Parshat Ki Tavo: What Was Written on the Stones?

“And you shall write upon them the words of the Torah when you pass over, so that you shall come to the land that Hashem your G-d gives to you – a land flowing with milk and honey – as Hashem your G-d spoke to your forefathers in your regard.” (Devarim 27:3)

Moshe tells the nation that after crossing the Jordan they will arrive at Har Eval. The nation is to erect a structure of twelve stones. They are to record the Torah on these stones. There is a dispute among the authorities regarding exactly what was to be recorded upon these stones. Nachmanides notes that according to some authorities, the requirement is to be understood quite literally. Bnai Yisrael were required to record the entire Torah upon these stones – from the first pasuk of Sefer Beresheit to the last passage of Sefer Devarim.[1] Others suggest that only Sefer Devarim was to be inscribed upon these stones.[2] Rabbaynu Sa’adai maintains that Bnai Yisrael were required to inscribe upon the stones a brief list of the 613 mitzvot.[3] What is the basis of this dispute? In order to understand this dispute, we must consider another issue discussed in our parasha.


“These shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the nation when you pass over the Jordan – Shimon, Levi, Yisachar, Yosef, and Binyamin.”
(Devarim 27:12)

Moshe commands Bnai Yisrael in a second activity that the nation is to perform upon entering the land. Moshe instructs Bnai Yisrael that, upon entering the land, they should publicly pronounce a series of blessing and curses. The blessings are the reward for observing the Torah. The curses are the consequence for abandoning the mitzvot. Moshe instructs that the blessings should be given upon Mount Gerizim and the curses should be pronounced from upon Mount Eival.

Moshe’s instructions are not completely clear from the narrative in our parasha. The Talmud, in Tractate Sotah, provides further clarification. The description that emerges is that Bnai Yisrael were to be divided into three groups. Six tribes – Shevatim – were to ascend Mount Gerizim and six were to ascend Mount Eival. The Kohanim and Leveyim were to be positioned between the two mountains. The Aron – the sacred Ark – would accompany the Kohanim and Leveyim.

Before we can continue our discussion of the process of pronouncing the blessings and curses, a critical issue must be resolved. The blessing and curses are not a series of rewards and punishments. They are a list of behaviors that are either rewarded or punished. In our parasha, Moshe lists the behaviors that result in the curse. For example, any person that creates an image or idol will be cursed. The behaviors that are rewarded are not delineated in our parasha. What is the text of these blessings?

The Talmud suggests that the blessings – the behaviors to be rewarded – are the opposite of the behaviors that are punished. In other words, Moshe delineated, as one of the curses, that a person who creates an idol is cursed. According to the Talmud, this curse delineates a corresponding blessing. One who refrains from creating an idol is blessed. Now, we can identify the text of the blessings. The text of the blessings is merely a derivative of the text for the curses.

Let us return to the Talmud’s explanation of the process of pronouncing the blessings and curses. The Talmud explains the process was to be composed of four steps. First, the Leveyim would turn towards Mount Gerizim. They state the first blessing. Second, the Shevatim on both mountains respond, “amen.” Third, the Leveyim were to turn towards Mount Eival and state the corresponding curse. Fourth, the tribes on both mountains respond, “amen”. This process continues until the entire series of blessings and corresponding curses is completed.

This process raises many questions. Let us consider a few of these. First, as explained above, the blessings would be stated by the Leveyim while facing Mount Gerizim. The Leveyim would then reverse direction and pronounce the curses facing Mount Eival. Why were the blessings and curses associated with different directions and mountains?

Gershonides answers this question. His response provides an important insight into the fundamental nature of these blessings and curses. He explains that the curse and blessing represent opposite extremes. The blessing for observing the mitzvot is uncommon, extreme well-being. The curse that befalls Bnai Yisrael for violating the commandments is not merely the loss of this well-being and a restoration of a more common and moderate pattern. The curse is the opposite of the blessing. The consequence for abandoning the Torah is uncommon, extreme suffering and misfortune. Associating these two states with two opposing mountains and directions represents this relationship between the curse and blessing. This symbolism communicates the message that these two states are extreme opposites.[4]

Gershonides further explains the reason for this relationship. Why are the curse and blessing extreme opposites? He explains that the well-being promised as a reward for observance of the Torah is not a natural phenomenon. It is only possible though the intervention of Divine Providence. Abandoning the Torah is punished by extreme suffering and misery. This punishment is not merely a suspension of the providence that produced the blessing. The punishment is also an expression of Divine Providence. The Almighty intervenes into nature to produce a state of consistent affliction and wretchedness.[5]

Is there a connection between the two activities that Moshe instructed Bnai Yisrael to perform upon entering the land? In other words is there a relationship between the Moshe instruction to record the Torah on stones and the requirement to recite the blessings and curses? Rashbam suggests an obvious connection. He explains the two activities are part of a single process. The Torah is to be recorded on the stones so that the blessings and curses will be recited in the presence of the record of the Torah.[6] In other words, the blessings and curses represent an acknowledgement of the consequences for observing or ignoring the Torah. This acknowledgement is to be recited in the presence of a record of this Torah.

Now, let us return to the dispute between the authorities regarding the text recorded on the stones. We can easily grasp the reasoning behind recording the entire Torah on the stones. The curses and blessings represent entry into a covenantal relationship to observe the Torah. It is reasonable that in entering into this agreement the object of the covenant – the Torah – should be present.

We can also appreciate the reasoning of the opinion that Sefer Deavim alone was recorded on the stones. Sefer Devarim is contains Moshe’s final admonishment to Bnai Yisrael to observe the Torah. Moshe repeatedly urges Bnai Yisrael to be scrupulous in their observance of the Torah and describes to the nation of the consequences of disobedience and the rewards for observance. Sefer Devarim – more than any other text – is reflected in the blessings and curses. In fact, the blessings and curses can be regarded as no more than a summary presentation of this final admonition of Moshe. The recording of Sefer Devarim upon the stones creates a fixed record of the substance of the covenant entered into by Hashem and the nation.

In short, these two opinions agree that there is a relationship between the text on the stones and the blessings and curses. However, they differ on the precise nature of the relationship. The first opinion – that the entire Torah is recorded – maintains that the stones were part of the process of creating the covenant. When the nation entered into the covenant, the text over which the agreement is entered is before it. According to the second opinion – that only Sefer Devarim was recorded on the stones – the text is not part of the covenant. It is intended as a fixed record of the covenant for future generations.

This leaves the opinion of Rabbaynu Sa’adia. According to Rabaynu Sa’adia, the stones are inscribed with a short list of the 613 mitzvot. What is Rabbaynu Sa’adia’s reasoning?

In order to answer this question, it is important to appreciate the nature of 613 mitzvot and their relationship to the Torah. The Torah includes the commandments. But these commandments are not the entire content of the Torah. In addition to these commandments the Torah includes a vast array of concepts, perspectives and ideas. This material is not incorporated into specific mitvot. There are many examples of this distinction. The opening chapters of Sefer Beresheit provide an obvious example. These chapters contain an elaborate description of the creation. Although this material is clearly a fundamental element of the Torah, this account is not incorporated into a specific mitzvah. The mitzvot are the action items of the Torah. They represent the activities and beliefs that we are required to accept and observe.

Rabbaynu Sa’adia maintains that the covenant into which Bnai Yisrael was to enter through acknowledgement of the curses and blessings relates to these mitzvot – to the action items of the Torah. Although we are required to accept the entire Torah – every passage must be acknowledged as a divinely revealed truth, the blessings and the curses constituted a covenant in regard to these action items of the Torah. Therefore, according to Rabbaynu Sa’adia the mitzvot are recorded on the stones and not the entire Torah.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:3.

[2] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Devrim, 252b.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Devrim, 27:2.

[4] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on the Torah, p 217a.

[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on the Torah, p 298d.

[6] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Devrim 27:8.