Blessings and Curses – Over Which Commandments?

Exegetical Approaches

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Commentators disagree regarding the scope of the legal sections referred to by the blessings and curses of Vayikra 26.  On one end of the spectrum, Rashbam suggests that they relate to only one set of laws, the fundamental institutions of Shemittah and Yovel.  At the other pole, Rashi maintains that they relate to observance of all six hundred and thirteen commandments.

Ibn Ezra and Ralbag take middle positions, suggesting that the blessings were given over all the commandments that the people had received until that point.  Ralbag assumes that Vayikra 26 is in its chronological place, and thus asserts that the blessings and curses cover all the laws from Parashat Yitro through Sefer Vayikra.  Ibn Ezra, in contrast, assumes that the passage is not written in its chronological place, and in reality the blessings and curses were given along with the Covenant of Shemot 24.  As such they refer only to those commandments given at Sinai, those mentioned in the Parashot of Yitro, Mishpatim, and Behar.

Laws of Shemittah and Yovel

The blessings and curses relate to only the laws of Shemittah and Yovel presented in Vayikra 25.

Context – As the blessings and curses immediately follow the laws of Shemittah and Yovel, it is natural to link the two.  Rashbam further points out that Vayikra 25:1 ("וַיְדַבֵּר י"י אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי") and 26:46 ("אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י...בְּהַר סִינַי") serve as bookends that bracket the unit.
Points of contact – There are several points of contact between the blessings / curses and the specific commandments related to Shemittah and Yovel:
  • Explicit mention of "שביתת הארץ" – Besides an allusion to idolatry, the only commandment whose non-observance is specifically identified in Chapter 26 as the cause of the calamities, is letting the land lie fallow in the Sabbatical years.  The root "שבת" also appears numerous times in both chapters,1 reinforcing the connection.2
  • Linguistic parallels – In the description of the blessings of Chapter 26 there are several allusions to Chapter 25's promises of prosperity to those who keep the Sabbatical year:3
(כה:יח) וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם (כו:ג) אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֺתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם
(כה:יח) וִישַׁבְתֶּם עַל הָאָרֶץ לָבֶטַח (כו:ה) וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח בְּאַרְצְכֶם.
(כה:יט) וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ פִּרְיָהּ וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לָשֹׂבַע (כו:ד-ה) וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ... וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹׂבַע
(כה:כב) וַאֲכַלְתֶּם מִן הַתְּבוּאָה יָשָׁן (כו:י) וַאֲכַלְתֶּם יָשָׁן נוֹשָׁן
(כה:לח) אֲנִי י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם (כו:יג) אֲנִי י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
Why are Shemittah and Yovel singled out? According to this position, Shemittah and Yovel are two of the most fundamental commandments in the Torah.4  They require and instill a tremendous amount of faith in Hashem and simultaneously play a very important role in maintaining a healthy society.5  As such, the blessings and curses are dependent on their observance. This is particularly true as these commandments relate to the land, and the blessings and curses relate to possession of the land and to exile.  For elaboration on the significance of these commandments, see Purpose of Shemittah.
"אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת"
  • The words "הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים" in this conclusion may parallel their usage in Vayikra 25:18 and 26:3, where they also refer to the laws of Shemittah and Yovel.  Thus Rashbam could suggest that "חֻקִּים" refer to the laws of Shemittah/Yovel that concern man and God, while "הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים" refer to the interpersonal laws, such as the prohibition against fraud and the laws regarding buying and selling of land and slaves.6 The term, "הַתּוֹרֹת", however presents a significant difficulty for this position as none of the laws of Vayikra 25 can easily be referred to as a "תורה."
  • Alternatively, Rashbam could agree with AbarbanelVayikra 26About R. Yitzchak Abarbanel, and suggest that all three terms of "הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת" refer to the blessings and curses themselves.7
When was Shemittah commanded and the curses given? According to Rashbam, the introduction to Vayikra 25, "וַיְדַבֵּר י"י אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי", comes to teach us where the laws of Shemittah were given, just as similar headings provide the location in which other legal passages were transmitted.8  Rashbam maintains that the Torah is stating that, in contrast to other laws of Sefer Vayikra, the laws of Shemittah were not given in Ohel Moed, but rather previously, on Mt. Sinai.  As such, the unit of Chapters 25-26 is out of place.
Why are these mitzvot mentioned here? Rashbam does not explain why the chapters are written here, if their proper chronological place is in  Sefer Shemot.  He might suggest that since the end of the rebuke focuses on the possibility that the nation might be kicked out of the land, the Torah decided to record it prior to their intended entry. For other examples where thematic concerns might lead to achronology, see Chronological and Thematic Order.
Relationship to covenant of Shemot 24 – Rashbam does not address the issue, but his position could suggest that the two are distinct. While Shemot 24 was a covenant related to the laws of Mishpatim, which transpired prior to Moshe's ascent, Vayikra 26 is a rebuke over Shemittah and Yovel alone and might have been first commanded during Moshe's ascent to receive the Tablets. See R. Yishmael19:10About Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Shemot, however, who identifies the two events, raising the possibility that the "סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית" of Shemot 24 comprised Vayikra 25-26.  This would further strengthen the question of why the unit is disconnected from its natural place and instead placed at the end of Sefer Vayikra.
Comparison to ceremony in Devarim – According to this approach, the blessings and curses of the two books are not parallel.  Vayikra focuses on the observance of only one set of laws, while Devarim speaks of the Torah in its entirety.  Rashbam might explain that at Mt. Sinai Hashem spoke of only the most fundamental laws since all of them had not yet been given to the people, and observance of one of the most difficult laws could help ensure observance of the rest.  In Devarim, once the whole Torah was given, Hashem naturally made a covenant on all.
"לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת כׇּל מִצְוֺתַי לְהַפְרְכֶם אֶת בְּרִיתִי" – The references to "all" my commandments is somewhat difficult for this approach  which assumes that the rebuke refers to only one set of laws.  It is also  unclear to what "ברית" is being referred.
General terminology – R. D"Z Hoffmann questions this approach due to to the general terminology used to describe the mitzvot therein ("הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת").  He points out that these terms appear throughout Vayikra 18-22,where they refer to a wide array of laws, suggesting that the chapter speaks of a much broader range of laws than simply Shemittah and Yovel.9
Variation of this approach – R. Zeev Weitman10 suggests a variation of this approach, that the blessings refer not only to the laws of Shemittah and Yovel in Chapter 25, but also to the laws related to idolatry, Shabbat, and the Mikdash, mentioned in 26:1-2.  This would explain the seemingly odd placement of these two verses.11  He suggests that these four laws taken together are the foundations of the Torah, and as such, deserve their own rebuke.12  As support, he points out that each is alluded to specifically in Chapter 26,13 and he claims that these same areas of law are the subject of the covenant14 made in the time of Ezra-Nechemyah.15

Laws Given in Parashot Yitro, Mishpatim and Behar

The blessings and curses refer to the laws found in the Parashot of Yitro, Mishpatim, and Behar.

"אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת" – The terms "הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים" can easily refer to the various mitzvot in the Parashot of Yitro, Mishpatim, and Behar.16 Though these sections do not contain any ritual procedures that could be termed "תּוֹרֹת", this position could suggest that the term refers to the laws of sacrifices discussed in Vayikra 6-7 (which repeatedly employ the term "תּוֹרַת") where it is stated explicitly that they were instructed on Mt. Sinai.17  According to this variation, the blessings and curses were given regarding the laws of Shemot 20-23, Vayikra 6-7, and Vayikra 25.
"אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י... בְּהַר סִינַי" in Vayikra 26:46 – According to this position, the verse is coming to exclude the commandments that were given only later at Ohel Moed.  The blessing and curses were given only regarding those commandments given by Hashem to Moshe at Mount Sinai.
When was Shemittah commanded and the curses given? Ibn Ezra asserts that the location markerin Vayikra 25:1, "וַיְדַבֵּר י"י אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי" teaches that the chapter is achronological. The laws of Shemittah, like the blessings and curses which follow, were commanded to Moshe at Sinai, before the other laws of Sefer Vayikra which were only given to him after the Mishkan was constructed.
Relationship to covenant of Shemot 24
  • Connected – Ibn Ezra links the two chapters, suggesting that Vayikra 26 was part of the covenant of Chapter 24.  Alongside the Revelation at Sinai, Hashem made a covenant on all the laws that were commanded until that point.18 It is possible that Shemot 24 describes the covenant itself, while Vayikra 26 comprises its appendix, in the form of blessings and curses over its observance.  According to this reading it is especially difficult to understand why the blessings and curses are not written their proper place and connected to Shemot 24.
  • Distinct – Ramban, in contrast, suggests that Vayikra 26 comprises a distinct covenant.  After the Sin of the Golden Calf, the people's actions annulled the original covenant of Shemot 24, necessitating a second one.  When Moshe ascended the mountain the second time,19 Hashem commanded him to renew the covenant,20 and make it more stringent by adding the blessings and curses.
Reason for placement of the unit
  • According to transmission to the nation – Ramban suggests that the chapters are written not according to the order in which Hashem commanded the laws to Moshe, but based on how Moshe relayed them to the nation.21  This shifts the question to why they were not relayed immediately.  Ramban answers that, as soon as Moshe descended from the mountain after attaining forgiveness, he immediately relayed the laws of the Tabernacle,22 and waited for its completion before renewing the covenant.  At that time, however, Hashem introduced new laws relating to the Mishkan and priestly sanctity, further pushing off transmission of the blessings and curses.23
  • According to transmission for future generations  – Ibn Ezra maintains that the verses are written out of order because Hashem wanted to unify all the passages which speak of the conditions required to live in the land.24  Since violating the prohibition of both illicit relations and Shemittah results in being evicted form the land, the two units were juxtaposed.25
Why these laws? According to Ibn Ezra, Hashem naturally made a covenant on all the laws that the people had received.  According to Ramban, however, it is not clear why Hashem would not have also included the laws which were relayed between Hashem's initial command to Moshe and the relaying of it to the nation.  He might answer that this was a renewal of the original covenant and as such was needed to only cover the same laws.
"לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת כׇּל מִצְוֺתַי לְהַפְרְכֶם אֶת בְּרִיתִי" – According to this position, the covenant which Hashem speaks of can refer to that in Shemot 24.
Comparison to ceremony in Devarim – According to Ibn Ezra, the the two ceremonies are parallel, each containing a covenantal aspect and blessings/curses over observance of all commandments given until that point.  The summary statement "אֵלֶּה דִבְרֵי הַבְּרִית... מִלְּבַד הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת אִתָּם בְּחֹרֵב", which compares the two, supports this reading.
Content of blessings / curses – This position would suggest that the fact that Hashem speaks about general observance of mitzvot ("כׇּל מִצְוֺתַי") throughout the blessings / curses, suggests that it was made over an entire corpus of law and not just just over Shemittah.  Nonetheless, it might agree that Hashem chose to focus more on the laws of Shemittah due to its challenging or fundamental nature.

Laws Given in Sefer Shemot and Sefer Vayikra

The blessings and curses are dependent on the observance of all of the mitzvot given from the Revelation at Sinai through Sefer Vayikra.

"אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת" – Ralbag maintains that:
  • "מִשְׁפָּטִים" refer to the commandments of Parashat Mishpatim.
  • "חֻקִּים" include the non-intuitive laws of Sefer Vayikra,26 such as the laws of holidays, purity, and Shemittah.
  • "הַתּוֹרֹת" are the ritual procedures of Sefer Vayikra, such as the laws of sacrifices which are prefaced by the terms, "תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה" ,"תּוֹרַת הַמִּנְחָה" etc.27
As such, taken together, the terms include all the commandments given from Parashat Yitro through Parashat Behar.
"אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י... בְּהַר סִינַי" – These sources can explain the verse in one of two ways:
  • Ralbag and Sforno assert that all of the commandments were given to Moshe when he ascended Mt. Sinai to get the Tablets. Thus, this phrase does not come to exclude commandments that were given again elsewhere, but simply to state that all the laws to which the blessings / curses refer were given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai.
  • This position could have alternatively explained that the verse is not limiting itself to laws given when Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai, but refers to all laws given in the vicinity of Mt. Sinai, whether on the mountain, or in Ohel Moed at the foot of the mountain.28
Chronology of Sefer Vayikra – Since this position does not read the phrase "בְּהַר סִינַי" to be in contrast to "the Ohel Moed",29 it does not need to posit any achronology when passages said there appear in Torah after passages said in the Tent of Meeting.  As such, it can assume that the entire book is chronological and that Vayikra 25-26 is in its rightful place.
Why these? The blessings and curses were made over all the commandments that had as yet been relayed to the people.  Even according to Ralbag and Sforno who maintain that Moshe already received all of Torah, since it had not all been relayed to the people, it would not make sense to make a covanant over laws of which they were unaware.
Why bless and curse now? Since at this point in the narrative the nation is about to enter the Land,30 it is an appropriate time to motivate the nation to keep the commandments.
Content of blessings and curses – Throughout the blessings and curses, Hashem does not specify individual commandments that need to be observed,31 but speaks in more general terms, saying "אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֺתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ" and the like,32 which might suggest that He is speaking about an entire corpus of laws.
Relationship to covenant of Shemot 24 – According to Ralbag and Sforno, the covenant of Shemot 24 was made over the laws of Shemot 20-23 (Parashat Yitro and Mishpatim).  Vayikra's ceremony took the nation a step further, warning them to observe not only these, but all the laws given since then as well.
Comparison to ceremony in Devarim – According to Ralbag and Sforno, the covenant in Devarim moved beyond that in Vayikra, as it included all the new commandments given in the intervening 38 years.  According to them, each of the three ceremonies (Shemot 24, Vayikra 26, and Devarim 28) was based on the same premise: to warn the nation to observe all that had been commanded. They differed only in that each covered more laws than the previous one, since more had been relayed in the interim.

All of the Mitzvot in the Entire Torah

The blessings and curses relate to the observance of all of the mitzvot.

"אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת" – The Sifra and Rashi explain that the plural form of the word "הַתּוֹרֹת" refers to both the Written and Oral Torah, while "הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים" refer to various types of commandments.33  Together they comprise the entire body of Law.  It is not clear, however, why all three terms were needed, if the word "הַתּוֹרֹת" subsumes the others.
"אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י... בְּהַר סִינַי" – According to these sources, all of the commandments, with all details of their observance, were given to Moshe when he went get the Tablets at Sinai. Thus, this verse is simply sharing that the blessings were made on all of these.
"מה עניין שמיטה אצל הר סיני" – This approach needs to explain why Vayikra 25:1 would specify that Hashem instructed Moshe about Shemittah at Sinai, given that this is not unique, and everything else was taught there as well.  Sifra and Rashi, answer that the verse teaches that not only did Hashem teach generalities at Sinai, but that He also explained all the minutiae of every law at the same time.34
Chronology of Sefer Vayikra – This position obviates the problems of achronology since it asserts that the closing "אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י... בְּהַר סִינַי" refers to all of Torah in its entirety and does not assume that the verse is specifying laws given on Mt. Sinai as opposed to in the Tent of Meeting.
Why include all mitzvot? This position might assume that not only were all laws given to Moshe at Sinai, but that they were also relayed to the people then.  If so, it is natural to make a covenant on all of Hashem's laws, as all commandments would seem to equally require warning of punishment and reward.  Alternatively, even if some of the commandments had not yet been transmitted to the people, Hashem might have made a covenant on their future observance.
Why bless and curse now? Since at this point in the narrative the nation is about to enter the Land of Israel, it is an appropriate time to motivate the nation to keep the commandments.
Content of blessings / curses – The warning "לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת כׇּל מִצְוֺתַי" and the fact that the curses speak of the laws in general terms (rather than specifying individual mitzvot),35 could support the position that Hashem is referring of all of His commandments.
Relationship to covenant of Shemot 24 – Rashi asserts that the covenant of Shemot 24 took place before Matan Torah,36 and only referred to the seven Noachide laws and the handful of commandments that the people had received at Marah.37  It is first in Vayikra that a covenant is made over the complete Torah.
Comparison to ceremony in Devarim – Rashi views this ceremony as being exactly parallel to that in Devarim 28, as both were all inclusive.  According to him, each time the nation found itself on the eve of entry into the land, Hashem made a covenant over all of Torah to motivate observance.