Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tavo 5764/ September 4, 2004

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,



Traditions of Torah Reading for the Tokhahah Passages

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Talbi
Department of Talmud

The Tokhahah, or admonition, refers to the passages of curses that Moses uttered by way of moral instruction and warning to the children of Israel. These passages occur twice in the Torah, in Parashat Behukotai (Lev. 16:14-46), and in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 28:15-69).   In the Mishnah (Megillah 3.6) it says:  “One should not pause in the curses, rather one person should read them all.”   In other words, the verses of the Tokhahah should not be divided into two aliyot, rather, the entire passage should be read as one aliyah.  Two reasons for this are given in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 31b):   “Rav Hiyya bar Gamda said, citing Rabbi Asi:  because it says in Scripture (Prov. 3:11):  ‘Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son.’  Resh Lakish said:  because one does not say a blessing over Divine retribution.”

Regarding the first reason, if one were to interrupt the reading in the middle of these passages, it would appear that the person had rejected the Tokhahah and therefore another person was called to read. Regarding the second reason, if one were to stop in the middle of the Tokhahah, since a blessing is recited before and after a reading, it would turn out that a blessing is being recited over Divine retribution.   Therefore, one person is called to the Torah and begins the reading several verses before the Tokhahah and concludes several verses after it.

The Babylonian Talmud does not give a reason why one should not recite a blessing over divine retribution, but the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 3.7) says:  “Rabbi Levi said:  The Holy One, blessed be He, said:  It is not right that my children be cursed while I be blessed, for it is written, I will be with him in distress (Ps. 91:15).”  In Abaye’s opinion, however, all this refers to the words of admonition in Leviticus, which are said in the first-person (by the Almighty) and are aimed at all of Israel (e.g.”If you [plural] do not obey me”)   These words Moses transmitted directly from the Almighty, and therefore they are more severe and harsh.   But the ones in Deuteronomy are said in the second person, Moses himself saying them, and are addressed to the individual (second-person singular) therefore the reader can pause in the middle, and the next person called to the Torah can finish reading them.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik [1] holds that these two differences between the Tokhahah in Leviticus and the Tokhahah in Deuteronomy correspond with the two reasons why one should not pause in the middle of the curses.   As for the first reason – “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son” – Abaye said:  All of Deuteronomy was said by Moses himself (“The Lord will bring a nation against you”) and does not fall into the category of “discipline of the Lord.”  As for the second reason, that a blessing should not be recited over Divine retribution, Abaye said that the words of admonition in Deuteronomy were said in the second-person singular and therefore they are not all that severe.

The Jerusalem Talmud apparently did not accept the view that the admonition in Parashat Ki Tavo is less severe than the admonition in Parashat Behukotai.  The Jerusalem Talmud did not make a distinction between the curses in Deuteronomy and those in Leviticus, perhaps because its rabbis thought the reason for not pausing in the midst of the curses was that “the person who is called up to read from the Torah must begin on a good note and conclude on a good note,” and curses are never good.

In the disagreement between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, the halakhah ruled that one should not interrupt the reading of the curses in Leviticus, but read them all as one, adding “something good” before them and after them, whereas, in the opinion of the Babylonian Talmud, a break may be made in reading the curses in Deuteronomy.   Maimonides, however, wrote that “It has become customary not to stop in the middle, rather to have a single person read them” [2] – a custom based on what the Jerusalem Talmud says.

A different approach was taken by the Rishonim (early rabbinic authorities), namely that the curses in Deuteronomy are more severe precisely because they are said in the singular and hence threaten, as it were, the person called up to read this passage.   In this period we notice the first signs of apprehension about being called up to the Torah for this passage, lest the person called up be affected by the terrible things that the reader utters.   The attitude of the Maharil (great Ashkenazi rabbi, 1365-1427) towards the passages of Tokhahah is reflected by the following depiction: [3]

For the Tokhahah in the reading of Behukotai, the sexton called out, “Let whoever so desires come up to the Torah.”   Maharil reproved him and told him to call a specific person, just as was the custom for all the other portions of the reading, precisely for the Tokhahah passage, [and] that only in Deuteronomy one calls “whoever so desires” because they [the curses] are said in the singular ...  In Mainz it was customary to stipulate with the beadle of the synagogue, when he was hired, that if no one be found to come up and read the Tokhahah portions, then he would read them; and since he was hired for this, one should not take it so strictly.

According to Maharil, for the Tokhahah in Leviticus one should call a person by name to the Torah just as one does for the other aliyot; whereas for the Tokhahah in Deuteronomy one should say, “Let whoever so desires come up,” lest the person selected for the aliyah refuse to come up, and there be a predicament.  It follows from these remarks that the Tokhahah in Deuteronomy was considered more severe than the one in Leviticus, perhaps because it is said in the singular, and therefore there were people who refrained from coming up to the Torah for the passage of the Tokhahah for fear that the leader of the prayers had them in mind as he read, resulting in the person who was called up being cursed.  Therefore, it was stipulated that the beadle of the synagogue would be the one who would be called up for the Tokhahah if no one else came forth for this reading, and in such a circumstance it was out of place to be so strict.

The Maharil was not always pleased by the person who “volunteered” to come up to the Torah for the verses of the Tokhahah.   The following story is told of him (loc. sit.):  “Once I saw an impoverished person come up to the Torah to read the Tokhahah in Deuteronomy, and Maharil said to him, ‘Why be you so doleful?   After all, you have already been smitten by the curses of the Tokhahah on account of your many sins.’  And he was angry at him for coming up.”

This tradition had become accepted practice by the time of Rabbi Isaac of Vienna, author of Or Zaru’a.   This is what he wrote:

The great hasid, my mentor Rabbi Judah he-Hassid of blessed memory said to me that the beadle must be well-liked by his congregation, for otherwise when the Tokhahah is read it is dangerous to whomever he does not like.  He said to me that if a person knows that the beadle does not like him, if he calls him to read the Tokhahah, he should take care not to come up, for he might suffer if he comes up. [4]

During the period of the Aharonim we also find that the public was hesitant about coming up to the Torah for the portions of the Tokhahah and viewed the Tokhahah in this week’s reading as more harsh and severe than the Tokhahah in Behukotai.

Fear of this aliyah was so great and so deeply-rooted in certain communities that sometimes the reading was delayed for hours until someone was found to come up to the Torah, resulting in the Torah scroll remaining open and being treated disrespectfully.   The brother of the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Hayyim son of Rabbi Bezalel, one of the great rabbis of Ashkenaz in the sixteenth century, recounted that some rabbis even ascribed the destruction of certain communities to this behavior. [5]   He wrote about this as follows:

The world tends to refrain from taking an aliyah to the Torah for the passage of the Tokhahah, ... and the Tokhahah in Deuteronomy is to be avoided more, since is it said in the singular and in the present tense, as if, Heaven forbid,  the things described there happen to the person who comes up to the Torah, which is not the case with the Tokhahah in Leviticus, which is said in the plural.

Aside from a reluctance to be called up to the Torah, we found another two ways that were used to avoid reading the Tokhahah:

1)         Some people preferred leaving the synagogue until after the reading of the Tokhahah .  Rabbi Eliah Schapira, a preacher from Prague in the seventeenth century, recounted the following:  “Once I saw one of the elders of the gaon [6] of blessed memory go outside the synagogue until after the reading of the Tokhahah.” [7]

2)         In the nineteenth century there were places where the entire Torah reading was omitted on the Sabbaths of the Tokhahah , as is attested by R. Israel Meir Ha-Cohen of Radin:  “I have seen something scandalous in this regard among the masses, that there are places among the communities where, when they read Behukotai and Ki Tavo, they do not read from the Torah on these Sabbaths; what a bad thing this is for them to do.” [8]

There were some communities where they did indeed read from the Torah, but the person who was called up for the Tokhahah did not recite a blessing over the reading, neither before nor after. [9]   This custom, which is practiced in certain places to this day, [10] was opposed by many, and a variety of expressions were used to describe it:  “a mistake,” [11] “totally unfounded,” [12] and others.

Indeed, in several hassidic courts [13] the Tokhahah passages were perceived as curses which concealed great blessings.  This idea was apparently taken from the Zohar , [14] which was of the opinion that all the words of warning and admonition were blessings, even though they appear to be curses.   There it says that Elijah said to Rabbi Simeon:

Up!   Rouse yourself from your slumber!   How fortunate you are, for the Holy One, blessed be He, wishes to honor you.  All the promises and words of consolation for Israel are written in these curses.  Observe – a king who loves his son, even though he curses him and beats him, nevertheless he loves him from the bottom of his heart.  Thus it is with the Holy One, blessed be He, that even though He cursed, His words are love.  Outwardly they appear as curses, but they are great beneficence because these curses were said in love. [15]


[1] Resp. Beit Ha-Levy, Part I, Jerusalem 1968, Interpretation 7, p. 8b.

[2] Maimonides, Hilkhot Tefilah 13.7; Derashot Rabbi Y. Ibn Shu’eib, II, Z. Metzger ed., Jerusalem 1992, p. 481; Orhot Hayyim, Jerusalem 1956, Hilkhot Kriat Sefer Torah, p. 52, par. 10; Tur and Shulhan Arukh 428.6.

[3] Sefer Maharil – Minhagim, Spitzer ed., Jerusalem 1989, Oration 6, pp. 454-455.

[4] Or Zaru’a, I, Zhitomir 1862, resp. 114.   Based on this, the Rema ruled (Orah Hayyim 53.19):  “Someone who hates the prayer leader should not come up to the Torah when the Tokhahah is being read.”  But it had been written by the Knesset Gedolah (Orah Hayyim, Jerusalem 1966, par. 53, p. 30), the Vilna Gaon (Orah Hayyim, loc. sit., sub-par. 33) and Sha’arei Ephraim (Steiner-Goldstein ed., Jerusalem 1990, Part III, par. 2) that it is preferable for him to come up, because by [refraining] he dishonors the Torah and also because “one who obeys the commandments will know no evil” (Ecc. 8:5).

[5] Sefer Ha-Hayyim, Jerusalem 1996, p. 65.

[6] Rabbi Simeon Schapira, Av Bet Din, Prague.

[7] Eliyah Rabbah, Jerusalem 1999, Orah Hayyim 428, p. 536.

[8] Elucidation of the halakhah in the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 428, she-lifneihem.”

[9] Maharshak (Rabbi Solomon ben Joseph Aaron Kluger), Resp Ha’elef lekha Shlomo, Jerusalem 1968, Bilgoray, 1931-1932, Orah Hayyim par. 63.

[10] Such as the Vizhnitz hassidim, and others.

[11] Resp. Iggerot Moshe, New York 1964, Orah Hayyim II, par. 35.

[12] Resp. Yabi’a Omer, 7, Jerusalem 1993, Orah Hayyim par. 19.

[13] Rabbi Samuel of Sokhatchov, Shem mi-Shmuel, Jerusalem 1957, Lev. Pp. 366-367; M. Buber, Or ha-Ganuz, Tel Aviv 1947, p. 71.

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

[15] For further reading, see my article, “Hishtalshelut Minhagei Kriat ha-Torah be-Parashot ha-Tokhahah,” Kenishta 2 (2003), pp. 31-55.