Lecture 59: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina ֠The Altar, The Writing of the Torah, And the Blessings on Mount Eival (II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


The Mikdash



This week's shiur is being sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Dov Weinstein.



Lecture 59: The History of the resting of the Shekhina –

THe Altar, THe writing of the Torah, And the Blessings on Mount Eival (II)

Rav Yitzchak Levi





            In the previous lecture, we began to deal with the assembly involving the blessings and curses conducted at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. We dealt with the timing of the assembly and we cited several explanations regarding the location of the assembly. At the end of the lecture, we proposed that the assembly was held in the Shekhem region because this place symbolized the leadership of Israel, and in great measure the city of Shekhem constituted the northern gate to Eretz Yisrael.


            In order to reinforce this point, I wish to consider the essence of Shekhem as it finds expression in various sources. In this lecture, we will note the most striking traits of this city and try to understand its character.


The Essence of Shekhem




One of the most striking characteristics of Shekhem is its primacy:


·         Shekhem was the first station of both Avraham and Ya’akov after entering Eretz Yisrael when they arrived from Charan, as well as of the people of Israel when they entered the land (as Chazal claim that the altar on Mount Eival was built on the day that Israel crossed the Jordan).


·         The piece of land that Ya'akov bought near the city  (Bereishit 33:19) was the first piece of land purchased by our patriarchs for the purpose of residence (to the exclusion of the Makhpela cave, which was purchased by Avraham for the purpose of burial),[1] this being another expression of its primacy.


·         In Shekhem, there also took place the first act that was similar to conquest – the war conducted by Shimon and Levi against the city in the wake of the rape of Dina (Bereishit 34).[2]


·         There, too, was the first attempt made to crown a king in Israel – Avimelekhwhich, as we know, turned out to be a total failure (Shofetim 9:6).


·         Shekhem may also have been the first territory allocated in Eretz Yisrael. In his blessing to Yosef, Ya'akov said: "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). According to one understanding (see Rashi, ad loc.), "shekhem" here refers to the city of Shekhem, which was given to Yosef owing to his being the firstborn. Indeed, at the end of the book of Yehoshua, we are told about Yosef's burial in the portion purchased by Ya'akov and given to his son Yosef as an inheritance. "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 Ya'akov 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).[3]


The Main Blessing of Eretz Yisrael – in the Tribal Territories of the Sons of Yosef


In Ya'akov's blessing to Yosef it says:


By the God of your father, who shall help you, and by the Almighty, who shall bless you, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. The blessings of your father are potent above the blessings of my progenitors to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills. They shall be on the head of Yosef, and on the crown of the head of he who was separated from his brothers. (Bereishit 49:25-26)


            And in his blessing to the people of Israel before his death, Moshe repeats Ya'akov's blessing regarding the inheritance of Yosef, Shekhem being its capital, and expands upon it:


And of Yosef he said, Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that couches beneath, and for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon, and for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the primordial hills, and for the precious things of the earth and its fullness, and for the good will of he who dwelt in the bush. Let the blessing come upon the head of Yosef and upon the top of the head of he who was separated from his brothers. (Devarim 33:13-15)


            The blessings given to Yosef greatly emphasize the material blessing of his inheritance. Note that this does not mean that the other tribal territories are not fertile; on the contrary, we also find blessings of fertility with respect to the territories of other tribes. This point, however, is especially prominent in the blessing given to the territory of Yosef, both in the scope of the blessing and in its length.[4]


A City of Contradictions


The city of Shekhem is also characterized by many contradictions. These contradictions find expression in the city's topography: the city is situated in a valley between two mountains – Mount Eival to the north and Mount Gerizim to the south.[5] The contradictory nature of the city also expresses itself in the various events that take place there, some of which are very positive and connected to the sanctity and primacy of the place, while others are exceedingly negative.


On the one hand, it was in Shekhem that God revealed himself to Avraham for the first time in Eretz Yisrael, and it was there that Avraham built his first altar (Bereishit 12:6). In other words, Shekhem was the first place that the patriarchs served God. Similarly, we find that Ya'akov, after returning to Eretz Yisrael, erected his first altar in the piece of land that he bought in Shekhem (ibid. 33:20) (even before he fulfilled his vow in Bet-El!). The first altar that the people of Israel built after entering Eretz Yisrael was also erected on Mount Eival, during the ceremony involving the blessings and curses (which itself expresses the contradictory nature of the place) that was conducted on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival (Yehoshua 8:30-35).[6] Lastly, Shekhem's status as a site of worship also found expression at the end of Yehoshua's life, at the great assembly held there and in the covenant that was renewed there (ibid. 24:1-27).


On the other hand, R. Yose asserts (Sanhedrin 102a) that Shekhem is "a place destined for calamity,"[7] and there he lists three calamities: "In Shekhem they raped Dina, in Shekhem the brothers sold Yosef, [and] in Shekhem the Davidic monarchy was divided." The incident of Dina, of course, includes not only her rape in Shekhem, but also Shimon and Levi's war against that city, which earned the sharp criticism of Ya'akov (34:30; 49:5-6). The other two calamities noted by R. Yose characterize the city as a place of division and rivalry, first between Yosef and his brothers (34:13-15), and later between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Yehuda[8] (Melakhim I 12).[9] To these calamities we may add Avimelekh's kingdom in Shekhem (Shofetim 9), which was undoubtedly an evil kingdom, and quickly collapsed owing to the division and rivalry between Avimelekh and the men of Shekhem.


The Character of the City of Shekhem


            I now wish to argue that from what we have seen thus far, two main themes arise regarding the character of Shekhem.


            First of all, Shekhem is "the firstborn city" of Eretz Yisrael. This accounts for the striking primal nature of the city, and this is the reason that it was given specifically to Yosef, the firstborn of Rachel (who was given preference over the firstborn of Leah) – who represents, from among the two tribes that were chosen to lead the people of Israel, the sanctity of the firstborn.[10] Primogeniture is sanctity of the body – sanctity of the first issue of the womb - and this explains the special blessing that is found in the territory of Yosef, its special fertility emphasizing its connection to the firstborn of the brothers.[11] The firstborn Yosef, sanctified with the sanctify of the first issue of the womb, received his fertile inheritance around Shekhem, the firstborn city of Israel, and merited the sanctity of the body of Eretz Yisrael and its fertility.[12]


            As part of its primacy, Shekhem also served as the "northern gate" in the patriarchs' journeys in Eretz Yisrael.[13] A gate, by its very definition, is a place of transition between two worlds, between outside and inside. For this reason, the Torah is written on the altar on Mount Eival, right before the gate,[14] as if to say: This is the identity card of the land into which you are now entering; you are entering the land in order to observe the Torah therein. As the Ramban explained: "For you came there for the sake of the Torah" (Commentary to Devarim 27:3). This also explains the fact that idolatry is removed twice from the city of Shekhem. Ya'akov instructs his household to remove the alien gods from among them and he hides them below the oak which was by Shekhem (35:2-4). Similarly, Yehoshua commands the people in the great assembly held in Shekhem before his death to remove the alien gods from among them (Yehoshua 24:23); before entering further into Eretz Yisrael, the alien gods must be left outside.


            A gate, however, constitutes not only a transition point between two worlds, but also a meeting point between them – between what is on the inside and what is on the outside. In this meeting, the potential exists to proceed in two different directions. On the one hand, it can lead to isolation and separation, as in the case of Shimon and Levi in their war against Shekhem;[15] on the other hand, it can bring to unity and fertilization. In this context, it is interesting how R. Kook characterizes Yosef's attitude toward the nations of the world: "The sanctity of Israel involves teaching wisdom to those who have strayed, to intermingle with the nations and teach them the ways of God, in accordance with the words of the prophet, 'Efrayim, he has mingled himself among the peoples' (Hoshea 7:8), to bring sanctity even to the nations of the world.”[16]


            Shekhem's uniqueness as a gate connecting different worlds finds expression not only between Israel and the nations, but also among the people of Israel themselves. On the one hand, Shekhem was a place of division among Bnei Yisrael[17] - first between Yosef and his brothers, and later between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Yehuda – and in this sense, the gate revealed itself as a place destined for calamity. On the other hand, it is precisely as a point of transition that a gate has the potential to unite what is outside with what is inside. This potential is the reason that the covenant involving the blessing and curse was made in Shekhem, for it is precisely by sharpening the differences and contrasts between the two sides, between outside and inside, that unity can be achieved.[18] Thus, "Shekhem" – which means "portion" and "particular side" (see Bereishit 48:22 and commentaries,[19] ad loc.) turns into "Shekem echad," "one shekhem" (ibid.; Tzefanya 3:9).


            In this context, the assembly arranged by Yehoshua in Shekhem at the end of his life is very typical and significant. At this assembly, Yehoshua presented the people with a choice in a most radical manner:


And if it seem evil to you to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve - whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Emori, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Yehoshua 24:15)


            This assembly is a renewal – with the initiative coming from "below," from the people of Israel – of the covenant made at Sinai and the covenant made at the plains of Moav, where the nation accepted upon themselves to serve God and rejected idol worship.[20]


            Yosef was Rachel's firstborn. The firstborn, the primal element, contains the potential for everything. Shekhem, the "firstborn" city of Eretz Yisrael, contains the potential of all of Eretz Yisrael. If the people of Israel are worthy, this will be a place of a covenant of the unity of all of the people of Israel to serve God; if not, it will be a place of division and barriers.[21]


            In my opinion, this understanding of the essence of Shekhem explains the selection of Mount Eival and Mount Gerizim as the place where an altar was built and where the blessings and curses were uttered when the people of Israel first entered the Land. This is a direct continuation of the actions of the patriarchs, who began their journeys in Eretz Tisrael in Shekhem.




            In the last two lectures, we dealt with the timing of the events connected to Mount Eival and Mount Gerizim and with the reason why these events took place specifically in this area.


            In the next lecture, we will discuss the substance of these events themselves.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] As Chazal said in their well-known statement: "… There are three places that the nations of the world cannot cheat Israel saying, ‘They were stolen,’ namely: the Makhpela cave, the Temple, and Yosef's tomb" (Bereishit Rabba 79:7).

[2] As the Ramban says in his commentary to Bereishit 12:6: "'And Avram passed through the land to the place of Shekhem' - this is the city of Shekhem… And Rashi wrote: 'He entered it in order to pray on behalf of Ya'akov's sons, anticipating the time when they would come from the field sad.' This is correct. And I add that Avraham took hold of this place first, even before he was given the land. [Thus], it was alluded to him that his descendants would conquer the place first before being entitled to it, and before the iniquity of the inhabitants of the Land would be full so that they would be driven away from it."

[3] R. Yoel Elitzur pointed out to me that it is possible that this resolves the problem regarding the tribal affiliation of the city of Shekhem. From the account of the borders in Yehoshua 16:7, it would appear that the city was situated in the tribal territory of Menashe; the fact that one of Menasheh's sons was named Shekhem certainly reinforces this assumption. On the other hand, in Yehoshua 21:21, Shekhem is mentioned as a city of refuge in the tribal territory of Efrayim. If, however, the city was given to Yosef himself as an additional portion, he being the firstborn, it is certainly possible to argue that the border between the tribal territories of his two sons, Efrayim and Menasheh, passed through the city itself, in keeping with the verse cited above: "And they became the inheritance of the children of Yosef."

[4] The tribes of Yehuda and Asher, and perhaps also the tribe of Naftali, were blessed with a blessing mentioning the material good of the land (49:11-12, 20, 21; Devarim 33:23-24), but there the description is short, and some of the blessings focus on a particular product (wine in the territory of Yehuda and oil in the territory of Asher).

[5] It has been suggested (Encyclopedia Mikra'it, s.v. Shekhem 2, vol. VII, p. 670) that the name of the city is based on this topography: the city is like a shekhem, the part of the body between the shoulders, just as it is stated about Jerusalem, "And He shall dwell between his shoulders" (Devarim 33:12, and Rashi, ad loc., based on Zevachim 54b; and see the lecture on the territory of Binyamin (http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/13-jeru/17mikdash.doc).

[6] It is related earlier that the people of Israel offered the paschal offering in Gilgal, but Scripture does not state explicitly that an altar was erected there. And we have already seen that according to Chazal, the altar on Mount Eival was built on the day that Israel crossed the Jordan, in other words, even before they offered the paschal offering.

[7] This term clearly supports the underlying assumption that we presented in the introduction to this series, according to which places in Eretz Yisrael have a particular quality and essence that is characteristic of them.

[8] Of course, the second division continued the first division, for, as we know, in many ways the kingdom of Israel represents the kingdom of the sons of Yosef.

[9] The city was given an interesting designation in Midrash Or Afela to Bereishit 35:2-4 (cited by R. Kasher, Torah Shelema, Vayishlach, 24): "Sela Machloket," - "rock of contention."

[10] As is stated in Divrei Ha-Yamim I 5:1-2): "Now the sons of Reuven the firstborn of Israel - for he was the firstborn, but, since he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Yosef the son of Israel. But not so as to have the birthright attributed to him by genealogy. For Yehuda prevailed over his brothers, and of him came the chief ruler; though the birthright was Yosef's." In the wake of the rejection of Reuven, Yosef received the birthright and was entitled to an additional portion in the land (see Bereishit 48:5, 22 and Rashi and the other commentators, ad loc.). Yehuda represents the very opposite: rejection of the firstborn and preference given to a younger son with respect to the leadership. 

[11] It is not by chance that Mashiach ben Yosef is the first mashiach, who builds the earthly-material foundation of the country, and that Mashiach ben David comes after him and builds on this foundation a higher, spiritual edifice, as explained by R. Kook, in his well-known article, "Ha-Misped Bi-Yerushalayim," Ma'amarei Ha-Ra'aya (Jerusalem, 5744), pp. 94-99.

[12] This also explains the words of R. Elazar that Avraham built an altar in Shekhem "following the tidings regarding Eretz Yisrael."

[13] The word "gate" is not meant to imply a formal border. Shekhem did not constitute such a border during the Canaanite period – the period of the patriarchs - when the land was settled in various areas with capital cities, Shekhem being one of them. It was also not on the border during the period of the conquest and settlement or during the first Temple period, when the northern border of the northern tribes passed through what is today southern Lebanon. We mean to characterize the place as a primal place, through which the patriarchs passed, thus turning what was north of it into a region that was irrelevant to their lives; in this sense, Shekhem was indeed the northernmost point – hence, a "gate."

[14] This clarifies the inner (and not only geographical) connection between Mount Eival and Shekhem, which could have been seen as two different and unconnected places. Shekhem's status as a "firstborn" city and as a "gate" accounts for the actions that took place on Mount Eival.

[15] It is not by chance that in later periods Shekhem served as the Samaritan capital – the place where the uniqueness of the people of Israel and the difference between them and others was clarified.

[16] Shemu'ot Ra'aya, I, Sefer Bereishit (Jerusalem 5699), p. 83. R. Kook sets this quality of Yosef against the position of Yehuda that "the sanctity of Israel must be separated from the nations," a position expressed by Shimon and Levi, who were "the first to be ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of Israel and to fight against Israel's assimilation among the nations" (ibid.) – also in Shekhem. These two attitudes toward the nations of the world find expression in Shekhem, as we have explained (it should be noted that the connection to Shekhem was my suggestion, and that it does not appear in the words of R. Kook).

[17] As stated above, it would appear that the border between the two sons of Yosef – Efrayim and Menashe – ran through Shekhem.

[18] Note that the altar was built on Mount Eival, on the northern, outer side of the city, at the meeting point where the potential for repair lies (see further in the commentary of R. D. Tz. Hoffman, Devarim 24:4-8 and Vayikra 1:11).

[19] According to this understanding, the expression, "shekhem echad al achekha" (Bereishit 48:22), can be understood as alluding to a place name, in this case, the city of Shekhem itself, as was mentioned above.

[20] This idea is brought in the name of Rav Uri Sharki in the wonderful booklet of Rav Yisrael Leibovitz (today: Ariel), Tabor ha-Aretz – le-Shivcha shel Ir ha-Berit Shekhem, Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai and Garin Shekhem, Shevat 5748, pp. 14-19.

[21] It is possible that Rechav'am's going to Shekhem reflected a great desire for unity, as is stated there: "And Rechav'am went to Shekhem, for all Israel came to Shekhem, to make him king" (Melakhim I 12:1). When it became clear, however, that this desire was not being realized, the element of division became manifest, first in the rebellion that took place there against Rechav'am and the house of David, and afterwards when Yerav'am settled in the place (ibid. v. 25) and established the capital of his kingdom there.