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06.09.2017 17:03    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parashah devarim  ki tavo priel  

Where were the blessings and curses delivered?

In this week’s reading we are commanded regarding the covenantal ceremony to be held between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, and the actual event, as it was performed, is described in the book of Joshua, 8:30-35.  For the past two decades, the cultic site discovered by Professor Adam Zertal on Mount Ebal has been identified with the altar spoken of in this week’s reading.[1]

Through a series of archaeological findings, with the addition by Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun[2] of supportive texts from the Oral Law, a supporting argument has been constructed associating the site with the highly significant event of concluding the covenant, regarding which we are commanded twice in Deuteronomy—in chapter 11 and in this week’s reading, chapter 27, verses 1-8.  However, Professor Zertal’s identification of the site presents a major problem.  The site is located on the north-eastern side of the mountain, three kilometers away from Tel Balata, which has been identified as ancient Shechem.  The Bible does not actually mention Shechem explicitly in connection with the ceremony, but it provides a sufficiently precise description for us to understand that the covenantal ceremony was to be held in Shechem, between the peaks of Gerizim and Ebal, as follows:

In chapter 11, the Torah departs from its usual practice and gives a geographic description which includes six parameters that aid in identification:  “Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road [lit.: past the road of the rising sun] that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah—near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh” (v. 30).  Rashi, on this verse, says that “beyond” means somewhere far from where they were standing at the time, on the other side of the Jordan; i.e., in the land of Canaan, but a distance from the place where the sun rises,[3] which could mean in the vicinity of Shechem.  In addition, we must note the centrality of Shechem in biblical tradition up to this time.  The Bible associates Shechem with Abraham as the place from which the promise of the land issued:  “I will assign this land to your offspring” (Gen.12:7).

The Bible also notes (Gen. 33:19) that Jacob’s first station upon his return to the land was in Shechem, and that he even purchased a plot of land there.  Abraham was the father of the nation, and Jacob, the father of the tribes; thus Shechem essentially becomes the point that connects the people of Israel and the conquest of the land.

We can reasonably assume that a ceremony signifying that “you are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land” (Deut. 11:31) would have something to do with Shechem and not ignore the place.  Zertal was aware of this difficulty and put forward a revolutionary hypothesis:[4] Mount Gerizim is not the same as the Samaritan Mount Gerizim, rather is Mount Kabir (on whose slopes present-day Elon-Moreh is situated).  Mount Kabir rises prominently northeast of the altar site, so that a person standing in the valley below the site of the altar indeed feels he is standing between two lofty peaks.  Topographically one could accept this hypothesis, but such a step does away with the connection to Shechem, and this is hard to accept.

N. Perlman, who wrote about the significance of the rite of blessings and curses makes the following suggestion:[5] Supposing that there were two separate events on the same occasion,[6] we can hold on to the generally accepted assumption that Gerizim was the Samaritan Mount Gerizim, and in parallel we can accepted Zertal’s identification of the altar.  Thus he suggests that there was a ceremony of building an altar on Mount Ebal, as described in Joshua 8:30-32.  In the course of this ceremony sacrifices were made; and the people feasted and rejoiced, and wrote on the stones as they had been commanded.  There was also a ceremony of blessings and curses, lower down in Shechem, between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, as described in verses 33-34, there.  The assumption was that the two things were done one after the other, in a manner that essentially combined them.  The distance from biblical Shechem to the altar is all of three kilometers, and since we are dealing with a vast number of people participating in the event, it is reasonable to assume that stage 2 began before stage 1 had been completed.  According to this hypothesis, there is no difficulty in saying that both Shechem and the altar on Mount Ebal were part of the occasion.  Perhaps Perlman’s solution is substantiated by the way the orders for this special occasion are formulated in this week’s reading.

Deuteronomy 27:1-8 raises an issue of duplication:  the same command appears both in verse 3 and verse 7—to write the words of the Torah on the stones—essentially dividing this group of verses into two:  2-3, and 4-8.[7] Why?

The Mishnah and gemara in Sotah 35b maintain that writing “most distinctly” meant in seventy different tongues, for the benefit of all nations of the world.  Thus, one could say that verses 4-8 present a new command and are not a repetition.  Malbim took it to be a process of writing twice, to prevent forgery.  After the first writing had dried, more writing was added, so that if the other nations wished to peel away the writing in order to expunge our tie to the Torah and the place, then the hidden layer of writing that had been distinctly inscribed would be revealed.  Other commentators viewed the repetition as a technical matter of reinforcing what had been said (e.g., Saadia Gaon).  Rashi suggests that the command alludes to two separate events, the first being to erect stones in the Jordan, and the second being to build an altar on Mount Ebal.[8]

Abarbanel proposes a socio-historical explanation of the duplication.  He claims that verses 2-3 deal with Scripture’s assessment that this is what the people will want to do—to commemorate their works by writing on stone, as was the practice in the ancient Near East.  However, in addition to describing what was expected to transpire, there is also a command to do so, and that is what appears from verse 4 onwards.[9] Also Perlman’s approach, presented above, resolves the problem of a contradiction.  One could say that in reiterating the command the Torah is hinting at a dual process.  Part of the ceremony takes place in Shechem, where the blessings and curses are recited and a religious covenant is established between the Holy One, blessed be He and the people immediately upon their entering the land.[10] An additional part takes place on Mount Ebal, where the words of the Torah are written on the altar, offerings are made, and the people feast and rejoice—all expressing their commitment to the place (the promised land) and to the necessary process of conquest.  Use of the verb, “you shall write,” to describe the two actions, one of which is not writing, is possible if one thinks about the purpose of the writing, namely to express commitment.  Sometimes this is done by inscribing in stone, sometimes by inscribing in one’s heart/mind, as it says in Proverbs 3:4:  “Write them on the tablet of your mind.”  Similarly, stones (on which it was commanded to write) can also express something human, the way Ezekiel speaks of a “heart of stone” (11:19, 31:26).

All the above indicates that upon entering the land two commitments were established in two events which abutted one another:  the covenant with the Lord in Shechem, between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, and the covenant with the land, inscribed upon the altar on Mount Ebal, as identified by Zertal.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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