This third book of the Torah is different from the other four books. With one exception, Leviticus contains no narrative. The book is also commonly known as Torah Kohanim/instructions for the priests. While directives to Kohanim forms much of the book, other sections dealing with purity, dietary laws and holidays are important for all the people. Nevertheless Judaism never saw itself having a class of priests who performed rituals which were to be kept secret from the general population.
Although in many ways it is the most difficult/ esoteric of all the books of the Torah, tradition had it that this was the first book that young children should learn in school. The reason for this was that laws of purity should be studied by the most innocent and pure.
The first Parasha contains a catalogue listing the principle types of sacrifices or offerings. Known in Hebrew as Korbanot (from Karov meaning to come close) sacrifices were seen as a means of bringing oneself close to God. Sacrifices were to be brought at times of great joy and at times of personal guilt and suffering. They were brought at times of joy to express a sense of thanksgiving to God, the source of goodness. However they were also brought when an individual felt particularly estranged from God in an effort to close that gap.
Although it is difficult for us to relate to the whole world of animal and meal sacrifices, these were powerful means of spiritual expression. Following the reforms of King Josiah in the 7th pre-Christian century, it was understood that Jewish offerings could only be made by the Kohanim in the Temple in Jerusalem. Once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., sacrifice or offerings among Jews ceased.
At the time it was believed that the interruption in animal sacrifice would be temporary and would be reinstituted when the third Temple would be built. Orthodox prayer continues to look to the day when the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted. Maimonides expressed the idea that God instructed our ancestors to offer sacrifices as a stop gap, until such time as we did not need this form of worship any longer. Non-Orthodox Jews recall the time in our history when we sacrificed animals as a form of worship, but we do not pray for its reinstitution.
How strange that when small children would begin their learning of Torah, they would traditionally begin with the book of Leviticus! The rabbis claimed that since the book deals with purity, so it was an appropriate first text for the most pure. It is strange however because as Harold Kushner writes in our Etz Hayyim commentary, "Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter-animal offerings and ritual impurity-seems remote from contemporary concerns."
The first two parshiyot of Leviticus contain a catalogue, a listing of the various kinds of sacrifices: the burnt offering (olah), the grain offering (minkhah), the offering of well being (zevakh shelamim), the purification offering (khatat), and the reparation offering (asham). It reads like a professional handbook, a how-to for those engaged in making the offerings.
Some offerings were made communally on behalf of the community and some were personal offered by individuals. The word for offering or sacrifice in Hebrew is the word Korban, from the Hebrew meaning to bring close. Sacrificial offerings were made in an effort to come close to God. Regular communal offerings were made in an effort to maintain a continuing and intimate relationship with God. Individual offerings were made to express emotions: one might offer a sacrifice in order to give thanks for a recovery from illness or for the birth of a new child. One might offer a purification offering to express one's sense of guilt or responsibility for inappropriate behavior.
When Jews ceased offering sacrifices, i.e. following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem prayer was substituted. In fact the three daily services with a fourth added on Shabbat and holidays are substitutes for the sacrifices that were made daily in the Temple. The priests were the professionals in charge. They would maintain the Temple and offer the sacrifices. In most cases the offerer would eat the sacrifice after it had been "cooked". Only the "olah" was burnt completely.
Kushner observes, "This professional guide became one of the five books of the Torah as part of the process of democratizing the Israelite faith, making all Israel 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Exodus 19:6). There would be no secret lore accessible only to the clergy."
The book of Leviticus, the central book of the Torah contains virtually no narrative. Its main focus is on creating time and space for holiness in our lives.
The opening chapters consist of a catalog describing the variety of sacrificial offerings, their purpose and what was required. Though esoteric to us since we no longer offer animal or meal offerings, they provide insight into our origins when sacrifices were central to Jewish practice.
Sacrifices were offered daily on behalf of the entire community and individually by anyone who felt the need to bring such an offering. They might bring them to express a sense of wellbeing or thanksgiving or they might bring them as a means of asking God for forgiveness. For sins or crimes that were committed intentionally, sacrifices never were sufficient to exonerate the guilty. However they might be brought for unintentional sins, as a means of repairing a rupture in one's perceived relationship with God.
After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70c.e., Jews ceased all ritual offerings. Prayer became its substitute. At first it was thought to be a temporary situation until the Temple would be rebuilt. Even today the Orthodox prayer book looks forward toward a time when the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted. Our Conservative Siddur has eliminated that hope and recalls sacrifices as a beloved ancient institution, but which we no longer hope for in the future.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36
Tzav and Shabbat Zakhor, Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, always takes place on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. By tradition Haman was a descendant of the Amalikites, that tribe that attacked Israel when they wandered in the desert. In fact the Torah tells us that they attacked the rear of the Israelite camp where there were women and children. We are therefore reminded to remember Amalek and what he did, that evil must not be ignored and must be fought against.
The weekly portion of Tzav continues the listing of types of sacrifices that began in last weeks portion. However whereas last week's reading was addressed to the general public, the first half of this week's reading is addressed to the Kohanim instructing them exactly how each of the offerings was to be handled. Chapters 6 and 7 describe the specific rituals and the ritual meals that took place in the sanctuary.
The second part of the Parashah describes the first 7 days of an 8 day initiation ceremony of the Kohanim into their sacred duty. Since sacrifice would function as the center of Jewish worship and ongoing relationship with God, the investiture of the Kohanim became quite significant. Although the Kohanim in their role would offer all sacrifices, it was Moses who offered the sacrifices of initiation. The Kohanim were ceremonially washed and clothed in their ritual garments and sacrifices were offered. This ceremony not only prepared the Kohanim for their sacred duties, but it prepared the people to accept this special role that the Kohanim would play in the life of the community.
2010 - Shabbat haGadol
In chapter 8 and continuing next week in chapter 9 God provides Moses with instructions as to exactly how the initiation of formal worship is to take place. Moses would act as officiant before the entire community at this ceremony. He would ceremoniously wash Aaron and his sons, dress them in their specially prepared vestments, and anoint them with oil.
Moses would sprinkle some oil on the altar and utensils. A bull of purification was slaughtered, purifying the altar with blood and consecrated it. A burnt offering was then slaughtered followed by an offering of ordination. Further initiating ceremonies took place. This ordination took seven days in order to make expiation for the Kohanim. All of the rites were conducted as God had commanded.
Our Etz Hayim Humash comments on the seven day ordination period. "These days parallel the seven days of Creation. The existence of the tabernacle and its capacity to atone for human sinfulness and imperfection make it possible for an imperfect world to survive in the sight of a just God. The Midrash emphasizes that 'if God demands absolute justice, there can be no world. If God desires a world, there cannot be absolute justice'" (Lev. R. 10:1)
Shabbat haGadol/ the Great Shabbat occurs each year on the Shabbat just prior to Passover. Shabbat haGadol was one of only two times that rabbis addressed the congregation, the other being on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This address was about last minute questions about Passover preparation. According to others since the original Passover, the 15th of Nisan, we are told, took place as this year on a Thursday, the Shabbat prior was the 10th of Nisan. This was the day the Israelites were told to take the lamb for slaughter. It was the first act of Israelite defiance of their Egyptian rulers and the first Mitzvah that they performed in this liberation effort. On Shabbat haGadol we recall their great courage.
Parshat Tsav continues the listing of the principle types of sacrifices begun in the previous Parasha. However rather than being addressed to the people, these instructions are not addressed to the Kohanim who will take charge of the offerings.
In the last portion we begin the description of the religious celebrations that mark the beginning of formal worship in Israel. The kohanim and the tabernacle would be consecrated amid great ceremony.
Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
Shmini/ Parshat Parah, Numbers 19:1-22
The special maftir for Parashat Parah is the reading about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, the ashes of which was used to purify individuals who had become ritually impure. Impurity had several sources, but the most common was proximity to the dead. If one attended a funeral or visited a cemetery, that person would be rendered impure and would have to undergo a purification ritual. One could only celebrate Passover in ancient times if one was in a state of ritual purity. Therefore this annual reading to remind people that if during the course of the year they became ritually impure, they should undergo this ritual in preparation for the forthcoming Passover holiday.
Parshat Shmini continues the inauguration ritual of the Kohanim that began in last week's parashah. Shmini means "eighth" for after seven days of ordination, the formal initiation begins on the eighth and final day.
Some time thereafter we read of the mysterious death of two of Aaron's four sons while they were engaged in service in the sanctuary. The text only says they offered "strange fire". The rabbis, bewildered, gave developed many other explanations for their demise. Some say they must have been drunk, others arrogant. Still others sees this as a consequence of excessive piety. It remains a mystery as all death. Following their deaths the Torah describes various restrictions on the behavior of Kohanim when in the service of God.
The concluding portion of our Torah reading tells us of Jewish dietary laws practiced to this very day. We are told which mammals, fish and birds are fit for consumption. Mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud, meaning that clawed animals which are carnivorous as forbidden. Birds of prey are similarly forbidden. Water creatures must have fins and scales, eliminating crustaceans and other scavenger fish that live at the bottom of the sea. While all winged swarming things are forbidden, there are four types of locusts which are permitted.
As we left off our wandering through the book of Leviticus prior to Passover we were caught up in the formal initiation and inauguration of Aaron as Kohen Gadol and his sons as Kohanim. We read of the first week's rituals and this week's reading begins with a description of the eighth and final day. Offerings of a calf, a ram, an ox and a goat were made before all the people. Aaron offered sacrifices of purification to make expiation for himself and for the people. The Aaron blessed the people and "the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people". Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering. "The people saw and shouted and fell on their faces."
We then read of a mysterious incident in which two of Aaron's four sons offered "alien fire which God had not enjoined" and they were struck dead on the spot. The Kohanim were then given other instructions as to their conduct. Specifically they were told not to drink anything intoxicating when engaging in God's service.
The last chapter of this week's parashah outlines the types of animals that are fit (Kosher) to eat. Land animals i.e. mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Though birds are not categorized by physical characteristics, birds of prey are excluded. A complicated description of insects follows as well as how impurity is passed along through touching, carrying and/or containing, rendering persons, vessels and foodstuffs impure.
Our last Torah reading which we read prior to Passover concluded with the first week of ordination ceremonies for the Kohanim into their roles as priests. These functions were to be handed down from father to son in a patrilineal line. Parshat Sh'mini opens with a description of the eighth and final day of initiation. On it Aaron offered sacrifices before the entire community. With these sacrifices Aaron made expiation for himself and the people. At the end of the ceremony Aaron blessed the people and "the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people". "The people saw, and shouted and fell on their faces".
This ceremony is immediately followed by the unexplained and sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's four sons, when engaged in the duties of the priesthood they "offered strange fire." We are then provided with the special rule that applies exclusively to priests. They may drink no wine or intoxicants when officiating. Many see in this juxtaposition an explanation for why Nadav and Avihu died.
With chapter 11 we are introduced to the laws of Kashrut, more particularly which land, sea and air born animals are fit for Jewish consumption. Mammals must have split hoof and chew their cud; fish must have fins and scales and birds must not be birds of prey.
In the main scavengers and animals which prey on other animals are not kosher.
This Parashah is usually combined with last week's reading as a double parasha. It is only read independently during Jewish leap years , which add an entire lunar month to the calendar.
Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 / Shabbat haHodesh Exodus 12:1-20
Shabbat haHodesh marks the Shabbat immediately preceding the beginning of the month of Nisan in which we will celebrate Passover. On it we will read a Maftir from Exodus in which God speaks to Moses instructing him about preparations to take place during this month for the Exodus itself which will occur immediately following the Tenth Plague.
Tazria is a separate Parasha only in Jewish leap years. Otherwise it is read along with the reading that follows. The first eight verses concern themselves with a mother after childbirth. She will remain ritually unclean for a limited period of time due to the loss of blood and return to a state of ritual purity after presenting the requisite offerings.
The rest of the Parasha deal with the subject of the Metzorah, the one afflicted with a skin disease. This affliction is most commonly translated as leprosy, but is probably a form of psoriasis. "The priest combined medical and ritual procedures in safeguarding the purity of the sanctuary and of the Israelite community. Precisely why skin diseases were singled out in the priestly codes is not certain. Tsara-at (the name of the affliction) was prevalent in ancient Israel and was presumed to be contagious." Therefore a proper diagnosis was necessary and where necessary the patient had to be isolated and removed from the camp. However the focus of attention was on the rituals of returning the patient.
The rabbis were troubled with Tsara-at. In many ways it did not function like ordinary illness. Most peculiarly it could be diagnosed in fabric, in leather and in the stones of a dwelling. Miriam, Moses sister is afflicted with Tsara-at for saying evil things about her sister-in-law. For this and linguistic reasons the rabbis preferred to dwell on Tsara-at metaphorically. They claimed that Tsara-at was a divine punishment for lashon hara/ for wicked speech. They undoubtedly did not mean this literally, but meant it as a warning. Evil speech is not a punishable offense, but it is nevertheless destructive to the cohesiveness of society. Do not engage in it or God will find a way to punish you was certainly the underlying message.
Metzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33
Metzorah continues the discussion of contagious skin ailments. The first 32 verses describe an elaborate ritual for someone who has been cured of the disease. It is a public rite of readmission to the community from which the patient has been excluded. It is for the benefit of both the patient and the community: the patient needs reassurance that s/he is indeed cured and worthy of readmission; the community needs the ceremony in order to be confident that the person is no longer contagious and can be included in all aspects of the community without fear or reservation.
The ritual includes the slaughter of one bird and dipping a second bird, cedar wood, crimsom stuff and hyssop in the blood of the slaughtered bird. The blood is then sprinkled seven times upon the recovered patient and the live bird is set free. The patient then washes his clothes, shaves all bodily hair and bathes, after which he s declared pure. He can then enter the camp, but must remain outside his tent seven days. He then washes his clothes, shaves and bathes a second time. He then brings a series of sacrifices for offering to the priest. Some blood of the reparation offering is then placed on the ridge of the patients right ear and on his right thumb and on the big toe of his right foot. Special oil is then placed on the patient's right ear, right thumb and right big toe and on his head in an act of purification. Special provision is also made for an indigent patient, who cannot afford the expense of the sacrifices.
Our Torah portion then discusses the possibility of the same ailment affecting the building stones in a house. Unlike the skin disease, this is either "mold, blight or rot, perhaps of a fungoid nature, that produced recessed lesions and discoloration in the plaster or mud used to cover building stones." If after thorough and repeated examination it is determined that Tzara-at has infected the house, the affected stones must be removed, the house scraped and replastered. In the worst case the entire house must be torn down. If the disease has not spread, however, a similar purification ceremony is called for.
The second chapter of the parashah deals with ritual impurity from discharges eminating from sexual organs. "Most of this chapter deals with discharges as a result of illness or infection, not the normal menstruation of females or seminal emissions of males. Little was known about their treatment, apart from bathing, laundering clothing, and carefully observing the course taken by the ailment itself. All the impurities dealt with in this chapter, like any prevailing impurity within the Israelite community, threatened directly or indirectly, the purity of the sanctuary, which was located within the area of settlement." "Once again we encounter the notion of tum-ah not as uncleanness or contamination, but as an encounter with the mysterious life-engendering power of certain bodily fluids and with the life-endangering dimension of disease. The encounter with the primal forces of life and death rule out other ways of entering into the divine presence."
Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 and
Metzora, Lev. 14:1-15:33
The final chapter of last week’s Parshat Shmini discussed laws of Kashrut, those animals which are clean and fit for Jewish consumption as distinguished from those that are not. Thus it concerned itself with what we take into our mouths and our bodies. By contrast this week’s double portion deals mostly with excretions and that which comes out of our bodies.
The first subject is child birth. Though wonderful and a blessing childbirth brings a human being to the very edge of life itself. Life hangs in the balance as both mother and child are vulnerable. Childbirth also involves the excretion of blood and other fluids. Thus following childbirth a mother is considered “impure”, similar to periods of menstruation, and must undergo purification rites.
The next and much more detailed subject entails various kinds of skin diseases, that have unfortunately been classified as leprosy. The ailments that are described and are to be diagnosed by a Kohen are not Hansen’s disease (leprosy), but are must more comparable to psoriasis and similar ailments which also involve oozing and protuberances or various kinds exuding from the body. The Kohen must determine whether the symptoms are those of Tzaraat and then whether it is acute or chronic, whether the stricken person must be removed from the camp and then whether and when he is healed and can return home. Complicated rituals attend his/her return.
The disease of Tzaraat contains any number of peculiarities. Among them is the fact that it can afflict not only the body, but it can be diagnosed in clothing and even in the stones of a building. In both case the symptoms appear to be similar to some sort of rot. Again the Kohen must make inquiry to determine whether the affliction in clothing or in a house is indeed the dreaded Tzaraat.
The final chapter of this week’s parashah deals with various other kinds of discharges from sexual organs as a result of illness or infection. All the impurities dealt with threatened directly or indirectly the purity of the sanctuary which was located within the area of settlement. Rabbi Harold Kushner describes them as “an encounter with the mysterious life-engendering power of certain oldily fluids and with the life-endangering dimension of disease.”
This double parasha is focused on the concept of Tum-ah/ritual impurity which is among the most difficult religious topics for moderns to grasp. Yet, ritual impurity seems to be a universal concept among all ancient cultures. Harold Kushner in our Etz Hayyimn Humash observes: "It has been suggested that these categories of ritual impurity were a response to the anxiety triggered by death, serious illness, and the 'leaking' of life-generating fluids from the body. It has been noted further that natural flows require less purification than unnatural flows, which might indicate the presence of disease."
Three separate topics are discussed in this Parashah:
- Regulations Concerning the New Mother: 12:1-8
- The Purification of Skin Diseases 13:1-14:57
- Discharges from Sexual Organs 15:1-33
The lengthy discussion of skin diseases is known in Hebrew as Tzara-at, commonly mis-translated as leprosy. Most scholars and dermatologists consider what is described in the Torah reading as a "complex of various ailments". However the disease, if such, is described with many peculiarities: a. it could afflict not only human skin, but leather clothing and even the stones of the interior of a house. The Kohen is called upon to function as diagnostician and supervise the purification and reentry process should the afflicted individual be deemed pure.
The rabbis noticed that in the book of Numbers Miriam is stricken with Tsara-at for speaking disparagingly about her brother's marriage and that the word Metzorah, the term for someone stricken with the disease, sounds similar to the term Motzee Shen Ra, someone who speaks ill of another impairing their reputation. Thus the rabbis used Tsara-at as a metaphor for divine punishment that could result from slander and liable. It was meant as a warning, not considered a reality. Slander and liable are dangerous to the fabric of society and should be avoided wherever possible.
"Most of this chapter deals with discharges from the sexual organs as a result of illness or infection, not the normal menstruation of females or seminal emissions of males. Little is known about their treatment, apart from bathing, laundering clothing, and carefully observing the course taken by the ailment itself. All the impurities dealt with in this chapter, like any prevailing impurity within the Israelite community, threatened, directly or indirectly, the purity of the sanctuary, which was located within the area of settlement."
Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Although we are about to celebrate Passover, the subject of our Torah reading is Yom Kippur. It is the most explicit description of any of the holy days found in the Torah, telling us how the Kohen Gadol would conduct himself in offering sacrifices, praying on behalf of the people and symbolically placing the sins of the people on the goat that was sent to Azazel, into the wilderness. The "focus is the priestly responsibility to cleanse and purify the sanctuary so that it will be fit for the atonement rituals." Chapter 16 is the assigned reading for Yom Kippur morning.
Although the destruction of the ancient Temple ended the ritual described, much of the Yom Kippur traditions of fasting and seeking atonement are based on the end of the Yom Kippur description: "on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work...for on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord."
Chapter 17 begins a section the rabbis have named the Holiness Code. The beginning of the Holiness Code in our Parashah this week deals with issues of proper worship and the sanctity of the family. The Holiness Code makes up most of the remainder of the book of Leviticus.
Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30 and
Kedoshim, Lev. 19:1-20:27
This double portion is arguably the most relevant parashah in the book of Leviticus.
The opening chapter of Aharei Mot is also the assigned Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning, delineating the ancient Yom Kippur ritual involving purification of the Kohen Gadol and the Sanctuary, the separating out of two goats, one for sacrifice and the other upon whom the sins of the people are symbolically placed and then sent off into the wilderness, and the special prayers offered by the Kohen Gadol on behalf of the entire people. We are told to practice self-denial on that day which the rabbis interpreted to include fasting from food and drink, avoidance of sexual activity, wearing of leather, bathing for pleasure and anointing.
From chapter 17 through chapter 26 the subject is one of the pursuit of holiness both in religious life, sexual relations and all aspects of social intercourse. These chapters are known as the Holiness Code. The opening section deals with the proper manner in which to bring offerings with serious consequences for violations. The consumption of blood is once again prohibited, because "the life of the flesh is in the blood" which belongs exclusively to God. Hunting for sport is also prohibited. Next, the Torah delineates improper sexual relations among near relations, adulterous relations, improper times for sexual contact, including a prohibition on certain kinds of homosexual relations and relations with animals.
Parshat Kedoshim contains some of the most familiar and general injunctions concerning how and why creating a sense of holiness is central to the religious life. These include:
"You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy."
Leave the corners of your field and gleanings and not pick your vineyard bare for "You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger."
"You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully with one another."
"You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind."
"Do not profit by the blood of your fellow."
"You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart."
"Love your fellow as yourself."
"You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old."
"When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him."
"You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest efah and an honest hin."
This double portion is chalk full of significant material.
Aharei Mot contains the detailed description of the original Yom Kippur ritual and therefore it is also the reading that is read Yom Kippur morning. It describes the preparation of the Kohen Gadol, washing and dressing in special white vestments, taking two goats, one to be sent with the sins of the people into the wilderness, the other sacrificed and the prayers of the high priest on behalf of himself, the other priests and the entire household of Israel.
Aharei Mot also contains the prohibited sexual liaisons between close relatives (incest) and others, thereby defining marriage and the family. It is here in Aharei Mot/ Kedoshim that we find the two verses (18:22 and 20:13) that speak to the issue of homosexuality: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence." How exactly the tradition has understood this verse and what the rabbis added to it, becomes the background for the contradicting opinions issued by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement in December 2007. The opinions are available on the Rabbinical Assembly website ( www.rabbinicalassembly.org ).
Kedoshim means holiness and the parashah opens with the command "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy". All the rest is commentary, as they say. Holiness is the goal. What follows are ritual and ethical standards for pursuing a life of holiness. It begins with revering mother and father and observing the Sabbath and continues with our obligation to care for the poor, the handicapped and those who cannot fend for themselves. It contains basic prohibitions against stealing and dealing deceitfully. Some of the obligations are reinforced by legal sanction and others appeal to the conscience of each human being.
Some of the laws the rabbis expanded well beyond their literal meaning. For example, when the Torah says that you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind, the rabbis immediately understood blind metaphorically, i.e. anyone unsuspecting or unknowledgeable is as if blind. One is in violation for deliberately giving bad advice, and much further.
The overall obligation is to "love your fellow as yourself". It was as a commentary to that verse that Hillel summarized all of Judaism as he stood on one foot, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."
Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27
This relatively short parasha of 64 verses (most parshiyot contain anywhere from 120-180 verses) contains many if not most of the moral principles with which we are familiar from the Torah.
The parasha opens by instructing us, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy". "To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary. To be holy is to rise to partake in some measure to the special qualities of God, the source of holiness. Holiness is the highest level of human behavior, human beings at their most God-like." Thus to be holy is to see the potential grandeur of human existence. We can rise above, can envision what the individual and humanity is capable of and to aspire to that level.
In explicating what holiness means, the Torah calls on us to revere our parents and keep Shabbat. It requires us to be cognizant of the poor and to provide for them. It demands honest relations with our fellow: not to steal, deal deceitfully, defraud another. We must not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, which the rabbis understood broadly to include those who might be intellectually or emotionally "blind", giving bad advice or provoking a short tempered person to lash out. Judgment must be fair and just.
Perhaps most expansive is the famous injunction that we must "Love our neighbor as ourselves."
Eating of meat without removing the blood is forbidden as is practicing divination or soothsaying. So too are mourning practices that involve making gashes in our bodies.
We are enjoined to respect the elderly and not wrong a stranger in our midst. We must use honest weights and measures. We are enjoined from engaging in Molech worship and from insulting parents. Adultery is punishable by death. Other forbidden sexual liaisons are also listed.
Violating God's commands will result in the land spewing us out of it. We must not engage in the deplorable practices of others.
"You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine."
Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Continuing the section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code, our Parasha covers three central topics: sacred persons i.e. the Kohanim, sacred time i.e. the calendar and sacred objects and speech.
Sacred persons: In order to create a sense of a class of sacred people, the Kohanim were to observe various restrictions. They could not voluntarily become ritually unclean by attending a funeral or cemetery where proximity to the dead brought uncleanness. The only exceptions were for immediate family members and for the high priest even that was forbidden. They could not cut their beards. They could not marry a divorcee and the high priest could also not even marry a widow. They must have no physical defects.
If they become impure or if they have a physical blemish they must not engage in their sacred duties. Only the kohen and his household may eat of the sacred donations. The offerings too that are brought must be without blemish. Other restrictions concerning the offering's acceptability are also listed.
Sacred time: There are only two places in the Torah where all the major holidays are listed. The purpose of the other listing in parshat Pinkhas is to delineate the various sacrifices that must be offered. Here each of the six major holy days are described beginning with Shabbat and continuing in order beginning with Pesach and continuing with Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Though we are told in this passage when each of the holidays is to be observed and how they are to be observed, this text does not tell us much as to the purpose of each of the festivals.
Sacred objects and speech: Here we are instructed concerning the kindling of the menorah that was installed in the Tent of Meeting and the two rows of 12 loaves of bread that were to be placed on the table each Shabbat before God. They were to be eaten by Aaron and his sons. The last subject mentioned in our Torah reading s that of blasphemy: speaking the name of the Lord blasphemously. A violator was to be stoned to death. With our modern concern for freedom of speech this is a concern that is difficult for moderns to relate to though we understand when someone's sacred objects or holinesses are violated.
Continuing the section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), the opening chapters of this week's parashah address special restrictions imposed on the Kohanim and especially the Kohen Gadol. These restrictions governing both their professional and private lives would provide an additional level of purity. Some of the restrictions run counter to values we hold today, but appreciating the purpose is of special significance.
Kohanim were not to become ritually impure, more specifically restricting them from any place where the dead were to be found: funeral home, cemetery, even a hospital with a morgue. Exceptions for ordinary Kohanim were made for immediate family members. They may not engage in certain mourning practices in order to maintain their holiness. They may not marry a widow or divorcee (or a Jew by choice). Kohanim with physical defects were disqualified from offering sacrifices, but may partake of the sacrifices that were consumed by the Kohanim. However none of the Kohanim may eat of sacred offerings if they themselves are in a state of impurity for any reason. A daughter of a Kohen who marries a non-Kohen loses her rights to a portion of these consumable offerings. She may gain them if childless she returns to her father's home as a widow or divorcee. Kohanim must also see to it that animals brought for sacrifice are without blemish or defect.
Chapter 23 changes the subject from sacred person to sacred time. Here we have the most complete list of the holy days mentioned in the Torah, beginning with Shabbat. The list then includes Passover (on the 14th day of the first month) and Feast of Unleavened Bread (seemingly a distinct holy day beginning on the 15th day); the counting of seven weeks until Shavuot; Rosh haShanah (referred to simply as "a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts); Yom Kippur; and Sukkot.
The final chapter contains a collection of diverse laws concerning the kindling of the Menorah in the Tent of Meeting, the two rows of bread that were placed on the table inside the Sanctuary, a prohibition against blasphemy (a subject very much in the news); and the institution of capital punish for intentional homicide and appropriate compensation for other injuries.
Our Torah reading this week opens with laws governing the priesthood. A Kohen/priest was not to allow himself to become ritually impure, the primary source of impurity was proximity to a dead body. Thus to this day some Kohanim will not attend funerals or visit the cemetery. Exceptions were made for attending the funerals of immediate family members. Kohanim also had restrictions on shaving. They were only to marry previously unmarried women. Handicapped individuals could not officiate as priests.
The other central issue raised by our Parashah is the sacredness of time. Though holy days are mentioned in several places in the Torah, the listing in Parshat Emor is the most complete listing. Beginning with Shabbat, each of the major holidays: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are described.
In the final verses of the Parashah, we read about the sin of blasphemy, improper and non-respectful use of God's name. (This is one of the few places in the Torah where Moses has to seek God's help in determining the proper punishment.) In our day of freedom of speech blasphemy has all but disappeared from our discourse. However it clearly retains its punch in the Muslim world. It is due to their sense of blasphemy that we have explosions over the non-respectful depiction of Muhammed in cartoons or otherwise. When these explosions of emotion occur we in the West are shocked and surprised. That's because we have all but lost this notion of blasphemy.
Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2
Most years this short Parashah of one chapter is read along with the next Parashah, B'hukotai. This being a Jewish leap year they are read separately.
This Parashah is devoted to the principles of land tenure. The basic principle is expressed: "But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land." Thus the land belongs to God who gave it to the Israelites as an inheritance. They may not dispose of it; it may not be permanently alienated. When due to circumstances land was sold, only its use was sold and only for the number of years until the next Jubilee (50 year mark), at which time it would automatically revert to the original owners, if the owner had not redeemed it before that time. Thus all land transactions were long term leases, rather than permanent sales.
Three places in the Torah in Exodus, Deuteronomy and here in Leviticus the Torah addresses the Sabbatical year. Each source emphasizes some other aspect and upon close reading they can be seen to be contradictory. They rabbis worked diligently to reconcile the texts as consistent, but modern scholars consider the differences aspects of changing circumstances. However they continue to disagree as to which reflects the earliest and latest developments.
After describing how land is to be returned to the ancestral owner during the Jubilee year, the Torah adds additional laws concerning redemption and the obligation of family members to redeem the holdings of their kinsman. The Torah discusses the redemption of houses in walled cities as opposed to those in cities without walls. In walled cities the homeowner has only one year to redeem his property. Thereafter the transmission is permanent. Homes in unwalled villages followed the pattern of land and can be redeemed in the Jubilee.
The Torah instructs us to provide special care for our relatives who have fallen on hard times and provides very specific obligations.
Behar is one of the shortest Torah portions of the year, a mere 57 verses. Most Torah readings contain somewhere between 120-180 verses. Behar is only read as a distinct Torah portion on leap years. Otherwise it is combined with next week's Behukotai.
Behar teaches us about the principles of land tenure: Sabbatical and Jubilee years and associated land tenure laws. Based on the idea that the land essentially belongs to God, the Torah teaches that 1) the land too is entitled to rest, i.e. to be left fallow each seventh year and not farmed and 2) that after seven Sabbatical years, the 50th year, all land shall return to its original owner. Through this institution families and individuals will never be alienated from the land. Thus when someone sells land, in essence they are only selling the use of the land until the next Jubilee year. This was a means of preventing permanent impoverishment. People might relinquish ownership due to economic hardship, but they would receive the land in return on the 50th year.
In thinking about these laws we must remember that our Biblical ancestors were agrarian. They needed the land to make a living. Permanent alienation from the land meant generations of poverty.
In addition we learn that if an impoverished member of the community was forced to sell his land, his next of kin was obligated to redeem (restore) it for him by paying for the remaining years until the Jubilee. The Torah portion goes on to talk about housing in walled cities for which the redemption period was a year, after which it would be considered permanently transferred to the new owner. Houses in unwalled cities are to be considered the same as land and are to be returned in the Jubilee year.
The Torah continues with a discussion of the obligations we have to kinsmen who have come upon bad times. We must do whatever we can for them and treat them with respect.
Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2 and
Bechukotai, Lev. 26:3-27:34
Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek: Strength, Strength, May we be able to strengthen one another!
With this double portion we conclude the book of Leviticus, the third of the five books of the Torah. Behar focuses us on the principles of land tenure through the institutions of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Every seventh year the land must be given a rest. The land may not be sown or vineyards pruned.
The fiftieth year or jubilee would be declared with a blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur. Release (or liberty) would be declared throughout the land...a line from our reading that was imprinted onto the Liberty Bell. During that jubilee all land would return to its original owner, thus at least in theory minimizing the difference between rich and poor. The land belongs essentially to God, who in turn gave it to the Israelites such that every family would retain its inheritance in perpetuity. Thus land could never really be sold. All that could be transferred was the use of the land for the number of years that remained until the jubilee when it would return to its original owner.
The Torah continues with related matters providing for those who would be on hard times: relatives are obligated to redeem land that their kinsman has sold. Homes in a walled city might be redeemed up to a year after sale. If not redeemed the title would transfer to the new owner. However homes in villages can be redeemed until the jubilee. Property of Levites might be redeemed forever.
The people are enjoined to treat their fellow Jews who have fallen on hard times kindly, lending money interest free. He must not be treated as a slave, but rather as a hired laborer, so that he might return to his family and ancestral holding. If a kinsman comes under the authority of a resident alien, he shall have the right of redemption.
The second parashah forms the epilogue to the holiness code. The people are promised blessings if they faithfully observe God's commandments: rain in its season providing produce and dwell in security. Peace will reign. The people will be fertile and multiply. God will dwell among the people.
However if the people violate God's demands the parashah provides a long list of painful punishments of all types. While the list of blessing is given in 15 verses, the threat of punishments given 32 verses!
The book of Leviticus also contains an appendix:
Should someone pledge the value of a human being as a gift to the sanctuary, the parashah provides the amount that must be paid. That amount differs depending upon age and gender. Animals too offered can be redeemed for a price. Donations of property must be assessed and the redeemer must pay 20% above the value. The value of land donated should be computed on the basis of how many years remain until the jubilee.
"These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."
This double portion is the final reading in the book of Leviticus. We will therefore end the reading by standing and reciting together: Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit-hazek/ Strength, Strength, May we be able to strengthen one another.
Parshat Behar is the primary section of the Torah to lay down the principles of land tenure in ancient Israel. We are introduced to the concepts of the Sabbatical Year, in which the land must be allowed to rest and lie fallow. Anything that grows of its own accord may be eaten by anyone. Every fiftieth year following seven Sabbatical years, must be declared a Jubilee year. During that year all land sold since the previous Jubilee will revert to the original owner. Thus land cannot be sold, only the use of the and for however many years remain until the Jubilee. In this way in theory no one will become disenfranchised.
When relatives become impoverished, their next of kin is obligated to redeem his holdings and support him without taking advantage.
Special provisions exist for dwellings in walled cities. The Torah also discusses what one's obligation is when an Israelite becomes indentured to a non-Israelite.
As in most covenants, treaties, contract or agreements, Parshat Bekhukotai lists both the blessings that will result from faithfully keeping the covenant and the consequences of disobeying. Rabbi Kushner notes in our Humash: "Several commentators, notably Ibn Ezra, insist that although more verses are dedicated to the Tokhehah/ curses, the blessings promised in the opening section outweigh it in quality. The curses are spelled out at length in the hope that they will put fear into the hearts of those who cannot be persuaded to do what is right by any other means."
Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit-hazek
Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
This relatively short Torah reading (80 verses) in most years is combined this the previous reading, b'Har. It is only read separately during Jewish leap years such as the current one.
B'Hukotai is the last Parashah in the book of Leviticus. Next week we begin the book of Numbers. Whenever we conclude any of the books of the Torah the congregation stands as we read the very last words and calls out in unison, "Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek (Strength, strength, may we strengthen one another)" after which the Torah reader (tomorrow it will be our Bar Mitzvah) repeats the three words.
B'Hukotai consists of two distinct chapters. The first, similar to one of the concluding chapters of Deuteronomy, lays out the benefits and consequences of obeying or disobeying God's commands. These are usually referred to as blessings and curses. The Torah is called a covenant, a religious word for contract. God makes certain promises and in return we are to obey God's laws. This section, I imagine, is similar clauses that might appear in a human contract, listing both the benefits of fulfilling all the expectations as well as the consequences of reneging on conditions in the contract.
In this case the "contract" is not between equals. There is no doubt that God will keep God's end of the bargain. The only question is as to whether we will keep up our end. So the benefits and consequences are not mutual, but only address one side, namely us.
In the blessings God promises plenty and peace in the land, unafraid from enemies or dangers. God promises progeny and God's abiding presence among us.
However if we choose not to obey the consequences will be harsh and are listed in much greater detail than the blessings. Reading this section was considered so frightening that it was traditionally recited in an undertone and often the Shammas/Sexton received that Aliyah to the Torah, because no one else would accept it!
The last chapter functions somewhat like an appendix, dealing with a subject which was not included earlier. It seems that it was not unusual to make unusual pledges to the maintenance of the sanctuary, such as pledging oneself. That meant that the individual was pledging a standard amount which was considered the value of the person. So our last chapter provides us with a table of values, depending on age and gender. If a person pledged an animal, s/he could also redeem it for a fixed sum. If a house was pledged, the Kohen would have to assess it; similarly a pledge of land was also assessed.
"These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."
Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek!