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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Bechukotai (Bamidbar in Israel),

Shabbat Chazak (in the Diaspora) and Shabbat Mevarchim Chodesh Sivan

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The Torah portion of Bechokatai contains the section referred to as the Tochacha(rebuke) which enumerates various curses should the Jewish people (G-d forbid) not follow the ways of the Torah.[2] This article will discuss some of the customs relating to the reading of this section of the Torah.

One Aliyah

The Mishnah says[3] that one may not interrupt in the middle of the reading of the Tochacha (referred to in the Mishna as “the Curses”); rather one person reads it in its entirety in one aliyah. The Talmud gives two reasons for this law:[4]

Love Rebuke

Rabbi Chiya bar Gamda says that it should not appear that we are rejecting G-d’s rebuke (Were the person to stop reading in the middle of the Tochacha, it might appear as if he “had enough” of the curses.) as King Solomon wrote,[5] “My son, do not reject the discipline of the L-rd, nor despise His chastening.”[6]

No Blessing on Curses

Reish Laskish says that the reason for this rule is so that no blessing be recited (directly) on the curses. Rather the aliyah starts several verses before the Tochacha begins and ends several verses after it ends. In this way the blessings are not recited directly on the Tochacha. Rabbi Levi in the Jerusalem Talmud[7]explains that it is as if G-d is saying, “It would not be right for Me to receive blessings (i.e., be blessed by the person getting the aliyah) while My children are being cursed.”

Start and End on a Good Note

The Jerusalem Talmud quotes a third explanation in the name of Rabbi Yossi bar Bun: Every person who gets an Aliyah to the Torah must start and end with a positive matter rather than with anything negative.

Aliyot in the Mishnaic Era

The commentaries have difficulty understanding Reish Lakish’s explanation. The Talmud says[8] that the way the brachot of the Torah readings were recited in the era of the Mishnah was very different than it is today. In that time, only the person getting the first aliyah would recite the blessing before the Torah reading and the person receiving the final aliyah would recite the blessing after the Torah reading. In between no blessings were said. Each aliya consisted of one person getting called up, reading several verses and then sit down. (In those days whoever got an aliyah was expected to actually read from the Torah.) This means that the bracha recited beforehand counted as the bracha before every aliyah while the bracha afterwards counted as the bracha after every aliyah. Later, in the times of the Gemara, the sages established that each person who got an aliyah should recite the blessings before and after his aliyah. They made this change so that people who came late to shul and missed the first aliyah would hear the bracha before a later aliyah while people who had to leave before the end of the reading should be able to hear the bracha after the reading.
So the question is, how can Reish Lakish explain that the reason that the Mishnah says to read the Tochacha as one aliyah is in order not to make blessings on the Tochacha when in the Mishnaic era no blessings were made on aliyot in middle of the Torah reading?
I have come across (in the Biurim on the Metivta Shas) six explanations:
1)     The Mishnah was referring to the reading of the Tochacha on public fast days (as was customary in that era) and was teaching that one should not begin the reading from the middle of the Tochacha.[9]
2)     Reish Lakish was not explaining the reason for the Mishnah but was rather explaining that in the era of the Gemara (when brachot were said on each aliyah), an additional reason for the law of the Mishnah can be suggested.[10]
3)     In those days, the person who got the first aliyah made the bracha on behalf of all those who would get aliyot in the Torah while the one who got the final aliyah made the concluding bracha on behalf of all those who preceded him. So, whenever one received an aliyah it was as if he actually recited those blessings. For this reason, the Tochacha wasn’t broken up into two (or more) aliyot for it would be as if those brachot were recited directly on the Tochacha.[11]
4)     In the time of the Mishnah it wasn’t mandatory to recite the blessings before and after each aliyah. Rather, it was optional. Certainly, one who came late to shul and didn’t hear the bracha before the first aliyah and was then called to read from the Torah would have to make a bracha before he began reading. As such, the sages instituted that the Tochacha not be broken up into two aliyot so that no blessings ever be recited (directly) on the Tochacha.[12]
5)     Even in the era of the Mishnah, those who would receive aliyot would recite the barchu blessing before their aliyot. This is the blessing to which Reish Lakish was referring.[13]
6)     Even in the era of the Mishnah when brachot were not said for each aliyah, they would specifically say brachot before and after the Tochacha but not in the middle as explained in the Mishnah.[14] This is based on the Jerusalem Talmud that says that (even in the Mishnaic era) a blessing was recited on the Song of the Sea, the Ten Commandments, the Tochacha in Vayikra and the Tochacha in Devarim. The reason blessings were recited on the Song of the Sea and the Ten Commandments is because of their importance. And the reason blessings were recited on the Tochacha is so that it not appear that we are rejecting G-d’s rebuke. In addition, by blessing G-d before the aliyah, we will be blessed by G-d in return. This will counteract any of the negative energy associated with reading these curses (see below).

Before Shavuot and Rosh HaShana

The Talmud goes on to say (in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar) that Ezra established that the Tochacha be read before Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah as these are considered to be the beginnings of a new year, and we want to “finish off the year and its curses.” (The Tochacha in Bechukotai is always read before Shavuot while the one in Ki Tavo is always read before Rosh HaShanah.)   The Talmud explains that Shavuot is considered like a new year since on Shavuot G-d judges us as to how our fruit trees will grow in the coming year.

One Week Break

Tosfot explains[15] that because we do not wish to go directly from the Tochachato the holiday, we always have (at least) one Shabbat in between, i.e., the Torah portion of Bamidbar is always read between Bechukotai and Shavuot while Nitzavim is read between Ki Tavo and Rosh HaShanah.

A Special Torah for the Tochacha

The commentaries wonder[16] how Ezra established these readings at these times when, during his era, it was not a universal custom to complete the Torah on an annual basis. The Talmud says[17] that the the custom in Israel (at that time) was to complete the Torah every three years. How then would they read these sections every year before these holidays? They suggest that an additional Torah was taken out at these times in order to read from the Tochachaas per the enactment of Ezra.

Destroying is Building

The Talmud goes on to quote Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar who says that if one is counseled by old sages to destroy and by young people to build, he should accept the counsel of the old sages and destroy as “the destruction of the elders is really building while the building of the young people is really destruction.” Proof to this is cited from Rechavam, son of Solomon.[18] After King Solomon’s passing, before Rechavam was coronated, the Jewish people approached him and asked him to lower their taxes. He told them he needed three days to think about it. He then sought the advice of his father’s advisors. They advised him to speak kindly to the people and gain their confidence. But his young friends advised him to say, “My father burdened you with a heavy yoke, but I shall add to your yoke. My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions.” He listened to his young friends and spoke those harsh words to the people. They promptly abandoned him and established a kingdom for the 10 tribes in the North with Yeravam ben Nevat as their king. Thus, the “building” of the young people (to tax them more) led to the decimation of his kingdom. Had he listened to the senior advisors and “destroyed” the taxation system (even temporarily), he could have built up his kingdom.

What’s the Connection?

The commentaries[19] wonder about the connection of this teaching (about the older sages and the young people) with the previous one (about Ezra establishing the reading of the Tochacha before Shavuot and Rosh HaShana). Although both were taught by Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, he taught many other teachings in the Talmud as well.

Begin the Year and its Blessings

They explain that the point of the second teaching is that one must look at the bigger picture. While certain events may appear to be destructive, they may in fact ultimately be very beneficial. Similarly, one must realize that the purpose of the curses (negative experiences) that one had in the previous year was ultimately for one’s own good. And now that he has experienced them, the new year and its blessings can begin.

No One Wants a Curse

It is brought down in several sources that people were unwilling to receive the Tochacha Aliyah, for they felt as if the curses were directed towards them.[20]
Who Gets the Tochacha Aliyah?
There are many customs as to who should receive the Tochacha aliyah. Here are some of them:
·        No One
There was a custom[21] that the Tochacha was read by the Ba’al Koreh but that no one received that aliyah. No brachot were recited on it and an additional aliyah was given during the other readings so that there would be a total of seven.
The commentaries question (and reject) this custom since, as mentioned, the Jerusalem Talmud says that even in Mishnaic times there was a blessing recited on the Tochacha in order to emphasize that we are not rejecting G-d’s rebuke.
·        The Rabbi
In some communities[22] the rabbi of the community would receive this aliyah. Before the blessing he would say (in an undertone) the verse (cited above) “My son, do not reject the discipline of the L-rd.” It would seem that the reason for this custom is that the rabbi (presumably) recognizes that the rebuke of G-d is not a negative, but a positive experience.
·        An Aliyah for Pay
In some communities they would hire someone to receive this aliyah. It would seem that since he was hired by the people and thereby representing them, the curses would not be directed to him as an individual.[23]
·        Not an Enemy
An enemy of the ba’al koreh should never be called for this aliyah.[24] As the ba’al koreh may, G-d forbid, intend to curse him which could lead to negative consequence. If he was already called, he should go up and receive the aliyah, and in the merit of the Torah, G-d will protect him from any evil.[25]
·        The Ba’al Koreh
In many communities it is customary for this aliyah to be given to the one who is reading the Torah (the Ba’al Koreh). Certainly, he would not direct any curses towards himself.
A Kohen or Levi Ba’al Koreh[26]
If the Ba’al Koreh is a Kohen (or a Levi), the first aliyah (or the second) can be extended to include the Tochacha and then the next aliyot should be subdivided to make up for those. In the case of the Tochacha in Ki Tavo (which is towards the end of the parsha), the earlier part of the parsha should be divided into seven aliyot and then the ba’al koreh can receive the Tochacha as the final aliyah (acharon) which can be given to a kohen. (This would not work in shuls where no additional aliyot [hosafot] are given.)

No Call Up

It is customary not to call anyone by name to receive this aliyah.[27] The reason for this is that this person may change his mind and refuse to get the aliyah after he is called, and the Talmud says[28] that one who is called to read from the Torah (i.e., to receive an aliyah) and refuses to do so will have his life shortened. In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen, we don’t call him by name. He (usually the ba’al koreh) simply takes the aliyah on his own.[29]

Why No Tochacha before Pesach and Sukkot?

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin asks,[30] since we are also judged on Pesach and Sukkot (on grain and water respectively), why do we not read the Tochachathen as well?  (Although there are only two Tochacha readings in the Torah, it could have been instituted that an extra Torah scroll be taken out with which to do these readings [see above]).
He explains that according to the Zohar Chadash (Parshat Ki Tavo) the Tochacha of parshat Bechukotai corresponds to the destruction of the first Bait HaMikdash while the Tochacha of parshat Ki Tavo corresponds to the destruction of the Second. The prophet says[31] that the first Bait Hamikdashwas destroyed due to the fact that the people deserted the Torah. While the second one was destroyed due to the sin of baseless hatred.[32]
We read the Tochacha which corresponds to the destruction of the first Bait HaMikdash before Shavuot so that we can repair the sin that led to its destruction by reaccepting the Torah with added vigor. And we read the Tochacha which corresponds to the destruction of the second Bait HaMikdashbefore Rosh Hashana so that we can repair the sin of baseless hatred and enter the new year as “one group, to do Your will with a complete heart.”[33]
May this happen speedily in our days!
[2] Levit. 26:14-46
[3] Megillah 31a
[4] Ibid side b. In addition, the Talmud says that this rule does not apply to the Tochachahin Parshat Ki Tavo. In practice, it is not customary to divide that reading either (O.C. 288:6).
[5] Mishlei 3:11
[6] In the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 3:7 or 26b) Rabbi Chiya bar Gamda is quoted slightly differently. There he focuses on the end of the above verse which says אַל־תָּ֜קֹ֗ץ בְּתוֹכַחְתּֽוֹ – nor abhor His chastening. In a play on the word  תָּ֜קֹ֗ץ he says “Do not make His rebuke into kotzin – small pieces.” The reasoning is the same – that breaking up the Aliyah could be seen as rejecting G-d’s rebuke.
[7] Cited in the previous note. (Please note that in the Jerusalem Talmud and in the Mishnayot, the chapter containing this teaching is the third chapter of Megilah while in the Babylonian Talmud the order of the final two chapters is reversed. So that the Mishnah containing this teaching is in the fourth and final chapter.) See also Devarim Rabbah 4
[8] Megillah 21a and b
[9] Tosfot Yom Tov on the Mishnah (Megillah 3:6)
[10] Ibid
[11] Taz O.C. 139:3
[12] Ibid 228:5
[13] Responsa of Chatam Sofer (O.C. 66). Support for this concept can be found in the Bait Yosef (O.C. 282) in the name of the Shibolei HaLeket and the Ge’onim who says that the reason Ezra established that seven aliyot (minimum) be given out on Shabbat was so that if anyone missed the barchu recited after Yishtabach during the seven days of the week, he could make up for it at this time. This is difficult to understand since at the time of Ezra only the first and last olim would say a bracha as explained above. But, according to the Chatam Sofer one can say that, even at the time of Ezra, the oleh would recite barchubefore his aliyah. See Sho’el UMeishiv (5:9) for an additional explanation on that Bait Yosef.
[14] Lechem Mishnah (on the Mishnah in Megillah) by Rabbi Moshe Lifshitz, a student of the Shela Hakodesh
[15] D.H Kelalot
[16] Ohr HaYashar by Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hilman of London and Jerusalem (Megillah 31b D.H. Tanya). Rabbi Hilman was the father-in-law of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, first chief rabbi of the state of Israel. See there for additional explanations.
[17] Megillah 29b
[18] Kings I, 12
[19] Livyat Chen by Rabbi Efrayim HaKesher of 18th Century Altona
[20] See Agra Dekalah (by Rabbi Tzvi Elimelch of Dinov), ot 259, that the Talmud in Shavuot (36a) says that Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Kahana instructed those quoting negative sounding verses (or Mishnahs) to say them in the third, rather than the second, person. So that it not sound like they were directing those negative phrases at those rabbis themselves.
The Agra DiTzvi on the Agra DeKallah says that this explains the custom to say VaYiten Lecha on Motzei Shabbat, with someone else. If a curse can be effective when said towards someone else, how much more so can a blessing be effective.
[21] Cited (and rejected) in Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo, by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, O.C. 63.
[22] Knesset HaGedolah cited in the Magen Avraham (228:5)
[23] Magen Avraham, ibid, quoting the Maharil. See Responsa Sho’el UMashiv (cited above) that in a case where the person who was paid to receive the aliyah didn’t show up, no one should be hired on Shabbat for this “position” since one may not conduct any transactions.
[24] Magen Avraham 53:22 in the name of the Sefer Chassidim
[25] Mishnah Berurah 53:58
[26] Ibid 228:17
[27] Rama in O.C. 428:6
[28] Brachot 55a
[29] Sefer Minhagim Chabad
[30] Pri Tzadik, Ki Tavo 13
[31] Jeremiah 9:11. See Bava Metziah 85a
[32] Yoma 9b
[33] Text of the High Holiday prayers.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach and a Chodesh Tov!

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