Parashat Kedoshim 5774 – On Kedushah and the Separation of Nations

וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

Chapters 18-20 of Sefer Vayikra form one unit dealing with two very distinct subjects in three separate parts . Chapter 18 discusses the laws of forbidden sexual relationships, chapter 19 discusses a variety of laws related to Kedushah, and chapter 20 discusses both themes together. Through this unity, Rashi reasons that the definition of Kedushah[1] is separation from inappropriate sexual relations, a definition which fits clearly with the following juxtaposition:

You shall be holy: Separate (Root: פרש) yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness, [for example:], “[They (the kohanim) shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned…I, the Lord, Who sanctifies you [am holy]” (Lev. 21:7-8); and, “he shall not profane his offspring…I am the Lord, Who sanctifies him” (Lev. 21:15); and, “They shall be holy…[They shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned” (Lev. 21:6-7).[2]

However, a close study of the text involved demonstrates that this is just the beginning of a much larger picture.

There are many ways of determining the topic and unity of a passage in Tanakh. One of the key methods is through the use of keywords, words that are repeated several times. In chapters 18-21 we find four keywords, namely “laws” (root: חק), “rules” (root: שפט), “keep” (root: שמר), and “holy” (root: קדש). “Laws,” “Rules,” and “Holy” all show up ten times while “Keep” appears seven times[3], both numbers of biblical import, which highlights the thematic role of each of these ideas.

Another method of determining thematic importance is through parallels at the beginning and end of a unit, such a the parallel between 18:3-5 and 20:22-23:

3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. 4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. 5 You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.[4]

22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out. 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them.

This parallel denotes the beginning and end of the section while also reinforcing the topic ideas of Laws and Rules. What is not seen to be a topic, however, is separation from sexual impropriety. Yet it is undeniably a large part of the passage. So what then can be said of the definition of Kedushah from this context?

While Separation (פרישות) is not found in this section at all, and certainly not attached to Kedushah, there is a very similar word that is used here in context of Kedushah. Vayikra 20:24-26 discusses the idea that Israel is “set apart” (root: בדל).

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Thus Kedushah is not simply about Separation, but about being distinguished and set apart.

A perfect demonstration of this is found in the law of shaatnez, found in Vayikra 19:19[5]:

“You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.”

This law is generally interpreted as a symbolic law meant to teach man about the importance of separating between distinct realms. It is often taken as being directed against disorder[6] or intermarriage[7]. However, the assumption that shaatnez is inherently problematic, if only on a symbolic level, is hard to maintain once one takes a look at the broader context of the Torah. Due to the fact that shaatnez is only ever mentioned by name in regards to the prohibition of wearing it, many people miss its earlier appearances in the torah. It appears in Sefer Shemot, in 26:1, “As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them,” 26:31, “You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it,” 28:6, “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.,” 28:15, “You shall make a breastpiece of decision/ worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen,” and 39:29, “and sashes of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery- as the Lord had commanded Moses,” among others. These verses all refer to the materials of the Mishkan and the garments of the Kohanim. All are composed of linen and colored wool[8]. Thus while shaatnez is forbidden to the average member of Bnei Yisrael, it is in fact mandatory for the Kohanim, and therefore it cannot be inherently bad. Furthermore, even for a normal citizen of Israel it is not entirely forbidden. Bamidbar 15:39, part of the original commandment regarding tzitzit, says that shaatnez is part of tzitzit. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” As with the colored wool of the Mishkan and the priestly garments, the colored string of the tzitzit is made of wool[9]. The inclusion of shaatnez, along with the otherwise priestly blue[10], is part of how tzitzit remind the wearer of their priestly purpose[11].

The commandment of shaatnez is not itself about two things that need to be kept separate, but about differentiating between two groups with different purposes, the Kohanim and the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Only in tzitzit, the mitzvah intended to remind Bnei Yisrael of their purpose as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” do they wear shaatnez. This is the integral message of the entire section, of Vayikra 18-21. The two ideas of this pericope, that of keeping the Laws/Rules of ‘א as opposed to the Laws of the Nations and that of Kedushah, are actually one. What makes Israel holy is that it is differentiated, and differentiates itself, from the other nations by its practices. However, much like shaatnez, it is not that either set of practices is necessarily good or bad. While the Torah clearly takes a negative stance towards those practices of the nations mentioned in Vayikra 18-21, what is important about them is not their moral quality, but that they are not the practices which ‘א has laid down for Israel to follow. Kedushah is about the fulfilment of purpose, on both the national and individual levels. It’s not just avoiding negative or foreign practices, but also the active fulfillment of the purpose and laws that ‘א laid down for Israel that makes Bnei Yisrael a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

[1] Found in his comment on Vayikra 19:2.

[2] Translation of Rashi from

[3] The root שמר also appears in the word “משמרתי” in 18:30, but this is grammatically different from the other 7 uses.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The ideas in this paragraph are owed to Jacob Milgrom in his article, “Law, Narrative, and the Exegesis of Leviticus 19”.

[6] B. Sanh. 60a; Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Bekhor Shor.

[7] Mikra KiPeshuto, A.B. Ehrlich.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 4b, Yoma 71b.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Shemot 28:31 and 39:22, in contrast to Bamidbar 15:39.

[11] Shemot 19:6.


Parashat Aharei Mot 5774 – “And you shall bring them to ‘א, to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting”

וֶהֱבִיאֻם לַיהוָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

Sefer Vayikra’s section on life outside the Mishkan begins in Chapter seventeen, with the discussion of the Mishkan and the world outside, through the laws of “שחוטי חוץ,” animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan. There are several different laws involved, which vary depending on the type of animal slaughtered. The first law involves the prohibition of slaughtering sacrificial animals outside the Mishkan. Interestingly, the Torah here spends several pesukim explaining the reason behind this prohibition, which is important because two entirely different reasons are given. Verse six says the purpose is that a private slaughtering strays from the regular service done by the priest, “that the priest may dash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”[1] Verse seven says the purpose is “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” These varying purposes for this one mitzvah become the basis for a split in Jewish Thought that reverberates throughout the generations.

Verse seven suggests that the purpose of this mitzvah is to wean Bnei Yisrael off of the idolatrous worship they were accustomed to performing in Egypt. From here the theory was born that the purpose of all of the mitzvot is to wean Bnei Yisrael off Idolatry. Not only did Rambam include all of Korbanot, but also many other ritualistic mitzvot, under the rubric of “weaning off Idolatry.”

Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. Comp.” Unto thee it was showed that thou mightest know that the Lord is God (Dent. iv. 35):” Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God” (ibid. v. 39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; comp.” and to serve him with all your heart” (ibid. xi. 13):” and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Exod. xxiii. 25);” and ye shall serve him” (Dent. xiii. 5). But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner (M”N 3:32).

R’ Yishmael even said that the underlying principle of all of the Mitzvot was the fight against Idolatry. This idea is part of a larger trend in Jewish Thought regarding the purpose of the mitzvot, namely the idea that the mitzvot are intended for the improvement of Man. This is an idea utilized not only by Rambam but also his son R’ Avraham, Ritva, Rosh, and many others besides. Based on this, the mitzvot are conceived of as being intended to improve man’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual nature.

By contrast, verse six seems to indicate that the mitzvot are for ‘א’s benefit, rather than man’s: “As a pleasing odor to the Lord.” While there’s some debate as to how and why it is that ‘א derives pleasure from Korbanot, and what exactly is the meaning of this “pleasing odor”, it’s clear that the fulfillment of this mitzvah somehow pleases ‘א. Ramban, in his comment to Vayikra 1:9, takes a strong stance against the position of Rambam, while suggesting in Bereishit 8:21 that the idea of the “pleasing odor” is a “great secret” and is seemingly able to change ‘א’s mind [2]. This approach maintains that mitzvot are not for the purposes of man or society, but for the purposes of ‘א, performing mystical functions necessary to the very existence of the universe[3].

Many have also taken a view of the mitzvot that synthesizes and combines these two approaches. Ramchal, in 138 Gates of Wisdom, says that the purpose of the mitzvot is the mystical mechanics they enact in reality. However, he says, ‘א could essentially have picked any set of actions and assigned them to the mechanics the mitzvot enact. The fact that it was these mitzvot that we have today, a set of mitzvot for which man can find logical reasons and through which can reach improvement, is a great kindness from ‘א to man. Heschel, seeing the relationship between man and ‘א as the essential purpose of mitzvot, believes that mitzvot put man and ‘א in relation to each other, something that benefits both parties. These and other thinkers have eschewed the idea that just one of these approaches is acceptable in favor of a broader approach.

This synthetic approach actually flows very naturally from the text of the Torah. Vayikra seems to recognize both reasons as completely valid reasons for the mitzvah. From these two reasons a debate is born that stretches throughout the entire history of Jewish Thought, but it’s important to realize that the two go back to one source. Both are written in the same document. Two ideas; one Torah. The Torah was never meant to be monolithic. Since it’s very origin, it has not only recognized but endorsed complexity in thought. Some mitzvot fall into the “Improvement of Man” category and some into “For the Sake of ‘א.” Some are too complex to simply be assigned to either category. In creating this complexity, the Torah would seem to have two goals. The first is that each individual person should strive for some of this complexity in their thought. Not everyone will automatically connect to every facet of the Torah, but people should struggle to approach at least a little of that which seems foreign to them. Far more importantly, however, is what this complexity could mean on a national scale. If Jewish Thought has never been monolithic, then we ought not ask the Jewish People to be a monolith. When people disagree in their approach to Judaism, more often than not they’re each just manifesting a different part of what the Torah asks of the Jewish People. Not only should we not be bothered by the different approaches in Judaism today, we should celebrate them, as this complexity in the Jewish People mirrors and makes manifest a very real complexity in the thought of the Torah.

[1]  Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] See also Ramban’s comment on Bereishit 6:6.

[3] Nefesh HaChayyim, First Gate.

Parashat Metsora 5774 – Of Priests and Purification

וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן וְטָהֵר

Parashat Metsora describes the process of purification for a person or house affected by Tsara’at. This process reveals something incredible about the nature of Tsara’at and what it means for someone affected by it. Vayikra 14 describes the purification process:

12 The priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it with the log of oil as a guilt offering, and he shall elevate them as an elevation offering before the Lord. 13 The lamb shall be slaughtered at the spot in the sacred area where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered! For the guilt offering, like the sin offering, goes to the priest; it is most holy. 14 The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 15 The priest shall then take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. 16 And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. 17 Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot-over the blood of the guilt offering. 18 The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being cleansed. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord. 19 The priest shall then offer the sin offering and make expiation for the one being cleansed of his uncleanness. Last, the burnt offering shall be slaughtered, 20 and the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meal offering on the altar, and the priest shall make expiation for him. Then he shall be clean. [1]

When taken on its own, this process might seem strange to the modern mind. However, in comparison to another text from earlier in Vayikra, it reveals something incredible.

The above passage is incredibly similar to the process of the inauguration of the Kohanim, found in Vayikra 9:

22 He brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, 23 and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar… 30 And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments.

The two passages are strikingly alike, revealing something very important about the nature of tsara’at.

A person affected by tsara’at is taamei and is therefore excluded from the community. As a person who is taamei, they are excluded from the realm of Kedushah, from the Mishkan and the regular service of ‘א.  In their exclusion from the community their impurity is contained and kept from spreading, but the person is also isolated and cut off. They have thus been excluded from ‘א’s statement, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. They, temporarily, are neither a part of the People nor the Priests. The everyday lives of Bnei Yisrael revolve around two poles: ‘א and His People. Social Sins are also sins against ‘א. And part of becoming tahor and rejoining the people is returning to the service of ‘א.

[1] translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

Parashat Tazria 5774 – “And the Kohen Sees..”

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע

Parashat Tazria contains the procedural instructions for dealing with occurrences of Tsara’at[1]. The Torah’s description of Tsara’at is a malady that affects the skin with scaly lesions, but that’s about all that is made clear from the text. The symptoms don’t seem to match up with any known dermatological conditions in existence today[2]. This fact, far from being inconvenient, makes perfect sense in terms of the context in which Tsara’at appears in the Torah. Tsara’at in the Torah doesn’t show up in a section about the curing of ailments, rather in the context of Tumah and Taharah. The Torah is not concerned with the medical issue of Tsara’at, rather with the religious implications. The focus in the discussion of Tsara’at is not on the healing of the disease, but on the responsibilities of the Kohen.

The Kohen’s responsibility in a case of Tsara’at essentially amounts to confirming whether or not it is indeed Tsara’at. The blemish is shown to the Kohen and then the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at or not, or isolates the person for a week or two until a determination can be made. When the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at, the person becomes Taamei until their purification can be completed. If the Kohen determines that it is not Tsara’at then the person is Tahor. This seemingly simple process actually depicts one of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish religion.

In most ancient cultures, the priesthood was greatly involved in the medical issues of the community, much like the Kohanim and Tsara’at. However, in other religions the priests were involved in the actual healing process, as opposed to the Kohanim. The Kohanim simply examine the diseased area to determine if the blemish actually is Tsara’at. In other ancient religions the priests would recite incantations and perform rituals to cleanse and cure the affected area, something not found in Judaism. The Kohanim are, in fact, never involved in healing. In Tanakh, that job falls to the “man of god”, the prophet.

Prophets throughout Tanakh heal people from a variety of illnesses. Tsara’at itself is a disease often healed by a prophet[3]. In Bamidbar 12 Miriam is struck with Tsara’at as punishment for speaking ill of Moshe, and is only healed after Moshe prays for her. In Shemot 4:6-7, Moshe causes his hand to become afflicted with, and then healed of, Tsara’at. In II Kings 5, Na’aman is healed of Tsara’at by a procedure he is instructed to perform by the prophet Elisha. These are only some  of the biblical examples of prophets healing people. While both the prophet and the priest are men of God, only the “Man of God” is a healer.

While both serve the religious needs of the people, the Prophet and the Priest have very different roles. The priest is responsible for the continuing routines of the Jewish Religion, for the things that do not change in the service of ‘א. The prophet is a vehicle for change, a fiery response to an untenable norm. The prophet receives prophecy suddenly, while the priest is part of a chain of service starting before him and continuing after. The priest carries out and conveys the timeless will of ‘א that stretches through eternity. The prophet receives and relays the timely will of ‘א that is needed in that second.

This distinction is critical for understanding the assignment of the role of healer to the prophet rather than the priest. The occurrence and curing of Tsara’at is a function of the will of ‘א. While priests fulfill the will of ‘א in a general sense, they cannot compare to the prophets. The unique feature of Israelite prophecy is the status of the prophet as a “messenger  of ‘א”. Thus it is not really the prophet who does the healing, it is ‘א. The prophet merely conveys and out carries out His will.

Judaism today is much more a religion of priests than of prophets. We cannot hear ‘א’s timely will, what He thinks needs to be fixed on a day to day basis. Instead, we cling to the Will of ‘א as given in the Torah, we grab on to the Eternal Word. Instead of ‘א telling us what to do and when, we keep his Halakha and let it guide our lives. The Metsora, the person afflicted with tsara’at, does not go to the Prophet to ask why they have been afflicted; they go to the Kohen to ask what this means for their ability to approach ‘א. So too in the struggles of modern life. There are no prophets today to explain why things happen, and we ought not look for them. Instead, we should take time to examine who we have been, and see who we can be from this point forward.

 [1] This Devar Torah has been Influenced throughout by The Religion of Israel, Y. Kaufmann, and the Anchor Bible Commentary to Vayikra, J. Milgrom.

[2] The problem of identification is  two-fold: Firstly, the symptoms. Psoriasis is close, but it still doesn’t fit perfectly. Secondly, and more importantly, the treatment. There’s no such skin condition that would get noticeably better in just a week or two. (J. Milgrom, Chapter 13, Comment A)

[3] While these cases have been used to explain that Tsara’at is received for sins against Man or sins against God, most of them can really be read either way. (J. Milgrom, Ibid.)

Parashat Shemini 5774 – “For your sake and for the Sake of the Nation”: The Tension Between Particularism and Universalism in the Inaugural Sacrifices

פרשת שמיני – בעדך ובעד העם

Parashat Shemini opens with the eight day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the point where the service of the Mishkan, until that point performed by Moshe, began to be performed by Aharon and his sons. This begins a process that would continue until the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, where the descendants of Aharon brought the korbanot of Bnei Yisrael before ‘א. However, that day was not merely the beginning of this process. Many of the services performed that day would not become part of the regular ritual of the Mishkan or Mikdash. An excellent example of this would be the two sin-offerings that Aharon and his sons bring.

In Vayikra 9:7 Aharon is told, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LoRD has commanded.”[1] The phrase “for yourself and for the people” would seem to be odd. Is Aharon not part of the people? Why would he need a separate atonement? Even stranger, this is not the only time such a formulation is found. In Vayikra 16 Moshe describes the service of Yom HaKippurim, and we find the same basic formulation, of Aharon atoning for himself and the greater unit that he is a part of, four times (verses 6, 11, 17, & 24), with the last mimicking 9:7 almost exactly. “He shall bathe his body in water in the holy precinct and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself and for the people.” Once again, the strangeness of the phrasing stands out. Is Aharon not a part of the people? Why isn’t their expiation enough?

The first step to understanding this separation is to appreciate its nature.  This isn’t just a matter of redundancy in speech, this is something that was effected in real life. The expiation of Aharon and the People occurs in two stages. Vayikra 9:8 says that “Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering.” Nothing in this verse, or the ensuing description of the offering process, says anything about the nature of this sin offering. Verse 15, in contrast, is quite clear: “Next he brought forward the people’s offering. He took the goat for the people’s sin offering, and slaughtered it, and presented it as a sin offering like the previous one.” The sin offering brought in verse 15 is that of the people, as opposed to the previous one. That one, therefore, must be a sin offering for Aharon himself. This answers the question of the sufficiency of the national expiation for the expiation of Aharon. Aharon is indeed part of the people and would have been covered by their offering. His offering comes before the national one, when he had still not received expiation.

The problem that remains is the question of why? Why does Aharon have to give a sin offering before that of the people can be given? Some hint of the answer lies in the nature of the occasions regarding which this “for himself and for the people” expression is found, the eight inaugural day of the Mishkan and Yom HaKippurim. Both of these days are about having a clean start for the beginning of a new process, about being spiritually fit to begin serving ‘א anew. This is something that occurs on both the individual and collective levels. However, an individual, as part of a unit, cannot focus on the whole  and the part simultaneously, and the question then would be which should be attended to first. The model of the Mishkan is clear, the individual must cleanse themselves first, before getting to work on the whole. However, it is also clear that Aharon’s expiation is meant to make him ready to being the sin offering of the people. The individual should make themselves ready first, but they should do so for the sake of better serving the whole. The Torah thus delineates a basic model that applies to all aspects of life. A person is always part of a people. A people is always part of the peoples of our world. And the first step to making it a better world is for all persons to be the best persons they can be, in order that all peoples will be the best peoples they can be, and our world will be the best that it can be.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.