Thursday, March 24, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shmini – Vayikra (Leviticus) 9 - 11


 "It came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel" (Lev. 9:1). "Shmini", translated “eighth”, denotes a new beginning. The previous Parasha ended with A'haron and his sons being charged to "not go outside the door of the tabernacle of meeting for seven days until the days of your consecration are ended. For seven days he shall consecrate you" (8:33). And again in 8:35: “Therefore you shall stay at the door of the tabernacle of meeting day and night for seven days, and keep the charge of YHVH…" Thus, on the eighth day, A'haron was to "take… a calf as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before YHVH" (9:2). It is no mistake or coincidence that on this eighth day, symbolic of a departure from the 'former things', A'haron, who had played a major role in the golden calf episode, was to offer, first and foremost, a calf. This offering is rendered a cut-off mark, in the course of which "all the congregation drew near and stood before YHVH" (9:5 emphasis added). In this way, the atonement was fully made (see v. 7, and then all the way to v. 22) and YHVH's relationship with Yisrael could be restored.

Following this procedure as specifically prescribed by YHVH resulted in “… the glory [kavod] of YHVH appear[ing] to all the people" right after Moshe and A’haron blessed them (v. 23). According to Nechama Leibowitz, "The revelation of the Divine glory here denotes a reward for their efforts in erecting a Sanctuary for the Shekina".[1] “And fire came out from before YHVH and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. And all the people saw it, and they shouted and fell on their faces" (v.24). These sin offerings, therefore, became a demarcation point, separating sinfulness and profanity from YHVH's Holiness and Glory. The motif of the holy or clean versus the profane or the unclean is threaded throughout this Parasha, as we shall continue to observe.


 When the above-described scene reached its peak, with "fire [coming] out from before YHVH… consuming the burnt offering…", as we just observed, we are suddenly transferred without as much as a breather into the next one, with its parallel yet contradictory elements. And so, we read in 10:1 about A’haron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, taking censors and putting fire and incense on them, which YHVH had "not commanded them". Theirs was a fire of their own making ("zara" - foreign, strange, of a different kind), which they brought near before YHVH, and "so fire went out from YHVH and devoured them" (v. 2). When the Children of Yisrael and their leaders did as they were commanded (ref 9:10) and drew near to YHVH, His fire consumed the offering and He showed them His Glory. But when Nadav and Avihu brought near that which YHVH did not command, the consequence was that a fire went out from Him, but consumed them (ref. 10:1-2). The similar or identical terms used to describe both episodes make for a sinister symmetry, one that demonstrates that often there may be but a fine line that separates the holy from the profane, the desirable from the detestable. An example of contrasting terms, that serve to highlight certain situations is seen in 9:24, where we read that the people "shouted" - (va)yaronou - joyfully. In contrast, after Nadav and Avihu's sad annihilation, it says that A'haron was utterly silent, or even motionless - (va)yidom – root of d.o.m, dalet, vav, mem (ref. 10:3). In Psalm 94:17 the expression "dwelling in silence" ("shachna duma”), denotes death. In Psalm 115:17 it is written: "The dead do not praise YHVH, nor any who go down into silence" (duma, once again).


    "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified" (10:3) is the explanation as to why Nadav and Avihu, because of their lofty positions, had to be totally obedient to YHVH and could not misrepresent him as they had done. In fact, they are called here by YHVH "k'rova'i" - those who are close (or near) to Me - and as such, YHVH was to be rendered holy" ("eka'desh") by, or through, them.  In addition, their actions were supposed to glorify YHVH and this way to also influence others to do likewise, with "eka'ved" being the term used (in 10:3), meaning "heavy", and by implication "highly esteemed".


In the second part of chapter 10, Moshe instructs A'haron and his two "remaining sons" (v. 12) to not display any signs of mourning. On the other hand, the rest of Yisrael was given permission to "bewail the burning which YHVH has kindled" (v. 6, italics added). Interestingly, the “burning” here is eerily detached from the particular individuals who had just perished, neither is it in any way connected to human beings in general or even to death. The word used, which sounds so dreadfully detached, is "s'refa", meaning "burning” or “to burn". It appears that emphasis is put here on the calamity inflicted by YHVH, with the priests being expected to identify with His approach (hence His strict orders to them not to display signs of mourning over the death of their relatives), whereas the “whole house of Israel” was given permission to “bewail the burning”. In addition, the priests were to remain inside the tent (cf. 8:33,35, mentioned above) as long as YHVH's anointing oil was on them, and were also prohibited from drinking wine and intoxicating drink in the course of their service in Ohel Mo'ed ("Tent of Meeting", 10:6-9). This latter requirement led some commentators to surmise that YHVH's anger against Nadav and Avihu was kindled because they may have been inebriated while ministering. The purpose for these measures was, so “that you [i.e. the priests] may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which YHVH has spoken to them by the hand of Moses" (v. 11). But in order to be able to do so, they had, according to verse 10, to "…distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean". It is this verse that encapsulates or summarizes the motif (as mentioned above) of the entire Parasha.


In the following section (10:12-20), Moshe reproves A'haron and his remaining (“nota'rim”) sons, El'azar and Itamar, for not having eaten the remaining (“noteret”) offering, which was rightfully theirs. Instead, they burned the goat for the sin offering ("soraf" v. 16 – identical word to the “fire” mentioned in 10:6 above, which consumed Nadav and Avihu), making a fire of their own and getting rid of that which they were supposed to consume. In trying to be over-cautious, they too were not fully obedient to the instructions of YHVH. Notice the application of identical terminology to the priests and to their work of service, be it the fire or the sacrifices (as we noted also above concerning Nadav and Avihu).


Here we also hear A'haron expressing himself for the first time after the loss of his two older sons, a loss he refers to tersely as, “such things [that] have befallen me" (v. 19), and wondering if the eating that was required “would have … been good - (ha)yitav - in the eyes of YHVH. And Moses heard and it was good - (va)yitav - in his eyes" (vs. 19-20). The echoing of A'haron's "good" in Moshe’s response seems to indicate that the brothers were once again in one accord.


The “remaining offering” that the priests were to eat is called here that which is “due” to the priests because in Hebrew it is derived from “chok”, the ‘legal’ portion (see 10:15 translated there "statute"). A similar reference to one’s portion is referenced by the writer of Proverbs. There it says: “Give me neither poverty nor riches -- Feed me with the food allotted to me” (30:8). The “food allotted to me” is “lechem (literally bread), which is legally apportioned or allotted to me”. The same expression is found, of course in the “Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:11: “Give us this day our “lechem chok” – the bread/food that is legally our portion.


Our Parasha clearly brings out the role of the priests in the Israelite society, and their view of their office. S.R. Hirsch elaborates on this issue: "The Hebrew priest is part of the nation, and his position is not an isolated one before God, but one that he occupies only within and through the nation….” Regarding the sacrifices and their function relative to the Almighty and to the worshipper, he says: “The closeness of and approach to God… may only be found through obedience to and acceptance of God's will…  The offering means to place the offerer at God's service, i.e., he wants to fulfill God's wishes through his offering. All offerings are therefore forms of Divine demands which the offerer, through his offering, accepts as the guidelines for his future conduct".[2]


In line with the theme of separating the clean from the unclean, the rest of the Parasha (chapter 11) is devoted to the type of animals, fish and fowls permitted for consumption, as well as to those that are forbidden. It is interesting that verses 4-7 constitute a list of four animals, all of which have one of the two traits required but are devoid of the other. However, the first trait mentioned in all four cases happens to be the one that fulfills the requirement, whereas the specification of the missing one is second. The lesson to be learned here is simple:  even though things may seem 'right' or 'proper' at first sight, they should be investigated further, lest deception sets in (e.g. notice the order of adjectives in the title of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). The above tragic scene, with Nadav and Avihu, A’haron’s sons, who may have had ‘good’ intentions, illustrates this point even more poignantly. YHVH’s holiness and His charge upon His people, to be “set apart as He is”, cannot be measured by human standards of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and requires unquestionable obedience.


"You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps; nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled by them, for I am YHVH your Elohim. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth, for I am YHVH who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your Elohim. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (11:43-45). The Israelites were separated for YHVH’s sake by being brought out of Egypt, the land of bondage, where they belonged to someone else (whose servants they were). Now, however, they belonged to their Maker. They were, therefore, to reflect His nature of holiness.


Aligning themselves with their Elohim and His ways is what makes the Israelite Nation a "holy nation". Partaking of that which is abominable in His sight or even coming into contact with it renders those who choose to do so just as abominable - "sheh’ketz". “You shall not make yourselves (lit. “your soul”) abominable – teshak’tzu - with any creeping thing that creeps” (v. 43).  The "abomination (of desolation)" in Daniel 11:31 and 12:11 employs the same word, with a certain modification (“shikutz”).


Our Parasha, quite characteristically, ends with a clear reminder of its theme: “to distinguish, [or separate], the unclean from the clean…" (11:47).



1. New Studies in Vayikra Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner  Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

2. Ibid




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