Thursday, March 18, 2010

Torah Tidbits: Parshat Vayikra

1:1 - "And the LORD called [וַיִּקְרָא] unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying..."  This word "called" -- vayikra -- is a curious one.  Usually it's God speaking to Moses.  Why the difference?  Rashi suggests this is a term of affection:
Every [time God communicated with Moses, whether it was represented by the expression] וַיְדַבֵּר, “And He spoke,” or וַיֹּאמֶר; “and He said,” or וַיְצַו, “and He commanded,” it was always preceded by [God] calling [to Moses by name] (Torath Kohanim 1:2-3). [קְרִיאָה] is an expression of affection, the [same] expression employed by the ministering angels [when addressing each other], as it says, “And one called (וְקָרָא) to the other…” (Isa. 6:3).
Who knows.  It certainly makes the book sound better than vayidaber!  (By the way, Rashi has a lot to say about pretty much every word in this verse!  It's always interesting to me why he says something here but not there, a lot here, very little there...)

1:4 - "And he [one coming to offer a sacrifice before God] shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering; and it shall be accepted for him [וְנִרְצָה לוֹ] to make atonement for him [לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו]."  To make atonement for what?  Rashi asks the same question:  "For which [sins] will [the sacrifice] be accepted for him [thereby atoning for them]?"  The answer?  After apparently saying that a burnt offering cannot (?) atone for capital offenses, Rashi concludes "we determine that it is accepted only for [failure to perform] a positive commandment [for which the punishment is not expressly stated in the Torah, or [violation of] a negative commandment that is attached to a positive commandment."  Oooookay.  Where Rashi gets this from is beyond me, and what's particularly strange here is that this isn't a minor point:  At issue here is what exactly can a person atone for through sacrifice.  If Rashi is right, then eating something non-kosher cannot be atoned for through sacrifice, but not honoring one's parents can?

1:10 - "And if his offering be of the flock..."  Lots of talk in this parsha about different kinds of sacrifices without, it seems to me, any explanation of the differences.  Variously mentioned are bulls, sheep, birds, and "meal offerings."  Is there any difference between them?  Do they atone for different things, or are they merely more/less "expensive"?

1:15 - "And the priest shall bring [the fowl] unto the altar, and pinch off its head..."  Why is the priest charged with slaughtering bird sacrifices but not bulls or sheep? 

2:3 - "But that which is left of the meal-offering [הַמִּנְחָה] shall be Aaron's and his sons'; it is a thing most holy [קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים] of the offerings of the LORD made by fire."  First, why do Aaron & Sons get some of the meal offering but not of the other offerings?  Why no meat for the priests?  Second, why is the meal offering in fact "a thing most holy"?  What's the difference?

2:11 - " shall make no leaven, nor any honey [וְכָל-דְּבַשׁ], smoke as an offering made by fire unto the LORD."  Honey?!?  First, why not offer honey?  Second, and more importantly, how in the heck could there have been honey bees in the desert?!?

2:13 - "And every meal-offering of thine shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God [מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ] to be lacking from thy meal-offering; with all thy offerings thou shalt offer salt."  Salt of the covenant of God!?!  To what does this refer?  Rashi reports, intrestingly, that "there was a covenant made with salt since the six days of Creation, in that the lower waters were promised that they would be offered on the altar. [And how were they offered? In the form of] salt [which comes from water,] and in the water libations on the Festival [of Succoth]."  No reference is given.  Did Rashi just make up a midrash?  I mean, is this really what melach brit elohecha means?!?

3:1 - "And if his offering be a sacrifice of peace-offerings [שְׁלָמִים]..."  What is a "peace offering"?  What is it supposed to do that "burnt-offerings," "meal-offerings" and "sin-offerings" don't do?  Rashi says they are "[So named] because they instill peace (שָׁלוֹם) in the world. Another explanation: [They are called שְׁלָמִים because they bring about harmony (שָׁלוֹם) , [since some portions of the sacrifice go] to the altar, to the Kohanim, and to the owner [of the sacrifice]. — [Torath Kohanim 3:156]."  Not sure how this explains anything, though...

3:17 - "It shall be a perpetual statute [חֻקַּת עוֹלָם] throughout your generations in all your dwellings, that ye shall eat neither fat [כָּל-חֵלֶב] nor blood."  The not eating blood I get, but not to eat fat?!?  Rashi says it's "explained very clearly" in Torath Kohanim 3:189.  Huh.  Don't have a copy of that lying around...

4:2 - On this verse, Rashi offers a comment concering what a "sin-offering" is: 
Our Rabbis explained: A sin-offering is brought only for such a transgression whose prohibition is expressed [in the Torah] as a negative commandment, and whose willful violation incurs the penalty of excision (premature death by the hands of Heaven). The unintentional violation of such prohibitions incurs a sin-offering [upon the individual]. — [Torath Kohanim 4:196; Shab. 69a)]
Well, at least this explains what it is...

4:13 - "And if the whole congregation of Israel shall err, the thing being hid from the eyes of the assembly [וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר, מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל], and do any of the things which the LORD hath commanded not to be done, and are guilty..."  What, exactly, is this thing that is hid from the kahal?  Rashi says "the thing" in question "[means that the Sanhedrin] issued an erroneous decision regarding any matter in the Torah that incurs the penalty of excision, by declaring that matter permissible. — [Hor. 7b]"  Huh.  But how exactly would the Sanhedrin know that it did so?

4:20 - "...and the priest shall make atonement for them [וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵן], and they shall be forgiven."  It's very interesting to me, this concept at the center of vayikra, that the priest -- through sacrifice -- can "make atonement" for one who has sinned.  I know it's not the same thing, but there's something very Catholic/confessional about this.  As a Reform Jew, I'm so used to thinking about there being nothing between me and God -- nothing able to come between me and God -- that to read about the priest being able to effectuate atonement is strange to my eyes.  The question in my mind is, doesn't the change represent progress?  Do we need a priest -- or a temple, or sacrifices, or...? -- in order to atone?  Hmmm....

5:2-3 - "or if any one touch any unclean thing [דָּבָר טָמֵא], whether it be the carcass of an unclean beast, or the carcass of unclean cattle, or the carcass of unclean swarming things, and be guilty, it being hidden from him that he is unclean; or if he touch the uncleanness of man [בְּטֻמְאַת אָדָם], whatsoever his uncleanness be wherewith he is unclean, and it be hid from him; and, when he knoweth of it, be guilty..."  Rashi explains that the uncleanness in question comes from corpses or "a man or woman who has experienced a discharge."  Issues of ritual impurity are not new to me, but to read about to confront a decidedly outdated, pre-modern view of the world that holds no meaning for me.  It's one of the most foreign parts of Judaism to me.  I can appreciate the symbolism of the mishkan, I can acknowledge the role of community in expiating individual sins against God, and I can even appreciate the need to respect holy things.  What I have a hard time doing is seeing how coming into contact with the dead or having one's period changes any of this.

5:7 - "And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his forfeit for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, unto the LORD: one for a sin-offering [אֶחָד לְחַטָּאת], and the other for a burnt-offering [וְאֶחָד לְעֹלָה]."  Again, what's the difference?  You'd think this parsha would tell us a little something about it...

5:16 - Yet another kind of offering:  the "the guilt-offering" [הָאָשָׁם].  Again, what's this as opposed to the other kinds of offerings?  And why not explain this better in the Torah itself?!?


  1. > This word "called" -- vayikra -- is a curious one.

    This follows right on how Exodus ends: the cloud of God fills the mishkan and no one can go in. So God calls out to Moshe Rabeinu to come on in so he can speak with him.

    > It's always interesting to me why he says something here but not there

    Every major commentator has a theme to his comments. Rashi's is to explain the verse's plain meaning when it isn't obvious or to point out a deeper meaning you might otherwise miss. If something is simple without a further need for basic explanation he lives alone.

    > and it shall be accepted for him [וְנִרְצָה לוֹ] to make atonement for him

    No, no, no, you're mssing the point. Actually, a good place to look is in the back of the Artscroll Stone Chumash where they have a table detailing each sacrifice and what it's for. Rashi, in this case tells you: an elevation offering (olah) is brought by someone who failed to perform a positive commandments, for example I fail to put on tefillin when I should have or I put on a four cornered garment but failed to put tzitzis on it.

    Sin offerings (chatas), on the other hand, atone for capital crimes committed accidentally where the punishment for intentional commission is spiritual excision or the death penalty, for example, if you drive by accident on Shabbos you bring a chatas.

    Incidentally, there is no obligatory sacrifice for eating non-kosher food but you can bring an olah if you want to make up for it.

    > Variously mentioned are bulls, sheep, birds, and "meal offerings."

    Yes. There are elevation offerings (olah), sin offerings (chatas), guilt offerings (asham), free-will offerings (nedavos). Some require a specific animal, some vary with the income of the person. Each has a different, specific purpose.

  2. > Why is the priest charged with slaughtering bird sacrifices but not bulls or sheep?

    The halacha says that slaughtering of an animal can be done by a non-kohen. However, because the bird offering is done on the altar and only kohanim can go up there, he has to do it himself.

    > First, why do Aaron & Sons get some of the meal offering but not of the other offerings?

    Actually they get the meat of lots of offering. Go through this and the next parsha and you'll see that.

    > Second, why is the meal offering in fact "a thing most holy"?

    You have to remember that there are two classes of sacrifices: kodshim kalim - basic holy, and kodesh kedoshim - most holy. The verse is simply telling you to which group this offering is assigned.

    > Honey?!? First, why not offer honey?

    Unless it's called bee honey, the word "d'vash" in the Bible refers to date honey. Secondly, the point of the offerings is to present oneself in all humility to God. Honey represents sweetness, arrogance or puffing up of one's self-worth, something inappropriate when you're standing before the King 'o Kings. It's the same reasoned only matzah and flour go on the altar and not leavened bread.

    > Salt of the covenant of God!?! To what does this refer?

    Salt is something which is not only unchanging but which preserves anything stored in it. Remember the context - back then without refrigeration the only way to store food was to salt it. So it symbolizes the permanent and unchaning relationship between us and God.

    > What is a "peace offering"?

    These are brought by people who have had some good fortune and wish to share their happiness with God and family. Let's say your kid gets into med school. To say thank you to God, you bring a peace offering. The altar, symbolizing God, gets the fat and blood. The kohanim, God's servants, share the meat with you and your family. Everybody participates in the happiness.

  3. > The not eating blood I get, but not to eat fat?!?

    You wouldn't have a copy of Torat Kohanim hanging around. It's a hard book to find. Now, to answer your question: there are two types of fat in the animal body - shuman and cheilev. There is no special word for either in English - we call both of them "fat".
    Now, cheilev is the fat offered on the altar and is generally those fats in the body which serve as storage fat, as opposed to shuman which marbles the meat and is mixed in with it. Cheilev represents the energy of the person and offering on the altar symolizes the person dedicating his energy to God.

    > the thing being hid from the eyes of the assembly

    The Hebrew word "kahal" means assembly and in the Torah refers to the Sanhedrin. This is a case where the Sanhedrin makes a mistake, rules on matter and permits something which is forbidden and then later realizes its error. Upon realizing it, atonement has to be made.

    > As a Reform Jew, I'm so used to thinking about there being nothing between me and God

    Anyone's sin can come between one and God. Yes, in the times when the Temple stood one needed to offer a sacrifice to make proper atonement and for that one needed kohanim. However, as Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch points out, the first real act of national repentance, for the Golden Calf, took place in the absence of any Temple or Mishkan. Nothing stands between you and God if your repentance is sincere but for some serious sins, "talk is cheap". The impact of seeing your sacrifice offered is supposed to instill in you a spiritual understanding of where you slipped and how you can make it better.

    >Issues of ritual impurity are not new to me, but to read about to confront a decidedly outdated, pre-modern view of the world that holds no meaning for me

    Spiritual impurity, "tumah" is something none of us can understand today in the absence of the Temple. It's like how people only starting noticing how bad body odour was after deoderant was invented. If everyone stinks, no one realizes it. Tumah is related to death. If you look at all the examples, they all revolve around dead things. Menstrual flow, wasted sperm, corpses, etc. all represent a lack of choice because the dead have no free will. That's why it's something to be avoided in a religion that celebrates life and free will.

  4. Tumah is related to death"

    read Freud's 'Totems and Taboos' to get a more modern understanding of how death played a role in the development of ancient cultures and religions.