The Ceremony of the Stones
Yeshivat Har Etzion
series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
PARASHAT KI TAVO
Please include in your tefillot:
Zecharia Shlomo ben Miriam Baumel
Kidnapped: June 11, 1982
Tzvi ben Penina Feldman
Kidnapped: June 11, 1982
Yekutiel Yehuda Nachman ben Sarah Katz
Kidnapped: June 11, 1982
Ron (Roon) ben Batya Arad
Kidnapped: October 16, 1986
Guy ben Rina Chever
Missing In Action - After leaving his army base in the Golan: August 17, 1997
Gilad ben Aviva Shalit
Kidnapped: June 25, 2006
Eldad ben Tova Regev
Kidnapped: July 12, 2006
Ehud Ben Malka Goldvasser
Kidnapped: July 12, 2006
The Ceremony of the Stones
Rav Chanoch Waxman
tov to Rabbi Yehuda and Louisa
Susman upon the birth of their daughter
may they be zocheh to raise her le-Torah, le-chuppa, u-le-ma'asim tovim!
Shortly after the opening of Parashat Ki Tavo, Moshe informs the Children of Israel what they
should do on the day they finally cross the
shall be on the day when you shall pass over the
following these instructions, Moshe adds the fact that the large stones are to
be to set up at a place known as Har Eival (27:4), and that in addition to the monumental stones
covered in plaster, upon which "this Torah" is inscribed, the
Children of Israel should construct an altar (27:4). Upon the altar the Children of Israel should
"offer burnt offerings" (27:4) and "sacrifice peace
offerings" (27:5). They should
"eat" and "rejoice before the Lord." In sum, the Children of Israel are commanded
to engage in a complex ceremony, what we may tentatively term the
"Ceremony of the Stones." The
instructions for the ceremony seem to consist of three distinct elements. First and foremost, the ceremony is meant to
take place in a particular setting, in a particular time and place: the day the
people cross the
At first glance, this formulation
raises an obvious difficulty. Throughout
Har Eival is paired with
its regular partner, Har Gerizim. In fact, almost immediately after the segment
delineating the instructions for the Ceremony of the Stones (27:1-8), the Torah
elaborates the details of the "blessing and curse" ceremony first
mentioned in Devarim 26:19 and meant to take
place at Har Gerizim and Har Eival (27:11-26). According to Devarim 11:30, these mountains are located
"near Eilonei Moreh." But this seems to be a different locale
altogether than what could be reached within one day of crossing the
Apparently, Moshe's reference to
"the day you cross the
In addition to the problem of setting sketched here, we may also justly wonder regarding the meaning and symbolism of the ceremony. While the Torah is quite specific in its instructions, it gives little hint as to the purpose of the ceremony. While we understand the what of the stones, the plaster, the writing, the altar and the sacrifices, we do not understand the why. In other words, what is the point of setting up large stones, covering them with plaster and writing the Torah upon them? What is the point of conjoining this with an altar and sacrifices on "the day," whether understood literally or as metaphor, that the Children of Israel enter the Promised Land?
Turning our attention back to the opening of Moshe's instructions for the Ceremony of the Stones may provide a clue to deciphering the nature and purpose of the ceremony. Just after commanding the Children of Israel to set up the stones, cover them with plaster and write the Torah upon them (27:2-3), Moshe provides what seems to be a rationale for the prescribed actions. The full sentence, partially cited above reads as follows:
So that you may go into the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, God of your fathers has spoken to you. (27:3)
Apparently, fulfilling the command of the stones seems to be the key to entering and possessing the Promised Land. The phrase "so that" establishes an if-then relationship between the Ceremony of the Stones and the successful possession of the land. But this seems strange. How does the erection of a monument, or even the writing down of the Torah, guarantee possession of the land? As Moshe emphasizes numerous times throughout Sefer Devarim, it is the keeping of the commandments, the hearkening to God's word, not the mere writing of them upon stones, that guarantees success in the land (see 7:12-16, 8:1, 11:8-9, 28:1-2).
The answer may be provided by an
interesting parallel between the Ceremony of the Stones (27:1-8) and the
segment of the Torah normally termed "parashat
ha-melekh," the instructions for the
appointing and conduct of the king (17:14-20).
Like the Children of Israel upon crossing the
Throughout the Book of Devarim, Moshe reiterates the need to fear God and keep the commandments (see 6:24-25, 10:12-13). Similarly, once again in parallel to parashat ha-melekh, Devarim 8:13-14 warns the Children of Israel of the danger of material accumulation and the risk of an elevated, haughty heart. Finally, Moshe twice warns the people to turn neither "right nor left" from the commands (5:29, 17:11), and often conjoins the keeping of the commandments with the prolonging of life in the land for the Children of Israel and/or their children (4:40, 5:28-30).
The point seems to be something like the following. Just as in the case of the king, where the writing of "this Torah" constitutes the key to fearing God, veering neither right nor left, a humble heart and longevity in the land, so too in the case of the communal writing of "this Torah," the inscribing somehow constitutes the key to the religious virtues of fearing God, neither veering right nor left, a humble heart and the desired goal of success and longevity in the land.
While the writing down of the Torah upon great stones upon crossing the Jordan may be thought of as something like a national mission statement (Abarbanel 27:1-8), the parallel to parashat ha-melekh indicates that it most probably should be viewed a kind of national memory device. Just as the personal Torah carried by the King serves as a constant reminder, so too the monumental Torah of the people serves as a reminder. As noted by the Ramban (27:3), the writing down of the Torah upon a great monument serves as an everlasting means of emphasizing the centrality of the Torah and its commandments. It serves to vouchsafe the Children of Israel's remembering, and thereby keeping, the commandments. This, in turn, guarantees their successful possession of the land in the short term and prospering in the long term.
While the memory interpretation presented here goes quite away to unmasking the meaning of the Ceremony of the Stones, it fails to deal with all of the details present in the ceremony. For example, it really has nothing to say about the altar and sacrifices that seem to comprise an integral part of the ceremony. Moreover, it has little to say about the context of the ceremony, the need to accomplish the ceremony upon entering the land, or the Har Eival setting.
In order to develop an alternative to the memory theory, or more accurately, in order to develop an additional and complementary element, we must turn our attention not so much to another example of Torah writing found in Sefer Devarim but to a third case of Torah writing, one found in Sefer Shemot.
Towards the end of Parashat Mishpatim,
the Torah relates that upon descending from
wrote all the words of the Lord and rose up early in the morning; and he built
an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes
Moshe then places half of the blood from the sacrifices in flagons and sprinkles the other half of the blood upon the altar. At this point, the symbol of the just-written "laws" and "words," i.e. the Torah, returns to the narrative. To resume the story
And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud in the ears of the people; and they said: All that God has spoken we will do and we will listen. And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people and said: Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has contracted with you upon all these words. (Shemot 24:7-8)
As the narrative
progresses, the spoken "laws" and "words" of God become
concretized. They are written down and
transformed into what the Torah terms "Sefer
Ha-brit," the Book of the Covenant. It is this now-written Torah that Moshe reads
out to the people, and it is this now-written Torah that the people commit to
absolutely in their famed profession of "na'aseh
ve-nishma we will do and listen." As the name of the now written Torah and
Moshe's explicit proclamation to the people indicates, the entire process is a
process of covenant, and constitutes the contracting of a covenant between God
Similarly, as the narrative clearly
indicates, the altar at the foot of the mountain and the sacrifices, in the
language of the original text, the mizbe'ach,
the har, the olot
and the shelamim all constitute central
motifs of the Covenant of Sinai. It is
at the foot of
To put this slightly differently, we may identify the following seven linguistic and thematic elements in the Brit Sinai story: i) the writing of the Torah/written Torah ii) a mountain iii) an altar iv) sacrifices v) stone pillars/monuments vi) commemoration of each of the twelve tribes vii) duality/covenantal two sidedness.
Needless to say, this schematic
should make us realize that the story of Brit Sinai found in Sefer Shemot
(24:3-8) and the story of the Ceremony of the Stones found in Sefer Devarim (27:1-8)
stand in a particular relation. Like the
story of the Covenant of Sinai, the story of the Ceremony of the Stones
involves writing of the Torah/written Torah (27:3,8). Similarly, in a second and third parallel
between the two stories, like the Covenant of Sinai the story of the stones
involves an altar and sacrifices, in the original language of the text, a mizbe'ach, olot and
shelamim (27:5-7). Similarly, in a fourth and now obvious
parallel, just as the Covenant of Sinai took place in the shadow of a mountain,
Mount Sinai, so too the "covenant of the stones" takes place in the
shadow of a mountain, in this case the
To put this together, the story of the Ceremony of the Stones is foreshadowed by the story of Brit Sinai found in Sefer Shemot. Or more accurately, the story of the Ceremony of the Stones constitutes a conscious echo of the covenant contracted at Sinai. Just as the story of Brit Sinai comprises a covenant story, a story of commitment by the Children of Israel to the words of God, so too the story of the Ceremony of the Stones constitutes a covenant story, a means by which the Covenant of Sinai is echoed, extended and renewed upon the entrance of the Children of Israel to the Land of Israel.
This point is further strengthened by the larger context of the narrative we have been analyzing. In point of fact, reading the Ceremony of the Stones as a story of covenant may be explicitly suggested by the text.
Following up the flow of the narrative following the Ceremony of the Stones (27:1-8) should make this readily apparent.
As mentioned earlier, Har Eival is almost always accompanied by its partner Har Gerizim, and the text of Sefer Devarim indeed refers to them together shortly after the Ceremony of the Stones (27:1-8). At this point in time, the Torah gives us the details of the "blessing and curse" ceremony to be conducted at Har Gerizim and Har Eival upon "crossing the Jordan" (27:11-26). Six tribes stand upon, or on the side of, Har Gerizim upon the blessing so to speak and six tribes stand upon, or on the side of, Har Eival "upon the curse" (27:13).
This textual proximity to the story of the stones (27:1-8), the parallel mentions of Har Eival in the two stories (27:4, 27:13), and the deliberate echo at the outset of the latter story of the crucial phrase "when you cross the Jordan" (27:12) found twice in the story of the Ceremony of the Stones (27:2,4), all indicate that the Ceremony of the Stones, the narrative found in Devarim 27:1-8, is neither an independent text or an independent ceremony. Rather, it is part and parcel of a larger Gerizim/Eival ceremony.
On one level, this point helps us to complete the parallel between the Ceremony of the Stones, what may now be thought of the first part of the Gerizim/Eival ceremony, and the story of Brit Sinai. Just as all twelve tribes are marked and represented in the Covenant of Sinai (Shemot 24:4), so too each of the twelve tribes is mentioned in detailing the Gerizim/Eival ceremony (27:12-13). Moreover, just as the narrative of the Covenant of Sinai contains the element of duality, of division and two sidedness in accord with the standard Biblical marker of covenantal duality and mutuality, so too the continuation of the story of the stones, the larger ceremony of Gerizim/Eival, contains the element of duality. In accord with the covenantal nature of the ceremony, there are two mountains, the tribes split into two groups of six and the dual possibility of blessing and its opposite are readily present (27:12-13). But this is only part of the story.
Most probably, the text's detailing of the larger ceremony at Har Gerizim and Har Eival does not end with the material found in chapter 27. As the Ibn Ezra maintains (27:14), the long parasha of blessing and curse found in chapter 28 (28:1-68) most probably constitutes an integral part of that ceremony, and is in fact the text read aloud at Gerizim and Eival upon entering the land (see Yehoshua 8:34-35).
This brings us to our destination and completes the Brit Sinai-Ceremony of the Stones/Gerizim-Eival circle. At the very end of chapter 28, the Torah sums up what the chapter, and by implication the entire Gerizim/Eival ceremony, is all about. It states the following:
These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moshe to contract with the Children of Israel. (28:69)
Like the story found in Sefer Shemot, the story of the stones, of Gerizim and Eival constitutes a story of covenant. It comprises a means of extending, renewing and remembering the Covenant of Sinai. Upon entering the land, the Children of Israel are required to renew, re-commit and re-engage with the Covenant of Sinai. By virtue of writing the Torah, engaging in a covenant commitment ceremony and, perhaps most crucially, by creating and leaving behind a monumental edifice of a mountain, an altar and Torah written in stone, the Children of Israel create an everlasting echo and reminder of the Covenant of Sinai and their commitment to the Torah. It is by this virtue that they will inherit the land.
Reading the ceremony of the stones as a story of covenant renewal and extension, as a story of covenantal echo and concretization should resolve most of the difficulties raised above. We no longer need wonder about the meaning of the setting up of the stones, the writing of the Torah, the altar, the sacrifices and the like.
Likewise, this reading should help
dissolve much of the tension implicit in the setting designated for the
ceremony. On the one hand, the ceremony
should indeed be carried out "upon crossing the
Yet on the other hand, no re-creation of the experience of Sinai and no permanent monument to the Covenant of Sinai can take place without a suitable mountain. Writing the Torah, building the altar, and the sacrifices are meant to recreate the Covenant of Sinai. As such, they must take place in the shadow of a mountain, a Sinai substitute. Similarly, the permanent stone Torah and stone altar (27:5-6) left behind are meant to serve as reminders of the Sinai experience. Again, as such, they must stand in the shadow of a mountain, a Sinai substitute. To no surprise, the ceremony is delayed and takes place at Har Eival.
Yet all is not fully resolved. We may still justly wonder regarding the
specific choice of Har Eival. Theoretically, any mountain should have been
sufficient. The ceremony could be
carried out at a mountain close to the
We may be tempted to argue that Har Eival's central location at Shekhem in the Shomron region and its consequent ability to serve as a central and ongoing reminder to the Covenant of Sinai, a kind of "shrine of Sinai," constitute the cause of the choice of Har Eival. While this claim cannot be supported directly from the text, Shekhem does constitute a central location, and the claim cannot be refuted. Yet as an alternative, I would like to look at the past role, rather than the future role, of Har Eival and Shekhem in the history of the Children of Israel.
As worked out earlier, the identity
of Har Eival with the Shekhem region depends on a bit of textual comparison. At no point does Sefer
Devarim explicitly locate Har
Eival at Shekhem. Rather, it refers to the mountain pair of Gerizim and Eival as being
located near "Eilonei Moreh"
(11:30). But as mentioned above, Eilonei Moreh should be
identified with Eilon Moreh,
a location found earlier on in Sefer Bereishit and clearly connected to the Shekhem region (Bereishit
12:6, see Rashi, Ibn Ezra
11:30). At this point, it is worth
taking a look at the textual context in which this identification occurs - the
beginnings of the Avraham narrative and the story of Avraham's
arrival in the
Upon being commanded by God to leave
his land and birthplace (Bereishit 12:1-4),
Avraham promptly gathers up his wife, household and possessions, sets out for
the land of Canaan (12:5), and with almost miraculous alacrity, within the time
span of less than a verse, arrives in the Land of Canaan (12:5). At this point, the pace of the action slows
down and the Torah informs us of Avraham's actions
upon arriving in
And Avram passed through the land to the place of Shekhem, to Eilon Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land. And the Lord appeared to Avram and said, To your seed I will give this land, and he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. (Bereishit 12:7)
For some reason or another, Avraham proceeds directly to Shekhem and Eilon Moreh. Then and only then does God reveal himself to Avraham and promise the land to Avraham's descendants, thereby informing him that he has reached the right place, the place previously identified as "the land I will show you" (12:1). Following God's revelation, in an apparent act of thanksgiving, Avraham builds an altar. He has arrived, and the land has been promised to his descendants.
In this reading, the text forges a
conceptual connection between divine promises, the end of a journey and
By now we should no longer be
surprised by the choice of Har Eival
as the sight for the Ceremony of the Stones and its altar. In accord with the typological patterning
often found in the Torah, in which the actions of the forefathers seem to
foreshadow later actions of their descendants, the third arrival of
Avraham/Israel in the Land of Canaan, this time in the form of the of the
nation of Israel, takes the very same form.
Like both Avraham and Yaakov, the Children of Israel arrive at the end
of their journey, undertaken in response to divine promises and commands, in
This should be understood as more
than literary formalism. As the text
points out upon the first arrival of Avraham/Israel in the land, "And the
Canaanites were then in the land" (12:6).
Immediately upon the heels of this phrase, God appears to Avraham and
promises the land to his descendants (12:7).
The time is not yet ripe; Avraham's arrival in
the land is yet tentative. He can pass
through, he can wander, but he cannot dwell.
The land still belongs to the Canaanites. Such is still the case at the time of the
second arrival, that of Yaakov. While
Yaakov does partially possess land, and the text depicts him as purchasing the
field he dwells upon (33:19), his possession is dependant upon the good will of
the inhabitants and is yet tentative (see 34:30). But God's promise to Avraham means that this
state will change. One day, the children
of Avraham will fully possess the land.
The occurrence of the third arrival, the Children of Israel's arrival in
But there is more to it than this. The parallel between the arrival of Avraham and the arrival of the Children of Israel does more than mark the fact that the latter arrival constitutes the fulfillment of the former arrival, a realization of the promise and potential inherent in the forefather's path. It also informs us regarding the contents and meaning of the entire ceremony conducted upon entering the land. Just as Avraham builds an altar in thanksgiving to God upon arriving at Shekhem in the Land of Canaan, so too the Children of Israel are to build an altar at the very same place in thanksgiving to God upon the fulfillment of the divine promise and their arrival in the land. The Ceremony of the Stones is about more than memory, or even covenant recreation. It is also about celebration and thanksgiving to God for arriving in the land (see 27:7 and Ibn Ezra 27:3).
To close, let us formulate this last point in a slightly variant fashion. While the story of Avraham, the founding forefather of the Children of Israel, is complex and multilayered, certain key themes such as the promise of descendants and the promise of the land clearly stand out. Similarly, while the story of Moshe, the redeemer, and other "founder" of the Children of Israel is complex and multilayered, a certain key theme, that of Torah and commandments, the Covenant of Sinai, certainly stands out. In the Ceremony of the Stones, in the arrival of the descendants of Avraham in the land at the very same place as Avraham and in their recreation of the Covenant of Sinai, these two heritages merge into a harmonious whole. It is about both the heritage of Avraham and the heritage of Moshe.
1. Reread 27:1-8. a) Compare 27:1-3 to 27:4-8. Is there a problem of repetition? Make a careful list of the various elements present or missing in each "half" of the story. Try to explain the structural problem in light of the shiur above. b) Now see Ibn Ezra 27:1-3 and Ramban 27:3. Analyze the difference in their opinions in light of the structural issue. c) See Emek Davar 27:2. Relate his comments to the structural problem. Now see Bereishit 12:8. Try to merge Netziv's comments with some of the ideas in the shiur above.
2. Read Yehoshua 8:30-35. a) Can Ibn Ezra's reading of 27:1-8 be supported by this passage? b) See Yehoshua 7:2-9. Now see Bereishit 12:6-8. Also see Bereishit 33:18 and 35:6-7. Formulate the problem. Rav Yaakov Medan has claimed that the defeat at Ai resulted from the unnecessary delay in proceeding to Har Eival. Review Yehoshua 8:30 and Bereishit 12:6. Try to formulate an alternative in light of the shiur above.
3. See Rashi
27:2. Now scan Yehoshua
4:2-24. Review 27:2-4. Attempt to explain the textual basis of the
opinion cited by Rashi. Try to formulate the conceptual significance
of stones at Har Eival
being taken from the
4. See Devarim 26:16-19. Now see Shemot 19:5-6 and Ramban 26:16-17. a) Explain the usage and meaning of the term "ha-yom" b) What is the relationship between 26:16-19 and 27:1-8? c) See Ramban 29:1 and 29:9. Formulate the overriding theme of Devarim 26:16-30:20 in light of the comments of the Ramban and the shiur above.