Ari Sacher

‘Repetition, Repetition’ Parashat Kedoshim 5784

The Portion of Kedoshim is a veritable potpourri of commandments. Commandments run the entire gamut from man-to-his-fellow-man, man-to-G-d, positive commandments and prohibitions, felonies and misdemeanours. The commandments are arranged in no clear order. Every so often, the list of commandments is peppered by an interjection, such as “Fear G-d!” or “Be holy!”. Here, as well, the locations of the interjections seem chosen almost at random.

One of these interjections gives rise to a problem that can be very easily missed [Vayikra 20:8]: “You shall observe My statutes and fulfill them. I am G-d, Who sanctifies you.” This interjection is followed by a seemingly random commandment [Vayikra 20:9]: “For any man (ish ish) who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon himself.” This verse is an exercise in repetition. First of all, the prohibition against cursing one’s parents was already given back in the Book of Shemot [21:17]: “One who curses his father or his mother shall surely die”. What is the Torah telling us here that we did not already know? Further, the verse itself contains multiple repetitions. The phrase “any man” (“ish ish” – literally “man, man”) could just as easily have been written using a single “ish” – “a man”[1]. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [66a] explains that the extra “ish” comes to add women, who are also prohibited from cursing their parents. This exegesis is seemingly unnecessary – the Mishnah in Tractate Kiddushin [33a] teaches that women are required to follow all but two of the negative commandments. Why would a person be permitted to curse her parents merely because she is a female? Finally, the verse ends with another repetition: “For any man who curses his father or mother… he has cursed his father or his mother”. What does the last phrase add to the verse?

All these repetitions are easy to catch. What is more easily missed is the first word of the verse – “For (Ki)”: “For any man who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death”. The word “for” is a conjunction, binding the verse with a previous one and setting it up as a justification. Assuming that the verse is being bound to the immediately preceding verse, it should be interpreted as follows: “You shall observe my statutes… because any man who curses his parent shall be put to death”. This can be distilled further into “Observe G-d’s statutes so that you don’t get put to death”. While this statement is clearly true, it is unclear why the Torah uses specifically cursing one’s parents as an example and not any other prohibition punishable by death: “You shall observe my statutes… because any man who murders / bows down to idols / engages in mixed dancing shall be put to death”.

Over the years, some of these questions have been addressed individually. For instance, the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [66a] teaches that the innovation in the repetition of the prohibition of cursing one’s parents is in revealing the method in which a person who curses them is put to death – via stoning[2]. In this essay, we propose an explanation that holistically addresses all the repetitious questions we raise above.

We begin our solution with a comment made by the Chizkuni[3]. He explains that the conjunctive “for” is indeed referring to the immediately previous verse – You shall observe my statutes…” The Torah is telling us that it is logical that we should keep G-d’s commandments because, as we have already learnt, a person who curses his parents is put to death. And if this is the punishment for a person who curses his parents, how much more so should a person keep G-d’s commandments, as He is “Your Father, your King, and your Creator”. The Ramban interprets the verse along these lines but with one change – he translates the word “ki” not as “for” but as “therefore”. According to the Ramban[4], the verses should be understood as follows: Because it is G-d Who sanctifies us and by noting that one’s parents are partners with G-d in bringing a person into the world, cursing one’s parents is equivalent to cursing G-d and therefore, one found doing so is put to death. The concept of the partnership between G-d and one’s parents is honed to a fine point by the Netziv[5]: A person learns life’s rules and regulations from the moment of birth. What he learns early on in life becomes his second nature. The Netziv quotes the Mishnah in Tractate Avot [4:20] that compares a person who learns in his youth to ink written on a clean sheet while a person who learns later on in life is compared to ink written on smudged paper. Being is raised in an environment in which Judaism is scrupulously practiced gives a person the tools he needs to continue living a life of Torah after he leaves home. If a child rebels, a parent’s mission is to gently guide him back onto the glidepath. The Netziv interprets the conjunctive “ki[6] by reversing the cause and effect: A person will be best capable of keeping G-d’s commandments if he treats his parents with the proper respect. By cursing his parents and rejecting their lifestyle, he will soon find himself in dire straits.

Judaism is an experiential religion. Rabbi Judah HaLevi[7], writing in his monumental “Kuzari”, notes that G-d introduced Himself to the Jewish People as [Shemot 20:2] “[He Who ]took you out of Egypt” and not “[He Who] created the universe”. According to Rabbi Professor Samuel Lebens, “The Rihal infers from this that the Jewish relationship with G-d, as presented by the Bible, is more experiential than philosophical.” We experience G-d through a prism bequeathed to us by our ancestors. This concept is fleshed out in a seminal paper called “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” by Dr Haym Soloveichik, that first appeared thirty years ago in Tradition[8]. Dr. Soloveichik believes that over the past century, contemporary religion lost what he called “a mimetic tradition,” In the past, not only values but also religious practice was conveyed by living example, and not through texts. Our practice and values were determined by phrases like, “This is what we used to do when I was growing up…” and “This is how my mother did it…” Dr Soloveichik decries how “[t]he absence of a continuous tradition, or masorah, has led to religious insecurity; people now turned to detailed texts, as opposed to their parents and elders, to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.”

A key difference between learning practice and values from experience as opposed to learning from books is repetition. How many times will one person learn the Tractate of Shabbat in his lifetime? How many times will he learn the laws of Shabbat from the Shulchan Aruch? Once? Twice? Never? But we watched how our parents made Shabbat every week for the first twenty years of our lives. The way my father made Kiddush and did the dishes. The way my mother lit the candles and heated up the food. Because of the repetition and the rote, our memories during our formative years became our second nature. And so the Torah adjures us – again and again – if you want to live a life of G-dliness, put down that book for a minute and watch your parents. Learn from them. They are not only your prism. They are your light.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] See for example the very next verse [Shemot 20:10] “A man (ish) who commits adultery…”

[2] The Talmud, using hermeneutic concepts, shows how words “His blood is upon himself (Damav bo)” mean death by stoning. Nevertheless, this solution is still problematic. The Torah could easily have added the words “damav bo” to the verse in Shemot, rendering the verse in Vayikra completely superfluous.

[3] Rabbi Hezkiah bar Manoach, better known as the Chizkuni, lived in France in the 13th century.

[4] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and Israel in the 13th century.

[5] Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the Dean of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century.

[6] According to the Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [9a], the word “ki” has four distinct meanings: if, perhaps, rather/therefore, and for. The Netziv interprets the word “ki” as “if”, as if to say, “You will be able to keep G-d’s commandments if you do not curse your parents”.

[7] Rabbi Judah Halevi, known by his acronym “Rihal”, lived in Spain and possibly Israel at the turn of the 11th century.


About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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