Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Torah Tidbits: Parshat Shemini

9:3-4 - "And unto the children of Israel thou shalt speak, saying: Take ye a he-goat for a sin-offering; and a calf and a lamb, both of the first year, without blemish, for a burnt-offering; and an ox and a ram for peace-offerings, to sacrifice before the LORD; and a meal-offering mingled with oil; for to-day the LORD appeareth unto you [כִּי הַיּוֹם יְהוָה נִרְאָה אֲלֵיכֶם].'"  Obviously this can't be taken literally, right?  If the people actually looked at God they would die, if I recall correctly.  So then what does this mean?

9:23-24 - Okay, here's what it "means":  "And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared [וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-יְהוָה] unto all the people. And there came forth fire from before the LORD [וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה], and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces."  So God doesn't actually appear but rather fire from God comes...from where?  The heavens?  I can't picture this...

10:1-11 - Aaron's sons, Nadav and Abihu, "offered strange fire [אֵשׁ זָרָה] before the LORD, which He had not commanded them," and as a result "there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD."  More astonishing is Moses's reaction:  "'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'"  Not very comforting.  Aaron's response is even more astonishing:  "And Aaron held his peace [וַיִּדֹּם]."  His sons are killed, and to Moses's unsympathetic response, he remains silent.  After telling some of Aaron's relatives to come take the bodies of Nadav and Abihu, God -- for the first time -- speaks directly to Aaron:  "'Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations [חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם]. And that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean;  and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.'"

What is the meaning of all this?  In the first place, what is the aish zarah or "strange fire" that led God to kill Nadav and Abihu? We don't know. Presumably it was some kind of ritually impure fire, but in any case it was bad enough to get them killed.  And what about the remarkable prohibition against drinking alcohol before going into the ohel moed, the Tent of Meeting?  Why is this what God says to Aaron at this moment?  Rashi's commentary on why Nadav and Abihu died is illuminating:
Rabbi Eliezer says: Aaron’s sons died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of Moses, their teacher. Rabbi Ishmael says: [They died because] they had entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine. The proof is that after their death, [Scripture] admonished the survivors that they may not enter the sanctuary after having drunk wine. This is analogous to a king who had a faithful attendant. [When he found him standing at tavern entrances, he severed his head in silence and appointed another attendant in his place. We would not know why he put the first to death, but for his enjoining the second thus, “You must not enter the doorway of taverns,” from which we know that for such a reason he had put the first one to death. Thus [it is said], “And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” But we would not know why they [Nadab and Abihu] died, but for His commanding Aaron, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication.” We know from this that they died precisely on account of the wine. For this reason Scripture showed love to Aaron by directing the divine utterance to him alone, thus, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication,”] as recounted in Vayikra Rabbah (12:1).
For me, even assuming it is accurate, this explanation is lacking.  If they weren't supposed to drink wine before entering the sanctuary, why didn't God say something about this ahead of time, allowing them to make a decision about it?  It seems to me they were killed for doing something abou which they had no idea was forbidden.  This assumes, of course, that there is a connection between the aish zara and their (alleged) intoxication.

10:16-20 - What a strange story, offered with no introduction: 
And Moses diligently inquired for the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Eleazar and with Ithamar, the sons of Aaron that were left, saying: 'Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and He hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD?  Behold, the blood of it was not brought into the sanctuary within; ye should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.' And Aaron spoke unto Moses: 'Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the LORD, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering to-day, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the LORD?  And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight.
Why was Moses angry with Elezar and Itamar for not eating the sin-offering?  What is the meaning of Aaron's retort, that had he (Aaron) eaten the sin-offering, it wouldn't have pleased God?  And why does this answer satisfy Moses?  Rashi doesn't help much here...

11:2 - The laws of kashrut!  "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: These are the living things which ye may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth."  Rashi makes an interesting analogy here: 

Since the Israelites cleave to the Omnipresent and are therefore worthy of being alive, accordingly, God separated them from uncleanness and decreed commandments upon them [so that through these commandments Israel would live]. For the other nations, however, He prohibited nothing. This is comparable to a physician who went to visit a patient [who was incurable, and allowed him to eat anything he wished, whereas when he went to his patient who was to recover, the physician imposed restrictions on his diet that would ensure that the recoverable patient would live. So too, the nations and Israel…], etc. as is found in the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma (6).
So non-Jews are like terminal patients, who have no hope so what does it matter what they eat?  But more to the point:  Rashi is making an explicit connection here between dietary laws, cleanness, and holiness.  That is, it's not just 'don't eat A, B and C because non-Jews do,' but rather 'don't eat A, B and C because these things are unclean.'  If there is, in fact, a connection between cleanness and holiness, then kashrut is more than an arbitrary set of dietary rules:  it's a set of judgments about what is clean and what is not.  Hmmm.  I need to think about this more...

11:3-7 - These verses do an interesting thing.  First, we read "Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is wholly cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that may ye eat."  This seems like a clear statement:  cloven hooves, chewing cud.  But the following verse adds what I think is an unnecessary clarification:  "Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that only chew the cud, or of them that only part the hoof..."  The list of these animals that either have cloven hooves or chew cud -- but not both -- include camels, "rock-badgers" (i.e., hyraxes), hares, or swine.  It seems to me listing these things creates more confusion than it solves.  The original statement in 11:3 is clear, but the effect of listing four different animals one can't eat raises the question of what about all the other animals that either have cloven hooves or chew cud (but not both)?  Logic would say of course they're not kosher, but then why list these specific animals?  Confusing if you ask me.

11:8 - "Of their flesh [מִבְּשָׂרָם] ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch; they are unclean unto you [טְמֵאִים הֵם לָכֶם]."  First, I didn't realize you couldn't even touch the dead bodies of non-kosher animals.  Is that still true?  Second, here again we have the notion of uncleanness.  Is God saying that the flesh of certain animals (a) is inherently unclean and, therefore, not for Jewish consumption; or (b) is to be considered as unclean for Jews though, by implication, it is not unclean for non-Jews?  I always assumed it was the latter, but reading these verses it's not entirely clear.  Third, the way the prohibition is stated suggests something very different I would have thought.  Saying you can't eat their flesh or touch their carcasses begs the questions:  can we touch these animals while alive, and can we eat parts of them other than their flesh?  Amazingly, Rashi seems to answer the second question in the affirmative:  "The [Scriptural] prohibition applies [only] to the “flesh” [of an unclean animal], but not its bones, sinews, horns, or hooves. — [Torath Kohanim 11:74]"   So that means gelatin is all right to eat!?! 

11:9-12 - Here we move on to sea creatures:
These may ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them may ye eat.  And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that swarm in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are a detestable thing [שֶׁקֶץ הֵם] unto you, and they shall be a detestable thing unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses ye shall have in detestation. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that is a detestable thing unto you.
A couple of points here.  First, what is the meaning of this word, sheketz [שֶׁקֶץ]?  Mechon Mamre per above translates it as "a detestable thing"; Kehot translates this as "an abomination."  Either way, I wonder whether the Hebrew is as strong as either of these translations and, if so, what its implications are.  What are other sheketzim in the Torah, and are they to be treated better/worse than unkosher animals?  Second, and related, why are sea creatures without fins and scales so detestable -- it's repeated four times in three verses -- while non-kosher beasts of the land -- including pigs even -- are not.  The prior verses simply say they shouldn't be eaten because they are unclean.  Is a sheketz worse than a tamei?  Third, note the difference between the treatment of dead sea creatures and dead land animals.  The dead bodies of the former are to be detested; the dead bodies of the latter are unclean and not to be touched.  But can the dead bodies of sea creatures be touched?  The Torah doesn't say.

Rashi has two interesting points here.  First, he reiterates his previous point about land animals, that "[You shall not eat] of their flesh" means "[Only their flesh is prohibited,] but one is not prohibited [to eat] the fins or the bones. — [Torath Kohanim 11:82]"  (!)  Nice.  Second, concerning the Torah's exhortation that "Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that is a detestable thing unto you," he points out that the qualifying statement "in the waters" means that a sea creature that has fins and scales in the water but "shed[s] them in its emergence [onto dry land], it is permitted" to be eaten.  My question is, What kind of creature would fall into this category?  I certainly can't think of one...

11:13-19 - Now the flying things:  "And these ye shall have in detestation [וְאֶת-אֵלֶּה תְּשַׁקְּצוּ] among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are a detestable thing..."  But unlike the laws concerning land and sea creatures, which are given in abstract forms (i.e., cloven hooves, fins and scales, etc.), here, with flying things, we first get a list of prohibited birds without explaining (a) why these particular birds are prohibited nor (b) why exactly they are prohibited (e.g., because they are unclean, detestable, etc.).  So no eating of eagles, kites, ospreys, kestrels, vultures, ravens, ostriches, jays, sparrow hawks, goshawks, little owls, gulls, big owls, horned owls, starlings, magpies, storks, herons, hoopoes or bats.  (Phew!)  I have gathered the commonality is that these birds are birds of prey or scavengers that eat other living things, but it is striking that no explanation is given in the Torah.

11:20-25 - And, finally, the insects, which are described even differently than the preceeding three groups of creatures: 
All winged swarming things that go upon all fours are a detestable thing [שֶׁקֶץ] unto you. Yet these may ye eat of all winged swarming things that go upon all fours [הַהֹלֵךְ עַל-אַרְבַּע], which have jointed legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth; even these of them ye may eat: the locust after its kinds, and the bald locust after its kinds, and the cricket after its kinds, and the grasshopper after its kinds.  But all winged swarming things, which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you.
Again, some observations:  First, this formulation seems to imply that flying bugs that don't have four legs are all right to eat (e.g., flies).  In fact, I can't think of flying insects that do have four legs, unless "upon all fours" really means "walks around."  (Rashi, though, suggests this is not the case:  "But any [other] flying insect [that has four legs is an abomination for you]: [In verse 20, it already says, “Any flying insect that walks on four is an abomination for you.” Why is this repeated here?] It comes to teach us that if it has five [legs], it is clean.")  Second, what's interesting to me is the distinction between jumping insects -- locusts, grasshoppers and crickets -- and non-jumping insects; the former are all right to eat but not the latter.  Not sure why jumping makes an insect undetestable, but apparently it does.  Blech.

11:29-31 - Another list of prohibitions:  "And these are they which are unclean unto you among the swarming things that swarm upon the earth: the weasel, and the mouse, and the great lizard after its kinds, and the gecko, and the land-crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand-lizard, and the chameleon."  Again, why list these things?  Why not simply say, of the animals on land, if it doesnt (a) have cloven hooves and (b) chew its cud, then you can't eat it.  Period.  Why list these things? 

11:44-45 - So why, in the end, should we observe these dietary laws?  "For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy; neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moveth upon the earth.  For I am the LORD that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy."  This is a remarkable statement.  On the one hand, there is an equation -- or at least a relationship -- between what one eats and his/her "holiness."  The question, as I intimated above, is whether the holiness comes simply from doing as God asks, or whether there is something inherent to the laws themselves that helps bring about this holiness.  These verses seem to suggest the latter.  The statement "neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moveth upon the earth" certainly seems to suggest that there's something inherently, well, dirty about swarming things. 

Lots of food for thought in this parsha... : )

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