Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tavo 5760/2000

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.
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Parashat Ki Tavo 5760/2000

Hasket u-Shema Yisrael – Silence! Hear, O Israel

Dr. Abraham Gottlieb
Center for Jewish Studies

In this week’s reading (chapter 27) we encounter two commands that pertain to future things the Israelites are to do when they cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. The first command, eight verses long, is about setting up large stones and building a stone altar on Mount Ebal (vv. 1-8); and the second, sixteen verses long, concerns the blessings to be pronounced on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal (vv. 11-26). Between these two commands is a short, unique passage consisting of two verses which do not contain the verb va-yetzav, and He commanded (vv. 9-10):
Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Hasket u-shema, Yisrael -- Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d: Heed the Lord your G-d and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.
These three passages are not all spoken by the same voice. In the passage under discussion the speakers are Moses and the levitical priests, and the jist of the words they address to the people is to enjoin them to keep the commandments and uphold the covenant. The people are commanded by the two verbs hasket and shema. The meaning of the latter, hear or heed, is clear. In contrast the former, hasket (root=s-kh-t), a hapax legomena (a word occurring only once in the Bible), is far from clear. Among the early commentators who addressed the plain sense of the text some understood hasket as synonymous with shema, meaning “hear,”[1] while others interpreted it as meaning something different from shema, namely to consent and accept authority.[2] Another approach was to interpret this word homiletically. Three such interpretations are cited in Tractate Berakhot (63b):
    A. Hasket -- What is meant by this word? Asu kitot kitot, “form into small groupings,” and study the Torah, since understanding of the Torah is only acquired by studying in a group.
Rashi explains this homiletical approach as follows: Has=asu, i.e., form or make; and ket=kitot kitot, small groups. Thus, this is a general appeal in the singular to all the Israelites to study the Torah in groups that lead to interactive learning, with all those who study together having a reciprocal impact one on another. Such a method of study stimulates creative thought and leads to more efficient understanding of the material at hand.
    B. Hasketkitetu atzmekhem, break yourselves over the Torah, as Resh Lakish (from the second generation of amoraim in the Land of Israel), who said that the Torah cannot be upheld except by giving one’s life for it, as it is said, “This is the ritual [lit. Torah, teaching]: When a person dies in a tent” (Num. 19:14).
The instruction addressed to the Israelites in the singular is a figurative directive to “break yourselves,” as Rashi explains there: “It is also explained as has=aseh, make; make yourselves ketutim =broken, beaten, sorrowing over the words of the Torah.”
    C. HasketHas, and then, afterwards, katet, as Rabba [one of the great 4th generation Babylonian amoraim] said: One should always first study the Torah, and then afterwards ponder it.
First one is to learn the material by repetition, and then one is to “crack” the material by delving deeply into its meaning, as Rashi explains in his commentary on Tractate Berakhot (loc. sit.):
First has and then katet: Has, i.e. hush, as in “Caleb hushed the people” (Num. 13:3). Hush and listen to what you are read until you can recite it easily, even though you do not comprehend it; and then “crack” it (figuratively break, crush), raising whatever questions are difficult for you and explaining the text until you comprehend it to your satisfaction.
Rabbi Abraham Saba[3] adds a fourth variation elaborating on the first interpretation we presented, viewing it in the opposite direction, unifying factions in the Jewish people:
    Even though they be many, and be divided in various groups, they are all considered as one, as is indicated by Hasket u-shema Yisrael [addressed in the singular]. Just as on this very day “you [sing.] have become the people of the Lord your G-d,” since you are one and have the Holy One, blessed be He, who is One, for your G-d.
Why were the Sages not satisfied with the straightforward interpretation of hasket as “listen,” or “submit to [the Lord’s] authority,” preferring instead to turn to homiletical interpretations? Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk addresses this question (cf. Torah Temimah, note 7 on the verse at hand, relating to the first interpretation):
    Homiletical interpretations were developed here on obscure allusions, perhaps because this word occurs nowhere else in the entire Bible (Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings) and its meaning is not self-evident. Therefore the Sages saw fit to attach all sorts of proof texts and allusions, as is their way with sacred texts, and this is the reason for the interpretations that follow.
For this very reason, Ibn Ezra felt that hasket should be understood according to its context (like shema, hear), because it has no other occurrence. Thus hasket = shema, hear, in the sense of "attending to".

The people’s spiritual leaders – Moses and the Levitical priests – command the people to heed the Lord, to perform the commandments and to uphold the covenant, all in preparation for entering the promised land. Whereas in the previous command, at the beginning of the chapter, the elders joined Moses, here the levitical priests join Moses, as Rabbi Abraham Saba explains (note 3, above, p. 346): “Since they lived on after Moses and they had to lead the Israelites.”

As they proceeded through the wilderness on the eve of entering the land, the people’s leaders stressed the duty of listening to the Lord and keeping His commandments, a duty which followed by virtue of the fact that “Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d.” For, without the Lord’s help, the people would not have reached the point of entering the land. Therefore, the people must uphold their part of the covenant with the Lord in order to preserve their status as the “people of the Lord,” and thereby actually perform what is commanded in the words hasket u-shema.

[1] Cf. Targum Onkelos, Saadiah Gaon (Joseph Kapah edition, Jerusalem 1937, p. 351) and Ibn Ezra on this verse. Also cf. Radak, Sefer ha-Shorashim, root s-kh-t (Weisenthal-Lebrecht ed., Berlin 1847, Defus Tzilum Yerushalayim 1967, p. 479); Maimonides, Guide... 3.3 (J. Kapah ed., Jerusalem 1988, p. 351); and Sforno (Beur al ha-Torah le-Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, Z. Gottlieb ed., Jerusalem 1980, p. 347), who adds the idea of comprehending to that of hearing: “When you perceive this and understand, His voice shall surely be heard.”
[2] Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on sikut malkekhem (=Sikkuth your king, Amos 5:26), and R. Jonah ibn Janah in Sefer Ha-Shorashim, root s-kh-t (trans. Judah Ibn Tibbon, B. Z. Bacher edition., Berlin 1896; photocopy edition, Amsterdam 1969, p. 339). Cf. the remark by Prof. Uriel Simon.: “’The root is s-kh-t' – here he [Ibn Ezra] bases his interpretation on Deut. 27:9, whereas in his commentary there he writes: ‘Hasket – to be understood according to its context [i.e., meaning the same as shema, hear], because it does not occur elsewhere in Scriptures.’ Thus it appears that when he was writing his commentary on the Torah he had forgotten the scriptural passage at hand. Ibn Ezra’s contribution to viewing sikkut as derived from the root s-kh-t lies in his comparing it with the imperative skut in Arabic, which means “hush.” (U. Simon, Shenei Perushei Ibn Ezra le-Trei Asar, Ramat Gan 1989, p. 229, n. 87). Note that one can also compare the imperative hasket with the Akkadian sakatu,which, like the Arabic root, also means “hush.”
[3] Fifteenth-sixteenth century, among the Jews expelled from Spain. Cf. his commentary on this week’s reading (loc. sit.) in his book, Tzeror ha-Mor, (Bezalel Weikhleder ed., Bnai Brak 1990, Part II, p. 347). On this commentator and his approach to biblical exegesis, see the introduction to his book, Part I, pp. 1-44.