A Look at Parashot Achare Mot

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פרשת אחרי מות

ויקרא Leviticus 16:1 to 18:30

This week, we are introduced to Yom Kippur, or at least how it was presumably practiced before the temple was destroyed. Traditional Jews read this parashah on Yom Kippur morning. Reform Jews substitute Deuteronomy Chapters 29 and 30 (Moses’ final address to the people) because, in this week’s portion, the priest is called out to make expiation, the people are almost passive spectators, not actively contemplating or atoning for their sins or shortcomings.

Chapter 16 – Deaths of Nadav and Avihu (Verses 1 through 5)

After previously delving into the issue of ritual purity, this week’s portion begins by expanding on the narrative after Aaron’s two oldest sons were struck down for carrying foreign or alien fire (אש זרה) into the sanctuary when not authorized to do so. This section seemingly offers another explanation for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: They apparently entered on their own initiative, without authorization. Even entry by Aaron is not countenanced unless he is carrying out the prescribed sacrificial rituals. The text also implies that they may not have been properly attired in the priestly garb, inclusive of a linen tunic and a linen turban. These may possibly be the source of both the white garment worn by men at traditional Yom Kippur services as well as the headdress worn by the cantor..

Priests offer atonement (Verses 6 through 28)

Note that before beginning the ritual to offer expiation for the peoples’ sins, the priest first has to offer atonement for his own sins and those of his family.

The description of the protocol (to be strictly followed on pain of getting zapped) for the sacrificial offerings by the priest includes the Custom of sacrificing a goat (עזאזל -Azazel). This unfortunate animal is to be loaded with the peoples’ sins and sent off into the wilderness. Some commentators interpret that the goat was then pushed off a cliff to its death. The act of using a scapegoat as a sin offering survives in the practice of some ultra -orthodox Jews to perform the ritual of Caparot (כפרות). Thankfully, in most orthodox communities, excluding the most fundamentalist, the distasteful practice of swinging a live chicken around and then slaughtering it has been replaced by charitable giving.

Introduction to Day of Atonement (Verses 29 through 34)

This paragraph sets the date for an annual day of atonement (יום כפור). It also has the commandment that it shall be a day of rest and self-denial. This will be a practice for all time. Each year the person who inherited or was appointed the mantle of high priest shall perform the sacrificial ceremony according to the strict rules as defined (or else!) and make atonement for all the people.

The Rabbis of the Talmud held that the rites of Yom Kippur atone for unintentional sins. Atonement for sins against people must be preceded by a good faith effort to rectify the wrong and to seek forgiveness from the wronged individuals.

Chapter 17 – Laws for slaughtering of animals (Verses 1 through 16)

This section defines the law for slaughtering animals, whether for food or for sacrificial rites by the common (non-priestly) people. All such acts or burnt offerings are only to be made at the Tent of Meeting by the priests. Obviously, that is not practical in a settled society, much less a dispersed one. For that reason, based on Deuteronomy 12:15-16, Rabbis have interpreted this to apply only to the time of wandering in the desert, when everyone was in reasonable proximity to the tent of meeting. It may also date to shortly after the return from Babylon following the first exile, when the small group of returnees was in proximity to the destroyed first temple. Later, secular slaughtering was permit ted on condition that the blood is drained and not consumed.

Sacrifices to foreign idols are forever banned. Similarly, partaking of blood by any member of the House of Israel or any resident stranger is forbidden. Similarly, blood must be drawn from a game animal or bird that is hunted for food. Note that later Talmudic interpretations do not forbid hunting per se (perhaps as a sport) but unless the bird or animal is slaughtered In a prescribed way to minimize suffering, it may not be consumed. Penalties for consuming blood were severe, being spiritually cut off יכרת) -probably banished) from his people. Finally, it is forbidden for a member of the House of Israel or even an outsider who lives among them to eat an animal or bird that has died by natural causes or has been torn by beasts. Could this possibly be a pragmatic prohibition as there is a good chance that such an animal or bird is diseased or rancid?

Chapter 18 – Prohibition against following foreign ways (Verses 1 through 5)

The Israelites are commanded not to follow the ways of the Egyptians or the Canaanites. The Jewish people has always faced the conundrum as to which laws and customs of the ambient populations to follow or adopt, and which to reject. This is a warning that has modern relevance. To what extent should we, as a people, assimilate with the surrounding peoples and ambient cultures? While Maimonides, a student of Aristotle, advised that we should seek truth and knowledge regardless of its source, perhaps we should also bear in mind this admonition that an openness to learn from others should be selective, and not be blind adaptation of alien practices and mores. While there is much to learn from those around us, there is also much that our Eastern European forefathers (and foremothers) would have dismissed as “Goyim Naches”.

Forbidden sexual relations (Verses 6 through 20)

This section catalogs forms of sexual conduct that are forbidden to Israel. As we shall see, most of the prohibitions are accepted by contemporary Reform and Secular Jewry and are the law of most western countries.

Verses 12 to 14: Marriage to or intimacy with one’s aunt or step-aunt is forbidden. Recall (Exodus 6:20) – Moses’ father Amram married his aunt Jochebed. Why is this mentioned in the narrative? Especially as it is only one in three times that the Torah mentions the women when recounting genealogies. There is no prohibition against marriage between a man and his niece. Some Rabbinic authorities actually encouraged the later practice in the belief that keeping the marriage in the family would lead to stronger bonds. Both such unions (Avunculate marriages) are forbidden by most (but not all) societies. Other Rabbinic authorities asserted that even though the prohibitions as stated in the Torah are described from the male point of reference, the prohibitions apply equally to women.

Verse 18 – Marriage to sisters is forbidden. This calls to mind the marriage of Jacob to both Leah and Rachel.

Verse 19 – Prohibition to have relations or even approach a woman during her period. This practice is strictly observed by Orthodox Jews. In many orthodox circles, a woman undergoing her period cannot even be touched until she immerses herself in the mikveh and becomes ritually clean.

What is concerning are the types of sexual violations that are not specifically forbidden here, such as a father violating his son or his daughter.

Prohibition against child sacrifice (Verse 21)

It is believed that child sacrifice was prevalent among the Canaanite nations.

Prohibition against male homosexual relations (Verse 22)

Here we have the prohibition of homosexual male-male relationships (the Torah is silent about female-fem ale relationships). For many, or perhaps most contemporary readers, this is most troubling. Before reacting, we must hold in abeyance our 21st century norms and consider the pragmatic realities of a hardscrabble bronze age agrarian society with a high mortality rate. A contemporary Conservative commentator, the late Rabbi Jacob Milgrom proposed that the tribe, facing high mortality rates could only survive if sexual acts were focused on procreation. Young males that did not procreate represented a danger to the future viability of the tribe and must be discouraged forcefully. For most orthodox commentators, a literal translation means that homosexuality must be regarded as an abomination, yuck, phooey. By way of example, see the commentaries on this section in the Artscroll Stone Edition). As we shall see next week, Chapter 20 even calls for the transgressors to be stoned, although there is no evidence that such a sentence was ever carried out. Some commentators, struggled to understand how a just and caring Gd can demand punishment for a condition that the perpetrator has no real control of. Some rabbinic interpretations have tried to soften or rather harmonize this section, claiming that this prohibition and consequent punishment relates to abhorrent acts performed by Canaanites in their temple practices. Others suggested that this prohibition was to forbid relationships between grown men and boys as was common and accepted among the Greeks and others. I think that the simple and unambiguous Hebrew text does not support these interpretations and rationalizations. The Torah reserves the word תועבה for what it defines as abominable acts such as this forbidden sexual relationship.

Prohibition against carnal relations (Verses 23 through 30)

Prohibition against carnal relations by either sex. Chapter 18 ends with a final exhortation and warning. It should be noted that the prohibition of incest is not rooted in nature as mammals in the wild have no such inhibitions. Neither the Torah nor the Talmud prohibit mating an animal with any other of its species, regardless of relationship. Incestuous prohibitions are the preserve of humankind and perhaps especially the Jewish people. Most, but not all cultures had incest laws. Early examples include the laws of Hammurabi. Still, no ancient set of such laws is as extensive as in Leviticus 18.

The two preceding books of the Torah (Genesis and Exodus) include marriage relations that are now and henceforth forbidden. (e.g: Abraham marrying his half-sister Sarah, Jacob marrying two sisters – (Leah and Rachel), the father of Moses, Amram marrying his aunt Yocheved. Curiously, in many cases civil law goes beyond Leviticus. By way of example, most states, including Pennsylvania forbid first cousin marriages. Other states (e.g. New Jersey) allow them.

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