Practices of the Tochacha
Question #1: Anonymous Callup
Avraham Gabbai asks: “Why is the practice in my shul not to mention the name of the person who receives the aliyah of the tochacha?”
Question #2: Disproportionate Reading
“When I was studying the parshah that we will read this week, I noticed that the first two aliyos of parshas Bechukosai are very tiny, the third aliyah is huge, and the last four aliyos are fairly small. Why is this parshah divided so unevenly?”
Question #3: Missed the Call
“I once visited an unfamiliar shul for the tochacha reading, and it seemed that no one recited the brochos on that part of the reading. Is this an acceptable practice?”
In two places, at the end of the book of VaYikra and in parshas Ki Savo in Devorim, the Torah describes, in great detail, the calamities that may befall Klal Yisroel, chas veshalom, should we not observe the Torah properly. This part of the Torah is customarily called the tochacha, literally, the admonition, although the Mishnah (Megillah 31a) calls it the curses. We find halachic discussion in the Gemara, and much debate among later authorities, as to how these passages are read for kerias haTorah. The goal of our article is to understand which practices are based in halacha and which are not, and to provide a greater appreciation of the topic.
Splitting the tochacha
The earliest discussion, found already in the Mishnah and Gemara, revolves around whether we can divide the tochacha into several different aliyos, which would make the size of the different aliyos in parshas Bechukosai more proportionate. In reference to reading the tochacha, the Mishnah writes very succinctly: We do not end an aliyah in the middle of the curses. For this reason, in the years that we read only parshas Bechukosai, we divide the beginning of the parsha into two very small aliyos and then read the entire tochacha for the third aliyah. (In most years, parshas Bechukosai is combined with parshas Behar.)
Why not split?
To elucidate this Mishnah, the Gemara (Megillah 31b) presents two reasons why we do not split the tochacha into two aliyos.
The Gemara offers an additional reason for not splitting the tochacha into two aliyos: we do not want to recite a brocha specifically on the tochacha. To quote the Mesechta Sofrim (Chapter 12), “Hashem said, ‘It is inappropriate that, while my children are being cursed, I am being blessed,'” or, as explained slightly differently by Tosafos (Megillah 31b, s.v. Ein), “It is inappropriate that my sons bless me for the curses that they receive.” To circumvent this concern, we begin the reading before the tochacha and end the reading after the tochacha, so that the brochos are recited on the earlier and later verses.
There seems to be a difference in halacha between these two answers. According to the first reason, it is acceptable to begin an aliyah with the tochacha and end it immediately afterwards, since the person who received the aliyah heard the tochacha in its entirety. However, according to the second reason, one should begin the aliyah several verses before the tochacha and end it several verses after.
In his commentary on this Gemara, the Sfas Emes demonstrates that the two reasons quoted do not disagree, but complement one another, since each reason applies in situations when the other does not. When the original takkanah to read the Torah was instituted, each person called to the Torah did not recite brochos before and after his aliyah. The person who received the first aliyah recited a brocha before the reading, and the person who received the last aliyah recited the after-brocha. Thus, since the Mishnah that records the practice of not splitting the tochacha into two aliyos was written in the era when only the first and last person recited brochos, the second reason provided by the Gemara (so that we should not recite a brocha directly on the tochacha) could not be explaining the Mishnah, but is providing an additional reason for the halacha.
We do not stop an aliyah in the middle of the tochacha for both reasons. Therefore, we should not start an aliyah right at the tochacha nor end it immediately after. This is our halachic practice.
Not all tochachas are created equal
In the Gemara Megillah (31b), Abayei comments that the ruling prohibiting splitting the reading into two aliyos applies only to the tochacha in Bechukosai, but not to that in Ki Savo. Why are the two tochachas treated differently?
The Gemara explains that the tochacha of Bechukosai is more stringent, because it is written in the singular and has Hashem speaking, whereas in Ki Savo, Moshe speaks in the third person about what Hashem will do, and he refers to the Jewish people in the plural.
Can we divide and conquer?
The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 13:7) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 428:6) already note that the custom developed not to divide either tochacha, although the halacha remains that it is technically permitted to divide the tochacha in Ki Savo.
The two tochachas remain unequal
A difference of halacha results from the fact that it is technically permitted to divide the tochacha in Ki Savo. Suppose that in the middle of reading the tochacha in Ki Savo one were to find a pesul, a defect, in the sefer Torah that prevents proceeding with the reading in that sefer Torah. When a defect like this is found in a place where it is permitted to end an aliyah, the optimal practice is to end the aliyah and have the person whose aliyah it is recite the after brocha “asher nasan lanu Toras emes.” We then close the sefer Torah that has been found defective, tie its gartel around the outside of the sefer Torah’s cover/mantel (the universal way of signaling that a sefer Torah requires repair), and then take out a new sefer Torah and roll it to this point in the reading. We then call up a different person to begin his aliyah.
Should one discover a defect in the middle of the tochacha in parshas Ki Savo, this is the practice that one should observe, despite the fact that it results in ending and beginning aliyos in the middle of the tochacha.
However, were one to find a defect of this nature in the tochacha of parshas Bechukosai, one would not be permitted to end the aliyah at this point, since the Mishnah prohibited dividing the tochacha into two aliyos. Instead, one would be forced to follow the procedure for finding a mistake in a sefer Torah at a point at which one cannot divide the aliyah – which is to take out a new sefer Torah and continue the aliyah from it.
At this point, we will begin to discuss some of the customs that have developed concerning the reading of the tochacha. Many communities have the practice of reading the tochacha extremely quickly, which has an old, although questionable, tradition, already recorded in the Gemara:
“Levi bar Buta was reading the tochacha very quickly and with difficulty. Rav Huna told him, since you do not want to read it, stop, even though you are in the middle of the tochacha. The halacha not to stop in the middle applies only for the tochacha of VaYikra and not for the one of Devorim” (Megillah 31b, as explained by Rashi). Since most of us are not old enough to have heard Levi bar Buta’s reading, we cannot tell for certain whether our quick readings are similar to his reading, for which he was rebuked.
There are other customs that have developed concerning the tochacha. Some read it in an undertone, although one who does this must be careful to read it loud enough that everyone in the shul can hear it, so it should be read in a voice that we usually call a “stage whisper.”
Only the greatest shall read
Some early authorities cite a custom to call up the rav or other gadol baTorah for the aliyah of the tochacha (Magen Avraham 428:8, quoting Keneses HaGedolah). We find sources showing that this custom is very ancient, as implied by the following anecdote recorded by the Sefer Hassidim: Someone in the community regularly received the aliyah of the tochacha. One time, the gabbai got angry at him, and told him, “I am giving you this for your honor,” to which the perennial recipient responded: “If your intent is to honor me by calling me up for the tochacha, don’t call me up!” They called up someone else instead. Later that Shabbos, something calamitous occurred in the household of the perennial tochacha recipient. The Sefer Hassidim concludes that, although the perennial recipient had a valid reason to refuse the aliyah, he still should not have told this to the gabbai. One who has the opportunity to perform a mitzvah should not turn it down.
Notwithstanding the fact that one should not refuse the aliyah of the tochacha, the Sefer Hassidim notes that some early authorities recommended giving the aliyah of the tochacha to unlettered people for the following reason: should one give the aliyah to a Torah scholar and something grievous happen to him, people might attribute the calamity to the fact that he had read the tochacha. However, despite this concern, the Sefer Hassidim still rules that anyone called to an aliyah should eagerly accept the mitzvah (Sefer Hassidim #766).
No one wants the aliyah
Until now, we have been discussing halachos of reading the tochacha that are based in the Mishnah, Gemara and early authorities. At this point, we will discuss the many customs that developed because people did not want to receive the aliyah in which the tochacha is read.
Obviously, this part of the Torah has the same amount of sanctity as the rest: it is an honor and a mitzvah to be called to read from any part of the Torah. Although there is no halachic basis for the concern, we find that people considered it a bad omen to be called up for the aliyah in which the tochacha was read. Difficulty in finding someone willing to receive this aliyah led to a disgrace to the Torah’s honor. To avoid this bezayon haTorah, a number of interesting customs, some of them with halachic basis and sanction and others without, developed.
Skipping the parsha
The Biur Halacha (428:6) records with tremendous disdain the practice of communities who skipped completely the kerias haTorah on the two Shabbosos of Bechukosai and Ki Savo, in order to avoid the problem that no one wanted the aliyah of the tochacha!
The Biur Halacha decries this practice, noting that this approach means not fulfilling the mitzvah of reading the Torah every Shabbos morning and completing the Torah every year. The reason for reading the Torah is to teach us to behave according to its dictates, whereas skipping these parshiyos means losing the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. The Biur Halacha compares the practice of skipping these parshiyos to an individual who decides that he will avoid the dangers of walking through an area full of pits by wearing blinders! Obviously, the exact opposite is true. One, who needs to walk through a minefield, whether physical or spiritual, must keep his wits about him and walk as carefully as possible. Avoiding bizayon haTorah by skipping the tochacha is not acceptable.
Read without an aliyah
In some circles, the custom developed for the baal keriyah to read the aliyah of the tochacha, but without anyone reciting brochos either before or after it. Although several major halachic authorities, including Rav Shlomoh Kluger (Shu”t HaElef Lecha Shlomoh, Orach Chayim #63) and Rav Ovadyah Yosef, sharply rebuked this practice, there are halachic authorities who accepted it.
I found this practice quoted by the Maharsham (Daas Torah) in the name of the Shu”t Har HaCarmel (Orach Chayim #12), who recounts that in a certain place they could not find anyone to take the aliyah of the tochacha, unless the community paid them huge amounts of money. Even then, only the lowest of the people in the community would agree. Since paying someone an exorbitant amount of money for the honor of receiving an aliyah is a bezayon haTorah, the Har HaCarmel permitted the lesser of two evils and allowed them to read the tochacha without anyone reciting brochos. Apparently, this was also the practice in some communities in Morocco.
The Sho’el Umeishiv permitted this practice of “reading the tochacha without an aliyah,” but for a different reason. As I will demonstrate shortly, because of people’s hesitance to receive the aliyah of the tochacha, it was common to prearrange the hiring of someone to receive the aliyah of the tochacha before Shabbos. Once, it happened that the gabbai had forgotten to “hire” someone before Shabbos for the aliyah, and the community made the financial arrangements on Shabbos, which the Sho’el Umeishiv contended violated the halacha of doing business on Shabbos. In order to avoid this halachic violation, the Sho’el Umeishiv considered it preferable to have the baal keriyah read the aliyah without anyone reciting brochos, rather than running the risk of making negotiations on Shabbos!
Despite the fact that there were rabbonim who permitted “reading the tochacha without an aliyah,” other poskim took tremendous exception to the practice. Rav Shlomoh Kluger derides the custom as a bizayon haTorah, and a violation of the halacha that requires a brocha prior to reading the Torah. Should the community be unable to hire someone to take the aliyah, or to give it to the shamash or some other community employee, Rav Kluger rules that the attendees of the shul should draw lots for the aliyah (Shu”t HaElef Lecha Shlomoh, Orach Chayim #63). I found, among recent halachic authorities, that Rav Ovadyah Yosef also takes strong umbrage to the practice of “reading the tochacha without an aliyah,” whereas Rav Yaakov Breisch discusses it and does not oppose its practice (Shu”t Chelkas Yaakov, Orach Chayim #35).
Miss only the brochos
The Har HaCarmel, who suggested “reading the tochacha without an aliyah,” presented another suggestion: the person who received the previous aliyah omits reciting a brocha after his aliyah, and the person who received the aliyah afterwards omits the brocha before his aliyah. Thus, the aliyah is read by the baal keriyah, without calling any specific person for the aliyah, but it is sandwiched between two brochos.
The Rama cites the following:
“Our custom is that no one goes up to take an aliyah unless the gabbai calls him, and the gabbai calls up only someone designated by the donor who purchased the rights to distribute the day’s aliyos. Even the gabbai does not take an aliyah without permission…. The prevailing practice for both tochachas is to call only someone who wants the aliyah” (Darkei Moshe, Orach Chayim 139:1). The explanation of the Rama is that one should prearrange who will receive this aliyah, to make sure it is not someone who will be offended by its being offered him.
What did the Rama mean?
However, when the Rama quotes this ruling in his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, he reports that the custom is to refrain from calling a person up to the tochacha by name, but, instead, to give the aliyah to “someone who wants it” (Orach Chayim 428:6). What does the Rama mean?
Some authorities understand the Rama to mean that we do not call up someone by name for this aliyah (Aruch HaShulchan), a practice followed in some places to this day. The concern is that even though the person who received this aliyah is being paid, should he refuse once he was called to the Torah, he will be guilty of a bezayon haTorah (Levush, quoted by Machatzis HaShekel).
A different approach
The Biur Halacha (428:6) suggests that the Rama meant that one should make certain to call up someone who wants the aliyah, and, if no one wants it, entice someone to accept the aliyah by paying him. This method was practiced in certain Chassidic communities. For example, Shu”t Chelkas Yaakov (Orach Chayim #35) records that this was the custom in the area where he grew up.
In most places today, the accepted practice is that the aliyah including the tochacha is given to the baal keriyah or to the gabbai. Performing a mitzvah is the greatest segulah for Divine help, and therefore, this is probably the best way to fulfill kavod haTorah. Indeed, it is possible that it is a bigger mitzvah to receive this aliyah than any other, since it includes the strongest reproach in the Torah, enabling a person to grow in serving Hashem. Those places that have other customs should discuss the matter with their rav, to understand the halachic basis for their practice.