Lecture 58: the history of the Resting of the Shekhina ֠the Altar, the Writing of the Torah, and the Blessings on Mount Eival (1)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy




Lecture 58: the history of the resting of the shekhina – the altar, the writing of the torah, and the blessings on mount eival (1)


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            As was mentioned in the previous lecture, the first study unit in this year's series will deal with various issues connected to Bnei Yisrael's entry into Eretz Yisrael. The first topic, the subject of this lecture, is the special events that took place on Mount Eival.


            At the end of the eighth chapter of the book of Yehoshua, the prophet describes two highly important events about which the people of Israel had already been commanded in the plains of Moav along the Jordan across from Jericho:


Then Yehoshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel on Mount Eival, as Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the Torah of Moshe, an altar of whole stones, over which no man lifted up any iron instrument. And they offered on it burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace- offerings. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the Torah of Moshe, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel. And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges stood on this side of the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, both stranger, and native born; half of them facing Mount Gerizim and half of facing Mount Eival; as Moshe the servant of the Lord had commanded that they should first bless the people of Israel. And afterwards he read all the words of the Torah, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah. There was not a word of all that Moshe commanded that Yehoshua did not read before the congregation of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers that went among them. (Yehoshua 8:30-35)


            We see from these verses that Moshe had commanded Bnei Yisrael about two matters, and that these commandments were fulfilled now by Yehoshua:


          ·        The building of an altar to the Lord God of Israel on Mount Eival, the offering of burnt-offerings and peace-offerings upon that altar, and the writing of a copy of the Torah of Moshe upon the stones.


          ·        The assembly involving blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival.


Based on the order of the chapters, these two events took place at the same time, following the conquest of Jericho and Ay.


Let us first examine the Torah's commands regarding these matters, and then we shall relate to the execution of these commands in the book of Yehoshua.


As part of the introduction to Moshe's oration regarding the mitzvot, Bnei Yisrael are commanded in the book of Devarim (11:29) to recite the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Eival. Scripture even notes the location of these mountains: "Surely they are on the other side of the Jordan, by the way where the sun goes down, in the land of the Cana'ani, who dwell in the Arava over against Gilgal, beside Elonei Moreh." Without going into detail about the location of this place, I wish to note that Scripture mentions that Gerizim and Eival are near Elonei Moreh.


            It is interesting that Elon Moreh is also mentioned in the account of Avraham's journey to Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 12:6). That verse implies that Elon Moreh is the name of a place near Shekhem. No verse directly connects Mount Gerizim, Mount Eival, and Shekhem as places that are in close proximity to one another. The verses that mention Shekhem do not mention Gerizim or Eival, and similarly, the verses that mention Gerizim or Eival make no mention of Shekhem.


            The fact that Shekhem is mentioned together with Elon Moreh in the story regarding Avraham and that Elonei Moreh is mentioned as being near Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival when Bnei Yisrael enter the land allows us to draw a connection between the places – both geographical and substantive.[1] When Bnei Yisrael enter the Land, they are told to go to Mount Eival, near the place where God appeared to Avraham for the first time in Eretz Yisrael. In this way, they connect their entry into the Land to Avraham's actions when he arrived in Eretz Yisrael.


            In this context, it is interesting how the mishna in Sota formulates the manner in which the blessings and curses were uttered at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival:


Blessings and curses, how so? When Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival in Samaria, near Shekhem which is next to Elon Moreh, as it is stated: "Surely they are on the other side of the Jordan." And above it says: "And Avraham passed through the land to the place of Shekhem unto Elon Moreh." Just as the Elon Moreh mentioned above is Shekhem, so too the Elon Moreh mentioned here is Shekhem. (Sota 32a)


            The mishna notes the precise location of Mount Gerizim and Eival in Samaria alongside Shekhem next to Elonei Moreh. The connection between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival and Shekhem lies in the parallelism between the verses describing Avraham's entry into the land and the verses describing the location of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival as near Elonei Moreh.


            The command regarding the assembly is spelled out in detail in chapter 27 of the book of Devarim, at the end of Moshe's oration regarding the mitzvot. The command there can be divided into several topics:


          ·        On the day that they cross the Jordan, Bnei Yisrael are to set up great stones, cover them with plaster, and write upon them all the words of the Torah.


          ·        When they cross the Jordan, they are to set up these stones on Mount Eival and cover them with plaster.


          ·        Bnei Yisrael are to build an altar made of stones, offer upon it burnt-offerings to God, offer peace-offerings, and eat and rejoice before God.


          ·        All the words of the Torah are to be written on the stones very plainly.


After this, the Torah spells out the tribes that will stand to bless the people on Mount Gerizim and those that will stand on Mount Eival to curse. This is followed by a detailed account of the curses.


Thus, we see that Bnei Yisrael were commanded to do three things at Mount Eival following their crossing of the Jordan:[2]


1)      To set up stones, plaster them, and write all the words of the Torah upon them.


2)      To build an altar, sacrifice upon it burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, and rejoice before God.


3)      The assembly involving the blessings and curses.




            The first question regarding the aforementioned events relates to their timing – when did they take place? The scriptural verses and rabbinic midrashim suggest several possibilities.


1)      The Torah says as follows:


And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall set up great stones and cover them with plaster. (Devarim 27:2)


            According to the simple reading of this verse, it follows that this event was to take place on the day that Bnei Yisrael cross the Jordan. The actual occurrence, however, is described in the book of Yehoshua at the end of chapter 8. On the assumption that the chapters of the book of Yehoshua are arranged in chronological order, Bnei Yisrael first conquered Jericho and Ay, and only afterwards did they reach the area of Mount Eival, where the assembly took place. This was followed by the covenant made with the Giv'onites and the wars fought against the southern kings and the northern kings.


            Accordingly, we cannot date this assembly in a precise manner, but it occurred some time after the conquest of Jericho and Ay, in accordance with the advance up the central mountain massif from the east toward the north-west.


            In contrast to the plain meaning of the verses, we find various views in the words of Chazal:


            The gemara in Sota states:


Come and see how many miracles were performed on that day. Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival more than sixty mils away, and no one could stand before them… And afterwards they brought the stones, and built the altar, and covered it with plaster, and wrote on them all the words of the Torah in seventy languages, as it is stated: "very plainly." And they offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, and ate and drank and rejoiced. And they uttered the blessings and the curses. And they packed the stones and went and spent the night in Gilgal… (36a)


            According to this opinion, all of these things took place on the day that Israel entered the land, and it all transpired in a miraculous manner. It is clearly difficult to reconcile this view with the plain sense of the biblical verses.


            As for the possibility that the people of Israel reached the region of Mount Eival on the day that they crossed the Jordan, there is a consideration that makes this possibility easier to accept, one that is connected to a geographical question connected to the crossing of the Jordan. The verse in Yehoshua reads:


The waters which came down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far from the city Adam, which is beside Tzaretan; and those that came down toward the sea of the Arava, the salt sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people passed over opposite Jericho. (3:16)


            Why were the waters cut off so far north up the Jordan if the people crossed the river opposite Jericho?


            It may be argued that this magnifies the miracle. It is also possible to suggest[3] that the people of Israel crossed the Jordan along the entire sector, from the Jericho region in the south to the area of the Damya bridge in the north, "very far from the city of Adam, which is beside Tzaretan." In this way, their entry in the northern region – close to the Damya bridge - allowed them to enter via Wadi Tirtza (Wadi Fara) and proceed straight to the area of Shekhem, Mount Gerizim, and Mount Eival. The distance is much shorter and it allows us to explain how Bnei Yisrael reached Mount Eival on the very day that they entered the land.[4]


            In addition, and as we mentioned earlier, noting this place as the site where the waters of the Jordan were cut off sharpens the parallelism between Israel's entry into the land and the entry of the patriarchs, Avraham and Yaakov, at that same place. What this parallelism means is that the children followed in the footsteps of their forefathers, who paved the way for Israel's entry into the land.[5]


2) Another possibility regarding the timing of the assembly at Mount Eival arises from the words of the Yerushalmi:


…For R. Yishmael said: All the "comings" mentioned in the Torah are after fourteen years, seven [years] of conquest and seven [years] of dividing up [the land]. According to this, the blessings and curses were only uttered after fourteen years. R. Chananya raised an objection before R. Mana: But surely it is written: "And it shall be when you have gone over the Jordan, that you shall set up these stones" (Devarim 27:4)! He said to him: The stones they set up immediately, [but] the blessings and curses they uttered [only] after fourteen years. (Yerushalmi, Sota 7:3 [end])


            According to the Yerushalmi, a distinction must be made between the various events: The stones at Mount Eival were set up immediately – as we saw in the Bavli. As for the blessings and curses, the Tannaim disagree whether they were uttered on that very day or only after fourteen years of conquest and dividing up the land.


            According to this approach, the assembly at Mount Eival marked the conclusion of the fourteen years of conquest and settlement. It is interesting that Chazal (Seder Olam Rabba) understood that the Mishkan stood in Gilgal for fourteen years. According to this, it was at the point of transition of the Mishkan in Gilgal to the Mishkan in Shilo that the ceremony involving the blessings and curses took place at Mount Eival, north of Shekhem.


            The transfer of the Mishkan from Gilgal to Shilo expresses a shift to a less temporary and more permanent site than Gilgal[6] paralleling the ascent from the Jordan valley to the central mountain massif.


3) There is a third possibility that the words "on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan" do not refer to the day that Bnei Yisrael actually crossed the Jordan, but to the initial period of their settlement in Eretz Yisrael. This can certainly be reconciled with our understanding of the plain sense of Scripture, that the reference is to the period following the conquest of Jericho and Ay and before the great wars against the kings of the south and the north.


In any event, we learn from Chazal that a distinction can be made between the stage of setting up the stones, building the altar, and writing the Torah, which took place immediately following Israel's entry into the land, and the assembly involving the blessings and curses that took place only later after fourteen years of conquest and settlement.


We will later try to understand, based on the content and essence of that assembly, the significance of the timing in accordance with the three possibilities proposed above.




            Why do these events (the altar, the sacrifices, the writing of the Torah on the stones)[7] take place specifically at Mount Eival? And furthermore, why were the blessings set for Mount Gerizim and the curses for Mount Eival?


            It should first be noted that this is the only instance in which the Torah commands that a particular action be performed in a particular place in Eretz Yisrael. Scripture does not specify the future stations of the Mishkan or the various capital cities; it only names the place where Bnei Yisrael are commanded to build an altar, write the Torah, and conduct the assembly involving the blessings and curses.


            It seems that the Torah attaches great importance and meaning to the assembly being held specifically at Mount Eival.


            A second point that requires examination is the relationship between the establishment of an altar at Mount Eival and the Mishkan. As we have seen, the Torah commands that an altar be built. During this period, however, the Mishkan had already been built, and we might have expected that the Torah would relate to the Mishkan and its location - but not a word is said about the matter. This point greatly sharpens the question regarding the location of the altar at the time of the entry into Eretz Yisrael in relation to the Mishkan.  


            It is possible that at the beginning of the conquest, when the Mishkan was in Gilgal, Bnei Yisrael were preoccupied with the conquest and afterwards with the settlement of Eretz Yisrael (according to Chazal, seven years of conquest and seven years of dividing up the land), the ark was going out to various wars, and the Mishkan did not yet enjoy any permanence, it was vitally necessary that a covenant be made upon Israel's entry into the land. The entry into Eretz Yisrael constituted a drastic change on several levels –a change from miraculous governance to worldly governance and struggle with the material world, as well as reaching the place where they wanted to settle permanently. It was appropriate that at this time of transition, a covenant be made between God and Israel, and the best way to do this was by building an altar, writing the Torah, and performing an assembly involving blessings and curses.


Why did these things have to take place at Mount Eival? The city of Shekhem is situated in a fertile valley running from east to west, with Mount Eival to its north and Mount Gerizim to its south. Why hold the assembly on the mountain upon which the curses were uttered? Why not conduct it in the valley below or on Mount Gerizim?


1)            The Ramban explains (ad loc.):


It is possible that Mount Gerizim was to the south, which is to the right, and Mount Eival was to the north, as it is stated: "Out of the north the evil shall break forth" (Yirmiyahu 1:14).


            R. Sandorfi explains the Ramban's comment based on what he writes in his commentary to Shemot 32:1:


Destruction and desolation come from the north, as it is written: "Out of the north the evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land" (Yirmiyahu 1:14). The reference is not exclusively to the king of Bavel, as it may appear from a superficial reading of the text. But rather this means that the quality of justice always comes from the left to recompense all the inhabitants of the land in accordance with their evil.


2)            R. David Tzvi Hoffman, in his commentary to Vayikra (1:11), explains the significance of the northern side in general, including in the Mikdash. According to him, the south always symbolizes the bright and shining side, whereas the north (tzafon) indicates the dark and hidden side (tzafun = hidden).


Therefore, the menora which symbolizes the spiritual assets of the nation, stands on the side of the light, whereas the shulchan with the shewbread, which represents its material assets, stands on the side of the darkness.


Similarly, the daily offering was always slaughtered (according to Yoma 62b) during the day facing the sun – the morning sacrifice was slaughtered at the north-west corner and the afternoon sacrifice was slaughtered at the north-east corner - both were slaughtered in the north, but in different places, so as to face the sun. Thus, it turns out that the slaughter of these offerings, which symbolizes the people of Israel's dedication to God, took place in the open, before the eyes of all, "facing the sun." The most appropriate place was the north, because the slaughter had to take place on the side of the altar, and to the south stood the ramp leading to the top of the altar.


This arrangement, which was established at first for the communal daily offering, was extended to the rest of the sacrifices. This is the reason, according to R. Hoffman, that the altar was set up specifically on Mount Eival.


3) R. Samson Raphael Hirsch proposes that the two mountains differ in their very nature: Mount Gerizim is covered in green, whereas Mount Eival is dry and desolate, and they well exemplify blessing and curse. Both mountains share the same geographic conditions, but nevertheless Mount Gerizim is fertile while Mount Eival is desolate. He writes as follows:


In the same way, blessing and curse are not conditional on external circumstances, but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our behavior towards that which is to bring blessing.[8] (Commentary to Devarim 11:29)


4) Another question relating to this topic is why the Torah was written and the altar set up specifically on the mountain on which the curse was given. The commentators answer this question in various ways:


That it should serve as a support for them, for they stand next to the altar and the site of joy, as it is written: "And you shall offer peace-offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the Lord your God" (Devarim 27:7). For there the Shekhina rests with them. (Bekhor Shor, Devarim 27:5)


            In other words, the altar was set up on Mount Eival in order to support those tribes, so that joy and the Shekhina should rest upon the cursed tribes.


            The Iyyun Yaakov offers a different explanation, explaining that the altar was built specifically on this mountain in order to achieve atonement for the cursed ones (Iyyun Yaakov on the Ein Yaakov, Sota 32, no. 89, s.v. ve-achar kakh hevi'u et ha-avanim).


5) R. Sandorfi offers an interesting proposal: The ceremony was conducted on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, near Shekhem, because Shekhem was the place to which Yosef was sent to visit his brothers before they sold him; from there they sold him, and now the people of Israel are commanded to repair the sin of that sale in that very place. This assembly repaired the root of division, the sin of the sale of Yosef that began at Shekhem, from which began the exile to Egypt. In this manner, R. Sandorfi also explains the division of the tribes between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival based on their relationship with Yosef.


            This explanation is very attractive, and it also accords with other events connected to Yosef that took place in Shekhem.


          ·        Shekhem was given to Yosef by his father Yaakov, according to one possible understanding of the verse, "Moreover, I have given to you one portion (shekhem) more than your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Emori with my sword and with my bow" (Bereishit 48:22).


          ·        Yosef was buried in Shekhem: "And the bones of Yosef, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shekhem, in a section of ground which Yaakov bought from the sons of Chamor the father of Shekhem for a hundred kesita; and they became the inheritance of the children of Yosef" (Yehoshua 24:32).


Accordingly, understanding the assembly involving the blessings and curses next to Shekhem as a repair of the division in Israel that became manifest at the time of the sale of Yosef accords well with Yosef's strong connection to Shekhem.[9]


6) There is another connection between the setting up of the altar on Mount Eival next to Shekhem and Yosef:[10] The kingship of Yosef symbolizes the descent to Egypt, as well as the exodus from Egypt and the return to Eretz Yisrael. Yosef promises that "God will surely remember you" (Bereishit 50:24), and Yehoshua from the tribe of Yosef led the return to Eretz Yisrael, thus closing the circle. It is not by chance that the book of Yehoshua ends with an account of the burial of Yosef's bones. When the people of Israel entered Eretz Israel, they were still under the influence of Yosef's leadership through Yehoshua. In this sense, more than anything else, the Shekhem region symbolizes Yosef, for it was the first station on Yosef's journey that led him and all of Yaakov's family to Egypt.


            In this sense, we can certainly understand that the first and most important assembly following Israel's entry into the land was conducted in the Shekhem area, in the territory of the tribes of Efrayim and Menasheh, in the territory of the tribe of the leader who was Yosef's heir – Yehoshua from the tribe of Efrayim.[11]


            In keeping with our approach, I wish to propose that this assembly took place at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival because this was Avraham and Yaakov's starting point when they entered the land, and the city of Shekhem constitutes in great measure the northern gate to Eretz Yisrael.


            In order to prove this argument, we must consider the essence of Shekhem, as it finds expression in various sources. This we shall do in the next lecture.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Even though one source refers to "Elon Moreh" while the other source refers to "Elonei Moreh," there is no doubt that they refer to the same place.

[2] Only the assembly involving the blessings and curses is a fulfillment of what is stated in Devarim 11:29 and on. The other two commands appear only in Devarim 27.

[3] This was proposed by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun in an oral lecture.

[4] Adam Zartal claims, based on an archaeological survey that he conducted in the region, that he found across the entire length of the sector from Jericho to Damya bridge, to the west of the Jordan, "gilgals," Israelite settlements dating to the 13th century BCE, the period of the Israelite conquest.

[5] One of the most important arguments for dating this assembly to the day that Bnei Yisrael entered the land (or to the first stage of their entry) is the desire to see the covenant made at Mount Eival as a direct continuation of the covenant made at the plains of Moav, which was arranged by Moshe in Devarim 28.

[6] Although Shilo was still a place that combines temporariness and permanence, "stones at the bottom and curtains at the top," it was certainly more permanent than the Mishkan in Gilgal. Both in its location and in its structure, as well as in the time that it stood according to Chazal and the Rambam (369 years), Shilo symbolizes a certain degree of permanence.

[7] R. Eitan Sandorfi wrote an article, "Ha-Berakha Ve-Ha-Kelala Be-Har Gerizim U-Be-Har Eival," in Nitzanei Aretz 17 (5767), pp. 366-397. In this article, he brings many sources relevant to our discussion, some of which we shall cite below.

[8] With all the beauty of this explanation, which is based primarily on the difference between a northern exposure and a southern exposure, in what way were Mount Eival and Mount Gerizim different than many other mountains that exhibit a difference between northern and southern exposures?

[9] We must still try to understand why the Torah itself does not spell out directly the connection between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival and Shekhem.

[10] Yonatan Feinton notes this in his article, "Berit Moav U-Berit Har Gerizim Ve-Har Eival," Megadim 34 (Tishrei 5762), pp. 67-84.

[11] This phenomenon occurs again later in the relationship between the site of the Mishkan and the territory of the tribe of the leader of Israel at each stage.