SALT Parashat Ki Tavo 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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Motzaei Shabbat

            In Parashat Ki-Tavo, Moshe describes to Benei Yisrael the special ritual they were to perform at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival upon entering Eretz Yisrael.  During this ritual, the Leviyim were to pronounce a curse upon those who commit certain sins, and then pronounce a blessing upon those who obey those commands.  The prohibitions which Moshe lists here (27:15-26) cover a wide range of offenses, including idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and interpersonal crimes such as moving boundaries and beating one’s fellow.

            While at first glance this list appears to be simply a random sampling of the Torah’s laws, a number of commentators noted that these prohibitions share a common denominator.  Namely, they are all violated in secrecy.  In two instances (idolatry and beating one’s fellow), Moshe explicitly speaks of a secretive act (verses 15 & 24), and most of the others – such as forbidden relations, taking bribes, misleading a blind person, and moving a boundary marker – are naturally committed secretly, out of the public view.  Another prohibition mentioned here is the miscarriage of justice (27:19), which is also generally done under the guise of justice, with the judge presenting incorrect facts and arguments for his knowingly unfair decision.

            This observation leads us to the question, why did Moshe single out this particular kind of misdeed – those committed privately and clandestinely – for the blessing and curse which Benei Yisrael proclaimed when they entered the Land of Israel?

            The likely answer, as noted by Rav Amnon Bazak, relates to the collective responsibility which Benei Yisrael assumed as they entered the land to begin creating a new country.  At Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, the people proclaimed their commitment not only as individuals, but as a unified nation, and this meant that they would all be mutually responsible for one another’s conduct.  For this reason, special emphasis is placed here on sins which are committed in secrecy.  Public crimes can be handled through the systems of law enforcement and justice.  This is not the case, however, when it comes to wrongs committed in the privacy of people’s homes, or that can be somehow concealed from the public eye.  These can only be prevented by proclaiming a blessing and a curse; by creating a society where such conduct is deemed reprehensible and taboo.  This was the purpose of the proclamations at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival – to create this societal awareness of what is right and what is wrong.  We prevent private, secretive religious offenses only through education and disseminating the Torah’s laws and values to the point where people understand that such conduct is to be avoided even outside the view of other people.  This, perhaps, was the goal of the ceremony at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, where the people accepted responsibility even for those wrongs which are committed in private, and which thus can be prevented only by building a society on the proper foundations of morality and yir’at Shamayim.


            We read in Parashat Ki-Tavo of the ceremony Benei Yisrael conducted after entering the Land of Israel at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, declaring a blessing and curse upon, respectively, those who obey and disobey the Torah’s laws.  The Torah describes that six tribes stood on Mount Gerizim, whereas the other six stood on Mount Eival.  The six on Mount Gerizim were Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissakhar, Yosef and Binyamin, and the six on Mount Eival were Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan and Naftali (27:12-13).

            The fulfillment of this command is recorded in Sefer Yehoshua (8:30-35).  The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (36) notes that in describing the division among the tribes during this ceremony, the verse (8:33) uses different terms in reference to the tribes on Mount Gerizim and those on Mount Eival.  The verse speaks of “chetzyo” (half the nation) standing on Mount Gerizim, and “ha-chetzyo” (“the half of the nation”) standing on Mount Eival.  The Gemara explains that the term “ha-chetzyo” refers to a minority, or slightly less than half.  Although six tribes stood on each mountain, the division was not even, as more people stood on Mount Gerizim than on Mount Eival.  The Gemara explains that the group on Mount Gerizim included the two tribes of Yosef, and as we read later in Sefer Yehoshua (17:14), these tribes were very populous.  The large numbers of people in these tribes resulted in a larger representation on Mount Gerizim.  The Gemara notes that this discrepancy occurred despite the fact that some of the Leviyim – whose tribe was assigned to Mount Gerizim – stood in between the two mountains, resulting in only a partial representation of Levi on Mount Gerizim.

            A different view appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi, as cited by Tosefot in Masekhet Sota (36a).  The Yerushalmi comments that to the contrary, the group that stood on Mount Eival was larger than that which stood on Mount Gerizim.  However, the Yerushalmi cites two different opinions as to why this was the case.  The first view explains that this was a function of members of the tribe of Levi standing in between the two mountains during this ceremony.  The split of this tribe resulted in only five-and-a-half tribes standing on Mount Gerizim, and thus the group on Mount Eival, which consisted of six complete tribes, was larger.  The second view attributes the discrepancy to the tragedy of Ba’al Pe’or, when God brought a plague that killed 24,000 members of the tribe of Shimon, which was left with a smaller population than the other tribes.  This view in the Gemara argues that even if the entire tribe of Levi had stood on Mount Gerizim, the group on Mount Gerizim would have been smaller than the group on Mount Eival due to Shimon’s small size.  The Yerushalmi cites Rabbi Yossi bar Bon as refuting this argument, noting that the small population of Shimon was offset by the fact that only part of the tribes of Reuven and Gad – two of the tribes assigned to Mount Eival – were present at this ceremony.  These tribes had established permanent residence east of the Jordan River, and only some of their men crossed the river with the other tribes to join in the conquest of Canaan.  As such, two of the six tribes who stood on Mount Eival were not complete, and thus this group would have been equal to the group on Mount Gerizim, notwithstanding Shimon’s small population, were it not for the contingent of Levites who stood in between the two mountains.  Thus, according to this view, it was the split of the tribe of Levi, and not the small population of Shimon, that resulted in the discrepancy between the numbers of people standing on the two mountains.


            We read in Parashat Ki-Tavo of Moshe’s instructions to Benei Yisrael concerning the ceremony they were to conduct at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival upon entering the Land of Israel.  With six tribes standing on one mountain and six on the other, the Leviyim standing in between turned to Mount Gerizim and proclaimed a blessing upon those who observe God’s commands, and then turned to Mount Eival and proclaimed a curse upon those who disobey.

The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (36a-b) cites Rav Kahana as drawing a connection between this ceremony and the avnei ha-eifod – the precious stones embedded on the shoulder straps of the kohen gadol’s apron.  The Torah in Sefer Shemot (28:10) requires engraving the names of six tribes on one stone, and the names of the other six on the second stone, but it does not specify which tribes’ names should be engraved on which stone.  Rav Kahana asserted that the tribes’ names were divided between the two stones the way there were divided at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival.  As we read in Parashat Ki-Tavo (27:12-13), the tribes of Shimon, (part of) Levi, Yehuda, Yissakhar, Yosef and Binyamin stood on Mount Gerizim, while Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan and Naftali stood on Mount Eival.  According to Rav Kahana, this division was followed on the avnei ha-eifod, as well, as the names of the six tribes who stood on Mount Gerizim were engraved on one stone, and the names of the tribes on Mount Eival were engraved on the second.

The Gemara quickly rejects Rav Kahana’s view, citing a berayta which brings two views regarding the arrangement of the names on the kohen gadol’s apron, neither of which reflects Rav Kahana’s position.  Nevertheless, Rav Kahana’s attempt to associate the ceremony at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival with the avnei ha-eifod needs to be understood.  What point of connection did Rav Kahana find between these two divisions of the tribes?  Why did he assert that the division of the tribes’ names on the kohen gadol’s shoulder straps was the same as the tribes’ division at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival?

The avnei ha-eifod, worn on the kohen gadol’s shoulders, have been viewed as a symbol of his obligation to uplift and inspire the nation.  The kohen gadol – and, by extension, all religious leaders – are charged with the responsibility of “carrying” the nation on their shoulders, elevating the people through their model of excellence and inspirational conduct and leadership.  The names of all twelve tribes are engraved on the stones to indicate that this responsibility extends to the entire nation.  The kohen gadol is to inspire not just one group or several groups among the nation, but rather all the various groups and subgroups, without exception.

On this basis, we might suggest an explanation for Rav Kahana’s attempt to associate the avenei ha-eifod with Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival.  He perhaps sought to emphasize that the kohen gadol’s role applies to both groups – those represented by Mount Gerizim, and those represented by Mount Eival.  He is to help and inspire those who are generally observant and committed, as well as those who are not.  As the nation’s leading religious figure, he may not restrict his leadership to only “Mount Gerizim” or to only “Mount Eival.”  He is responsible for both populations, and is required to work towards uplifting them all.


            Numerous different “allusions” have been suggested over the ages for the month of Elul in Tanakh.  Among the lesser-known such suggestions is cited by the Sefat Emet in the name of his grandfather, the Chiddushei Ha-Rim, who noted the verse in Tehillim (100:3), “Hu asanu ve-lo anachnu.”  The word “ve-lo” is spelled with the letter alef, such that the phrase means “He made us – not us.”  In this phrase, we affirm our utter powerlessness and sheer insignificance in relation to God’s unlimited might.  According to the traditional pronunciation of “ve-lo” (the “keri”), however, the word is spelled with the letter vav, such the phrase “ve-lo anachnu” means, “we belong to Him.”  When pronounced this way, this phrase reflects our sense of connectedness to God, the close attachment and love that we feel towards Him.

            The Chiddushei Ha-Rim observed that the word “ve-lo,” if we include both the way it is spelled and the way it is pronounced, consists of the same letters as the word “Elul.”  He explained that the dual implication of this word teaches that the more we “negate” ourselves in relation to God (“ve-lo” with an alef), the closer we draw to Him (“ve-lo” with a vav).

            It seems that the Chuddushei Ha-Rim, in this terse remark, sought to resolve one of the basic dilemmas of the Yamim Noraim period.  Our sources speak of this period as, on the one hand, a time of fear and dread, as we know we are judged and are unworthy of a favorable outcome, but also, on other hand, a time of closeness and intimacy with God.  How can these two emotions be experienced simultaneously?  Fear and intimidation is normally the product of emotional distance; we feel comfortable and at ease with those with whom we enjoy closeness, and we experience discomfort and anxiety around those from whom we feel distant.  How, then, can this period be a time of both fear and intimate closeness?

            The Chiddushei Ha-Rim answered the question by way of the two readings of “ve-lo anachnu.”  We achieve closeness with God specifically through the experience of fear and dread.  The feeling of “bittul” (self-negation), of insignificance and helplessness, is what produces a close relationship with God.

            In interpersonal relations, we naturally tend to “put our best foot forward,” and to project a persona of self-confidence, self-assurance and competence.  We try to earn people’s admiration and favor by appearing impressive, accomplished, capable and secure.  When it comes to our relationship with God, however, we must employ the precise opposite approach.  “Karov Hashem le-nishberei leiv” – “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted” (Tehillim 34:19).  God is closest to us when we come to Him with an honest, broken spirit, without artificial displays of confidence and pride.  We achieve intimacy with God when we are true to ourselves, when we recognize how helpless we are without God’s assistance and how unworthy we are of that assistance.  It is specifically by contemplating the infinitely vast distance between us and the Almighty, and experiencing genuine feelings of shame and fear that such thoughts evoke, that we achieve closeness.

            And thus Elul and the Yamim Noraim are, appropriately, associated with both experiences – fear and closeness.  It is a time when we reflect upon our inadequacy and feel “brokenhearted,” and it is through this experience of honest, humble confession and shame that we build a close relationship with God.


            Parashat Ki-Tavo begins with the mitzva of bikkurim, and commands that a farmer must bring the first fruits that ripen in his orchards to the Beit Ha-mikdash, and present them to “the kohen who will be in those days” (26:3).  Rashi, based on the Sifrei, comments, “All you have is the kohen of your day, the way he is.”  Meaning, even if the kohanim in a person’s time are not of the same lofty stature of piety and wisdom as those of previous generations, he nevertheless brings his bikkurim to the kohanim of his time.

            The Ramban questions Rashi’s comments, noting that there appears to be no reason for religious stature to be a factor in determining to whom to give one’s bikkurim.  The kohen’s role in the bikkurim process is merely as a recipient; he has no additional job that should require any special expertise or distinguished stature.  The Ramban notes that the Sifrei makes a similar comment earlier, in Parashat Shoftim (17:9), where the Torah requires bringing difficult questions to the judge “who will be at that time.”  There, too, the Sifrei remarks that one should bring questions to the scholars of his time even if they are not on the same level of expertise as the scholars of earlier generations.  In that context, the Ramban comments, it is necessary for the Torah to emphasize that every generation’s scholars are authorized to rule on halakhic matters even if they fall short of the stature of previous generation’s scholars.  But when it comes to bikkurim, there is no reason to think that only distinguished and pious kohanim are worthy recipients.  The Ramban therefore interprets the Sifrei as referring to a case where a kohen is later discovered to be disqualified for the kehuna (such as if he was discovered to be the product of a forbidden union).  Since the kohen was presumed to be valid “in those days,” when the bikkurim were brought, the mitzva was fulfilled even if he is later discovered to be disqualified.

            Seforno, in his comments to this verse, seems to have had the Ramban’s question in mind, and implicitly provides an answer.  According to Seforno, there was never any question that one must bring his bikkurim to the kohen “who will be in those days,” but one may have assumed that a different mode of conduct is warranted when bringing bikkurim to a kohen of lowly stature.  The Torah here requires the farmer to speak to the kohen with respect and honor, proclaiming, “I have come forth to the Lord your God,” a phrase which Seforno claims is used only when addressing people of high religious stature.  One may have thought that this phrase should be reserved for righteous kohanim, and therefore the Torah emphasizes that even this aspect of the bikkurim obligation applies regardless of the kohen’s stature.  Since the kohen does, after all, represent the Almighty in receiving the first fruits, he must be spoken to with respect and reverence.

            Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, answers the Ramban’s question differently (citing Rav David Pardo’s Maskil Le-David).  He observes that when it comes to other mandatory gifts to kohanim, such as teruma, a kohen is permitted to initiate the process by approaching farmers and requesting the gift.  Bikkurim, however, is brought by the farmer to the kohen in the Beit Ha-mikdash.  The Torah emphasizes that this procedure must be followed regardless of the kohen’s stature.  Even if the kohen is not especially righteous, one must bring his first fruits to the kohen, and may not sit back and wait for the kohen to approach him and request the bikkurim.


            The Torah in Parashat Ki-Tavo introduces the mitzva of vidui ma’aser, which requires one to make a verbal proclamation after the third and sixth years of the shemita cycle, avowing compliance with the Torah’s tithing obligations.  The text of this proclamation, which the Torah presents in this parasha (26:13-15), concludes with the phrase, “asiti ke-khol asher tzivitani” (“I have acted in accordance with all You have commanded me”), followed by a prayer for prosperity.

            At first glance, this phrase – “asiti ke-khol asher tzivitani” – summarizes the entire vidui ma’aser proclamation, as the farmer, after enumerating the various laws with which he complied, concludes that he did everything God had commanded with regard to tithes.  The Sifrei, however, cited by Rashi, explains this phrase as referring to a particular requirement associated with tithes: “samachti ve-simachti bo” (“I have rejoiced and gave joy through it”).  Meaning, the farmer must avow that he rejoiced in performing this mitzva and also gave joy to others through the charitable tithes which he gave.

            The Rambam, in codifying the requirement of vidui ma’aser (Hilkhot Ma’aser Sheini11:15), cites this interpretation of the Sifrei, and proceeds to note the source of this obligation to “rejoice and give joy,” citing a verse earlier Parashat Ki-Tavo (26:11): “You shall rejoice in all the goodness that God has given you…”  It appears that this verse introduces the requirement to experience joy and to bring joy to others when observing the tithing requirements.

            This citation, however, is very difficult to understand, in light of the fact that this verse refers to an entirely different mitzva – the obligation of bikkurim, bringing one’s first fruits to the Beit Ha-mikdash.  The Torah concludes its discussion of bikkurim by requiring that we “rejoice in all the goodness” that God has bestowed upon us.  How can the Rambam cite this verse as the source for the obligation to rejoice in the context of tithing, if this verse is not referring to tithing, and speaks instead of an entirely different mitzva?  This question becomes even more striking in light of the fact that we in fact find an explicit Biblical source elsewhere for the requirement to rejoice when fulfilling one’s tithing obligations. In Parashat Re’ei (14:26), after the Torah establishes the obligation of ma’aser sheni – the tithe which one brings to and eats in Jerusalem – it commands, “ve-samachta ata u-veitekha” – “you and your household shall rejoice.”  This certainly appears to be the Biblical source for the requirement to rejoice in the framework of tithing.  Yet, the Rambam chose not to cite this verse, and cited instead a verse that appears in the context of an entirely different mitzva.

            One answer, perhaps, as suggested by Rav Avraham Erentrau (in Kol Ha-Torah, Nissan, 5766), is that the Rambam cites this verse as the source for the definition of the obligation to “rejoice.”  The verse in entirety reads, “You shall rejoice in all the goodness that God has given you and your household – you, the Levite, and the foreigner in your midst.”  Possibly, the Rambam viewed this command as establishing a prototype of simcha; namely, that when the Torah requires us to rejoice, this requirement includes ensuring that the underprivileged in our communities – “the Levite, and the foreigner in your midst” – also experience joy.  This verse is cited not as the source for the obligation to rejoice when fulfilling the tithing requirement – an obligation which the Torah introduces in Parashat Re’ei – but rather as the source for the definition of “rejoicing” as “samachti ve-simachti” – to experience joy and also to bring joy to others.

            Rav Erentrau cites in this context the Rambam’s famous comments in Hilkhot Yom Tov (6:8) establishing that the obligation to “rejoice” on Yom Tov includes an obligation to care and provide for the needy.  Once the Torah commands us to rejoice on the festivals, this necessarily includes an obligation to bring joy to those who are ordinarily unable to experience joy.  As in regard to ma’aser sheni, the Torah’s obligation of simcha on Yom Tov must be understood as incorporating not only the personal experience of joy, but also giving joy to others in the form of charitable assistance to those who need it.


            Yesterday, we noted that the vidui ma’aser proclamation, in which one avows complying with his tithing obligations, includes the phrase “asiti ke-khol asher tzivitani” – “I have acted in accordance with all You have commanded me” (26:14).  The Sifrei understands this to mean, “samachti ve-simachti bo” – “I rejoiced, and brought joy [to others] with it.”  Yesterday, we presented an explanation suggesting that this refers to the ma’aser sheni obligation, which requires bringing one-tenth of one’s produce to Jerusalem and eating it there in a state of joy.  The requirement of “samachti ve-simachti bo” reflects the idea that any halakhic obligation of simcha (“joy”) necessarily includes a requirement to bring joy to those who are ordinarily despondent, by sharing one’s assets with the poor.

            Alternatively, however, this requirement may be understood as referring to ma’aser ani – the tithe given to the poor, which supplants ma’aser sheni every third and sixth year of the seven-year shemita cycle.  If so, then the phrase “samachti ve-simachti bo” speaks of a requirement to not just give charity to the poor, but to do so happily, warmly and lovingly, in a manner that brings joy to the recipient.  Chazal understood that the obligation of ma’aser ani requires not only sharing one’s material benefits with those in need, but also lifting their spirits by extending gifts with genuine joy. 

            According to this reading, the Sifrei’s remark might serve as a source of the comments of the Sefer Ha-chinukh (479), defining the general, year-round obligation of tzedaka as a requirement “to provide charity for one who needs it with joy and in a goodhearted manner.”  The Chinukh defines the charity obligation as requiring us to not just give charity, but to do so “be-simcha u-ve’tuv leivav” – with joy and good spirits.  This definition of the mitzva is perhaps modeled after the triennial obligation of ma’aser ani, the tithe given to the poor, which includes the requirement of “samachti ve-simachti bo” – to experience genuine joy when helping the poor, and to share that joy with them.

            This point is famously made by the Rambam, in Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim (10:4):

Anyone who gives charity to a poor person with an unpleasant countenance, with his face buried in the ground – even if he gave him one thousand gold coins – has lost and forfeited his merit.  Instead, one should give with a pleasant countenance and with joy…and speak to him comforting words.

According to the Rambam, one receives no credit for the mitzva of charity if he gives his donation – regardless of its size – in a begrudging, cold manner.  By definition, it appears, the mitzva of tzedaka requires a state of genuine joy, so that the beneficiary receives not only the financial support he needs, but also encouragement, reassurance and comfort.