Ki Tavo's Blessings and Curses: The Meaning of Mt Gerizim and Ebal | Aleph Beta

What Are Blessings And Curses, Really?

What Are Blessings And Curses, Really?


Daniel Loewenstein


In Parshat Ki Tavo, the Israelites are told that when they enter the land they must publicly bless those who keep the commandments, and curse those who violate them. And they have to proclaim these blessings and curses on two mountains – Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval. But why? What's so special about these mountains? And why must the blessings and curses be reviewed in such a public way? Join Daniel Loewenstein and Beth Lesch as they use the gematria, grammar and topography hidden in Ki Tavo to consider what blessings and curses are really about.


Daniel: Hi everyone and welcome back to Parsha Lab. I'm Daniel Loewenstein, one of the writers here at Aleph Beta.

Beth: And Beth Lesch here. I'm one of the writers along with Daniel.

Daniel: This week, we are going to be talking about Parashat Ki Tavo, but before we get into the parsha I just want to remind all of our listeners out there to please subscribe on your favorite podcasting app and also please feel free to rate us. Give us five stars that way other people can find us too. With that let's move to the parsha. Beth, what happens in Parashat Ki Tavo?

Beth: Well, Daniel, there are a whole panoply of things that happen in this parsha. You have the commandment of bikkurim. Where the idea that the first fruits that you grow in your land you have to bring to the Temple. We have the laws of ma'asrot, of tithes, which tell us the portions of our produce, of our livestock that we need to give away. We have this commandment to gather large stones and plaster them and inscribe, engrave the entire Torah upon them. We have the whole story about Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal that the Israelites are supposed to proclaim these blessings and curses upon them in this elaborate choreographed ceremony. Then we have this whole long list of additional blessings and curses that will occur to us if we do or don't follow God's commands. So it's really a whole mixed bag.

Daniel: Thank you for that Beth. Let me ask you; which of those things do you find to be the most confusing or troubling, the one that you want to understand better the most?

Beth: Definitely the biggest question mark for me is this whole thing about proclaiming blessings and curses on the mountains. It is... it's fascinating. It's a very intriguing portrayal, but it's a giant mystery to me.

Daniel: Yeah, Beth. I feel the same way and I am hoping we can talk about it a little bit today. I know I have a lot of questions about it, but what are some of yours?

Questions About the Curses in Ki Tavo

Beth: For one thing I want to know, and I think this is the big one, why is it that we have to do this at all, right? I mean, God gives us His laws, Moses teaches them to the Jewish People, so that should be enough. Why do we need to do this reenactment where we ourselves go up and proclaim them aloud?

Just to venture a little bit maybe into theory territory, it seems like there's something important about us taking ownership and us repeating it in our own words. You know, it's almost like few and do and teach one, that sort of thing, but I don't know. We don't have to go that far yet, but that's what I'm wondering about. I'm wondering about why it has to take place on these mountains in particular? I don't think we've heard about these mountains at all before, in the Torah. Have they come up, Daniel?

Daniel: So I think they came up briefly earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy, but, you know, only in the same context.

Beth: Right. Exactly. So we had earlier a succinct command about the proclamation of these curses and blessings, in Re'eih, but we haven't otherwise heard about Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. So I want to know why these mountains and, I don't know, maybe we can do a little bit of a geography lesson because I think that's one of the question marks here for people who are reading it. Were these important landmarks that would have been understandable intuitively to someone at the time or, you know, because to us it's not. To us, they don't have any particular meaning to me.

I want to know about the arrangement of the tribes on either mountain. It doesn't seem like a totally intuitive division between them. Why is it that Simon and Levi and Judah are over on this mountain, but Reuben's on the other side and what's going on with all of that? I want to know why these particular curses because it is not pretending to be an exhaustive summary of kol haTorah kulah, of the entire Torah. So what's going on with those and are there any common links between them?

Then my last question is this; if you just read this text, if you just read Ki Tavo that it sounds like the only thing that they're getting up and proclaiming is a whole list of curses, but there's something strange about that because if you look at the formulation of this command back in Parashat Re'eh where it was foreshadowed, back there Moses actually says you're going to command blessings on Mount Gerizim and curses on Mount Ebal.

So the question is, where are the blessings? There's no text of blessings in this parsha, so what's going on with that? I think that's a good enough list to start out with for this podcast, right?

Blessings on Mt Gerizim, Curses on Mt Ebal

Daniel: Absolutely. I have to be honest with you, I thought a while about a few of those questions and I think for the majority of those questions I came up empty.

Beth: Oh, okay. Well, so this was a good podcast. Thanks, Daniel.

Daniel: Great, great, no. So for instance, I looked into the names Gerizim and Ebal. The word Gerizim seems to be related to the word garzen, which is an axe. Which comes up in the Torah in context of an ir miklat (a city of refuge). I'm not sure what to make of that.

Ebal is a grandson of Sei'ir who is the one who owned the territory that was eventually inherited by Esau. I don't know what it means, but if anyone out there has a theory please let me know because I am desperate to understand that.

Beth: That's interesting, but this -- the territory that we're talking about this is not Sei'ir territory; this is squarely Land of Israel territory. Okay. That's another question mark.

Daniel: But there is something else that I noticed in this section which, I think, might give us an in to understanding at least a piece of what's going on here. So Beth, the piece that I want to talk about is this location specifically and why it might have been chosen as the place to issue the blessings and the curses. Beth, I think there's an interesting theme that, I think, weaves through and shows up a couple of times in the texts surrounding this section that we're looking at about Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. I think that it is possibly suggestive of what's going on here.

Just for the sake of understanding where we're going, we're going to be looking for words that indicate elevation or height.

Beth: Okay. I'm with you. Tell me where to look.

"Elevated" Connections to Gerizim and Ebal in the Bible

Daniel: So just a couple of examples and we can go through this quickly because we don't really need the context so much. In Chapter 27, Verse 4 we have, "V'hayah b'av'r'chem et haYardein takimu et ha'avanim ha'eileh," when you go through the Jordan you should establish these stones. But, Beth, the word takim literally means what?

Beth: Well, takim it comes from the word kum, to stand up. So you should make them stand up.

Daniel: Exactly. That's one word about height or elevation. If you jump down to Verse 6, "Avanim shleimot tivneh et mizbach Hashem Elokecha v'ha'alita alav olot."

Beth: Oh, so there's some more elevation language. You have v'ha'alita which is cause it to go up and then also olot which you would typically translate it as for offerings, but olot literally means things that go up.

Daniel: Right and then you have people who are standing on mountaintops for the curses and the blessings which is definitely high heights.

Beth: That's right. In other words, the command could have been stand somewhere on the land. Stand in the valleys and proclaim these curses and blessings, but instead we have the mountain choreography.

Daniel: Then, Beth, if you jump to Chapter 28 in the beginning of the longer section about blessings and curses, you know, that rounds off the parsha so you'll see towards the middle of the verse, "u'netancha Hashem Elokecha elyon al kol goyei ha'aretz."

Beth: I think I see what you're getting at. Hashem, your God is placing you "elyon al kol goyei ha'aretz," He's placing you up on high, above all of the nations of the earth. So there's that language again.

Daniel: Right and then you find the word l'hakim again in Chapter 28, Verse 9. "Y'kimcha Hashem lo l'am kadosh."

Beth: Ah, okay. So again, you know, a simple way to translate it is God is setting you up as a holy nation, but, like you said, it's God is causing you to stand tall as a holy nation. For those of us keeping count, in just this short chapter-and-a-half section, that's already five key words that hint to this idea of elevation, of height.

Daniel: Then the grand finale is in Chapter 28, Verse 13. Beth, do you want to read that one?

Beth: Yeah, sure. "U'n'tancha Hashem l'rosh v'lo l'zanav v'hayita rak l'ma'alah v'lo tihiyeh l'mattah," so Hashem is going to make you the head and not the tale and you are going to be only above everything, you're not going to be below.

Daniel: Yeah, so I think we're noticing a sort of, like, a topographical theme here in terms of the abundance of terms about elevation in this section.

Beth: Yeah. I'm with you on that. I'm intrigued. Where do you want to go with all of this?

Daniel: So follow me here, okay?

Beth: I'm following. I'm ready.

Daniel: The layout of this mountain situation here, right? We have these two mountains that are opposite each other and in between them is this valley. So Beth, what I want to suggest is that there might be a symbolic connection between height and blessing and lowness and curse.

Beth: Okay. I'm curious to see where you're going with this. My first reaction is that if that were the case you would have thought we would proclaim the blessings on a mountaintop, but specifically we'd proclaim the curses in a lowland which is not what you see so – but I'll follow you along and tell me a little bit more about what you're thinking.

Daniel: Your question's a good question and I have an answer for it, which I'll get to a little bit later, but I think your question is better than my answer, but nevertheless let's go forward and you'll let me know what you think about the theory in big.

Beth: Okay. All right.

Daniel: We're actually going to take a little bit of a weird detour into grammar.

Beth: So Daniel, I don't know about you, I love grammar and I assume that even for those of our listeners who think they don't love grammar you're going to bring it to life for them right now. Am I right?

Daniel: I hope so and guys, if right now, you're thinking you want to kill me for bringing grammar into this, give it a chance. Do me a favor. I think you're going to find we have some interesting things to say. As we do that, I just want to leave everyone with one image which we're going to come back to which I think the grammar will help us understand better and that is that this scene where these blessings and curses is taking place is a scene where there are two mountains and a valley between them. Almost like two humps on a camel with a little dip in the middle.

Beth: Okay. I have the image burned in my mind. Two mountains, valley between them, camel humps.

A Word Study of Blessings and Curses

Daniel: So now we're going to talk about the word for bracha (blessing) and the words for curses. Now, with that in mind, I want to mention to you a really interesting comment by Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, in the way he explains the word blessing. The Maharal's theory comes from an interesting observation he makes about the word blessing and the fact that in numerical value the word bracha is?

Beth: Bet is two, Reish is 200, Chaf is 20 so it's 222 altogether.

Daniel: A preponderance of twos. The word seems to be somehow essentially connected to the idea of twoness.

Beth: I hear that.

Daniel: The Maharal suggests based on that that blessing is actually all about multiplicity. Two being the essential number that represents something greater than just one. Now, fascinatingly, if you think about it the words for curses are actually really interesting inverses of that idea.

For instance, what words do we know that mean to curse?

Beth: Well, a couple occur to me off the top of my head. There's k'lalah. I think that's the word that is used here. There's another word that we get for curse also which is this language of arur, cursed.

Daniel: Right and there's one more that I know of also in the Torah which is lakov.

Beth: Lakov. Okay. That one doesn't sound as familiar to me. Does that one come up a lot?

Daniel: In Parashat Balak it comes up a couple of times. For instance Balak criticizes Bil'am because he said "lakov ohavai lakachticha" I believe.

Beth: Okay. I hired you to curse them, what are you doing?

Daniel: Right. Exactly. Now, the fascinating thing about those words – there are actually two things that I want to point out – number one, what do they start with? One of them is arur. It starts with...

Beth: So that one starts with an Alef.

Daniel: Which in numerical value is?

Beth: Which in numerical value is one.

Daniel: Yup.

Beth: Okay. Starting with a softball. I like it.

Daniel: And then how about l'kallel, k'lalah?

Beth: K'lalah starts with a Kuf which in numerical value is 100. One hundred.

Daniel: One hundred and lakov or lo kabo Keil, right, also a Kuf, which is once again?

Beth: Also 100.

Daniel: There you go. Right? So isn't that interesting that the words for curses all start with ones?

Beth: That is interesting. Daniel, what I hear you saying is that this theory of the Maharal is you can actually see it brought to life in the grammar. The idea here is that the essence of blessing is multiplicity. Is going from one to two and the essence, what I'm hearing you say, the essence of a curse is shrinking down. It's the opposite of multiplicity. It's going from two down to one. That's really cool.

Daniel: I need to chime in here for a second that I need to give credit to my brother-in-law here for pointing out that thing about the ones in the beginning of the words. I actually had shared with him a different point about these verbs which is that they're also all doubled-letter verbs. Which means to say like l'kallel you have the second and third letters of the root are the same.

Beth: Kuf-Lamed-Lamed. The Lamed and the Lamed are doubled up.

Daniel: Exactly and what's interesting in Hebrew is that very often when you have a doubled letter one of them ends up disappearing. For instance, in the word arur, which the root is Alef-Reish-Reish when you make it into verb you say la'or and also the word lakov is also a root Kuf-Bet-Bet where the second Bet disappears and you have forms like lakov or lo kabo Keil.

Beth: Interesting. What do you make of that?

Daniel: Well, these speak to your point which, you know, the way you had framed what we were doing here is that while blessing is the ultimate multiplicity, curse is about diminishing or shrinking. Right? And the roots themselves are roots that shrink when you conjugate them.

Beth: Okay. All right. That's kind of cool. I see that. So Daniel, we've – hold on a second – we've covered a lot of ground here. Can you just take me from the top; remind me again what question it is that we're answering and how we got here?

The Symbolism of Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal

Daniel: Sure Beth. So we were talking about this strange section of text about proclaiming blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. We wanted to know why are we even bothering with these proclamations and why are the Children of Israel divided up in seemingly random ways across these mountains, but also, you know, if we're going to be proclaiming blessings and curses why would we choose this setting?

Beth: Moses could have told us to proclaim them anywhere so why is it that it's on these two mountain tops with the valley in between them?

Daniel: Right and what we've been working to up until now is showing how there's actually a relationship between the idea of blessing and multiplicity and curse and oneness or diminishment.

Beth: Right. Blessing is twos. Blessing is multiplicity. Curses is ones. Curses is diminishment. So how does that map onto the topography, as you see it?

Daniel: Nice pun there, by the way; map onto the topography. What I think on one level there was just, sort of, a powerful geographic symbolism here. This setting is a setting that has been chosen to impress upon the Children of Israel that there is a potential for a blessing and curse and in this setting we see elevated points and those elevated points are multiple. There are two of them and there's a low point, but there's only one of them.

Beth: Oh, I hear what you're saying now. Okay. A blessing is a highpoint and a blessing is all about multiplicity so there's two highpoints and a curse is a low point. A curse is all about diminishment, singularity so there's one low point. There's two blessings and there's one curse.

Daniel: Right and Beth, if you remember the last verse we looked at together before we went on this grammar and topography mashup tangent here was "U'n'tancha Hashem l'rosh v'lo l'zanav v'hayita rak l'ma'alah v'lo tihiyeh l'mattah."

Beth: So that's that verse that talks all about you should be the head and not the tail and you should be up and not down.

Daniel: Right. So again, I think that if we bind to this idea that these mountains and this valley between them are symbolic representations of the idea of blessing and curse that sort of dovetails very nicely with this thought here. Which is that part of the blessing is that you will be up. In other words, blessing is about being on top and these mountains and this valley that they are going to be going to, very shortly after they enter the Land, will be impressing upon them, you know, you have the potential to go one of two ways here. You can take the opportunity that God's giving to you to be His people and live correctly in this place and then grow, become multiple, grow high. Or, you can turn your back on God and then you can be low and diminish and remain only one and never expand.

Beth: That's a cool idea, so you're picking up, you're not just saying hey, Beth, there's a symbolism hidden in the text and you and I, as readers, 3500 years later, can dig into it and appreciate that the meaning it adds to the text. You're saying no, there was this shape, the emotional experience potentially of the Children of Israel as they stood there on those mountain tops proclaiming the verses. That they felt the potential, the looming potential of blessing and curse in a way that just wouldn't have impacted them had they just been, you know, standing on the ground and doing the same.

Daniel: I think so. I think, at least, it's a possible way to read this.

Beth: I think it also hints at something which is very real which I connect to in my own spiritual life. Which is that spiritually there is a difference between standing in a valley and proclaiming something and standing on a mountaintop and proclaiming it. When I stand on a mountaintop and I'm able to see an expanse of land, you know, stretching out before me and I'm close to the heavens and I'm close to the clouds I feel inspired. I feel uplifted. I feel more of a yearning and a closeness to God than if I'm just standing in the supermarket. You know, that's real.

That's why people go out on hikes, right? So maybe there is something of that in the orchestration of this experience?

Daniel: It may be. Now, I did say that I was going to get back to your question about if this theory holds true, why the curses weren't uttered in the valley itself? And Beth, I told you that your question is better than the answer that I have. I think, in a little bit, it's a cop-out because I think that the mystery of why one mountain is the place for blessing and one mountain is the place for curse probably is going to connect someway either to the names of the mountains or to which tribes stand on each mountain.

The Meaning Behind the Imagery of Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal

Daniel: I think the theory we're suggesting here can still be tenable if you, sort of, zoom out and say the process happening in this whole area of these two mountains, in this valley, it's a process of explaining or of proclaiming who's blessed and who is cursed. I think that the symbolism of the mountains and the valley would hold even if, let's say, half of the Children of Israel are standing on one mountain were the ones who acknowledged the curses.

Beth: I hear that. I'm thinking a little differently. I want to just test out a little theory of my own with you which is that if you're down in a valley – standing in a valley – all you can see is the valley, but if you're up on the mountaintop, ah, now you can see both the mountain and the valley. Maybe there's something to the idea that even those tribes that were up on the mountaintop answering Amen to the curses, if they were going to really internalize the choice that lay before them – you could be cursed or you can be blessed – they need to be able to see both the mountain and the valley. They need to be able to see. You can potentially be up here or you can be down there and now you choose. Now, they're both already before you.

Daniel: Beth, I like that idea a lot. Thank you for that.

Beth: That's what I'm here for Daniel. You know, Daniel, this is all interesting. If we have a couple of minutes to share just looking at these versse another idea occurs to me about why mountains and why, you know, what's with this whole choreography?

In particular I'm looking at the language of the curses that the Levites are supposed to proclaim. Because, as we mentioned before, it's not a comprehensive summary of the Torah. There are specific laws and we don't have time to go into it all, but one common link that I see between all of these laws is that they all seem to have to do with doing things in secret. Doing things that you think no one else sees.

You know, you're cursed if you don't honor your parents, right? You're cursed if you move your neighbor's landmark. If you, like, sneak in the dead of night or when your neighbor is away on vacation and you move his fencepost a few meters in one direction to make your territory bigger.

Daniel: Beth, the section even actually mentions the word seiter twice. Seiter meaning secret-ness.

Beth: Right. You know, all these laws about sexual immorality, things that happen in the bedroom, like, no one else is seeing that. There are laws about taking bribes, that's done in secret. There's laws that have to do with not abusing blind people, right, not taking advantage of blindness.

Daniel: Yeah, I think, I remember hearing something about a theory similar to this in one of Rabbi Fohrman's videos actually.

Beth: Ah, okay, very cool. Baruch shekivanti. What I'm thinking with this is that the people are about to go into the Land, they've heard all these , but there's still a little part of them that says all right, so when I'm out in public I'm going to do exactly what I'm supposed to do. I'm going to show up for Torah reading in the synagogue and I'm going to give lots of charity so that my name is in a plaque on the school wall and all that kind of stuff. Everything that everyone sees, I'm going to behave like I should, but there are all these ways in which I'm going to act when I think no one is looking.

I'm going to take bribes. I'm going to abuse the stranger. I'm going to abuse a blind person. I'm going to not honor my parents. God is saying you think there's such a thing as secrecy? You think that you can act in a way that no one sees? There's no such thing as secrecy. Every action you take it's as if you're on a mountaintop and the entire world can see you.

So go up on a mountaintop and proclaim all of these curses that will befall you if you act in any of these secret ways because you're always living your life on a mountaintop. You know, I can always see what you do.

Daniel: Beth, I think that that's a very, very powerful piece of this. Does it answer, in any way, why these mountains specifically?

Beth:No clues. I don't know anything about these mountains.

Daniel: Right, because it's just so hard to find information about them. This will definitely be a topic that we will need to explore again, but I think for now we walked away with a lot of really interesting nuggets to mull over.

Beth: Yeah. You know, Daniel, I wonder, you know, we've been talking a lot about the experiential nature of spirituality in this podcast and I wonder if this is the kind of thing where the insight only comes to you when you're on a mountaintop.

So, you know, all of our listeners wherever you are you don't have to go atop Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, but see if you can find some time on Sunday to take a trip, go atop a mountaintop, meditate on these thoughts for a little while and then if any insights occur to you I hope you'll write into us at

Daniel: Yeah, I'm definitely interested in hearing what you guys have to say. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and once again, a reminder; please subscribe. Go do it right now so that way you won't miss us and have a great Shabbos.

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