A Look at Parashat Shemini

פרשת שמיני

ויקרא Leviticus 9:1 to 11:47

In the previous parashah, the Tabernacle was consecrated, and Aaron and his sons were invested with their duties.

Chapter 9 – Eighth Day of Ordination Ceremony

On the eight day of the ordination ceremony, Moses summoned Aaron and his sons, to begin their priestly duties, and the tribal elders (זקני ישראל). Why the tribal elders? Was this to honor them or to bear witness to the proceedings. This was the first day that the Tabernacle was “open for business”. Two sacrificial offerings were called for. First sacrifice was expiation for their (the Cohanim’s) own sins. This was requisite as they could not perform the second sacrifice, expiation for the peoples’ sins before they have answered for their own sins. 9:24 alludes to divine intervention – “Fire came forth from before Gd and consumed the burnt offering” (ותצא אש מלפני ה’ ותאכל …).

Chapter 10 – Deaths of Nadav and Avihu

This is a difficult section. Verses 10:1 and 10:2 – Aaron’s two eldest sons (Nadav and Avihu) apparently erred (intentionally or not, the text is not clear) from the prescribed sacrificial ceremony and offered unsanctioned “alien fire”  (אש זרה אשר לא צוה אתם). Consequently, fire came forth and killed both of them. Moses’ response (verse 10:3) appears to be detached and sanguine, offering not consolation, but a drash (sermon): “Mose said to  Aaron, Gd said he will be sanctified through those close to him and be honored before the entire people” (ויאמר משה אל אהרן הוא אשר דבר ה’ לאמר בקרבי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד ).  Verse 10:3 continues  “וידם אהרן“ which is usually translated as “and Aaron was silent”. Any reader is perplexed, and perhaps outraged at this. How can any parent be silent in the face of such an inexplicable tragedy? Commentators have gone to great lengths to explain the inexplicable. Ibn Ezra surmised that a fatalistic Aaron was resigned to the fact that this is what had to be as Gd manifests his holiness through those who are close to him. Other commentators rationalized that Aaron’s silence represented acceptance and confirmation that life must go on under any circumstances, come what may. Perhaps a more pragmatic Maimoinides opined that Aaron actually did cry out and only then, exhausted, he fell silent in his grief. This interpretation, although more rational and reasonable a response, is not supported by the text.

 The Torah, being written without vowels, וידם perhaps can be in the passive tense, that is “and Aaron was constrained” (or perhaps stunned into silence) which would certainly make more sense. We will probably never know which it is.

Possibly, in this troubling section, the Priests are offering up two messages: (1) Gd does not cut the priests any slack in performance of their sacred duties, despite their exalted position and (2) The sacrificial ritual is very hazardous, with severe consequences for mismanagement. It is not for amateurs and best left to the pros (i.e., the priestly class).

Aaron and his surviving sons were not allowed the traditional rite of mourning the dead. Why was that?  Later halacha dictates that you do not mourn during a holy day (although here the people do mourn).

Line 10:9 offers a hint as to what may have been the nature of Nadav’s and Avihu’s misdeed, as Aaron and his surviving sons are instructed not to drink intoxicants before entering the Tent of Meeting. Rashi (11th century commentator) offers a different interpretation; the sons were killed because they made a religious decision by themselves, in effect usurping the authority of Moses, their teacher.

Sin Offering

Moses instructs Aaron and his two remaining sons (Eleazar and Ithamar) to eat the remaining meal offering by the alter. When Moses learned that the sin offering was burned instead of eaten, he was angry at the two sons (but apparently not Aaron) for apparently disobeying the command (and we saw what that can lead to) as the way to make expiation for the community.

Aaron reasoned that under the circumstances, it would have been improper for him to eat the sin offering, and Gd would not have approved. Moses concedes the point, perhaps demonstrating here a level of humility.

Laws of Kashrut

Introduction to the basic laws of Kashrut(כשרות) . Neither the noun kashrut not the adjective kosher (כשר) appear in the Torah. Contrary to Maimonides’ interpretation, there is no indication in the Torah that any of the dietary prohibitions were for health reasons. No explanations or rationalizations for these laws are given. The most likely interpretation is that observation of strict dietary laws is instrumental in keeping us as “a people apart”. Of course, one benefit in “keeping kosher” is that it assures mindfulness in how we prepare and consume food.

It is interesting that of all the non-kosher animals, it is the pig that stands out as the most “notorious”. Many Jews that do not obey any of the rules of kashrut still maintain an aversion to consuming port. Unlike most other non-kosher animals, the pig does meet one of the two criteria: while the pig does have split hooves, it does not chew its cud.

It is interesting to note that while insects and creepy crawly things are prohibited, locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are permitted. This may be for pragmatic reasons. After an infestation of locusts, these yucky things may be the only food left to consume!

Note that the prohibition against eating milk with meat is not mentioned here as it is Rabbinic law. The Karites do not accept Rabbinic law but take a largely literal interpretation of the laws as laid out in the Torah. As such, they do not have a prohibition against mixing meat with milk, only against cooking meat and milk together (so cheeseburgers are still out!).

“Unclean” Animals

Description of “unclean” animals, and how to purify yourself after being in contact with any one of them. Does this mean that one must go through this ritual after petting a dog? If so, can orthodox Jews have a pet, as most house pets are not kosher? One interpretation is that without the Temple, we are all impure as we cannot cleanse ourselves ritually, so there is no reason to refrain from coming into contact with an unclean animal.

An earthen vessel (pottery, or even an oven) that becomes unclean is rendered unusable and must be smashed. Any food that was inside it shall be rendered unclean.

Prohibition against eating swamy or crawly things. In my humble opinion, this is the easiest commandment to obey.    

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