Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavi 5761/2001

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 Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Nitzavim 5761/ September 15, 2001

The Editor of the Weekly Parasha Page in English takes this opportunity to wish all our readers a Happy New Year, a Shana Tova, a year of peace. I also thank the staff at the Bar Ilan Center for IT & IS for getting this page online and on time.

Remember the Covenant

In the selihot prayers on the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah and on the fast of Gedalyah we say, "Remember the covenant of Abraham." What is the covenant of Abraham? It is the "covenant between the pieces," as described in Genesis 15, in which the Lord promises Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars (v. 5), and that his offspring will be given the land of Israel (v. 18). This covenant is preceded by the covenant of the rainbow (Gen. 9), in which the Lord promises never again to drown the entire world in a flood. The book of Genesis contains other covenants [1], each accompanied by signs symbolizing the sealing of these pacts.

In Parashat Nitzavim we read the words, "to enter into the covenant of the Lord your G-d, which the Lord your G-d is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions." The covenants which we will mention here are representative examples of the rites of making treaties, as they appear in Scripture.

The word b'rit (covenant), in various forms, occurs close to 300 times in the Bible. Only in a small fraction of these instances is a covenant actually concluded; in most instances the word b'rit is used only illustratively, to reinforce the fact that a covenant had been made.

Covenants are agreements concluded between two or more parties as an expression of friendship, peace and mutual obligation [2]. In biblical times it was customary for some symbolic act, expressing the mutual obligations, to accompany the conclusion of a covenant. In our Parasha this act is described by Rashi as follows: "To enter the covenant - the way of "entering" (lit. "passing into") was as follows: those who made a covenant used to make a partition (i.e., used to place objects in a straight line) on one side and a partition on the other and pass between them, as it is said, '... [like] the calf which they cut in two so as to pass between the halves,' (Jer. 34:18). In the covenant that Abraham concluded with Abimelech, it was written, "Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them made a pact" (Gen. 21:27); and Jacob's pact with Laban is described thus: "Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I... Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar, ... and they partook of a meal there by the mound" (Gen. 31:44-48).

Rearranging the letters in the Hebrew root of the word for covenant yields b-t-r, a verb referring to the action of cutting, separating, dividing. Indeed, the "covenant of the pieces" (Heb.: brit bein ha-betarim) and other pacts were concluded by cutting an animal into pieces, which pieces were then arranged in rows between which the parties to the covenant passed.

Covenants were concluded between G-d and the universe (Gen. 9:13), between the Lord and the people of Israel (Gen. 15:18, as well as Gen. 17:7-14), between friends or former enemies, and even between enemy kings after battle. After Ahab king of Israel vanquished Ben Hadad king of Aram, we read, " 'I will give back the towns that my father took from your father,'... 'And I, for my part, will let you go under these terms.' So he made a treaty with him and dismissed him" (I Kings 20:34). There is also the pact that King David made with the people of Israel when he was anointed king: "All the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a pact with them in Hebron before the Lord. And they anointed David king over Israel" (II Sam. 5:3).

Regarding the heroic bond between David and Jonathan, in which Jonathan protected his friend David against his father Saul, who sought to kill him, we read: "Jonathan's soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself... Jonathan and David made a pact, because [Jonathan] loved him as himself" (I Sam. 18:1-3). This pact was sealed by the symbolic act of giving David his cloak, tunic, sword and belt (v. 4). This pact is mentioned again two chapters later: "Deal faithfully with your servant, since you have taken your servant into a covenant of the Lord with you" (I Sam. 20:8).

There is an example of a third symbolic act associated with concluding a covenant: when the people of Jabesh-gilead sought to make a pact with Nahash king of Ammon, he made the condition that "everyone's right eye be gouged out; I will make this a humiliation for all Israel" (I Sam. 11:1-2). Humiliation was the object of this act, symbolizing who was victor and ruler.

The root of the word b'rit may be b-r-h, "to eat", the significance of this being that in the process of concluding a covenant something, generally an animal, is cut into pieces and eaten at a festive meal in which the parties to the covenant partake.

A special covenant is the one that the Lord made with the people of Israel. There are several signs of this covenant: circumcision [3], the Sabbath [4], and tefillin [5].

In the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim it is mentioned that the entire people of Israel, "your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, ... your children, your wives" are to enter into the covenant of the Lord, with its sanctions. This rite, which practically concludes the Five Books of Moses, states clearly: "that He may establish you this day as His people and be your G-d, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers" (Deut. 29:12). Unlike all the other covenants and pacts mentioned in the Bible, this covenant has everlasting validity [6]: "I make this covenant, ... not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our G-d and with those who are not with us here this day" (v. 13). The bond and covenant between the Lord and Israel, as expressed clearly and unequivocally in this week's reading, is a relationship between a people and their G-d. The Lord chose us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah; we are not at liberty to sever this bond, even if we so desired.

How symbolic it is that Parashat Nitzavim is read shortly before Rosh Ha-Shanah, insofar as on the New Year we proclaim the Lord as our King! This idea is eloquently expressed by R. Saadiah Gaon [7] in the first of the ten reasons he gives for sounding the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah:

The command of the Creator, blessed be His name, to sound the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, has ten reasons. The first: because this day marks the beginning of Creation, in which the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world and ruled over it. And thus it is done with kings, blowing on trumpets and horns before them to announce and proclaim the beginning of their reign throughout the land. Similarly on this day we proclaim the Creator as our king. For thus said David (Ps. 98:6): "With trumpets and a blast of the horn raise a shout before the Lord, the king."

In conclusion, Parashat Nitzavim deals with the covenant concluded between the Lord and His people Israel, and the principal commandment of Rosh Ha-Shanah is to sound the shofar. Rosh Ha-Shanah is a "day of loud blasts," a day on which we announce to the entire world that each year anew we proclaim the Holy One, blessed be He, our king and accept his reign. Thus the covenant between the Lord and the people of Israel, as presented in Parashat Nitzavim and as expressed by the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, is mutual and everlasting.

Hayyim Meitliss

Land of Israel Studies


[1] Gen. 21:27: the pact between Abraham and Abimelech king of Gerar; Gen. 31:44: Jacob's pact with Laban.
[2] See the dictionary of Avraham Even Shoshan, Hamillon He-Hadash, Jerusalem 1977.
[3] Gen. 17:7-14: "I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, ... Such shall be the covenant between Me and you ... every male among you shall be circumcised ... and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you... Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact."
[4] "The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, ... as a covenant for all time; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel" (Ex. 31:16-17).
[5] "Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead" (Deut. 6:8).
[6] So too its signs, as stated in the Bible with respect to circumcision and the Sabbath.
[7] Siddur Abudarham ha-Shalem, Usha Press, Jerusalem 1959.


Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.