.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Sacrilege'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​s/sacrilege.html. 1901.
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