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May The Year End Along With Its Curses

August 9, 2016

M’gilla 31b:

It has been taught: R. Simeon b. Eleazar says: Ezra enacted for Israel that they should read the curses in Leviticus before Pentecost and those in Deuteronomy before New Year. What is the reason? — Abbayei – or maybe Resh Lakish – said: So that the year may end along with its curses. I grant you that in regard to the curses in Deuteronomy you can say, ‘so that the year should end along with its curses’. But as regards those In Leviticus — is Pentecost a New Year? — Yes; Pentecost is also a New Year, as we have learned: ‘Pentecost is the new year for [fruit of] the tree’.

In practice this means that we read B’huqqothai (the section in Leviticus with the curses, commonly known as the tochaha) before Pentecost, and Ki Thavo, which has the latter tochaha, the second to last week of the year.

Now, why specifically would the curses of Leviticus be prescribed for the Pentecost season, while the Deuteronomic curses be saved for New Year’s? The Maharsha offers the following in response to the Tosafists’ analysis of some of the finer points related to our annual cycle of Torah reading. (For instance, in years such as 5776, why do we separate the already short parasha of Nitzavim-Wayeilech into two even shorter readings, and not separate the unusually long double reading of Mattoth-Masei?):

The main challenge should be that since Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the year, he should start [the reading cycle] with Genesis, which is the beginning of the Torah and the creation of the world, and he should do this immediately, [i.e.] on the first Sabbath after Rosh Hashana. And the answer [of the Talmud] is so that the year should end with its curses, etc. [i.e., the parasha with the curses should precede Rosh Hashana by a little more than week.]

The problem is that the Maharsha’s explanation assumes that we would be able to read according to this approximate weekly schedule every year. However, the Talmud previously mentioned (ibid 29b):

If it [the New Moon of Adar] falls on the portion next to it [the portion of Sh’qalim], whether before or after, they read it and repeat it’. Now this creates no difficulty for one who holds that Ki Thissa is read because [the regular portion containing this passage] falls about that time. But according to the one who says that passage of the daily offering (from Pin’has) is read — does [the portion containing that passage] fall about that time? — Yes, [sometimes] for the people of Palestine, who complete the reading of the Pentateuch every three years.

That is, it makes sense that we could time our annual cycle such that the end of Leviticus is read before Pentecost and the end of Deuteronomy is read at the end of the year, but for those (ancient) Israelis who complete the Torah-reading cycle once every three years, it could not be done. It seems that either those special readings of the curses, like the other seasonal readings (Zachor, Sh’qalim, etc.) were not read as the maftir readings appended to the weekly readings, but rather as readings that substituted for the weekly Sidra, or that the curses were read as the maftir readings appended to the weekly readings of the triennial cycle. A triennial cycle would require about three times as many weekly readings as we have today, but it would also allow for much shorter readings, readings that could be studied more in depth every week due to their brevity. In the introductions to the early editions to the Koren bible, the editors pointed out that the simanim, the notes that were used to divide the books of the bible before the usual chapters that the printers introduced, may have been the markers for the old cycle. Therefore, it could not be that they could time that the end of Leviticus be before Pentecost and the end of Deuteronomy at the end of the year every year. The question therefore returns: why did the sages ordain that each section of curses be read at a specific time of year?

The answer, I believe, is based on textual clues and cues that appear in both series of curses.

In Leviticus 23:15-17 (in Parashath Emor) we find the commandment to observe the Festival of Shavu’oth, literally, “weeks,” (what we call in English and Greek “Pentecost”, meaning “day fifty,”) which is also described as the day of the Bikkurim, the first fruits:

You shall count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks that shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week shall you number fifty days; and you shall present a new meal-offering unto the Lord.  You shall bring out of your dwellings two wave-loaves of two tenth parts of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, they shall be baked leavened, for first-fruits unto the Lord.

This section is the source for the commandment to count every day of the Omer. Each seven days add to a week, and the sages concluded that we should keep a running count of total weeks and days until the count is complete and the fiftieth day is to be a holiday. (Note also how this section describes the communal “first-fruit” offering; the offering of individuals is described later.)

Then in the next Parasha, B’har, we encounter another series of seven sevens adding to fifty (25:8-10):

And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and there shall be for you the days of seven sabbaths of years, [a total of] forty and nine years. Then you shall sound the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement shall you sound with the horn throughout all your land. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.

Finally, the next chapter, the curses we mentioned above, has another recurring theme of sevens: seven sets of punishments, which are meant to “chastise you seven times for your sins.” The ultimate punishment, the desolation of the land, comes to atone for “walking with God in qeri, happenstance,” and for all the Sabbatical years that went unobserved.

Thus, the text of Leviticus thematically connects its curse with the holiday of Pentecost. What does it mean to walk with god in happenstance? This is an expression God told Moses to communicate. In Moses’s own words, in the curses in Deuteronomy, Moses describes the wrong way to worship God as “not serving the Lord your God in happiness.” Someone who is faithful sees God’s hand and providence in history, and attributes nothing to coincidence. His religious experience is one of joy. The festivals and the commandments related to them are meant to bring the people to the state of happiness. This is explicated at the beginning of Ki Thavo which introduces the curses of Deuteronomy (26:2-10)

You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket; and you shall go unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there…  You shall set it down before the Lord your God, and prostrate yourself before the Lord your God. You shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given unto you and your household, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in your midst.

Thus, both sets of curses are preceded by the commandment to bring the first fruits, which is meant to bring the Jewish people to a state of happiness in the service of God, the state that allows them to enjoy the blessings and avoid the curses, and on this point alone, we could understand why either set could have been chosen for the public reading leading up to Pentecost or Rosh Hashana, but because the curses in Leviticus are more directly connected to the seven-sevens theme leading up to Pentecost, they were prescribed for that season.

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From → original, parasha

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