A Look at Parshat Emor

Architectural model of the temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem
Architectural model of the temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem by Thomas Newberry is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

פרשת אמור

ויקרא  Leviticus 21:1 to 24:23

Note: The previous sections detailed the commandments handed down to the entire nation. Here we are introduced to the commandments directed at the priestly class. Although the functional duties of the priestly class and the Levites ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, they retain, by heredity (male lineage), certain religious prerogatives, obligations, and prohibitions. Reform Judaism does not recognize these distinctions.

Chapter 21 – Behavior expected of the high priests (Verses 1 through 9)

This section details the behavior expected of the priests (כהנים), that is, the surviving sons of Aaron (and their descendants).

 Note: Traditional Jews interpret the prohibition against defiling oneself by contact with a dead person as prohibiting Cohanim from entering a cemetery except to bury a close blood relative. Verse 7 prohibits a Cohen from marrying a divorced woman, a prohibition that traditional Jews observe today; a halachic ruling upheld by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel that is the cause of much tsorus and personal tragedy.

Restrictions placed upon the high priests (Verses 10 through 15)

These verses detail further restrictions fall on the High Priest (הכהן הגדול). Particularly note that he may only marry a virgin. He cannot marry a widow, a rape victim, a divorced woman, or a prostitute.

Disqualifications for a priest with a defect (Verses 16 through 24)

A priest that has a physical defect (מום) is disqualified from performing the sacrificial services. His sole privilege is permission to share in eating the sacrificial offerings. Verse 23 is extremely harsh to our contemporary ears: “He shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to me, for I the Lord have sanctified them (אך אל הפרכת לא יבא ואל המזבח לא ייגש כי מום בו ולא יחלל את מקדשי כי אני ה’ מקדשם)

 Why is that? Presuming even the person with the physical defect was created in the image of G-d (בצלם ה’), why would he a priori be excluded from the Temple rites? Perhaps the intent was to assure that the priests do not indulge in the mutilation practices that many religious leaders and servants among the surrounding peoples engaged in (such as castration). Note that there is no spiritual requirement, only a physical one. Does that mean that the high priest can be a real SOB and still qualify on condition that he does not have a physical defect? One possibility is that this reflects a pre-scientific belief that a physical disability is (or may be) divine punishment for past sins.

Note (Verse 24): Even though the following instructions relate solely to the priests, they are given to all the people. Why is that? Perhaps the priests cannot be trusted to enforce such severe (and seemingly unfair) measures among their own kin.

Chapter 22 – Partaking of the sacred donations (Verses 1 through 16)

Here Moses relays G-d’s instructions to the priests regarding rules for partaking of the sacred donations, as well as who must refrain from partaking.

Instructions for sacrificial offerings (Verses 17 through 33)

Here are G-d’s instructions to the people regarding sacrificial offerings. Why the prohibition against offering sacrificial animals with defects (line 23: a small relaxation is made for free offerings)? Perhaps the idea is that an offering of a less valued animal as a sacrifice means that the offering is given grudgingly, not wholeheartedly. Note Verses 26 to 28 require some basic humane treatment of animals. Note the commandment in Verse 32 not to profane G-d’s holy name. This gives rise to the traditional custom not to use any of the names of G-d outside of prayer or study, but instead use the indirect term Hashem (השם – The Name).

Chapter 23 – The festivals (Verses 1 through 8)

In this chapter, G-d is setting forth the festivals (מועדים) and fixing their time in the Hebrew priestly calendar. First is the weekly Sabbath (שבת), a day of rest where you are not permitted to work. What constitutes work is not defined here and it is up to the Rabbis of the Talmud to give exact definitions. Also, a seven-day festival is defined, the first day of which is Passover (פסח), the following day being the Matzoh Festival (חג המצות). The seventh day shall be an (as yet unnamed) holiday. On each of these days, work is prohibited. During the entire festival, Matzoh shall be eaten. Note that this section does not proscribe that leavened bread must not be eaten, although the prohibition does appear in Exodus 13:7 and in Deuteronomy.

Counting the Omer (Verses 9 through 22)

Here we have the injunction to bring the first sheaf (עמר – Omer) of the (barley) harvest to the priest. Both the offeror and the priest shall wave it. Following that day, seven weeks (49 days) are counted off and then the new grain, two (wheat) loaves, are offered to the priests. While not named as such here, this became the festival of Shavuot (שבועות – weeks). A literal reading of Verse 11 (“… on the day after Sabbath” – ממחרת השבת) may lead to the assumption that, according to the priestly calendar, the holiday was always observed on a Sunday. Rabbinic sources contend that here, “Sabbath” refers not to Sabbath but to the first day of Passover. Indeed, the Karaites, to this day do observe Shavuot on a Sunday. The seven-week counting of the Omer (ספירת העמר) begins following the first day of Passover. Some sects in the past began the counting upon the conclusion of Passover, as do the present-day Ethiopian Jews.

We can note a repeat of the injunction from chapter 19 to leave the edges of the field (at least one sixtieth of the field according to the Mishnah) unharvested for the poor and the stranger. Later commentators added that the landowner does not have exclusive ownership of his holding. He has a social responsibility to share (at least the edges of his land) with the poor and the strangers in his midst.

The Rabbis of the Talmud infused the holiday with greater religious significance, as commemorating the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. There is no reference to this in the Torah itself, or even in the Mishna for that matter.

Day of Atonement (Verses 23 through 32)

Commandments as to when and how to observe a day of rest (unnamed here), now known as Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה), followed ten days later by the solemn day of atonement (יום הכפורים – Yom HaKippurim). The reference to loud blasts (תרועה) was interpreted as the shofar sound that today intersperses the Rosh Hashana service and marks the end of the Day of Atonement.

Festival of Booths – (Verses 33 through 44)

Here we have the Festival of Booths (חג הסוכות – Succoth). While this seven-day holiday marks the completion of the harvest, it is given added significance with all the people commanded to live in booths. Verse 43 supports the interpretation that this is how the Israelites supposedly lived on the journey out of Egypt. This may be unlikely as nomadic people (such as the remaining nomadic Bedouin of today) usually live in tents as opposed to difficult to schlepp booths.  

Chapter 24 – Maintaining a lighted torch (Verses 1 through 9)

We have the commandment to maintain a lighted torch (נר תמיד) outside the tent of meeting. From this passage, we have the present-day eternal light that is in front of, and above the ark holding the Torah scrolls (relatively recent custom, not law). Note that the lighted torch outside the tent of meeting must burn from evening to morning while the contemporary eternal light never goes out (unless the bulb burns out). While an eternal light is expected in Reform and Conservative synagogues, not all orthodox synagogues have one.

The blasphemer (Verses 10 through 16)

The story of the blasphemer. We are not told explicitly what he said that was so terrible.  Why do you think the Torah mentions that he is “only” half Israelite? Is this a warning as to the possible consequences of a mixed marriage? Doesn’t this contradict the later halacha that rules that if his mother is Israelite, he is a member of the tribe? His punishment was to be stoned. Would this have been the fate of a full Israelite? Probably so, as this punishment (stoning to death) is here proscribed on the whole people.

Basis for criminal law (Verses 17 through 23)

Now we have the penalty of death for intentional homicide and monetary restitution for killing an animal. For other crimes, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (Lex Talionis – retaliatory justice or simply measured revenge) must be the verdict. Do you think that the intent of the Torah is that this is to be taken literally? The language is concise and unambiguous and doesn’t seem to provide leeway for other interpretations or rationalizations. None the less, the Rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent interpreters and commentators from all the religious streams are virtually unanimous in agreement that this refers to monetary compensation only.

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