Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Hukotai 5768/ May 24, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Turning Curses Into Blessings

 

Rabbi Dr. Haim Talbi

 

Department of Talmud

 

The Tokheha (Admonishment) refers to the passage of curses that Moses relayed to the Israelites by way of moral lesson and warning. [1]   These curses are repeated twice in the Torah, in Parashat Be-Hukotai (Lev. 26:14-46) and in Parashat Ki-Tavo (Deut. 28:15-69).

In the Mishnah these verses are called curses (kelalot).  They were customarily read on public fast days, as the Mishnah (Megillah 3,6) informs us:   “On fast days, [one reads] blessings and curses,” and on other set occasions, as stated in the baraitha (Megillah 31b):  “It is taught:   Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says:   Ezra instituted that the Israelites read the curses in Torat Kohanim (=Leviticus) prior to Atzeret (Shavuot), and those in Deuteronomy prior to the New Year,” so that “the old year and its curses come to an end.” [2]   In the Jerusalem Talmud, as well, these passages are referred to as “the curses in Leviticus and the curses in Deuteronomy,” [3] but in the midrash they are called admonishments (tokheha), not curses, as it says there:  “for they are not curses, rather they are admonishments.” [4]

Due to its content, reading the Tokheha would cast fear upon the congregation, especially upon the person called up to the Torah for this passage. [5]   However, in several Hassidic courts the admonishments were viewed as curses which embedded in them great blessings.  This notion was apparently derived from the Zohar, which held that all admonishments are actually blessings, even if on the surface they appear to be curses.   We quote: [6]

Elijah appeared and said:   Arise, Rabbi Simeon, awaken from your slumber.  How fortunate you are that the Holy One, blessed be He, is mindful of your honor.   All the promises and consolation of Israel are written in these curses.  Consider, when a king loves his son, although he might curse him and beat him nevertheless he loves him from the bottom of his heart.  Thus, even though the Holy One, blessed be He, uttered curses, His words were said lovingly.  Outwardly they appear as curses, but they are a great beneficence, since these curses were said lovingly. [7]

Based on this passage, the Admor Rabbi Samuel of Sokhatshov wrote: [8]

Regarding the blessings and curses in our books, it follows from the holy Zohar and the New Zohar that underneath they are all blessings; indeed there are more blessings hidden in curses than blessings outwardly revealed…  As with the creation of the world, which outwardly is a material world but contains an inner essence, it appears, … the inner essence of the world is entirely good, and only in the outward manifestations of the worlds is reality bad, … It is well-known that everything that is secret and concealed has a superior quality, therefore the blessings that are enveloped in the garb of curses are even more elevated…  This explains why Ezra instituted that the blessings and curses be read on the Sabbaths preceding the Feast of Weeks and the New Year, so that the old year and its curses come to an end…  For it is well-known that reading the passage rouses the matter, and the curses as well are roused; and on the Sabbath, Israel absorbs the inner essence that the admonishments contain, which are instructive blessings, and the outer parts, which are curses, become annulled, and the old year and its curses comes to an end…  In this way Israel prepares itself for the festival.

Thus we see that the great leaders of Hassidism transformed the curse into a blessing.   It is told of Rabbi Nahum of Tchernobil, a sickly man afflicted with all sorts of ailments, in his youth spent the Sabbath on which the Admonishment was read with the Ba’al Shem Tov.   When he was especially selected to come up to the Torah for the passage containing the Admonishment, at first he became somewhat faint.  But then, as the Ba’al Shem Tov began reading from the Torah scroll, Rabbi Nahum felt all his pains gradually dissipating, limb by limb, and by the time the reading was through, his body had become entirely healed. [9]

In the introduction to Ma’amar Mordechai, [10] the son of the author wrote that once his father was in Lublin for Parashat Be-Hukotai and heard from the holy Rabbi of Lublin that it is worthwhile spending this Sabbath with the Maggid of Kozienice, [11] because he turns the Admonishment into blessings.  When the author of Ma’amar Mordechai heard this, he took himself in hand and set off by foot so as to arrive in Kozienice by the Sabbath.  During the Torah service he stood directly in front of the Maggid as he read from the Torah.   When he reached the Admonishment he raised his voice, louder and louder, and when he came to the verse, “I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors” (Lev. 26:31), he exclaimed in these words, “Our Father in Heaven, grant that we have the merit to reach this hour.”

The Maggid of Kozienice did not explain his words.  It seems to me that the blessing embedded in this verse was in the spirit of the remarks made by the Admor of Sasov: [12]

“Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin” (Lev. 26:33), so that the other nations not come and settle in your land and prevent you from returning; rather, the land will remain a desolation, waiting for you to return from your evil ways.  Indeed, we witness with our own eyes that for two thousand years, as the land of Israel passed from one nation to another, and from one rule to another, not one of them succeeded in settling it and maintaining their existence there.   The land maintained its desolation and awaits its children to redeem it until the end of time.

Also, when the Maggid of Kozienice heard the Admonishment read in the Beit Midrash and the words of Scripture reached his ears, “Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off” (Deut. 28:26), he let out a loud cry.  Afterwards, at the dinner table, he said: [13]

Prayers that are not said in fear and trembling are called carcasses.   But He who hears all prayers has mercy on His creatures.  He instills in the heart a lofty inspiration, so for once one can pray with sincere devotion, and then one’s prayer becomes mighty and swallows up all the weak prayers and flies like a bird to the gates of Heaven.

This view that the curses contain great hidden blessings led to competition in certain places over the purchase of this aliyah to the Torah.   Rabbi Ovadiah Hadaya once reported: [14]

I heard there are certain places where they compete one with another for the purchase of this aliyah, and the one who wins makes a great feast for the entire congregation at the synagogue. [15]   There are other places where a certain person might traditionally have the claim to this aliyah and no one else may take it from him.  It is clear that whoever considers them blessings has the reward of all the hidden blessings in them being fulfilled for him.  And conversely, whoever (Heaven forfend) considers them curses, brings on himself these curses just as one might tempt fate, [16] and in this regard it is said: what business have you prying into the secrets of the Merciful One?… [17] and pleasantness will come to those who hear them, and they will be blessed with good.

This notion also finds expression in the literature describing by-gone days in Jerusalem: [18]

Not everyone was afraid to be called up to the Torah for these verses of curses.  It is told of the merchant Hizkiah Tajir that his success in business was actually due to his having been called up to the Torah for this aliyah. In order to dissuade the masses from believing that being called up to the Torah for this aliyah brings misfortune, the Rishon le-Zion Rabbi Jacob Meir [19] himself used to take the aliyah to the Torah for this passage of the week’s reading.

                                                                                                                             



[1] For further elaboration, see my article, “Hishtalshelut Minhagei Kriat ha-Torah be-Farshot ha-Tokhehah,” Kenishta 2 (2003), pp. 3168.

[2] Megillah, loc. sit.   Shavuot is considered to be like the New Year insofar as it is also a day of judgment, as mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, loc. sit.:  Atzeret  is the same as the New Year, for it is taught:  on Atzeret [judgment is passed] on the fruits of the tree.”

[3] Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 3, 7 (74b).

[4] Ecclesiastes Rabbah, ch. 8.

[5] Y. Z. Wendrawsky (Minhagei Beit Ya’akov, New York 1907, par. 242, p. 108) attests that “many people are afraid of being called up to the Torah for the passages of the Admonishment lest they be afflicted   by the terrible things the reader mentions.”

[6] Zohar Hadash, 19, Jerusalem 1995, Parashat Ki Tavo, p. 3, par. 9,10.

[7] This idea is consonant with the story told in Mo’ed Katan 9b, that Rabbi Eleazar was sent by his father, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, to receive a blessing from Rabbi Jonathan ben Amasai and Rabbi Judah ben Gerim. In their blessing they said to him:  “May it be [the Lord’s] will that you sow and not reap, that you take in and not put out, that you put out and not take in.”  When he returned to his father and said to him, “Not only did they not bless me, they even distressed me, saying bad things to me,” his father answered him:   “All those things are blessings,” that he sow and not reap meaning that he have children and  they not die; that he take in and not put out meaning that he take in brides for his sons and his sons not die, leading him to put the brides out; and so on and so forth.

[8] Shem me-Shmuel, Jerusalem 1957, Lev. Pp. 376-377.

[9] M. Buber, Or ha-Ganuz, Tel Aviv 1947, p. 71.

[10] R. Mordechi of Drobovitch, known as Rabbi Mordechai Letnir, Lemberg 1977.

[11] Rabbi Israel, the Maggid of Kozienice, 1736-1813.

[12] Joseph David Rubin, Atzei Levanon 2, New York 1939, p. 146.   Nahmanides gave a similar interpretation in his commentary on Leviticus 26:16:  “What Scripture says here (verse 32), so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it, are good tidings … that our land will not accept our enemies … for you will not find in all settled places a land that is good and expansive and that had been settled … and became desolate as it did; for ever since we left it, it did not accept a nation or tongue, and everyone tries to settle it but they do not succeed” (Chavel ed., Jerusalem 1960, p. 190).

[13] Or ha-Ganuz, loc. sit., pp. 285-286.

[14] Resp. Yaskil Avdi 8, Orah Hayyim 16:7.

[15] I am indebted to my friend, Dr. Shlomo Elkayyam, who told me that in Marseilles, in the Saint-Just Synagogue (where they follow the customs of the Jews of Algiers), the president of the synagogue receives the aliyah of the Admonishment and is escorted to the reading desk by spirited singing.   At the end of the reading the president blesses the congregation and returns to his seat only after having hugged and kissed everyone.  His return to his seat is also accompanied by song.  After services the president gives a large kiddush for all present, similar to the kiddush given by those honored with the aliyahs of Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshit.

[16] Berakhot 19a.

[17] Loc. sit., 10a.

[18] Y. Yehoshua, Yaldut bi-Yerushalayim ha-Yeshanah, Jerusalem 1965, p. 153.

[19] Chosen in 1902 to serve as the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi in the land of Israel.