Reader Leon G. Goldstein writes:
“I’m quite familiar with the Yiddish expression freg mir bekheyrem. But what is the source of it? Is it related to the Hebrew h.erem, meaning excommunication?”
The kheyrem of freg mir bekheyrem, an expression that means “I have no idea” or “I haven’t a clue,” is indeed the same word as the Hebrew word for excommunication. Literally, indeed, the Yiddish means “Ask me under [pain of] excommunication,” i.e., “I can’t answer your question even if you excommunicate me for not doing so.”
Although the h.erem, or excommunication, has more or less disappeared from the Jewish world in modern times, it was once the most severe form of punitive action that a Jewish community could take against a wayward member. It was a more extreme version of the niduy, or ostracism. Whereas in the latter, the punished individual, though banned from communal prayer and ritual, was still permitted to be spoken to and done business with, in the h.erem all contact with him was forbidden; he was denied a Jewish burial after his death, and his newborn sons could not be circumcised, thus effectively reading him out of the Jewish community forever.
In understanding why such draconian treatment was not uncommonly meted out by rabbinic authorities, it must be kept in mind that post-exilic Jewish communities generally did not have at their disposal the punitive means possessed by the Christian and Muslim polities in which they dwelt, such as corporal punishment or incarceration, let alone the death penalty. The h.erem was the strongest disciplinary measure. It was also, prior to modern times, a highly effective measure, since in medieval societies in which all Jews were religiously observant and socialized only with other Jews, to be excommunicated was to be totally isolated. This is why, in important matters, the threat of it was also used preventatively, as in the precedent-making 12th-century “h.erem of Rabbi Gershom,” which forbade, under pain of excommunication — even though Jewish law until then permitted it — the taking of more than one wife.
Which brings us back to freg mir bekheyrem. Since a h.erem was commonly a punishment inflicted for misdeeds rather than for opinions, why, you may ask, should there be a Yiddish expression that means, “I can’t answer your question even if you excommunicate me”?
The explanation lies in the formal procedure of excommunication. Generally, this was done in the presence of the excommunicated person, who was made to appear before a rabbinical court and asked whether he had in fact committed the offenses he was accused of and whether he was prepared to forswear them in the future, do penance and make reparation. Since his answers to these questions could very well determine whether a h.erem was declared on him or not, freg mir bekheyrem was an idiom engendered by real situations.
Probably the most famous of these situations in Jewish history involved the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch or Benedict Spinoza in Amsterdam in 1656. Asked by a rabbinical court on which sat his old teacher, Sha’ul Mortira, whether he had indeed flagrantly violated the laws of Judaism in public as he was accused of doing, the young Spinoza first denied it and then admitted it when witnesses testified against him. He was then asked by Mortira whether he was prepared to mend his ways, to which he replied that he was not and reportedly added: “It was you, Rabbi, who taught me my Hebrew — now I will make you learn the language of the h.erem.” Even then, the court gave Spinoza one more chance, putting him in niduy for 30 days so that he might reconsider. He did not, and a month later a full h.erem was declared on him.
And what was the language of the h.erem that Spinoza made Rabbi Mortira learn? Although we do not possess the text of Spinoza’s own h.erem, we do have that of many others, often read aloud to the blowing of a shofar. Here, for example, is part of a h.erem issued in the Italian city of Ferrara in 1792:
It shouldn’t happen to you.