Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself

Today Mount Gezerim and Mount Eyval stand over the city of Nablus.  In the Hebrew Bible, the same two hills rise above the ancient Canaanite city of Shekhem.  Although Moses has never been to Canaan, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim he knows about Gezerim and Eyval.

Mt. Gezerim (left), Nablus, Mt. Eyval (right)

Moses knows how the slopes that face one another curve to form a natural amphitheater, so anyone who stood in the middle of the valley and shouted could be heard by people standing on both slopes.  He gives the following order in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”):

These shall stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin.  And these shall stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.  And the Levites shall testify, and they shall say to every man of Israel in a loud voice: “Arur is the craftsman who makes a carved idol or a cast idol, an abomination to God, or the one who sets it up in a hiding-place.”  And all the people shall answer and say: “Amen.” (27:12-15)

arur (אָרוּר) = accursed; isolated and ruined.

amen (אָמֵן) = Supported!  Confirmed!  (A formula indicating acceptance of a curse, oath, message, deal, or religious tenet.)

The ritual continues with eleven more curses:

  • demeaning one’s father or mother
  • moving another’s boundary marker
  • making a blind person go astray
  • skewing justice concerning a stranger, orphan, or widow
  • having sex with one’s father’s wife
  • having sex with any animal
  • having sex with one’s sister or half-sister
  • having sex with one’s mother-in-law
  • hitting a person in private
  • taking payment to murder someone
  • not upholding the words of the Torah.

Commentators have pointed out that these curses deal with acts done secretly or privately, acts that society is not likely to discover and punish.  Ten of these acts concern treating other human beings badly, even when no one else knows.  The other two are about cheating on one’s religion.

Of course, more secret vices could be added to the list, but since the Israelites had twelve tribes, these twelve secret sins serve as examples.

By saying amen to the curses, the Israelites are internalizing an aversion to, or fear of, transgressing God’s ethical and religious rules.

The ritual Moses prescribes would have a major psychological impact on people just entering their new homeland.  Instead of proudly celebrating their military victories, they must dedicate themselves to being considerate with other humans and honest with God.

Why two mountains?

Mount Gerizim, which represents blessings, was thickly wooded in the biblical era.  Mount Eyval, which represents curses, was bare and stony.  Doing the right thing, therefore, would mean choosing the blessing of abundant life.  Doing the wrong thing would mean choosing an accursed life, a life of emptiness and spiritual death.

By saying “Amen” after the Levites recite each curse, the people affirm that this is the choice they must make.

Twelve blessings

The twelve blessings are not listed in this week’s Torah portion, but according to the Talmud they are simple inverses of the curses, e.g. not making and secretly setting up an idol, etc.

However, it is easy to extrapolate active behaviors that lead to being blessed: worshiping only God; honoring one’s parents; respecting others’ property; guiding the blind; being just to people who are at a disadvantage in society; having sex only with appropriate partners; refraining from violence even when you could get away with it; putting life ahead of profit; and promoting the  rules in the Torah.


The blessings and curses still apply to us today.  Every time an individual faces a decision between doing something they know is wrong, and doing the right thing instead, that individual stands  between Mount Eyval and Mount Gerizim.

Thanks to our inner Levites, we know that if we do something wrong in secret,  we will still be accursed: we will suffer from guilt, we will feel degraded, and we will isolate ourselves.  If we do something good in secret, we will still be blessed: we will feel full of life, right with the world and right with our souls.

(This blog was first posted on August 23, 2010.)

7 thoughts on “Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself

  1. Pingback: Repost: Ki Tavo |

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