The Kabbala of Curses


Why Is G-d So Angry?

– In Honor of Lag B’Omer, the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai –

From my mailbox:

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I am an avid reader of your weekly e-mails and appreciate your personal and spiritual take on what otherwise would be for me irrelevant tradition. Having grown up in an observant home with no warmth or spirituality (and worse), I came to resent anything that was “dry ritual.” I therefore am very grateful to you for having opened up a resonating perspective that I never knew was there.

In this vein I would like to ask you how you would explain the many curses used in the Torah. What possible benefit – besides fear and alienation – can curses contain?

As you know, many people are easily turned away from Biblical thought when they read the terrible misfortunes that will befall people for their sins. It is demoralizing and creates the impression that G-d is a very angry entity, filled with wrath and vengeance.

Some would even argue that it is Rabbis like you who later came and “softened” up the Biblical version of G-d and turned it into a spiritual and loving relationship. But the G-d of the Bible doesn’t seem like someone you could or would want to have a relationship with?!

I am sorry for being so blunt or perhaps disrespectful, but I have learned from your writing that you welcome such questions and appreciate the direct approach rather than masquerades.

Thank you for listening,



Dear [signed],

Thank you for your trusting words, and yes, I do appreciate your direct question, and will respond in a more formal tone in the following essay on this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s Biblical Torah portion enumerates forty-nine (!) curses that will befall those that transgress the law (Leviticus 26:14-43).

For the record, this is the first of three places in the Torah where we read what is known as the “tochacha” (the admonition or rebuke), which describes the harsh consequences of forsaking the Divine commandments. The second and third are in the beginning and the end of the book of Deuteronomy (Devorim and Ki Tovo respectively).

Traditionally these sections are read quickly and in a lower tone than the rest of the Torah reading. No one is invited up to the Torah (in an “aliya”) for these sections. Instead, the Torah “reader” unceremoniously recites the blessings before and after the reading, but he is not called up.

Which of course brings us to the big question: Why would G-d want to curse His own children?!

A bizarre Talmudic story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai will help illuminate us. Rabbi Shimon once sent his son, Rabbi Elozor, to a couple of distinguished sages for a blessing.

The sages conferred upon him a strange string of “blessings:”

“May it be His will that you sow and not reap. That you bring in [merchandise] and not let out [sell it], and that you invest and not have a return. That your house be destroyed and your inn settled. That your table be confused and you should not see a new year.” (!!)

Rabbi Elozor returned to his father shocked: “Not only did they not bless me, he exclaimed, “they have caused me anguish!” “What did they tell you?” asked Rabbi Shimon. After Rabbi Elozor repeated their words, Rabbi Shimon reassured him: “All their words are really blessings!”

And he explained: “‘Sow and not reap’ means that you will have children who will not die in your lifetime. ‘Bring in and not let out’ means that you will bring in daughters-in-law [your children will marry] and your sons who married them will not die in their lifetime. ‘Invest and not have a return’ means that your daughters will marry and their husbands will not die, resulting in your daughters having to return home. ‘Your house be destroyed and your inn settled’ means that your grave (which is called a ‘house’) will not come to use and you will live long in this world which is compared to an inn. ‘Your table be confused’ with many sons and daughters. And ‘you should not see a new year’– your wife will not die and you will therefore not have to ‘see a new year,’ i.e. remarry and spend the ‘first year’ with a new wife.”

This episode is all nice and fine. But the commentaries are troubled by the obvious question: Why did the esteemed sages not bless Rabbi Elozor in open and direct terms, and instead cloaked their blessing in cryptic language that only Rabbi Shimon was able to decipher?!

Several different explanations are proffered:

  1. The sages did so in order to challenge and sharpen Rabbi Elozor (Maharsha).
  2. They did so in order to honor Rabbi Shimon, that he be the one that interprets, and thus blesses his son. In effect Rabbi Elozor would be blessed twice (Rif. Iyun Yaakov).
  3. A blessing is more effective when it isn’t pronounced out loud in public (three people is considered public) (Iyun Yaakov).
  4. They did so for Rabbi Elozor’s good. At times when a blessing is stated outright, the “voice of judgment” (of the “prosecuting angels”) challenges the merit of the recipient, questioning whether he truly deserves this blessing. The sages therefore disguised their blessing in language that sounds like a curse, knowing that the “prosecuting angels” cannot read their minds, so as not to provoke and stir up any resistance to these blessings (Nezer Hakodesh, cited in Eitz Yosef).

Even after all these explanations, it still seems odd that the sages would use the language of curses to convey a blessing! To elicit Rabbi Shimon’s interpretation or to mask their intentions from the “prosecutors” could have easily been achieved by using neutral language. Why the need to use terms that can seem “offensive”?! True, a blessing “disguised” as a curse is easier to “smuggle” by the forces of judgment, but it still requires explanation.

To understand the deeper meaning of these blessings dressed up in the “garments” of “curses” requires a penetrating look into the forces that lay beneath the surface of existence in general. Which will also explain why of all people it was Rabbi Shimon who illuminated the inner meaning of these blessings.

The deeper meaning – and inner dimension – of all experience is to be found in what is called the “inner wisdom.”

There are two types of wisdom, which correspond to two types of experience:

1)     Conscious or revealed wisdom – which comprehends conscious or revealed experience. This is the wisdom of most sciences – physical, social and political – the understanding of our empirical and sensory experiences (what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell).

2)     Unconscious or hidden wisdom – which relates to the unconscious and hidden dimensions of reality, the suprasensory energy that makes existence tick.

The Torah too has these two corresponding dimensions: The Outer Torah, it’s revealed dimension (nigleh), and the Inner Torah, hidden beneath the surface (nistar).

On the surface things may appear one way. Beneath the surface they may appear entirely different, sometimes even diametrically opposed as to the way they seem on the outside.

Take yourself as an example: How much of your outside (body language, facial expressions, conversations) expresses your inner self? Indeed, the deeper you travel into the intimate recesses of your psyche, the fewer words we have to express ourselves. Sometimes a laugh, a cry, an “oy-vey” expresses more than volumes can. On the deepest level silence is often the most profound expression of all (the “silent voice” in the words of the Zohar).

This is because the outer world and the inner world are two entirely different, even dichotomous, paradigms. How does your conscious match up with your unconscious? Do you even want to know?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe, author of Tanya and founder of Chabad Chassidus), in his Likkutei Torah, uses this principle to explain that the “curses” in our Torah chapter are “in truth, nothing but blessings”, blessings in disguise.

On an ostensible level – the conscious, revealed dimension – they appear as curses. On this level they too serve a “blessed” purpose to attack the “negative” forces of existence. No one would consider it a curse when white blood cells mercilessly destroy harmful bacteria in order to protect the body from infection.

But in an even deeper dimension – in the unconscious, hidden dimension – the inner workings of these apparent “curses” are nothing but profound blessings, so profound that they can only be expressed in a concealed and disguised fashion. They are actually deeper blessings that the ones we can openly recognize! [Rabbi Schneur Zalman goes on to explain the blessings in some of the ostensible “curses” in our chapter].

The Tzemach Tzedek in his gloss on Likkutei Torah of his grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, equates this concept with the above related Talmudic story with the blessings “disguised” as curses: These blessings originate in the unconscious level of experience.

For this reason the blessings need to be concealed not in neutral terms but in “cursed” language: Only then are they truly concealed. The formula works like this: The more sublime and intimate the experience, the more concealed it is. Therefore, the most sublime blessings of all are couched in the most dreadful terms.

This also explains why Rabbi Shimon was the one to recognize the profound blessings bestowed on his son, Rabbi Elozor:

Rabbi Shimon is the primary source of the “Inner Torah.” Coupled with his Talmudic genius, Rabbi Shimon is the preeminent mystic of his times; the author of the Holy Zohar – the classic text of the inner wisdom of Kabbala.

Rabbi Shimon therefore was most fittingly able to see beneath the surface of the sages’ expressions and reveal their inner meaning – the profound blessings they carried, blessings that come from the “hidden” and “unconscious” cosmic levels, greater than blessings that are expressed in a revealed way.

One way to explain the power of Rabbi Elozor’s blessings: In foresight the sages saw that Rabbi Elozor in his lifetime would face difficult challenges with his children, including perhaps the horror of losing a child in his lifetime or other forms of premature deaths of children. In order to preempt any such tragedies, the sages ingenuously and intentionally used words that could sound like just such curses, so as to so-to speak “fulfill” (in physical expressions) these premonitions. But in truth they infused these words with the deeper meaning and intention of blessings, as spelled out by Rabbi Shimon. In effect, by using these negative expressions the sages bestowed the greatest of all blessings on Rabbi Elozor: They released him of his need to actually experience any such loss, and instead be blessed with good life and marriage for his and his children.

In practical terms that each of us can relate to, we too must recognize that in our lives we receive two types of blessings, corresponding to our two forms of experience: Conscious and unconscious.

There are blessings that are apparent and revealed for all to see. But then there are blessings that are camouflaged, sometimes in “garments” that don’t appear to the naked eye to be blessed.

But the naked eye is just that: Naked. It sees very little and understands even less.

These deeper blessings can take on the shape of formidable challenges in our lives. They can take on the shape of “special children” (as discussed in last week’s article), or perhaps a loss that at the moment seems irreplaceable.

Lest it be misunderstood, by all means we always ask for revealed blessings, and we deserve to see with our naked eyes the gifts of life. Yet, when we are faced with a seemingly insurmountable difficulty, never underestimate the possibility of it containing profound blessings, and your ability to reveal them.

Yes, after all is said and done, we were given the power to reveal the “unrevealable.” G-d created and gave us the resources, but He concealed them in this world of ours. Everything valuable in the world lies hidden. From precious stones to oil, from hidden potential to genius talents. We have the ability – and responsibility – to excavate these resources and bring them to the surface.

On Lag B’Omer, the yahrzeit and day of celebration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (also known by his acronym: Rashbi), his ability to see and reveal the inside becomes more accessible to us.

A concluding story:

As a child, Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch, along with the rest of the congregation, would listen to the weekly Torah reading read by his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. One year, his father was out of town on the Shabbat when the chapter Ki Tavo is read, a chapter that includes a section of admonition (not 49 but 98 curses). After hearing the Admonition read by the substitute Torah reader, the child was so emotionally upset that even a month later his father was unsure whether his son would be able to fast on Yom Kippur. The child was later asked, “Why were you not disturbed this way when the admonition was read in past years?” The child replied, “When father reads it, no curses are heard.”

Yes, it all depends on who’s doing the reading. We all project our attitudes on others. When “father reads” – the father that see the inner soul even in the darkest places – we hear blessings.

May we all open our ears to hear how “father” reads and reveals the profound blessings in all of our lives.


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13 years ago

why would G-d give concealed blessings in the tochacha, in connection with not keeping Torah and Mitzvos?

13 years ago

Thank you for the most complete, and enlightening, explanation of the curses!! It makes perfect sense, now that it is pointed out! This is a truth that spans all religions/beliefs/ideologies. Thank you for sharing!

Most sincerely,

13 years ago

Beautiful article. But when you look at the content of the curses (hidden blessings) many of them came/are coming true in the exact way they are written in the Torah. Exile, whats happening in Israel, etc. is one big manifestation of these terrible curses. I dont know how to reconcile that with the beautiful, deeper explanation you speak about here.

13 years ago

Beautiful, deep, clarifying & uplifting. Rabbi Jacobson makes the Torah come alive in personal, spiritual ways that create impact and growth. Thank you.

Heather Abramson
13 years ago

Dear Rabbi,in my earlier email I referred to Christians and Muslims as enemies who have exploited the words of the curses in the Torah. I want to clarify. I do not regard all Christians and Muslims as enemies of the Jews. On the contrary, I am involved in interfaith work here in Australia and have lovely friends from many faiths, including those. However, when those religious groups are in their expansionist modes, killing for the sake of Christ or Allah, then they become our enemies, and sadly this has happened at times in history and continues to happen today.

Heather abramson
13 years ago

Thank you for your beautiful explanation of the curses. I have a big concern however. The curses are not only read by us, but by Christians and Muslims, who have used those verses over the centuries as a good reason to persecute us. A devout Muslim thanks G-d 17 times per day for not making him one with whom G-d is wroth or whom G-d has lead astray. In that order, Jews and Christians. (The Third Choice by Mark Durie.)As a consequence of the curses existing in the Torah, our enemies have made them reality. How does that make them blessings?

Reuven Frank
13 years ago

A refreshingly new commentary on and way of understanding the tochacha.
My Rabbi (HaRav Shmuel Dov Eisenblatt), explains in his book Life of Peace, that tochacha is mistranslated as rebuke. It is more fitting to call it course correction. (See Rashi on Chumash before the Tochacha in Bchukosei.)

13 years ago

My point of departure is that the Torah is a book of empowerment. Therefore, my take on these curses is that God is acknowledging our individual and collective power.
It is up to us to recognize that we are cause in the effects (read curses) we create. We have choice.
What do we want to align ourselves with? If we follow the rules (read mitzvot) our lives will work. The curses are the default effects.
Whenever I read this passage,I thought it awesome that God gives us the power to create rain or drought, or whatever blessing or curse that is named in the Torah. It is up to us.

10 years ago

Im stumped like gitty, 05/20/2011. How can these really be blessings (albeit concealed as curses) when they come connected with our NOT doing the commandments, in fact violating them? Why would H bless us for doing contrary to his will?

Yisroel Aryeh Leib
10 years ago

You are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome. [Talmud]

The Rebbe Maharash innovated the concept of Lchatchila ariber. The approach of lchatchila Ariber teaches that if we come upon an obstacle to a task we are involved in, or an obstacle to a mitzva or project or good deed which comes our way (or we pursue), we should overcome the obstacle in the most direct manner. The Rebbe Maharash explained that while some people propose that when confronted with an obstacle the best route is to go around, or under it — and the Rebbe Maharash says: And I say one has to go lchatchila ariber [from the start, go over it].


When You Carry Valuable Merchandise

The Ohr HaMeir says that in life there are certain people who have it easy. Everything goes smooth for them and no obstacles stand in their way. They think that they have reached perfection, they are on top of the world. On the other hand some people cannot catch a break. Every time they make a move something goes wrong. Are they traveling on the wrong road?

The Ohr HaMeir explains with a Mashal. If someone is traveling on the road carrying a sack of wheat husks, his trip is easy. He can travel wherever he wants, for as long as he wants, feeling secure and knowing no one will rob him of his goods. However, if he is carrying a satchel of precious stones he sweats every step, knowing that he is a hunted man.

Dovid HaMelech says in LDovid Hashem Ori [Tehilim 27:3] Im Takum Alai Milchama BZos Ani Boteiach – if the enemy is constantly attacking me, in this I find confidence. Why? If my path in life was devoid of any value I would not encounter constant resistance from the Yetzer Hara. The fact that there is an obstacle in my path at every turn is a sign that I, my actions, goals, and ambitions are very valuable. So valuable that the Yetzer Hara is throwing all his resources at me to stop from accomplishing my dreams.

Yisroel Aryeh Leib
10 years ago

The Curses, the parts of ones life that are challenging, seeming difficult or worse, are blessings that the husks klipa, container or gross form of this world cant contain. So they appear to do damage on the level of matter. The cracks in this worlds containment of the bad times reveal huge light which is a blessing too big for this world to hold.

The Meaningful Life Center