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Oh, Curses

By: Rav Ari Shames

This week’s shiur will focus on last week and next week – in order that we may get an interesting insight to this week!

The Gemara in Meggila tells us that we are supposed to read the “blessings and curses” of Sefer Devarim (those in parshat Ki Tavo) before Rosh Hashana and the “blessings and curses” of Sefer Vayikra (parshat Bechukotai) before Shavuot. The rationale for this, says the Gemara is that we want to finish the curses of the year (before starting a new year, with the hope that it will be curse-less). The Gemara goes on to ask the obvious question: how is this relevant to Shavuot? The answer is that Shavuot is also one of the “New Years” as listed in the Mishna in Mesechet Rosh Hashana. “We are judged on four occasions… on Shavuot we are judged on the fruit of the year.”

This Gemara leads us to three points of discussion-

  1. What is meant by the obligation of reading these sections at the appointed times?
  2. Why is Shavuot singled out as a Rosh Hashana more than the other two listed in the Mishna (Sukkot and Pesach where we are judged on water and grains respectively)?
  3. Why are we off by a week, as we read Bechukotai last week and Shavuot only falls after Bamidbar?

Torah reading cycles -

We are all familiar with the common custom of the annual cycle of Torah reading (if you are not familiar with it, you must be very confused by our weekly email shiur….). It seems that this was the practice in Bavel, while the Eretz Yisrael custom was a three year cycle. The report of the conflicting customs comes a couple hundred years after the Gemara that we quoted above. The demand of our Gemara to read a certain section of the Torah on a specific annual date provides a challenge to the tri-annual position.

Recent scholars have debated the impact of our Gemara on the history of the cycles. Professor Fleisher concludes that the original practice was a one year cycle as indicated by our Gemara and later for various reasons the custom in Eretz Yisrael shifted to the three year cycle. On the other hand Professor Meir Bar Ilan reaches the opposite conclusion. He posits that the statement in our gemara is not referring to the weekly reading at all. We are told to interrupt our regular schedule and instead read these portions on the appointed occasions. The precedence for this is the four sections that we read around Purim and leading up to Pesach that used to replace the standard reading (not simply an additional reading as we do today). [For those interested in reading the arguments see[

Shavuot as Rosh Hashana -

Many explanations have been offered to explain the prominence of Shavuot as a Rosh Hashana including the metaphoric nature of trees! On a simple level I think we can say that we are being taught to view Shavuot in a special manner. Shavuot appears in the Torah without any reference to Matan Torah at all. Yet the association with Matan Torah is so developed in our tradition that we even offer the subtitle to the day as “the time of the giving of the Torah”. As with any important event in Judaism we are not meant to simply mark an occasion. Each day with historic importance is infused with renewed sense of mission for the future. Shavuot is meant to be a day of judgment as far as our connection with the Torah is concerned.

It is for this reason that we are to read the blessing and curses prior to Shavuot. Torah is not a hobby. Torah is not folklore. The Torah is a binding commitment that we have and a contract that we maintain with God. He has promised certain things if we comply and we are liable to very negative implications if we do not. The reading of the sanctions is a very formidable threat and is meant to drive this message home. As we prepare for Shavuot we need to bear in mind the obligatory nature of our relationship with God.

Why are we late? -

If the shiur has been convincing up to this point, and we have established the need to have the reading of the curses prior to Shavuot, why was Bechukotai read last week and Bamidbar has become the parsha that leads up to Shavuot (in some years it is actually Naso that is read prior to Shavuot, but never Bechukotai)? This tradition has been going on for over 1,000 years as can be seen in the literature of the gaonim that often employed mnemonics to remind us of the proper order of ceremonial issues. In this case it is known as מנה עצר which stands for “count” (the major theme of the census in Bamidbar) to be followed by “atzeret” the Rabbinic term for Shavuot.

Tosafot were bothered by the discrepancy between the gemara and our custom and suggest that our custom is based upon the need to soften the blow of the curses a bit. Of course we need to be aware of the consequences of our actions but at the same time we don’t want to put a damper on the festive nature of the day.

In good Jewish tradition it seems that our attitude towards the receiving of the Torah is two-fold - on the one hand fear while on the other hand pure joy. Neither is complete without the other.

The gemara in the 9th perek of Shabbat describes the sequence of events leading to Matan Torah. The gemara indicates that Moshe gathered the people twice before actually ascending to receive the Torah. One explanation of the gatherings is that the first was aimed at telling them the punishments for not keeping the Torah while the second gathering was focused on describing the rewards for keeping it. The second explanation reads the exact opposite, the initial meeting was for the rewards and the second was for the punishments.

Both see the combined attitude of hard commitment and the promise of reward as central to the initial account of Matan Torah.

So let us keep the important message of Bechukotai in our minds as we happily glide through the serene census and camping instructions of Bamidbar. May we enter Shavuot with a complete attitude towards the Torah and may we have a Shana Tova!

Rav Shames  


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