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15.05.2017 16:46    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  behar  behoukotai  

Special Cantillation Customs for the Tokhehah

The Tokhehah passage in this week’s reading (Lev. 26:14-46; a lengthy passage of rebukes), by its very content casts awesome fear over the congregation, especially on the person called up to the Torah for the reading of this passage.[1] Wendrowski attests:  “Many people are afraid to come up to the Torah for the Tokhehah lest, heaven forfend, the bad things the reader mentions affect him personally.”[2] Consequently, various customs and practices have evolved in connection with this reading.  We shall trace the history and development of two such customs, examining their distribution among various Jewish communities.
Reading the Tokhehah in an undertone

In Worms it was customary to read the Tokhehah in a low voice. This is attested to by Rabbi Juspa Shammes, the gabbai of the community in the 17th century.[3] Even in Tunis the hazzan would lower his voice.[4] On the basis of this, several aharonim (later rabbinic authorities) presented the custom of reading sotto voce.[5] Sefer Mat`amim gives a reason for this practice,[6] namely, “Because ‘words spoken softly by wise men are heeded’ (Eccles. 9:17), and ‘words’ refers to the Tokhehah,[7] as it is written, ‘These are the words.’”  Does this custom indeed have any basis?

Ecclesiastes Rabbah says:[8]

Rabbi Levi b. Panti once read the “curses” in the presence of Rabbi Huna and muttered them.  He said to him, “Raise your voice; they are not curses but reproofs.  ‘Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; do not abhor His rebuke’ (Prov. 3:11).”

Rabbi Levi apparently had read the list of eleven curses in Parashat Ki-Tavo (Deut. 27:15-25) in the presence of Rabbi Huna in an undertone, and Rabbi Huna told him to speak out so that he could hear him.  He explained to him that the curses were rebukes, reflecting the notion that “whom the Lord loves, He rebukes” (Prov. 3:12), and that it was not in place to read them differently.

Indeed, the Ari used to read to go up to the reader’s desk to read the passage of curses in Be-Hukotai, and would read them out loud, as is the practice in Sephardic communities.[9] Some Yemenites also deliberately read the Tokhehah in full voice.[10] It is also reported by Rabbi Issachar ibn Sussan (16th century) that the rabbis of Safed, passing down the tradition of their predecessors, told him that the passage about the golden calf (Ex. 31:18-33:11) and the first six verses of the passage of the Israelites who murmured against the Lord in Be-Ha`alotekhah (Numbers 11:1-6) should be read sotto voce, “because it is not right to publicly intone in pleasant voice the passage of the Torah that tells of our ancestors’ bad deed,”[11] but he does not mention reading the Tokhehah in a lower voice.

Rabbi Hayyim Falaji was openly critical of those who read the curses sotto voce:

Some cantors have the practice of reading the passage of curses in a low voice; but in my view, according to my Kitzur, one ought to put an end to this practice since the person who is called up for the passage of curses is very punctilious and any little change made during his aliyah causes him sorrow such that after having been called up to the Torah and having recited the first benediction he then refuses [to remain] and wants to recite the concluding benediction in the middle of the reading.

Sometimes he gets angry and says things that are unbefitting.  Therefore, one should not make any impressive change in the manner of reading.  Do not wonder about abrogating this custom, since it was the custom when a person was called up to the Torah for the passages of Tokhehah to recite aloud the verse, “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son,” etc., and people refrained from reading on account of this; likewise, this custom ought clearly to be abrogated.[12]

In his opinion, one ought to do away with the practice of reading the Tokhehah passages sotto voce, just as they did away with the practice of reciting the verse, “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son” (Prov. 3:11) when a person was called up for the Tokhehah reading, on the grounds that any change would emphasize that this aliyah was different from others and would have a bad effect on the person called up.  The person who received the aliyah would become distressed to the point of wanting to insist on reciting the concluding benediction even in the middle of the reading.

Rabbi Ya`akov Sofer, however, relying on Pri Hadash and Mahatzit ha-Shekel, wrote that the passage should be read sotto voce:[13]

Likewise the Tokhehah passages in the Leviticus and in Deuteronomy and the list of curses in Ki-Tavo are generally read in an undertone, i.e., not as loud as one reads the rest of the parashah, but in any event loud enough to be heard.  Pri Hadash sect. 7, and Mahatzit ha-Shekel, par. 8.[14]

What he says is very strange since the passage he references in Mahatzit ha-Shekel (Orah Hayyim 428.8) only mentions reading the story of the golden calf, and the Pri Hadash (loc. cit., par. 7) refers to the golden calf and the murmurers against the Lord, but makes no mention of the Tokhehah. Rabbi Ya`akov Sofer’s pegging his argument on these two eminent sources, the Pri Hadash and Mahatzit ha-Shekel, is dubious.  We deduce that one should not read the Tokhehah any differently from the rest of the parashah, and that it is not in place to read it sotto voce.

Rabbi Ovadiah Hadayah comes out against two other changes in the manner of reading the Tokhehah:

  1. In his opinion, places where it is the practice not to translate the Tokhehah and doing the opposite of the Tosefta’s instruction:  “The curses in the Torah are read with translation.”[15] Hence, “they should not do any clever tricks,…so that the public not lose its mind.”[16] In other words, they should not do so even if their intention is to keep the public from going crazy, becoming panic-stricken by so many curses.
  2. Those who read the Tokhehah without cantillation[17] offend the higher realms and are not doing right:  “Will the words not be ones of rebuke without the cantillation? Rebuke remains rebuke, so what have they availed by their emendation?”[18]

The custom of reciting a Mi She-Berakh to compensate one called up for the Tokhehah

In order to encourage the person called up to the Torah for the Tokhehah, it was customary to recite a Mi She-Berakh for him.  In the time of the rishonim (early rabbinic authorities), in the community of the Maharil’s disciple, Rabbi Israel Isserlin, this blessing would be said after reading the Tokhehah.[19] In Leghorn, however, the person receiving the aliyah would be blessed even before the passage was read, as noted in the Leghorn Pentateuch:[20]

Here in Leghorn it is our practice when the hazzan reading Parashat Ki-Tavo comes to the phrase, “and turn to the worship of other gods” (Deut. 28:14),[21] for him to be replaced by the person called up for the Tokhehah, and then the hazzan recites the following verses out loud:  “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; do not abhor His rebuke.  For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father the son whom he favors” (Prov. 3:11-12).  “But it shall go well with them who decide justly [or: who rebuke]; blessings of good things will light upon them” (Prov. 24:25).  Then the one giving the rebuke immediately begins with the verse, “But if you do not obey” (Deut. 28:15).

The person reading the Tokhehah was viewed as rebuking the community, and even before the reading was blessed that good things befall him. It appears from what is written there that the person reading the Tokhehah was not the same person as the one who read the rest of the parashah, rather the one called for that aliyah, and that he himself would do the reading and was referred to as the “one giving the rebuke.”

Rabbi Juspa Shammes,[22] who documented the practice of the Worms community in the 17th century, wrote:

On the Sabbath of Be-Hukotai, whoever so wishes is called up for the Tokhehah. And whosoever wishes to take that aliyah must also be called up on the first day of the Feast of Weeks. Likewise, whosoever wishes to be called up for Parashat Ki Tavo must also be called up on the first day of the New Year.[23]

The Libyan Jewish community calls the person called up for this reading “the one who rebukes,” and as compensation for volunteering to take the aliyah of the Tokhehah is also called up to the Torah on the New Year. Additionally, on these two Sabbaths (Be-Hukotai and Ki Tavo), after the concluding benediction by the person called up for the Tokhehah, the hazzan recites a Mi She-Berakh for the congregation in addition to that which is recited after the haftarah, and concludes this blessing with the words, “May the Lord change the curse into a blessing, and may it thus be His will, and let us say:  Amen.”[24]

Additional evidence of a Mi She-Berakh for the person called up for the Tokhehah comes from the community of Bechhofen, a small village in Bavaria, Germany:[25]

May He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless so-and-so son of so-and-so for coming up for the aliyah of “whosoever wishes,”[26] and for himself fulfilling the verse, “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; do not abhor His rebuke.”  And it is said, “For the commandment is a lamp, the Teaching is a light, and the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines.”  May the Holy One, blessed be He, reward him for this by fulfilling the verse, “He whose ear heeds the discipline of life lodges among the wise,”[27] and may He turn the curse to a blessing, and safeguard him from all hardship and distress, from all illness and disease, and grant him blessing and success in all his endeavors, and may he be blessed along with all his fellow Jews, and let us say:  Amen.[28]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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