A Look at Parsha Kedoshin

פרשת  קדשים

ויקרא  Leviticus 19:1 to 20:27

In reform congregations, this section is typically read during the Yom Kippur afternoon service.

In regular years, Parashat Kedoshim and the previous parashah, Achare Mot are read on a single shabbat. During a leap year in the Hebrew calendar (two months of Adar) the parashot are read separately, Achare Mot one Shabbat and Kedoshim on the subsequent Shabbat.

Note that none of the commandments or admonitions are directed only to an elite of priests. They are addressed to the entire community without exception, nobody’s burden is any more than or any less than anybody else’s.

Chapter 19 – The people are called to be Holy (Verses 1 through 8)

This section expands on the previous one. The people are called to emulate Gd in “holiness” (קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה’ אלקיכם) and refrain from the sexual and religious practices and customs of the neighbors. Just as in Exodus (chapter 19, verse 6) we are not told what exactly is “holy”? How would you define Holiness (קדושים)? One suggested translation put forth by both Rashi and Maimonides is separateness, observing boundaries. Israel is separate from other peoples, Gd is separate from mankind, Holy ground is separate, etc. Of course, holiness is more than that, possibly encompassing the ritual rites that we are commanded to observe and the codes of behavior put forth in Leviticus.

Any idea why no part of the sacrifice can be eaten beyond the second day? This is presented as law with no explanation.

Basic rules of behavior (Verses 9 through 18)

Basic rules of behavior to maintain a just and peaceful society with accommodation for the less fortunate among us, including consideration of the handicapped. Many of these rules of behavior are unenforceable in a civil court, hence the constant reminder that you must answer to a higher authority.

Verses 9 and 10 include the injunction for landowners to leave the pickings from the corners of his fields, and not to return to the fields after the initial harvest to gather the remaining fruit. This is for the benefit of the poor and landless in the community. This rule applies to every landholder, from the rich and powerful to the smallest holder. The command is to leave the produce in the field, not to personally give the needy a handout. This permits the needy to remain anonymous and preserve their dignity.

Verses 11 through 15 – basic rules for honest business dealings and personal behavior.

Verse 16 is difficult to translate. ” “לא תלך רכיל בעמיך may command us not to engage in gossip. “ לא תעמד על דם רעך  ”  may command us not to stand aside when somebody is in danger, or alternatively not to profit from somebody’s misfortune.

Note in verse 18: We are not to bear a grudge, nor plot revenge. Good advice that for most of us is difficult to emulate in practice. Verse 18 continues with “Love your neighbor as yourself” (ואהבת לרעך כמוך). This line was paraphrased by two somewhat famous early 1st century C.E. gentlemen: Hillel “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” and Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you”.

Additional laws (Verses 19 through

Many of the commands here are חוקים which are understood to be laws for which we may not be able to discern a clear rational basis (e.g.שעטנז ) as opposed toמשפטים  for which the rationale is clear and unambiguous and usually relates to relations between people (e.g.   Do not murder) as opposed to relations between man and Gd.

Prohibition against crossbreeding animals, mixing types of seeds in the same field, or clothing from different types of fiber (כלאים) only applies to Jews. It may be due to a pre-Darwinian belief that Gd made   all species as they were at creation and so we must not alter the divine plan.

Prohibition to eat of a fruit tree during the first three years (and the fruit during the fourth year shall be offered to Gd). This possibly derives from the fact that in the first few years, the fruit would not be ripe for consumption.

Restrictions on hair and beard-cutting in line 27 (in particular, not using a razor) are strictly observed by Hasidim today.

Line 28 forbids body defacing, it is not clear if  כתבת קעקעis properly translated as tattoos (as in modern Hebrew usage) or restricted to skin gashing, a view supported by the Gemara. Even more lenient interpreters that allow tattoos forbid it to include the name of Gd. This is the only reference to body defacing or skin cuts in the Tanakh.

Further rules for proper behavior (Verses 29 through 37)

Further rules for proper behavior in a just society.  Note the command for fair and proper behavior to the stranger (גר – usually translated as convert) in your midst with a reminder that we were slaves in Egypt. This is the most repeated commandment in the Torah. We see in verse 32 the beautiful injunction to show respect (rise before) the aged (מפני שיבה תקום) and show deference to the elderly (ןהדרת פני זקן). These verses, as much of Leviticus, blends strict adherence to prescribed ritual practices and ethical behavior to ensure a just and tranquil society. The message that we should take away from this parashah is that ritual without moral behavior is not true Judaism. One compliments the other.

Chapter 20 – Prohibition to offer firstborn to Molech (Verses 1 through 8)

Much of Chapter 20 is an elaboration of items in Chapter 18 that we read in the previous parashah, although here the punishments for violation are detailed. This first section deals with the severe admonition not to offer the firstborn to Molech (a Canaanite god). Researchers debate if they actually sacrificed children or if this was perhaps some sort of ceremony, harmlessly passing a child over the fire.

Further prohibitions (Verses 9 through 27)

Decree of death penalty to anybody that curses (מקלל) his father or mother. A tad extreme, to say the least. The Rabbis of the Talmud could not negate a Torah law, so they put so many restrictions on it that it becomes effectively impossible to carry out this (or virtually any other) death sentence.

Further commandments, focusing on sexual and incestuous improprieties to assure that the Israelites do not follow the ways   of the surrounding peoples.

Verse 13 prescribes severe penalty (death) for male homosexual relations. No reference is made regarding female homosexual relations.  Was this tolerated?

Note the final section (20:27): The people are admonished not to have anything to do with ghosts or spirits (or rather their conjurers). Such beliefs would contradict serving the one true Gd of the Israelites.   

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