Parashat Be-Hukotai 5768/ May 24, 2008
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
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.  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.”  In the Jerusalem Talmud, as well, these passages are referred to as “the curses in Leviticus and the curses in Deuteronomy,”  but in the midrash they are called admonishments (tokheha), not curses, as it says there: “for they are not curses, rather they are admonishments.” 
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.  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: 
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
Based on this passage, the Admor Rabbi Samuel of Sokhatshov wrote: 
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
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. 
In the introduction to Ma’amar
 the son
of the author wrote that once his father was in
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: 
“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
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: 
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: 
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.  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,  and in this regard it is said: what business have you prying into the secrets of the Merciful One?…  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
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  himself used to take the aliyah to the Torah for this passage of the week’s reading.
 For further elaboration, see my article, “Hishtalshelut Minhagei Kriat ha-Torah be-Farshot ha-Tokhehah,” Kenishta 2 (2003), pp. 3168.
 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.”
 Ecclesiastes Rabbah, ch. 8.
 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.”
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
 M. Buber, Or ha-Ganuz, Tel Aviv 1947, p. 71.
 R. Mordechi of Drobovitch, known as Rabbi Mordechai Letnir, Lemberg 1977.
David Rubin, Atzei Levanon 2,
 Or ha-Ganuz, loc. sit., pp. 285-286.
 Resp. Yaskil Avdi 8, Orah Hayyim 16:7.
 I am
indebted to my friend, Dr. Shlomo Elkayyam, who told me that in
 Berakhot 19a.
 Loc. sit., 10a.
Yehoshua, Yaldut bi-Yerushalayim ha-Yeshanah,
in 1902 to serve as the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi in the