Sotah, Chapter Seven, Mishnah Five

 

Introduction

This mishnah is an explanation of Deuteronomy 27 and several other biblical passages, which describe or refer to the blessings and curses which the Levites were to recite on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.  Note that this mishnah does not explain how we know that these blessings and curses had to be recited in Hebrew.  This seems to be taken for granted.

 

Mishnah Five

How were the blessings and curses [pronounced]?

1)      When Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal which are by Samaria, in the vicinity of Shechem which is near the terebinths of Moreh, as it is said, “Are they not the other side of the Jordan, [beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah—near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh] (Deut. 11:30), and elsewhere it says, “And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem unto the terebinth of Moreh” (Genesis 12:6)—just as the terebinth of Moreh mentioned in this latter verse is Shechem, so the terebinth of Moreh mentioned in the former verse is Shechem.

2)      Six tribes went up Mt. Gerizim and six tribes went up Mt. Ebal, and the priests and Levites with the ark stood below in the middle, the priests surrounding the ark, the Levites [surrounding] the priests, and all Israel on this side and that side, as it is said, “And all Israel, with their elders, officials, and judges stood on both sides of the ark, facing the levitical priests” (Joshua 8:33).  

3)      They turned their faces towards Mt. Gerizim and opened with the blessing:

a)      Blessed be anyone who does not make a graven or molten image”.

i)        And these and these respond amen.

b)      They then turned their faces towards Mt. Ebal and opened with the curse:

c)      “Cursed be anyone who makes a graven or molten image” (Deut. 27:15).

d)                  And these and these respond amen.

e)      [So they continue] until they complete the blessings and curses.

4)      After that they brought the stones, built the altar and plastered it with plaster, and inscribed upon it all the words of the Torah in seventy languages, as it is said, “most distinctly (be’er hetev).  

5)      Then they took the stones and went and spent the night in their place.

 

Explanation

Section one:  This section identifies the location of Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.  Deut. 12:30 says that they are near the “terebinths of Moreh” and in Genesis 12:6 the “terebinths of Moreh” are identified as Shechem (currently an Arab city called Nablus, after the Greek Neapolis).  Since the rabbis new where Shechem was but not where the “terebinths of Moreh” were, the identification with Shechem was crucial to identify the location of the two mountains.

Section two:  After locating the two mountains, the mishnah begins to describe the ritual of blessings and curses.  As described in Deut. 27:12-13, half of the tribes went up to Mt. Gerizim and half went up to Mt. Ebal.  The mishnah now harmonizes the description in Deuteronomy with that in Joshua 8:33, which seems to say that instead of going up the two mountains, the Israelites faced the two mountains.  The mishnah says that all of the tribes went up and the priests, Levites and various officials remained in the middle, as is described in Joshua.  The priests formed the inner circle around the ark and the Levites encircled the priests. 

Another problem is that according to Deut. 27:12, the tribe of Levi stood on Mt. Gerizim, whereas Joshua and Deut. 27:14 seem to place them in the middle.  Some commentators resolve this by saying that only some of the Levites remained below.

Section three: This section harmonizes Deuteronomy 11 with Deuteronomy 27.  The earlier chapter refers to blessings recited on Mt. Gerizim and curses on Mt. Ebal.  Deuteronomy 27 lists only the curses and it also seems to assume that the Levites who stand in the middle pronounce the curses and blessings.  The mishnah resolves these two difficulties by saying that the curses in Deuteronomy 27 are only half of what was said.  Not only were the curses recited but the opposite of each curse was also recited as a blessing.  Furthermore, the blessings and curses were recited by the Levites while standing between the two mountains, but the Levites would face Mt. Gerizim when blessing and Mt. Ebal when cursing.

Section four:  This section refers to Deuteronomy 27:4-5, 8.  The mishnah reads the building of the altar as occurring after the blessings and curses and not before, as the order of the verses might be read as implicating.  The stones to which the mishnah refers are the same stones that had previously been placed in the Jordan when Israel crossed the river (see Joshua 4:1-11).

The most interesting element of this section is that the words “be’er hetev” which JPS translates as “most distinctly”, and could also be translated as “well-explained” are interpreted by the rabbis as meaning that the Torah was written in seventy languages. This is the amount of languages and nations which exist in the world, according to rabbinic folklore.  Part of the entering into the land of Israel was that the Torah had to be made available to all of the nations of the world.  Indeed, this may be reflective of the fact that in rabbinic times, the Bible was indeed translated into Greek, Aramaic and later on into Roman, the three international languages in the time of the Mishnah.  

Section five:  After having set up the altar with the stones that had previously been in the Jordan, the stones are brought back to their proper place in the Gilgal.  According to many commentators, they used them to make another altar there. 

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