A Look At Parashat Vayikra

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פרשת ויקרא

ויקרא  Leviticus 1:1 to 5:26

Today we begin the third book of the Torah, Leviticus. We temporarily leave the narrative of the journey through Sinai to study the law. We will take up the journey again when we reach the fourth book: Numbers (במדבר).

Much of Leviticus deals with the sacrificial ceremonies and the roles of the Levites (hence the title of the section in Greek) and the roles of the Cohanim, an “instruction manual” so to speak. Leviticus is also referred to as “Torat HaKohanim” (תורת הכהנים). The sacrificial cult as detailed here will be the basis for the Israelites interaction with Gd until the destruction of the Second Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism in its place. At that point, the roles of the Levites and the priests became largely ceremonial, almost marginalized. Reform Judaism eliminated recognition of the status of Levites and Cohanim. Recall (Exodus 19:6) at Mount Sinai Gd told Moses that all the Israelites will be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש).

In some communities, Leviticus is the first book of the Torah taught to Orthodox children, as it deals with themes such as the admission of wrongdoing, atonement, and forgiveness. Of course, it also deals with Temple centered sacrificial rituals that are far detached from the Rabbinic Judaism that we are familiar with. Many may ask why we continue to study these laws when the need for them has disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple. Indeed, much of the Talmud is devoted to the study of these laws, many if not most are quite arcane to the modern reader. There can be many suggested reasons. Traditional Jews believe that after the coming of Mashiah the Temple will be rebuilt, and so we must preserve the detailed instructions found in Leviticus. Many fervently believe that the sacrifices will be reinstated in a rebuilt (Third) Temple. Others may argue that we must learn them for learning’s sake, as part of our precious heritage. Mystics, Kabbalists, and others may argue that there are significant spiritual and practical messages, possibly hidden, within the texts. And of course, it must be asked “who are we to discard so significant a part of our cultural and spiritual heritage?”

Chapter 1 – Moses summoned to the tent; instructed for sacrificial procedures

Note that the last letter of the Hebrew opening word Vayikra (ויקרא) of this chapter is of a smaller font. Why? Does this have some “hidden” meaning or is this a typo that was propagated onwards by future scribes? Some commentators suggested that it may symbolize the supposedly humble nature of Moses.

Gd calls Moses to the tent and gives him as, to what instructions regarding the procedures for both voluntary sacrifices and sin offerings.

This section describes ritual for the “Olah” (עלה- going up), the sacrificing of animals. Note that the animal must be without blemish. Why do you suppose that is? The entire animal is burned, except the hide which is probably the compensation to the priests.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, traditional Jews substituted the Shacharit (שחרית – morning) service for this sacrificial ceremony.

Chapter 2 – Grain Offering – The Minchah

This section deals with the grain offering, the Minchah, (מנחה) which is the name of the afternoon service that has been substituted for this sacrificial ceremony.

The offering is composed of choice flour and oil, with frankincense. It will be presented to the priests (Aaron and his sons). A token portion shall be burned on the altar and the rest is to be given to the priests as their compensation.

Note that the offering must be unleavened, seasoned with salt, but not include honey. No explanation is given.

Chapter 3 – Peace Offering

Rules for a “peace offering” (זבח שלמים) – a voluntary tribute to G-d. Any animal to be sacrificed must be without blemish.

Prohibition to eat the fat of any animal (interpreted as referring to hard fat layers that can be readily peeled off, not the fat mixed with the muscle) as well as a prohibition to consume blood. The blood is drained and dashed by the priests on the altar. The animal and its fat are then      burned as a sacrifice.

Chapter 4 – Obligatory Sacrifices

The previous sections dealt with voluntary sacrifices. This section deals with obligatory sacrifices for expiation of involuntary sins (חטא בשגגה), emphasis on involuntary. This is not an indulgence (In the medieval Catholic meaning of the word) and does not expiate intentional wrongdoing.

Different levels of sin offerings are prescribed if a priest sins (4:3), if the whole community sins (4:13), when (אשר) a chief or leader sins (4:22), and if an ordinary citizen sins (4:27). Note that the leader is expected to sin, even if unintentionally. Is this a warning, or perhaps an expectation that a leader will unfortunately become arrogant or complacent and be drawn to sin? Examples among the leaders of the Jewish people abound, from King David to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Note the special instructions for the high priest sacrificing for his incurred guilt. As he cannot eat of a sacrifice for his own transgression, the remainder of t he  carcass is to be burned outside the camp.

Chapter 5 – Individual’s Sin

This section deals with an individual’s sin for which he owes chatat (חטאת – penalty or sin offering).  Note the accommodation for a sinner that cannot afford a sheep offering.

Note 5:17 to 5:19 – This section also deals with a person who bears guilt for a sin he incurred unknowingly, or possibly because he did not know the law. The Talmud teaches us that this also covers undetermined guilt (אשם תלוי). A midrash continues: “Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: Scripture punishes someone who did not know [whether he had sinned or not]; how much more so will Scripture punish someone who does indeed know!”. Think of this when you question your individual contribution to climate change and the looming environmental disaster.

Sins Against One’s Fellow Man

For sins against his fellow man, the sin offering is not sufficient. In addition to the sin offering, he must make restitution, including a fifth part (punitive damages).

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