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Parashat Ki Tavo: Blessings & Curses by Yaakov Bieler

September 6, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

The earliest reference to the blessings and curses that were pronounced prior to the Jewish people’s entering Israel.

In Parashat Re’eh, a first reference is made to a portentous ritual that marks the beginning of the Jewish people’s relationship with the Promised Land.

Devarim 11:29-30

And it will be when the Lord your God Brings you to the land where you are going there to inherit it, you shall give the blessing on Mt. Grizim and the curse on Mt. Eival.

These are on the other side of the Jordan River in the direction of the sunset, in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the wilderness, over against Gilgal, next to the plains of Moreh.

R. S.R. Hirsch offers a very lyrical understanding of the symbolism of associating   these particular mountains with potential blessings and curses that confront the Jewish people.

R. S. R. Hirsch on Devarim 11:29

…Grizim and Eival are two peaks of the Ephraim range of mountains which still show a striking contrast in their appearance. Gerizim to the south of the valley of Shechem presents a smiling green slope rising in fruit-covered terraces to its summit. Eival on the north side, is steep, bare and bleak, some 2900 ft. high, slightly higher than Grizim. The two mountains lying next to each other form accordingly a most  instructive picture of blessing and curse. They both rise on one and the same soil, both are watered by one and the same rain and dew, the same air breathes over both of them, the same pollen wafts over both of them, and yet Eival remains in barren bleakness while Grizim is clad to its summit in embellishment of vegetation. In the same way, blessing and curse are not conditional on external circumstances but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our behavior towards that which is to bring blessing.

Crossing the Jordan and treading upon the land of the Tora, the sight of these two mountains preaches to us the eternal sermon: that we are placed between the alternative of blessing or curse, and by our own moral behavior, we have to decide for ourselves for a “Grizim” or “Eival” future.

Additional details about these blessings and curses.

Parashat Ki Tavo fleshes out the details regarding how the blessings and curses were to be actually invoked and ratified before the Jewish people (Devarim 27:12-26).  Mishna Sota 7:5 (32a), as is to be expected of the Oral Tradition intended to clarify and explain our sacred biblical texts, supplies additional information concerning this extraordinary and memorable ritual.

Sota 7:5

…How was the ceremony of the blessings and curses performed?

When the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River (Devarim 27:2 ff.) and reached the mountains of Grizim and Eival (27:12-13)…six tribes ascended to the top of Mt. Grizim and six tribes ascended to the top of Mt. Eival, while the Kohanim, the Levi’im and the Holy Ark stood below in the middle, between the two mountains.[1]

The Kohanim surrounded the Holy Ark, the Levi’im surrounded the Kohanim, and all of Israel stood on this side (Mt. Grizim) and that side (Mt. Eival)…

They (the Kohanim and Levi’im) turned towards Mt. Grizim and began with the blessing:[2] “Blessed is the man who does not make a graven, molten image,” and these and those (the two groups on the two mountains) responded, “Amen”.

They turned towards Mt. Eival and began with the curse: “Cursed is the man who makes a graven, molten image,” and these and these responded, “Amen.”

Everyone continued in this manner until they completed all the blessings and curses.

Afterwards they brought stones (27:2, 4, 8) and built the altar (27:5-7); they coated the stones with lime (27:2); and they wrote upon them all of the words of the Tora in seventy languages[3] (27:8)…and they took the stones and erected them in their places.

Comparing the accounts of the blessings and curses in the books of Devarim and Yehoshua, looking for differences.

When comparing the detailed description in Parashat Ki Tavo of the “intended” ceremony—in Devarim, Moshe outlined what was to take place in the future, following his death, upon the entry of the Jews into Israel under the leadership of Yehoshua—with the account in the biblical book of Yehoshua of what actually takes place, a number of deviations from the original directive at least appear to come to light:

Yehoshua 8:30-35[4]

And then Yehoshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel in Mt. Eival, As Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the Tora of Moshe, an altar of whole stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron instrument, and they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings.

And he (Yehoshua) wrote there upon the stones “Mishna Tora” (lit. a repetition or copy of the Tora, suggesting something other than the original) of Moshe, which he wrote in the presence of the Children of Israel.

And all of Israel, their elders, officers, judges stood on this side of the Ark and that side, before the Kohanim, the Levi’im who carried the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, both stranger and native born, half of them “over against” (in contradistinction to “upon”) Har Grizim, and half of them “over against” Har Eival, just as Moshe servant of the Lord had commanded that they should first bless the people of Israel.

And afterwards he read all the words of the Tora, the blessings and the

curses, according to all that is written in the Book of the Tora.

There was not a word of all that Moshe commanded, which Yehoshua did not read before the entire congregation of Israel, including women and children, and the sojourners who went amongst them.

A comparison of the literal account of what was proposed in Parashat Ki Tavo, with what actually seems to have transpired in Yehoshua yields the following significant inconsistencies, among others:

Devarim 27                                         Yehoshua 8

& Sota 7:5

Timing of building After the blessings/                        Before the blessings/

Altar curses.                                 curses.

The stones upon Separate from the                           Part of the altar.

which the Tora altar.

was to be


How were the They were coated with                 No mention of coating the

stones of the lime so that they could                  stones is made.

altar prepared? be written upon.

What was said/ The blessings and                            The entire Tora,

read publicly? curses, with only the                       in addition to the

curses mentioned ex-                     blessings; the recitation of

plicitly.                                                  curses is only implied.

Who blessed/ Kohanim and Levi’im.                     Zekeinim of the people.

cursed the


A rationale for the differences between Devarim and Yehoshua.

Since it is difficult to comprehend why Yehoshua, Moshe’s devoted student, would deviate from the specific instructions that had been given by his teacher regarding how to carry out the ritual of the blessings and curses, commentators like R. David Tzvi Hoffmann attempt to reconcile the two accounts as describing the same thing. But, on the other hand, by adopting a less rigorous interpretation of the original instructions in Parashat Ki Tavo, it is possible that Moshe merely listed what the ritual should include in very general terms, allowing those who ultimately carry it out the leeway to make adjustments in terms of the details, as long as the general symbolism of impressing upon the people that their actions would ultimately determine the quality of their lives in the land of Israel, was preserved.

The actual contents of the blessings and curses.

The specific blessings and curses[5] that the Kohanim and Levi’im invoke, and that are subsequently verbally ratified by the rest of the Jewish people by declaring “Amen” after each utterance, also engender considerable curiosity. Assuming that any and all of the prohibitions of the Tora could have been chosen for inclusion in this ritual, why were these specific Mitzvot chosen to be singled out at this juncture?[6] Furthermore, each of the first eleven of the total of twelve blessings/curses,[7] appears to be a specific example of some broader area of Jewish law,[8] begging the question why these particular manifestations of the general principle were chosen as opposed to alternate examples of Mitzvot that appear to be equally representative of the general category of Halacha from which these seem to derive.[9] And finally, if in the end (v. 26) an all-inclusive blessing/curse was going to be mentioned,[10] why was there need to list any specific Commandments at all leading up to this final general warning?

Why should general and specific behaviors be mentioned interchangeably within the blessings and curses?

The issue of the efficacy of combining specific instances (Devarim 27:15-25) with general statements (27:26) when adjuring the people about complying with the law, has been explained in other contexts as conveying the belief that on the one hand, each individual Commandment must be honored in its own right, and failure to do so can lead to the most serious of consequences, while on the other, the “forest must not be lost because of the trees” and the overall organic relatedness of all of the laws of the Tora force us to keep in mind the “bigger picture”, i.e., that all of these more finite responsibilities are meant to contribute to and strengthen the Tora as a whole. Applying such a lens to our circumstance, an individual may on occasion be tempted to compartmentalize his religious observance, especially when he is under the impression that “no one will notice”, and choose to omit one or more Commandments.  The Tora in Parashat Ki Tavo, by means of the ritual of the blessings and curses, is therefore communicating that any transgression, however isolated and/or private it may appear to be, is  reprehensible both on its own terms, as well as its constituting a failure to fulfill and strengthen the Tora lifestyle as a whole.

Such a contention, however, could more easily be made if each of the previous eleven curses (27:15-25) could readily be seen to represent a distinct area of Jewish law;[11] then it could be maintained that the various categories of religious life are being represented by specific cases, with all finally being included under a broader rubric of “keeping up the Tora” in 27:26. However, particularly with respect to prohibited sexual relationships, four different examples of unacceptable activities are listed (27:20-23). Is it to be presumed that sexual malfeasance deserves greater emphasis than idolatry (27:15) or murder (27:24), especially when recognizing that each of these three categories of sin are equally understood to be “Yeihareg VeAl Ya’Avor” (one is to allow himself to be killed rather than transgress any of these prohibitions)—see Sanhedrin 74a.

An alternative approach that, while not explaining why these particular Commandments were singled out, does remove the issue of why a general Mitzva brings up the rear after eleven specific prohibitions have been highlighted, is to interpret the final curse as either 1) attempting to negate a possible rationalization that could lead to the violation of the prohibitions previously mentioned, or 2) defining this last curse as also indicating a very specific prohibited behavior as opposed to a general attitude, thereby bringing it more in line with the eleven curses preceding it. RaMBaN seems to adopt the first approach.

RaMBaN on Devarim 27:26

The acceptance implied in affirming this Commandment is that one is to ratify all of the Mitzvot in his heart, and that he is to view them all as true, and to believe that the individual who complies with them will receive a reward and enjoy goodness, while a transgressor will be punished. Should he deny the validity of even one of them, or contend that a Commandment is no longer in effect, he will be cursed…

A typical means by which violating a prohibition is justified, is by devaluing the prohibition in terms of its authority. It is more difficult to coldly transgress a Halacha that one knows is prohibited explicitly by the Tora, than a rule that a person claims was never intended by the Tora in the first place—“it is the mistaken interpretation by the Rabbis that has generated this law”—or that while the law may once have been authentic for a particular time and place, it is currently outdated and irrelevant. According to RaMBaN, Devarim 27:26 is requiring the Jewish people to approach all Tora law, whether categorized as “D’Oraita” (of the Tora), or even “D’Rabbanan” (of Rabbinic origin),[12] as true and therefore eternally binding.

HaEmek Davar, instead of viewing 27:26 as a means by which rationalizations and justifications leading to Halachic non-compliance can be discouraged, sees the blessing and curse focusing upon a positive means by which Mitzva observance can be maintained and even enhanced.

HaEmek Davar on Devarim 27:26

In Yerushalmi Sota, Chapter 7 and VaYikra Rabba, Parashat Kedoshim, it states, “Even one who learned and taught, observed and fulfilled, and it was within his ability to strengthen and he did not strengthen, such an individual is included in the curse of “the one who does not uphold the words of the Tora.” And it further states there that Yoshiyahu, the pious king, tore his garments and resolved, “It is up to me to uphold it.”—see II Melachim 22-23.

It is clear that the commentators among ChaZaL understood “LeHakim” to connote to establish the words of the Tora in a precise manner, which is accomplished by intense efforts to clarify issues by carefully studying and understanding the Talmud. And because it is impossible to study Talmud deeply and carefully unless those engaged in such study are enabled to do so, it is important to position such individuals in every way possible to be free to engage in “Milchamta Shel Tora” (the wars [sic.] of Tora)…

While HaEmek Davar is speaking communally, i.e., that a Tora society must insure that Tora study takes place on the deepest and most efficacious level by those truly equipped and trained to do so, it would seem to me that there is a personal dimension to such an interpretation as well. Certainly, it is important that the greatest scholars be allowed to continually try to gain better understandings as well as apply Tora principles to new situations that arise daily. But deep and meaningful Tora study is also the means by which each of us can make sure that we strengthen and establish the Tora and its laws for ourselves. As much as rationalizations can be blamed for lack of compliance with Jewish law, ignorance and/or lack of intellectual precision and understanding is at least equally responsible for failure to perform Mitzvot. In addition to Tora study being a positive virtue and value in its own right, we should recognize that a life of blessing accrues when such study leads to the complete and proper fulfillment of the Mitzvot in their entirety throughout our lives.


[1] Devarim 27 lists the specific tribes that were to stand upon each of the mountains (v. 12-13) as well as the task of the Levi’im (although the Tora does not specifically refer to a role for the Kohanim, by virtue of their also belonging to the tribe of Levi by virtue of Aharon’s—the first of all the Kohanim—genealogy    (Shemot 6:20), it is reasonable to understand that they joined the rest of the Levi’im in pronouncing the blessings and curses) (v. 14); however where the Levi’im were to stand, and the presence of the Holy Ark at the center of these proceedings is apparent from only the Oral Tradition.

[2] The Oral Tradition presumes that there were both blessings and curses, although the Tora text spells out only curses and omits the formulations of the blessings.

Devarim 27:15     “Cursed is the maker of a graven or molten image and sets it up in secret…”

16      “Cursed is the degrader of his father or mother…”

17      “Cursed is the mover of the boundary of his fellow…”

18      “Cursed is the misleader of a blind person on the road…”

19      “Cursed is the perverter of a judgment of a widow, orphan or convert…”

20      “Cursed is one who lies with the wife of his father…”

21      “Cursed is one who lies with any animal…”

22      “Cursed is one who lies with his sister…”

23       “Cursed is one who lies with his mother-in-law…”

24       “Cursed is the striker of his fellow in stealth…”

25      “Cursed is the receiver of a bribe to kill an innocent individual…”

26      “Cursed is the one who does not uphold the words of this Tora…”

The basis of the presumption that the subject of each of the curses was first presented in the form of a blessing, e.g., “Blessed is the one who refrains from making a graven or molten image”, is Devarim 27:12—“These shall stand to bless the people on Mt. Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan…

[3] The phrase “Be’er Haitaiv” (a good explanation) is understood by the Rabbinic tradition represented in Sota 7:5 to connote translating the essence of the Tora into multiple languages so that it can be understood by those originating from different traditions and cultures.

[4] In light of the story’s appearance in Chapter 8 rather than Chapter 1 of Yehoshua, the commentary Da’at Zekeinim on Yehoshua 8:29 summarizes a Rabbinic dispute regarding when the ritual of the blessings and curses was actually carried out:

a) (Tosefta Sota 8) R. Shimon: The ritual was performed immediately upon entry to Israel, with the mountains in question being only a distance of sixty “Mil” (a Persian mile; @3000 ft.) from the Jordan River. (According to this view, why does the story appear in Chapter 8, following the battles of Yericho and Ai? Shouldn’t the account have more appropriately been recorded at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua?)

b) (Yerushalmi Sota 7:3) R. Yishmael: The ceremony was performed fourteen years after the Jews entered Israel, only after the conquest of the portions of the land that they were going to control and the establishment of the Tabernacle in Shilo. (This view can be challenged from the opposite perspective, i.e., the actualization of the ritual of the blessings and curses should then have been written at the end of Yehoshua, rather than in Chapter 8, after only one third of the book.)

c) The commentators Abrabanel and MaLBIM: Rather than having to resort to the principle “Ein Mukdam U’Me’uchar BaTora” (there is no chronological order when it comes to the arrangement of the individual stories in the Bible), which will be necessary for either assumption a) or b) to be accepted, it is preferable to posit that the ritual of blessings and curses took place exactly at the point where it appears in Yehoshua, following the battle of Ai,  in Chapter 8. It is only now, when the people came into control of the area in which the mountains in question are located, that it was finally possible to carry out the ritual as had earlier been outlined in Devarim.

It would seem that aside from the literary aspects of the location of the story in the book of Yehoshua, what lies at the heart of this controversy is at what point does life in Israel truly begin for the Jewish people—as soon as they arrive, only after they have consolidated their control, or after first experiencing victory—the conquest of Yericho—followed by defeat—the failure to capture Ai, and thereby realizing that God will ultimately Determine their success or failure in the land, symbolized starkly by the ritual on Mts. Grizim and Eival.

[5] See fn. 2.

[6] Some commentators, noting that the term “BeSeter” (in secret) appears twice in the list of curses (v. 15,24) extrapolate that the common denominator in all of these examples is that they are done in private, without eye-witnesses, and therefore render their perpetrators immune to This-Worldly prosecution. Consequently a public demonstration is intended to strike fear into the hearts of private sinners. (This ties in well with the interpretations of Abrabanel and MaLBIM—see fn. 4—who believe that the ritual was carried out after the loss at Ai, a defeat precipitated by the secret transgression of Achan, stealing spoils from Yericho—see Yehoshua 7.) However, the list of examples in fn. 9 include many additional actions that might take place in secret, which leads us to continue to wonder about the criteria that determined what the Tora included and excluded in its list of curses.

[7] The last of the twelve blessings/curses is a very general statement: (Devarim 27:26) “Cursed is the one who does not uphold the words of this Tora…” While there are constant iterations throughout the Bible of how Hashem Expects the Jews to conform to the directives of His Law, to understand this specific curse, in contrast to the eleven preceding it, as constituting a subcategory of some larger issue, is difficult.

[8] 27:15            Making graven or molten images—prohibition against idolatry.

16           Degrading parents—prohibition against cursing, striking parents.

17           Moving the boundary of one’s fellow—prohibition against stealing.

18, 24     Misleading a blind person on the road; Striking one’s fellow in stealth—prohibition against harming one’s fellow man.

19           Perverting the judgment of a widow, orphan or convert—prohibition against rendering consciously dishonest judgments

20-23    Lying with one’s step-mother; an animal, with one’s sister; with one’s mother-in-law—prohibition against sexual immorality.

25           Receiving a bribe to kill an innocent individual—prohibition against murder.

[9] 27:15            Making graven or molten images—prohibitions against worshiping, benefiting, working for idolatry..

16           Degrading parents—in addition to the prohibitions mentioned in fn. 5, the blessing/curse could have referred to not properly honoring or fearing one’s parents.

17           Moving the boundary of one’s fellow—prohibitions against stealing another’s animals, which is exacerbated when the thief in turn slaughters or sells the animal to another; stealing another human being, i.e., kidnapping; an individual who breaks into another’s property; an individual who withholds a worker’s wages; someone who retains tithes belonging to Kohanim (e.g., “Teruma”, “Bikurim”) and/or Levi’im (e.g., Ma’aser) for himself;  a person who fails to distribute Ma’aser Ani during the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical year cycle.

18, 24     Misleading a blind person on the road; Striking one’s fellow in stealth—prohibitions against striking another person in general; seducing or raping a woman; causing permanent damage to an “Eved Kena’ani”; Cursing another individual even if s/he happens to be deaf; verbally lashing out at a judge or prince;

19           Perverting the judgment of a widow, orphan or convert—prohibitions against showing favoritism; taking bribes; testifying falsely; acting as a plotting witness; punishing an innocent person; failing to love the convert; oppressing the convert. If these individuals typically are poor individuals, then all of the prohibitions relating to the poor come into play as well: e.g., do not close your hand when your fellow requires assistance; do not charge interest when you lend; do not fail to lend as the Sabbatical year approaches; do not overlook making these people happy on Yom Tov; do not take collateral in the form of a garment, if this is what the poor individual needs to keep him/herself warm;

20-23    Lying with one’s step-mother; an animal, with one’s sister; with one’s mother-in-law—prohibitions against a number of other sexual relationships;

25           Receiving a bribe to kill an innocent individual—prohibitions against premeditated murder; the execution of an innocent person by Beit Din; receiving bribes which leads to perverting justice in the context of a courtroom trial; standing idly by while the blood of your fellow is being spilled;

[10] Devarim 27:26 “Cursed is the one that does not ‘Yakim’ (establish, support, cause to stand) the words of this Tora to fulfill them…”

[11] Such is the case with regard to the Commandments that Rabbinic tradition assumes were unveiled at Mara (Shemot 15:25), to familiarize the Jews with the types of laws they can expect to receive at Sinai. RaShI, based upon Sanhedrin 40, lists Shabbat, “Para Aduma” (the law of the Red Heifer, whose ashes mixed with water are to be sprinkled upon individuals who have become ritually impure due to contact with a dead body), “Dinim” (the establishment of law courts). The major categories that each of these specific cases could be understood to represent are:

Shabbat— Commandments between man and God (commemorating God’s Creating the World) as well as between man and man (remembering what it was like to be a slave in Egypt and therefore extending the opportunity to rest to those who presently work for you.)

“Para Aduma”—Commandments between man and God of a ritual nature, where explanations are obscure at best.

“Dinim”—Commandments between man and man, attempting to create a just and lawful society.

[12] Rabbinic law has at least partial Tora authority conferred upon it by Devarim 17:11.

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