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 brochaasher 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.

Lightning reading

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!

The opposition

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.

Other practices

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.


Essentials of Tochachah

Question #1: Cross-gender Tochachah

“The Mishnah states that a man should not converse unnecessarily with a woman. At my workplace, there is a girl who is ostensibly observant, but I see inconsistencies in her observance level. Am I supposed to try to help her become more committed?”

Question #2: Ignored Admonition

“Is there a mitzvah to admonish someone when I know that he will ignore me?”

Question #3: Admonisher or Enemy?

“I know that there is a mitzvah to be mochiach, but I am always concerned that I will make these people into my enemies. Should I be concerned?”


In this week’s parshah, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, by saying the immortal words, ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai? “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” According to many commentaries (Ha’amek Davar, based on Chagigah 4b), Yosef intended these words as admonition, tochachah, to his brothers: Why are you suddenly concerned about how your father will react to Binyomin’s disappearance, when you were not concerned how he would react to my disappearance?[1] This provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the laws of tochachah, the requirement to reprove someone for misbehavior, a frequently misunderstood mitzvah.

The underlying principle of tochachah is the realization that fulfilling Hashem’s mitzvos is not merely an individual pursuit – it is a responsibility that I share with all of Klal Yisroel (see Sefer Hamitzvos #205). In explaining the reason for the mitzvah of tochachah, the Shaarei Teshuvah (3:19) notes that a devoted servant or employee performs his own work diligently and also tries to see that his co-workers do their jobs conscientiously. We are all members of the same people and share a common, collective mission.

The mitzvah of tochachah applies whether the sin perpetrated is between man and his fellowman or whether it is between man and Hashem (Sefer Hachinuch #239). Furthermore, the mitzvah applies equally to men and women – both have a requirement to be mochiach, and both should be admonished when they violate the Torah (Sefer Hachinuch #239). In addition, tochachah is a mitzvah that one should fulfill cross-gender; that is, a man is required to be mochiach a woman, and a woman is required to be mochichah a man. We can demonstrate this principle through the following passage:

Eili and Channah

The pasuk describes how Channah went to Shiloh, the location of the Mishkan, at the time the primary religious headquarters of the Jewish people, and prayed to Hashem that she merit conceiving and bearing a child. She prayed at great length to Hashem, and Eili was watching her mouth. Channah spoke in an undertone, with only her lips moving but her voice inaudible, and Eili thought that she was intoxicated. So, Eili told her, “For how long will you continue to be intoxicated? Remove your wine from yourself!” Channah responded, saying, “No, my lord, I am a woman who is greatly distressed. Wine and other intoxicating beverages I have not imbibed. I am pouring out my soul before Hashem (Shmuel I, 1:12-15).

Based on Eili’s reproof of Channah, the Gemara derives that the mitzvah of tochachah includes not only admonishing someone for sinning, but even for inappropriate behavior that is not sinful (Brachos 31b, as explained by Tosafos ad loc.) After all, Eili was admonishing her not for doing something specifically sinful, but for behaving in an inappropriate manner.

The cardinal rule of tochachah

The most basic rule of tochachah is that the mochiach, the person who is reproving, must truly care for the offender. Being sincerely concerned about the other person’s welfare is a condition which must be met, if the reproof is to be successful. Thus, tochachah is an extension of Ahavas Yisroel, loving our fellow Jew. The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 6:7) writes that the mochiach should explain that he is helping the offender earn a greater share in olam haba. To quote him: “One who sees his friend sinning or following a lifestyle that is not good has a mitzvah to influence him to return to the proper way and to inform him that he is harming himself… The one who rebukes must do so privately, with a pleasant manner and a soft voice.”

So, how do I influence someone if I do not love him? The answer is that I am required to teach myself to love him, both to observe the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel and in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tochachah.

That tochachah must be performed in a pleasant manner is again borne out in the following Talmudic passage: the Mishnah (Shabbos 34a) rules that shortly before Shabbos begins, a man is required to ask his family members whether all maasros and challah portions have been separated and whether the eruv has been set up. He then instructs them to kindle the lights in honor of Shabbos. The Gemara makes a point of noting that one should say all these things in a soft voice. These instructions are, in a way, very similar to admonishing one’s family members.

One size does not fit all

Prior to admonishing someone, the mochiach should analyze carefully what will be the most effective way to influence the offender. The tochachah should be tailor-made to the person receiving it and presented in a way that it is most likely to influence him or her to change. One should use stories, parables, and/or logical proofs, depending on what will speak most convincingly to the heart of the person one seeks to persuade (Sefer Chassidim #5).


Yitzchak is aware that he is required to influence his next-door neighbor, Benny, to be more observant. Yitzchak realizes that, to draw Benny closer to mitzvos, Yitzchak must sincerely care about him. Thus, Yitzchak’s first step is to truly care for Benny and to use every opportunity to develop a friendship. Once Benny feels that Yitzchak truly cares, he will be open to listening to what his friend has to say. At this point, Yitzchak can begin to explain the benefits Benny reaps by observing mitzvos carefully.

We can now understand the following, somewhat rhetorical, declaration of the Gemara: Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: I would be astounded to learn that there is anyone in our generation who knows how to admonish” (Arachin 16b).

Notwithstanding this observation, the halachic authorities rule that there is still a mitzvah of tochachah, and that one is required to strive to observe it (see Le’reiacha Kamocha pg. 286, quoting numerous authorities).

It is axiomatic that admonishing someone should not embarrass him (Arachin 16b; Toras Kohanim to Parshas Kedoshim). The recipient of the tochachah must be taught that it is in his best interest to improve, something that cannot usually be accomplished in an antagonistic interaction.

On the other hand…

Whoever has the ability to protest the misdeeds of members of his household and fails to do so is accountable for what they have done. The same is true for someone who could protest the misdeeds of the residents of his city and even the entire world and fails to do so. Therefore, the household of the Exilarch (Reish Galusa) is accountable for the misdeeds of the entire world (Shabbos 54b). Similarly, the entire Jewish people were punished in the days of Yehoshua for the crime of one individual, Achan (Yehoshua 22:20). Again, we find that the Kohen Gadol was responsible for the entire Jewish people. If one man sins, the entire nation will be punished, because of their failure to reproach him (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:72).

However, someone who admonished the evildoer appropriately has fulfilled the mitzvah of tochachah and will not be punished for the sinner’s evil deeds (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:72; Sefer Chasidim #5). To quote the Navi, Yechezkel: Because you warned the evildoer to repent from his way, even though he did not repent – he will die for his sin, but you have saved your own life (Yechezkel 33:9).

Tochachah that will be ignored

However, the halachah is that when it is clear that a sinner will ignore any reprimand, one should not attempt to admonish him, as it says in Mishlei (9, 8): Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he come to hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. As the Gemara expresses this idea: Just as it is a mitzvah to say something that will be heeded, so it is a mitzvah to refrain from saying that which will be disregarded (Yevamos 65b). In these instances, censure will cause the evildoer to sin more, rather than to do teshuvah, and, therefore, it must be avoided.

Who qualifies as a scoffer?

This question is discussed in a different passage of Gemara (Shabbos 55a), where we find the following conversation:

Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbi Simon: “The master should chastise the members of the Reish Galusa’s household.”

Rabbi Simon responded: “They will not listen to me.”

To this, Rabbi Zeira retorted: “Even if they will not listen, admonish them.”

Rabbi Zeira then quoted an Aggadic passage, in which a conversation transpired between Midas Hadin, the attribute of justice, and Hashem. At one point in this “conversation,” Midas Hadin challenged Hashem to punish the righteous for not protesting the evildoings of the wicked. Hashem answered: “I know for certain that even had the righteous protested, the wicked would not have listened.” To this, Midas Hadin retorted: “You knew that the wicked would not have listened. But how did the righteous people know?” And since the righteous had no way of knowing that the evil would not listen, they should be punished for not having attempted to influence them.

We can therefore conclude that only when it is absolutely certain that the sinner will not listen is there no mitzvah either to rebuke or to protest. However, as long as the possibility exists that the sinner might listen, one is required to rebuke him.

Mutav sheyihyu shogagin

There are other instances when one should not rebuke someone who is sinning. This is when one is certain that the sinner will not change after being admonished and, also, he may not know that the activity is forbidden (Sefer Chasidim #413). This halachic status is called Mutav sheyihyu shogagin ve’al yihyu meizidin, “Better that they sin out of ignorance than that they become intentional sinners” (Beitzah 30a; Bava Basra 60b). For brevity’s sake I will refer to this status as “mutav.”

In this situation, the tochachah will probably accomplish only that the person will now be sinning intentionally, instead of out of a lack of knowledge. Since the result of the reproach is not constructive, it should be avoided.

The law of mutav, better that they sin unintentionally than intentionally, is true even when the prohibition is quite clear and could easily be discovered by the sinner. In other words, the sinner is considered shogeig, uninformed that what he is doing is forbidden, only because he does not want to know the truth. For example, even when all halachic authorities discuss the matter and prohibit the activity, the sinner is still considered one who acted out of ignorance rather than with intent. One should avoid telling him of his error when one assesses that knowledge of the sin will not affect his behavior.

This background allows us to understand a passage of Gemara that otherwise seems extremely strange:

A person should always live in the place where his rebbe does, for as long as Shimi ben Geira [Shlomoh Hamelech’s rebbe] was alive, Shlomoh did not marry the daughter of Pharoah. [Rashi notes that the verse mentions Shlomoh marrying Pharoah’s daughter immediately after it mentions Shimi’s death, see Melachim I, 2:46 – 3:1.] However, there is a beraysa that says that one should not live in the place of his rebbe. [Thus, we have two halachic statements that seem to say diametrically opposite ideas.] These two statements do not disagree. One is discussing someone who listens to the rebuke of his rebbe and therefore being proximate to his rebbe will prevent him from sinning. The Beraysa is discussing someone who does not listen to his rebbe (Brachos 8a).

As Rashi explains, someone who does not listen to his rebbe is better living distant from his rebbe, so that he is considered negligent when he does not hear his rebbe’s admonition. This is less severe than someone who ignores the admonitions. The latter person will become an intentional sinner when he ignores his rebbe’s admonition. The rule of mutav applies notwithstanding his having moved a distance from his rebbe so as not to be reproached for this misdeed!

Probably won’t listen

Should one reproach an ill-doer when you know that he probably will not listen? The halachah of mutav applies only when one is certain that the offending party will not listen. When one thinks that he will probably not listen, but it is not certain, one is required to admonish the offender (Tosafos, Bava Basra 60b s.v. Mutav).

We will continue our discussion about the mitzvah of tochachah next week.

[1] For a halachic explanation of the sale of Yosef, see the chapter on this topic in my book From Buffalo Burgers to Monetary Mysteries.