“Cursed Is One Who Does Not Uphold the Words of This Torah”?
Curses for Secret Sins
Deuteronomy 27 contains twelve curses (27:15-26). The first eleven address specific actions: making an idol; disrespecting parents; misleading the blind; injustice to the stranger, orphan, and widow; etc.
The text of the curses indicates that they refer to things typically done in secret, such as moving a boundary marker. The first and tenth reference secrecy explicitly:
דברים כז:יב אָרוּר הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה פֶסֶל… וְשָׂם בַּסָּתֶר…
Deut 27:15 Cursed be one who makes an idol… and puts in a hidden place…
דברים כז:כד אָרוּר מַכֵּה רֵעֵהוּ בַּסָּתֶר…
Deut 27:24 Cursed be one who smites his fellow in a hidden place…
Other imprecations refer to actions that by their nature are done in a home setting, away from the eyes of the community:
דברים כז:טז אָרוּר מַקְלֶה אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ…
Deut 27:16 Cursed be one who disrespects his father and his mother…
דברים כז:כ אָרוּר שֹׁכֵב עִם אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו…
Deut 27:20 Cursed be one who sleeps with his father’s wife…
These curses are pronounced on the transgressor because the hidden nature of these acts makes them immune to the fear of the shame that would ordinarily accompany inappropriate acts. The same hidden nature also makes it unlikely that a human court will be able to effectively intervene, and so the community is referring the matter to God.
Curses for Specific Ethical Violations and Blessings for Specific Moral Actions
Many of the items singled out in ch. 27 involve specific ethical failings, such as:
כז:יז אָרוּר מַסִּיג גְּבוּל רֵעֵהוּ…
27:17 Cursed be one who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark…
כז:יח אָרוּר מַשְׁגֶּה עִוֵּר בַּדָּרֶךְ…
27:18 Cursed be one who misdirects a blind person on his way…
כז:יט אָרוּר מַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה…
27:19 Cursed be one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow…
כז:כה אָרוּר לֹקֵחַ שֹׁחַד לְהַכּוֹת נֶפֶשׁ דָּם נָקִי…
27:25 Cursed be one who accepts a bribe to smite an innocent person…
The idea that someone will be cursed for specific, unethical actions fits the claim made in a number of passages in Deuteronomy that God will bless those Israelites who follow specific ethical norms:
Tithing for the poor every third year (14:28-29)
…לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה.
…so that YHWH your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.
Lending to the poor (15:10)
…כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ.
…for in return YHWH your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
Releasing Hebrew slaves at the end of six years (15:18)
…וּבֵרַכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה.
… Moreover, YHWH your God will bless you in all you do.
Lending without interest (23:20-21)
…לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
… so that YHWH your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.
Leaving gleanings for the poor (24:19)
…לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.
…in order that YHWH your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Thus, a list of specific curses fits in the context of the Deuteronomic Law Collection, which offers direct blessing from YHWH for a handful of particular behaviors reflecting moral excellence, especially kind treatment of others in a weaker position.
The 12th Imprecation: An Outlier
The curses conclude with the twelfth imprecation (the brackets reflect the reading of the LXX and SP):
דברים כז:כו אָרוּר אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָקִים אֶת [כל] דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם…
Deut 27:26 Cursed is one who does not uphold [all] the words of this Torah and do them…
This final imprecation expands the first eleven imprecations in two ways:
Not Limited to Secrets – The eleven curses imprecate a person who transgresses in secret; the twelfth imprecates anybody who sins, in secret or not.
Nonspecific – The eleven curses are about specific actions, whereas the twelfth curse imprecates a person who violates any of the Torah’s commandments.
This imprecation is more than just an outlier; it seems to make the previous eleven curses redundant. What is the point of eleven curses that single out specific secretive actions if, in the end, a curse will be laid against any violation of any rule whatsoever? Classical and medieval Jewish interpreters resolve this problem in a variety of ways.
Yerushalmi: Curse on Failed Leadership
The rabbis pick up on the use of the root ק.ו.מ in the causative form, which means to “uphold,” but is literally “cause to stand” or “hold up” (j. Sotah 7:4):
כת’, ארור אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת. וכי יש תורה נופלת.
It is written: “Cursed is one who does not hold up the words of this Torah and do them” – Is there such a thing as the Torah falling?
With this literal reading in mind, the Yerushalmi records possible meanings.
Chazzan – The first interpretation is that it is a reference to the chazzan, i.e., the person leading services:
שמעון בן יקים אומר זה החזן שהוא עומד.
Shimon ben Yakim says: “This refers to the chazzan who stands.”
The chazzan must “stand up” when reading the Torah; if he does not then he is cursed. Alternatively, some commentaries read this as a reference to the rabbinic custom of hagbahah, in which someone lifts the Torah up and showing it to the congregation.According to this, if a person does hagbahah incorrectly, he is cursed. However one reads this, Shimon ben Yakim is certainly speaking homiletically.
Rabbinic Courts – Another interpretation connects this verse to rabbinical courts, who are required to “uphold” the law.
רבי שמעון בן חלפתא אומר זה הבית דין שלמטן
Rabbi Shimon b. Halafta says: “This refers to the human court.”
Ramban (1194-1270) explains this interpretation in his gloss to Deut 27:26 as a reference to political leadership:
ידרשו בהקמה הזאת בית המלך והנשיאות שבידם להקים את התורה ביד המבטלים אותה ואפילו היה הוא צדיק גמור במעשיו והיה יכול להחזיק התורה ביד הרשעים המבטלים אותה הרי זו ארור.
They expounded this “upholding” [as referring to] the royal court and the Patriarchate, for it is in their power to “uphold” the Torah from those who nullify it. And even if he were entirely righteous in his actions, if he was able to uphold the Torah from those who nullify it [and didn’t do so] he is cursed.
In short, judges or leaders who fail to uphold the law are cursed.
The King – The Yerushalmi quotes an aggadic story about King Josiah as support for R. Shimon ben Halafta,
דאמר רב חונה רב יהודה בשם שמואל על הדבר הזה קרע יאשיהו ואמר עלי להקים.
For Rav Huna, Rav Yehuda said in the name of Samuel: “On this matter Josiah rent [his garments] and said: ‘It is upon me to uphold.’”
The reference to Josiah in this context comes from the intertextual connection between the twelfth curse and a verse about Josiah’s reform, as these are the only two texts in the Bible that use the phrase “uphold the words of the torah”:
וְגַם אֶת הָאֹבוֹת וְאֶת הַיִּדְּעֹנִים וְאֶת הַתְּרָפִים וְאֶת הַגִּלֻּלִים וְאֵת כָּל הַשִּׁקֻּצִים אֲשֶׁר נִרְאוּ בְּאֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם בִּעֵר יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ לְמַעַן הָקִים אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַכְּתֻבִים עַל הַסֵּפֶר אֲשֶׁר מָצָא חִלְקִיָּהוּ הַכֹּהֵן בֵּית יְ-הוָה.
Josiah also did away with the necromancers and the mediums, the idols and the fetishes — all the detestable things that were to be seen in the land of Judah and Jerusalem, in order to uphold the words of the torah recorded in the scroll that the priest Hilkiah had found in the House of YHWH.
The idea that a king would be cursed if he does not uphold the law comports with other ANE texts. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, ends with a long set of curses against any future king who does not uphold Hammurabi’s laws:
May any king who will appear in the land in the future, at any time, observe the pronouncements of justice that I inscribed upon my stela. May he not alter the judgments that I rendered and the verdicts that I gave… (p. 135) May the god Sin… deprive him of the crown and throne of kingship, and impose upon him an onerous punishment, a great penalty for him, which will not depart from his body; may he conclude every day, month, and year of his reign with groaning and mourning… may he decree for him a life that is no better than death. (p. 138).
Be that as it may, the Yerushalmi’s interpretations are all attempts to limit the scope of this seemingly over-broad curse, whether to faulty prayer leaders, courts, or kings. The difficulty with this approach is that it understands the twelfth imprecation (“one who does not uphold”) as being fundamentally different from the other eleven: the eleven are directed to anyone who violates the specified behavior, whereas the twelfth would be addressing only the leadership. If that were the case one would expect this to be more explicit.
Ramban: A Curse on Heretics
Although he discusses the Yerushalmi’s approach (as noted above), Ramban himself takes a different approach, arguing that this last curse is not about sinning but about heresy, referring to this curse as the “ban against rebels and heretics” (הנה הוא חרם המורדים והכופרים):
ולפי דעתי כי הקבלה הזאת שיודה במצות בלבו ויהיו בעיניו אמת ויאמין שהעושה אותן יהיה לו שכר וטובה והעובר עליהן יענש ואם יכפור באחת מהן או תהיה בעיניו בטלה לעולם הנה הוא ארור אבל אם עבר על אחת מהן כגון שאכל החזיר והשקץ לתאותו או שלא עשה סוכה ולולב לעצלה איננו בחרם הזה כי לא אמר הכתוב אשר לא יעשה את דברי התורה הזאת אלא אמר אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת לעשות
In my opinion, this “upholding” means that the person accepts the mitzvot (commandments) in his heart, and that they are true in his eyes and he believes that one who performs them is rewarded and one who violates them is punished. And if he denies one of them, or if he sees one of them as nullified, then he is cursed. But if a person violates one of them, e.g., he eats pork or other forbidden animals because he enjoys them, or if he does not sit in a sukkah or uses a lulav out of laziness, he is not under this ban (cherem). For the verse does not say “one who does not do the words of this torah,” but rather it says “who does not uphold the words of this torah to do them…”
In short, according to Ramban, the curse is not directed at one who does not do, but rather at one who does not affirm, that is, one who denies the validity and binding nature of the commandments.
Violation of Any Law in Secret
Other commentaries try to interpret this verse in light of its context, as a curse against hidden violations. Rashbam (1085-1158), for example, asserts that this imprecation refers to all sins done in hiding.
על כל עבירות שבסתר
On all sins done in secret.
R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) also reads it this way. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) similarly suggests that the twelfth curse refers to positive commandments that were violated in secret.
והנכון בעיני, כי קלל על מצות לא תעשה הנזכרים. וקלל מי שלא ישמור גם בסתר מצות עשה…
What seems right in my eyes is that [the list] curses for violations of the referenced prohibitions, and it curses whoever doesn’t keep positive commandments in secret…
These explanations maintain the theme of secrecy, thus fitting with the context of the other curses. The verse itself, however, says nothing about acting in secret.
Violating Any Torah Law: Rashi
The straightforward meaning of the verse was noted already by Rashi (1040-1105):
כאן כלל כל התורה, וקיבלוה עליהם באלה ובשבועה.
Here he included the entire Torah, and they accepted it upon themselves with a curse and an oath.
Rashi’s explanation, which I believe is the simple sense of the verse, highlights the verse’s anomaly: If the Israelites accepted the entire Torah with a curse and an oath, why single out the previous eleven actions?
Individual vs Communal Observance
Another issue is that the twelfth curse has an alarming implication: violation of any of the Torah’s commandments results in a curse on the sinner. This sets an incredibly high bar, and would result in many Israelites being cursed.
On one level, this straightforward reading of the verse fits well with the many other passages in Deuteronomy that emphasize the strong need to keep all (כל) the commandments in the torah, i.e, not just a select group of “important” commandments:
The list of punishments
כח:נח אִם לֹא תִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת הַכְּתוּבִים בַּסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה…
28:58 If you fail to observe faithfully all the words of this torah that are written in this book…
Reading the Torah publicly
לא:יב …לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
31:12 …that they may hear and so learn to revere YHWH your God and to observe faithfully all the words of this torah.
This bolded phrase even appears twice in the beginning of this chapter (vv. 3 and 8) when describing how “all the words of this torah” should be written on the plastered stones of an altar upon entering the land.
And yet, there is a stark difference between these passages and the twelfth curse. These passages are communal, emphasizing that the Israelites as a whole must keep the commandments of the torah, and even issuing threats against the community of Israel at large for failing to observe the commandments. The twelfth curse, in contrast, is a specific threat against any individual who violates any one commandment whatsoever.
Just as Deuteronomy does not offer a blessing for the proper observance of every single mitzvah—only a select few—it should follow that God would not threaten to curse someone for any violation of any mitzvah, only for a select few. As David Frankel has noted on this site,
[W]hile Deuteronomy strains to encourage the individual Israelite to observe certain select “moral” commandments with the promise of individual divine reward… it neither promises divine reward nor threatens divine punishment to the individual with regard to any non-moral, “ritual” mitzvah.
Thus, the notion that God would curse an individual who violates a simple mitzvah by, for instance, not eating matzah (unleavened bread) on the festival of Matzot (16:8) or by wearing sha’atnez (linsey-woolsey, 22:11), is unique to this verse in the Deuteronomic corpus.
A Late Redaction by a “Pious” Editor
The disparity between the twelfth curse and the eleven other curses suggests that the twelfth curse is a gloss by a late Deuteronomic editor who adopted a maximalist position. This shift in thinking is similar to, and perhaps even influenced by, what ultimately develops into full-blown “mitzvah piety” in non-Deuteronomistic, Priestly texts.
This late editor was pushing back against what seemed to him to be a problematic implication, namely, that a person should only “really” worry about violating these eleven laws, and not about “all the torah.” Thus, he added the twelfth imprecation that states that any violation of the mitzvot, public or private, results in a curse.
The Future of This Verse: Paul and the Problem of Overreach
The intention of the verse was to exhort Israelites to keep all the mitzvot carefully. Nevertheless, this extreme presentation could have the opposite effect. The belief that any violation of any commandment, no matter how slight, will result in a divine curse against the perpetrator, could lead people to give up keeping mitzvot altogether, because they would view attaining God’s blessing and avoiding God’s curse as a hopeless endeavor.
This is especially true when, over the course of centuries, the word torah in the twelfth curse came to refer not to (some form of) Deuteronomy, its original meaning, but to the entire Five Books of Moses. The result was that an already fear-provoking curse became even more frightening. This is the background for the claim made by Paul of Tarsus.
Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians
In his letter to the congregation in Galatia, Paul quotes this twelfth imprecation to make his case that those who live under the Torah are under a curse, because one can never be right with God through mitzvah observance (3:10):
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
Paul’s solution is twofold: Jesus took the curse upon himself, and people are made right with God by faith and not by works.
This then is the tragic irony of the twelfth imprecation: what starts out as an attempt to strengthen adherence to mitzvot ends up with the entire system of mizvot declared irrelevant. It is as the rabbis said: the risk of overreach is being left with nothing.
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September 7, 2017
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Rabbi Uzi Weingarten is the designer of the Communicating with Compassion course. He received Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University’s RIETS and an M.A. in Jewish Education also from Yeshiva University.
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