Who will get the sixth aliya at your synagogue this Sabbath? It is usually an uncomplicated business to distribute among those present the honor of pronouncing the blessings over each of the seven-plus-one segments of the public recitation of the week’s Torah portion. The assignments are made to honor guests, recognize members’ celebratory events or simply “spread the wealth” among the regulars. Twice each year, though, in some communities, the task of the gabbai responsible for bestowing such honors becomes onerous and difficult.
Twice a year, in the last portion of Leviticus and in this week’s parashah, one aliya is filled with horrific curses. Bad behavior, the Torah warns us sternly, will be punished by torments and sufferings described in lurid detail. Of those portions, it is the one here in Deuteronomy that has engendered more trepidation on the part of those potentially called upon to recite the aliya blessings. (Conservative synagogues reading Torah on a triennial cycle read this passage [Deuteronomy 28:15-69] this year, as the third, fourth and fifth aliyot.) Unlike the second-person plural language of Leviticus 26, here the imprecations are individual, in the second-person singular. It is as though the Torah reader is saying to the person called up, “Misbehave and you yourself will be struck with consumption, fever, inflammation, hemorrhoids, boil scars and itch. You will personally be plagued by madness, blindness and dismay. You will be driven away to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors.” And so on.
Already in the Talmud we read of reticence about reciting this passage: “Whenever an indelicate expression is written in the text, we substitute a more polite one in reading” (Megillah 25b, citing examples from our aliya). The custom was developed to read the passage aloud, but in a low voice nearly inaudible to the congregation.
The literature of Jewish law and lore tells us of instances when the sixth aliya of Ki Tavo could not be assigned in the normal way.
Some communities in the past refrained from assigning the aliya, calling for a volunteer to approach the Torah instead: “Ya’amod/Arise — anyone who wishes.” In other places, the person reading Torah was expected to take this aliya upon himself. There have been congregations in which the shammes, the hapless synagogue custodian, would have to number this among his many unenviable duties. In yet others, a poor person was paid to accept this aliya.
In response, some Libyan Jews rewarded the person saddled with this aliya by calling him to the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. In an example of “spin” from 14th-century Spain, Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shuaib reports the custom of bestowing the aliya upon a learned elder, calling this a fulfillment of Proverbs 3:11: “The Lord’s rebuke, my son, do not reject.”
There were times when none of these approaches availed. Rabbi Hayyim ben Bezalel of 16th-century Prague reports that he once saw his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo of Ostraha, rise to take “the aliya of rebuke” in order to avoid having the Torah dishonored by lying open, awaiting someone to offer the benedictions. Rabbi Hayyim also relates a story he heard from an elderly man in Enwerd that such a scandalous event actually had occurred there — the Torah scroll having been left on the table for hours on end, with no one willing to recite the benedictions over that curse-laden passage.
More often, as it appears from scattered sources, wise rabbinic authorities averted such scandal by themselves standing up to take on the duty shunned by others. The 17th-century kabbalistic work Hemdat Yamim cites a report by Rabbi Hayyim Vital, of the mystical circle of 16th-century Safed, that his teacher, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, arose to read the offending passage himself in his synagogue. The 15th-century rabbi of Wiener-Neustadt, Yisrael Isserlein, who also was known to have recited a special mi she-berakh prayer on behalf of others who accepted that dubious assignment on other occasions, had done the same.
Some saw beyond the curses to a deeper social issue. In the late 19th century, the elderly Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement, lived in Paris. One late summer Sabbath, during the reading of Ki Tavo at synagogue, there was no poor Jew present who could be inveigled into accepting the sixth aliya. Salanter rose promptly, strode to the reading table and intoned the blessing. The reader, however, refused to read the passage before the elderly scholar. Salanter chanted the passage himself. Having finished, he turned to the congregation and said: “If you yourselves are afraid of the ‘Rebuke,’ why do you let a poor person go up the Torah? Just because he is forced to sell himself for a few francs?!” For Salanter, the dignity of individuals was more at issue than the honor of the Torah.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based teacher, writer and translator, and associate director of Ta Shma: Pluralistic Jewish Learning (www.tashma.org).