The Ceremony of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal
Why were the tribes divided onto Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal? What was the purpose of this ceremony?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are two nearly-adjacent mountains in the Biblical territory of the tribe of Ephraim, an area today known as Shomron (Samaria). Today, the city of Nablus (Shechem) resides in the valley between Gerizim to the south and Ebal to the north.
These mountains were the site of a significant ceremony shortly after the Jews entered the Land of Israel. To give an outline of the ceremony, I’ll begin with the commandments to observe it which appear in the Torah.
In Deuteronomy 11:29 Moshe instructs the nation that when God brings them to the Land of Israel, “you shall place the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.” Elsewhere (Deut. 27:11-26) the Torah goes into further detail. It states that six tribes “would stand to bless the nation on Mt. Gerizim” – Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin, while the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali “would stand on the curse on Mt. Ebal.” According to the Mishna (Sotah 7:5), this means that six tribes would ascend Mt. Gerizim as representatives of the nation to receive blessings, while the other six would ascend Mt. Ebal to receive curses.
The Torah then proceeds to list eleven curses which the Levites would call out to the entire nation. The first ten of them curse those who transgress specific sins, for example, “Cursed be he who moves back the border of his fellow” (v. 17). (This refers to a person who moves back the marker dividing between his land and his neighbor’s.) The eleventh curse is general: “Cursed be he who does not fulfill the words of this Torah to do them.” To each curse, the entire nation – the tribes on both mountains – would respond “amen”.
The Talmud (Sotah 37) describes the process in greater detail. The Levites stood between the mountains, carrying the Ark of the Covenant. For each curse, they would first turn their gaze to the “good” tribes on Mt. Gerizim and utter a corresponding blessing – e.g., “Blessed is he who does not move back the border of his fellow.” They would then turn to face Mt. Ebal and say the same statement as a curse – as the verse quotes it. After each blessing and curse, both sets of tribes would respond “amen”. Thus, although the Levites would turn toward one set of tribes for the blessings and the other for the curses, both were actually intended for everyone. (The division into groups apparently reflects that for some positive reinforcement is most effective while others require sterner treatment.)
The Torah (Deut. 27:2-8) also instructs the nation to take large stones, plaster them over, and write on them the entire Torah “explained well” (v. 8) – which the Mishna (ibid.) explains to mean in all seventy of the primary languages. They were also to take unhewn stones (according to the Mishna, the same stones on which they would afterwards write the Torah) and fashion an altar from them, upon which they offered sacrifices. The Talmud (Sotah 35b) explains that the stones used here were the same twelve stones taken from the Jordan River when the nation passed through it (Joshua 4). They were carried here and used to build the altar. Afterwards, the altar was dismantled, the Torah was written on its stones, and the stones were carried to Gilgal where they were erected as an eternal symbol.
Joshua 8:30-35 describes the actual ceremony briefly. It describes the building of the altar, the offering of sacrifices, the writing of the Torah, and the division of the nation onto the two mountains for the blessings and curses. Some of the commentators understand that Joshua additionally read the curses and blessing of Deut. 28 as well as all the Torah’s commandments (Radak and Malbim, based on vv. 34-35).
The simple reading of Joshua is that this event occurred somewhat after the nation’s entry into the Land. It is recorded right after the victory over the city of Ai. The Talmud (Sotah 36a), however, has a tradition that it occurred the same day they crossed the Jordan River – and that the nation miraculously covered the distance to the mountains in a single day and still had time for the celebration and the ceremony. (One of the commentators explains that the episode was recorded at this later point since it occurred near Ai, although it had already happened much earlier (see Me’am Lo’ez).) Most of the commentators follow the Talmud, while some understand the verses here more literally.
One surface issue which requires clarification is where the Levites stood. Deut. 27:12 lists them as among the tribes which ascended Mt. Gerizim. Yet v. 14 there, as well as Joshua 8:33, describes the Levites (and Priests) as standing in the middle, holding the Ark and reciting the blessings and curses. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) offers two answers – either that the younger Levites ascended the mountain while the elderly ones stood in the center to administer the blessings and curses, or that the Levites of the age to perform the Tabernacle service (30-50) stood below while the others ascended.
The curses listed are actually an unusual selection of laws – several are sexual offenses while the rest are more generic, such as giving harmful advice to the unsuspecting, belittling a parent, perverting justice for the underprivileged, and gossiping (v. 24; lit., “he who hits his fellow secretly”). Several of the commentators explain that these sins can all easily be committed in private or without the awareness of the authorities. Thus, since a person may feel he can get away with them, the Torah placed these additional curses and blessings on them to discourage their transgression (Ibn Ezra, Da’as Zekainim, Rashbam, Chizkuni).
The Talmud (Sotah 37b) explains the great significance of this ceremony. With this communal gathering and reacceptance of the Torah, the Jews became spiritually responsible for one another – meaning, each Jew became obligated to see to it that his fellow Jew properly observes the Torah. Our acceptance of the Torah was no longer a personal matter between ourselves and God, but a communal one, in which each member of the whole pledged to mind his fellow’s religious observance. This concept is known as arvut, which literally refers to the collateral or pledge one gives as guarantee for a loan. Every Jew serves as “collateral” for his fellow, providing his personal guarantee to look after his fellow Jew and his spiritual standing. For only if every other Jew is properly committed to God is my own service complete.