The Shelah Hakodesh: Bechukosai – The Tochacha
The essence of Parashat Bechukotay is not “If you follow My laws” (Leviticus 26:3) but rather “But if you do not obey Me” (26:14). The most important part of the parashah is the
admonition (tocheichah) or the warning of punishment for disobedience of God’s laws, and a severe admonition it is. Our sages said that the tocheichah in Torat Kohanim (Leviticus) is more severe than that in Mishneh Torah (Deuteronomy), for the former was spoken by Moses in the name of the Almighty and the latter by Moses on his own initiative; the former is worded in first person and addressed to the Jews in plural while the latter is in first-person and addressed in singular form (see Megillah 31b).
It is the custom to read the tocheichah in a low voice so as not to cause distress or embarrassment to the congregation, but I have found no early basis for this custom. Rabbi Joseph Karo does not mention it in his Shulchan Aruch nor is a source cited by any of his commentators. The Magen Avraham, Pri Chadash and Be’er Heteiv cite such a custom (reading a portion of the Torah in a low voice) in the name of the Knesset Hagdolah but only in regard to the reading of the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) and the reading of the section which begins “The people took to complaining bitterly….” (Numbers 11), not as to the reading of the tocheichah.
I did find one allusion to this custom in a relatively late source: Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (19th century), who himself seemed to have been a Torah reader, wrote in his Kitzur Shulchan Aruch that “… the admonitions in Parashat Bechukotay and in Parashat Ki Tavo are also read in a low voice…” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 78, 4). I am grateful to Professor D. Sperber for having pointed out to me, at the time this article was submitted for publication, that Rabbi Yosef Yozpa Shamash (“beadle”) mentioned this custom in his book “Minhagim Dekehillat Kodesh Wormeiza.” His notes written in the 17th century say: “He reads the admonitions (tocheichot) in a low voice…” (Volume 1, Jerusalem, 1988, p.102).
Possibly there is some early hint of this custom in the words of Rashi. The Talmud tells us that “Levi bar Buti once read the curses (arurei) haltingly (megamgem) before Rav Huna” (Megillah 31b). The reference here is to the admonitions beginning with the word “arur” (cursed be…) in Deuteronomy. Rashi there explains the word “haltingly” as “Swiftly, in a running fashion (Hebrew – b’merutzah) and with difficulty”. There are indeed some communities which read the tocheichot without pause, but what did Rashi mean by the words “with difficulty”? Could this be a hint that the reading was done in a low voice as well?
In any case, it is the custom in many communities to read the tocheichah in a low voice and the reader returns to his normal voice only when he reaches those verses which are not admonitions, specifically at the words: “Yet, even then…” (26:44) until the end of the chapter. However, within the tocheichah we find at verse 42: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant… “. Here, too, the custom is to raise the voice since most authorities interpret this verse as part of the consolation (nechamah) and not of the tocheichah (see: Minhagim Dekehillat Kodesh Wormeiza, ibid.).
The Shlah (author of Shnei Luchot Habrit) views the verse “then I will remember My covenant with Jacob … and I will remember the Land” as part of the admonition. The sin of a man whose father was righteous is more severe than that of an evil man whose father was also evil. In this verse the Holy One Blessed Be He rebukes Israel for the severity of their evil ways considering the enduring relationship between their forefathers and God and also considering the fact that the Land of Israel had been given to them. The Shlah goes on to say: “I will take these things into account against you, that you are of the seed of holy patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will remember the Land – for I gave the Land of Israel to you, and the air of the Land of Israel increases one’s wisdom, and despite all that you did not walk in the path of righteousness”.
Perhaps this provides a solution to the question which bothered several commentators (for instance, Rashi and Kli Yakar) – why were the ancestors mentioned in reverse order, first Jacob, then Isaac and Abraham. Using the explanation of the Shlah the admonition is saying: “Why did you sin? Your father was Jacob, your grandfather was Isaac, and your great-grandfather was Abraham”. As we reach back into history and each of our righteous ancestors is mentioned, our misdeeds look that much more severe.
In retrospect the Shlah’s interpretation does contain some difficulty. We learned in the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah (4,6) and in the Talmud there (32b): “One does not mention verses of Zichronot (remembrance), Mallchuyot (kingship) and Shofarot which refer to punishment”. This ruling refers to the tripartite mussaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah in which we recite verses referring to the three themes mentioned in the Mishnah but choose only uplifting verses of consolation, not those which refer to punishment. This is indeed the halacha (see: Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 591,5). The fact that the verse “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob …” is included in the verses of Zichronot is proof that it is not part of the tocheichah, bringing the interpretation of the Shlah into question.
However, the interpretation of the Shlah has deep roots, indeed. In the mussaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah as it appears in the prayer book of Rav Amram Gaon, the verse “Then I will remember My covenant with Jacob …” does not appear. In its place is the quote from Exodus 6:5: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant”. There are, in fact, some Sephardic communities which maintain this tradition, reciting the verse from Exodus in their zichronot prayers rather than the one from our parashah. Therefore, a reader who does not raise his voice until he reaches the verse “Yet, even then…” has upon whom to rely for his custom.