Tags: amen, faithful, ordeal by water, sotah, torah portion
The first person who says “Amen” in the Torah is a wife agreeing to a curse on her own body if she is guilty of adultery.
The law given in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), stipulates a husband who suspects his wife of adultery—a serious crime against both the husband and God, according to the Torah. He cannot prove it, since there were no witnesses and she was not caught in the act. But even if his wife proclaims her innocence, he cannot believe her.
…and [if] a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had defiled herself; or a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had not defiled herself—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)
The priest then conducts a unique ritual in the Bible: an ordeal by water.
The husband has two other options: he could divorce his wife, giving her the usual separation payment; or he could continue the marriage and live with his doubts. If he is vindictive, like some husbands discussed in the Talmud, he might choose to bring his wife to the priest in the hope that she will be proven unfaithful, so he can divorce her without giving her the payment. But if he hopes his wife has been faithful, yet he is tormented by jealousy, he brings her to the priest for proof or her guilt or innocence.
The priest takes an earthenware bowl, puts in some “holy” water (water from the basin where the priests wash their hands and feet, according to later commentary), and adds dust from the floor of the sanctuary (where only the priests may walk). Then the priest pauses to undo the woman’s hair, thus publicly shaming both wife and husband.
The priest holds the bowl of water and dust, now called “water of the bitternesses of the cursings”, and addresses the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery.
And the priest shall make her swear with these oaths: he shall say to the wife: “If a man did not lie down with you, and if you did not stray in defilement from under your husband, be cleared by these waters of the bitternesses of the cursings! But if you did stray from under your husband, and if you defiled yourself, and a man other than your husband put his semen into you—!” Then the priest shall make the wife swear the oath of the imprecation; and the priest shall say to the wife: “May God make you a curse and an oath among your people, when God makes your yareikh fall and your belly tzavah. And these waters of the cursings shall enter into your innards to make the belly tzavah and to make the yareikh fall.” And the wife shall say: “Amen, amen.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:19-21)
yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals; side of a tent.
tzavah (צָבָה) = swelled. (The root tzavah appears only four times in the whole Bible: three times in this passage, and once in Isaiah as a misspelling of the homonym tzava (צָבָא) = fought, assembled against, went to war. Maybe in this passage about the sotah, the curse is that her genitals will fall and her belly will fight against her arries.)
Once the wife has said amen twice, the priest writes out the curse on a scroll, and wipes off the ink so it dissolves into the water. Now the liquid in his hand contains “holy” water, dust from the sanctuary floor, and the sacred name of God (which was part of the written curse).
And he shall give her the water to drink, and it will happen that if she defiled herself and she really betrayed her husband, then [when] the water of cursings for bitternesses come into her, her belly will tzavah and her yareikh will fall, and the woman will become an imprecation among her people. But if the woman did not defile herself, and she is pure, then she will be cleared, and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)
In other words, if the presumably pregnant wife actually did commit adultery, the water will cause a painful miscarriage. But if she did not, she will bear her husband’s child.
Few guilty wives would submit themselves to this ordeal unless they were innocent of adultery. Why go through the public shaming, saying amen, drinking the magical water, and the horrible miscarriage? It would be easier for an unfaithful wife to confess privately to her husband, and let the divorce proceed without the extra trauma.
But for an innocent wife, the ordeal would be the only way she could prove her faithfulness to her jealous husband.
When I wrote about the sotah in 2013 (Naso: A Suspicious Husband) I concluded that any marriage was doomed without mutual honesty and trust, which requires that the marriage partners stick to their covenant, whatever it might be.
But now I wonder about the case in which a wife did stick to her marriage covenant, yet her husband could not believe her when she told him she was innocent. In this week’s Torah portion, the wife has faith that God will prove her innocence in the ordeal by water; she demonstrates that by saying “amen, amen”, confirming her acceptance of the two alternatives in the curse.
The husband is not required to say “amen, amen”. Perhaps the ritual is so powerful, it would convince even the most jealous fool. But why is he unable to believe his wife until she goes through the ordeal?
I think the answer is that the husband could not have faith in any wife, or even in himself. Maybe he grew up among untrustworthy women, so he believes no women can be trusted. Or maybe he grew up believing he is so unimpressive or unlovable, he does not deserve a faithful wife.
How can you have confidence in another person’s reliability and faithfulness, if you do not have confidence in yourself? And if you do not have confidence in any human being’s reliability and faithfulness, how can you have confidence in God?
A ritual as serious as the sotah ordeal is no longer available to us. What we can do is pay attention to the problem and wrestle with it until we find we have grown past it.
May each of us grow until we trust ourselves, so we can trust others who deserve it. Maybe then we will even come to trust what we call “God”, like the innocent sotah. Then we can say “amen” and mean it.
(Next week: Moses wonders if he is a wet-nurse—another word related to “amen”.)
Tags: Book of Numbers, four directions, torah portion, twelve tribes
The Israelites leave Egypt in a rush, in a swarm, in no particular order. At the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), they prepare to leave Mount Sinai in orderly formation.
One difference is that now they have made the portable sanctuary for God. The tribe of Levi is responsible for the sanctuary, both when the people are camping and the sanctuary is assembled, and when they are marching and the Levites are carrying the disassembled parts. So the Levites camp in the middle of the Israelites, immediately around the sanctuary: the priests (kohanim) and Moses on the east, the clan of Kehat on the south, the clan of Geirshon on the west, and the clan of Merari on the north. (See my post Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions for details.)
Surrounding the Levites, but at a greater distance from the sanctuary, are the remaining twelve tribes. They camp and march in four blocks: east, south, west, and north. Each block has a leading tribe and two supporting tribes.
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Each man shall camp next to his banner, with the insignia of their father’s house. They shall camp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting. And those camping keidmah, mizrachah, shall be the banner of the camp of Yehudah… And those camping next to them: the tribe of Yissachar …the tribe of Zevulun … All those counted for the camp of Yehudah were 186,400, by their legions; the first to pull out. (2:1-9)
keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east, in front, originally. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.
mizrachah (מִזְרָחָה) = to the east, toward sunrise. From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.
When the Israelites break camp, the tribe of Yehudah (יְהוּדָה), Judah in English, sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day.
In the Torah, the east represents origins and birth. The front gate of the courtyard around the tent-sanctuary is on the east side. So is the curtain at the entrance into the sanctuary proper, which only priests (and Moses) are allowed to enter.
Moses and the priests (Aaron and his sons) camp just east of the courtyard gate. Farther east is the camp of Yehudah, accompanied by Yissachar and Zevulun. In the book of Genesis, Yehudah gradually becomes the leader of all the brothers who confront Joseph. King David was from the tribe of Yehudah, and after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Yehudah survived for two more centuries.
When you face east, the south is on your right. That means Reuven is Yehudah’s right-hand man in this week’s Torah portion:
The banner of the camp of Reuven shall be teymanah… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Shimon…and the tribe of Gad… All those counted for the camp of Reuven were 161,450, by their legions; and they shall pull out second. (2:10-16)
teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south. (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right side, south side, right hand.)
In the Torah, south is the direction of the Negev desert, the kingdom of Edom in the hills of Sei-ir, Mount Paran, and Mount Sinai. Moses says in his final speech to the Israelites: God came from Sinai, and shone forth from Sei-ir for them, having radiated from Mount Paran… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)
The Levite clan of Kehat camps just south of the sanctuary. Beyond them are the camps of Reuven and its two assisting tribes, Shimon and Gad. Reuven is the firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, but he does not inherit the leadership of the extended family. His tribe gets second place, but at least it is close to God’s illumination in the south.
Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the camp of the Levites, in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so shall they pull out, each man in position next to their banners. (2:17)
Next come the tribes in the back, to the west of the sanctuary:
The banner of the camp of Efrayim by its legions shall be yammah…And next to them shall be the tribe on Menasheh…and the tribe of Binyamin… All those counted for the camp of Efrayim: 108,100, by their legions; and they shall pull out third. (2:18-24)
yammah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).
The other Biblical Hebrew word for west is ma-arav (מַעֲרָב), toward the sunset. In the Bible, the west represents the unknown: the great sea, the future, and death. The western end of the tent sanctuary is the back wall of the Holy of Holies.
The Levite clan of Geirshon camps just west of the sanctuary courtyard. Behind them, in the position farthest west, is the tribe of Efrayim and its assistant tribes, Menasheh and Binyamin. In Genesis, Jacob rearranges his hands when he blesses Joseph’s two sons Menasheh and Efrayim, so that even though Menasheh is older, Efrayim receives the blessing of the firstborn.
Thus the chief tribe on the east is named after Yehudah, who took the role of the firstborn by his own leadership. The chief tribe on the south is named after Reuven, who was the firstborn but lost his position. And the chief tribe on the west is named after Efrayim, who was born second but promoted to firstborn.
The chief tribe on the north, Dan, does not even care about the rights of the firstborn.
The banner of the camp of Dan shall be tzafonah, by their legions… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Asher…and the tribe of Naftali… All those counted for the camp of Dan: 157,600; as the last they shall pull out, next to their banners. (2:25-31)
tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = to the north. From the same root as the verb tzafan (צָפַן) = hide treasure, hide in ambush.
In the Bible, the north is where the Assyrians came from when they swept down and conquered the kingdom of Israel. It is also the direction of Mount Tzafon, a peak near the Mediterranean coast in present-day northern Syria. In Canaanite mythology, when Baal became the supreme god, he built a palace on top of Mount Tzafon, and the gods assembled there.
Inside the sanctuary, the table displaying the twelve loaves of bread stands by the north wall. The loaves stand for the tribes of Israel, on display before God.
The Levite clan of Merari camps just north of the sanctuary. Dan is the leader of the three tribes camping farther north. Jacob’s fifth son, Dan, is unimportant in the book of Genesis. But in Judges the tribe of Dan abandons its allotted territory and heads north. As the tribe crosses Efrayim’s territory, it captures a priest and a molten idol. Then Dan seizes the Canaanite city of Laish. Both conquests are surprise attacks; perhaps the whole tribe of Dan is good at hiding in ambush. Laish, renamed Dan, becomes the northernmost city in the kingdom of Israel.
The word for northward, tzafonah, is related not only to hiding, but also to the center of Canaanite religion at Mount Tzafon. In the first book of Kings, the city of Dan has its own temple and a golden calf.
Maybe when the Israelites break camp the tribe of Dan pulls out last because it is not wholehearted about either the community of Israel or its god. Dan goes its own way, then follows the rest of Israelite and its sanctuary after all.
When the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they march and camp in a formation that positions each tribe in relation to the four directions and to the sanctuary in the center. Today, we also need to put what is holy to us at the center of our lives. Otherwise we will swarm about aimlessly.
In addition to holding a holy center, we need to operate in the world. The four compass points might indicate four ways of operating. If we are fortunate, our primary strategy is represented by the east and Yehudah: taking the lead in our own lives and setting off on new ventures. A second strategy is represented by the south and Reuven: seeking and remembering moments of illumination. Third is the strategy represented by the west and Efrayim: humbly accepting the unknown future, as well as unexpected blessings from those wiser than we. Finally there is the strategy represented by the north and Dan: stepping away when we need to, coming out of hiding, and doing the unexpected.
May all these elements be present when we organize our own lives.
Tags: consecration, donations, holiness, Leviticus, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
Men are worth more than women. It says so in the Torah—or does it?
A list of the equivalent value in silver of each of eight classes of people appears in Bechukkotai (“by My decrees”), the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra:
erekekha (עֶרְכְּךֳ) = the equivalent value, assessment.
—then the erekekha of the male of age 20 years up to age 60 years, erekekha will be 50 shekels of silver according to the shekel-weight of the Holy place. And if she is a female, erekekha will be 30 shekels. (Leviticus 27:3-4)
And if from age 5 years up to age 20 years, erekekha will be for the male 20 shekels, and for the female 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:5)
And if from the age of a month up to age 5 years, erekekha will be for the male 5 shekels of silver, and erekekha for the female 3 shekels of silver. (Leviticus 27:6)
And if from age 60 years and above, if male, erekekha will be 15 shekels, and for the female, 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:7)
In this lis of equivalent values, males are assigned a higher erekekha than females, and adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are assigned a higher erekekha than children or seniors. Individual differences between people within each of the eight classes of persons are disregarded.
What does undertaking “a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God” mean?
Leviticus includes a number of mandatory gifts to the sanctuary or the priests who serve there. All Israelite households are required to give:
* the firstborn of their livestock and a portion of their first fruits.
* the prescribed animal and grain offerings for relieving guilt and thanking God for good fortune.
* the prescribed offerings for being readmitted into the community after a period of ritual impurity.
The tithes and the first farm products are like annual taxes or membership dues. For the ancient Israelites, there was no separation of temple and state; every citizen was also a member of the religious community and had to help support the religious rituals at the temple. Individuals had to make additional payments to support the rituals for specified situations in their own lives.
I daresay most Israelites were glad to be part of a system that connected them with their God through concrete actions. And sometimes one of them had a religious impulse, and felt moved to pledge an extra donation.
Ancient Israelites could not do this by simply writing a check. In fact, even coins were not invented until the sixth century B.C.E. (A shekel was a measure of weight in silver, rather than a coin.) So the Torah portion Bechukkotai considers four other things that could be donated: a field, a house, part or all of an edible animal, and the erekekha of a person.
The Talmud tractate Arakhin, written during the first few centuries C.E. by rabbis analyzing this passage in the Torah, states that either a man or a woman could make this vow. A person often dedicated his or her own erekekha to the temple in Jerusalem. But someone could also vow to donate the erekekha of any person belonging to him or her at the time—i.e. someone the vower owned and could legally sell. In that era, people could sell their slaves or their own underage sons and daughters.
When someone made the vow, a priest would collect a token pledge. Then sometime later, the vower would come to the temple and fulfill his or her vow by paying the erekekha in silver.
Why donate the equivalent value of a person?
Wouldn’t it be simpler to vow to give a certain weight of silver to the sanctuary? Why bring a person into the equation?
One theory is that the system of erekekha was developed to replace the custom of giving human beings to God, either by sacrificing them at the altar or by dedicating them to service at a temple.
Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient Near East, and is mentioned several times in the Bible. In the book of Judges, an Israelite general named Yiftach (Jephthah in English) vows that if God lets him vanquish the enemy and return safely, he will give God whatever comes out the door of his house by making it a burnt offering. His daughter comes out the door. She is sacrificed.
In the first book of Samuel, Hannah vows that if God lets her have a son, she will give him to God for “all the days of his life”. Once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she brings him to the temple in Shiloh to serve as an assistant to the high priest.
The book of Leviticus, on the other hand, describes the practices of the priests during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem, centuries after the period described in Judges and Samuel. Human sacrifice has been banned, and the priests and Levites who serve at the temple in Jerusalem inherit their positions.
But perhaps some people still made vows that if God would do something extraordinary for them, then they would do something extraordinary for God. And perhaps some people simply wanted to be consecrated to the temple, even though they could not be priests or Levites.
One way to achieve this was to replace the donation of a human being with the donation of the human being’s erekekha in silver.
The time lag between the vow and the delivery of the erekekha is not explained in either the Bible or the Talmud. Perhaps some people felt moved to make an unusual vow before they had saved up enough silver to fulfill it.
Or perhaps the time lag was important because between the time of the vow and the time the silver was delivered, the person whose erekekha was vowed was considered consecrated—marked out as having a holy purpose.
Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made you consecrated to God for a period of time. Unlike a monk or nun (or a nazirite in ancient Israel—see my blog post Naso: Let Down Your Hair), you would continue with your usual life. But the meaning of your life would be different.
Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made your servant or your young child consecrated to God for a period of time.
Why set the value according to age and gender?
The erekekha of a person is not his or her market value. The eight classifications according to age and gender do bear some relation to a person’s ability to perform work; generally speaking, adults between the ages of 20 and 60 can do more work than the very old or the very young, and men can do more literal heavy lifting than women. But the market value of an individual sold as a slave varied according to the person’s physical and mental condition. (Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 2a) The eight assessments for a person’s erekekha disregard any individual strengths or weaknesses.
The assignment of values according to age and gender probably reflects the prejudices of society in the ancient Near East, which was dominated by men who were heads of households. Yet Judith Antonelli, in her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, argues that the lower erekekha for women indicates that the ancient Israelites respected women more than their neighbors did. “…the lower prices for women reflect the Torah’s prohibition of sexual slavery. Where female slaves are officially used for sex as well as for labor—that is, kept in harems as concubines—they are in greater demand than male slaves and thus command a higher price.”
In other words, even slave women had value as persons, not merely as sex objects.
So the amount of each erekekha reflected the realities of an agricultural society in which brawn mattered, free men dominated, and children were possessions. But vowing to pay the erekekha of a woman, child, or old person, meant respecting that person’s value. By consecrating him or her to God for the period of your vow, you were assigning a high value to your slave or your child.
And when you consecrated yourself to God by vowing to pay your own erekekha, you were assigning a high value to your own life.
Today our systems of religious worship are very different. But I wonder if we could devise a new way to consecrate our own life, or the life of someone in our family, for a period of time until we achieve a goal. It would change the way we treated ourselves or the other person. And everyone, of any age and gender, might be worth more.
Tags: kohanim, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, Tzadok, Zadok the Priest
Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, say to them: For the death of someone among his people he shall not become ritually impure; only for the blood-relations closest to him… (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)
kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים) = priests. (Singular: kohein, כֹּהֵן)
Thus this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), opens with instructions from God to the priests on avoiding ritual impurity as much as possible in their personal lives, including who they mourn for and who they marry. The haftarah (the weekly reading from the prophets) comes from the book of Ezekiel, and also warns that a priest must not marry a divorced women, enter a house where there is a corpse, or engage in mourning practices for anyone except his immediate blood relatives.
The details of the two warnings differ, but the general themes are the same, and support the idea that priests must devote themselves completely, body and soul, to the ritual service for God. According to both the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and the book of Ezekiel (Yechezkeil), a requirement for his total devotion to divine service is to avoid various negative conditions as much as possible—both physical conditions (such as contact with a corpse) and psychological conditions (such as the states of mind that arise in mourning, or in dealing with a wife who was divorced by her previous husband).
In the entire Hebrew Bible, priesthood is hereditary. And even today, men whose last name is “Cohen” share a genetic marker. The right genealogy was enough to qualify a man for service as a priest in both the portable sanctuary of Leviticus and the temple of Ezekiel. But both books insist that the priests must also observe certain rules of behavior in order to be “holy” and serve God properly.
The book of Ezekiel was written either by, or about, a man named Ezekiel who was exiled to Babylon, along with other Judahite officials, priests, and craftsmen, after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple in 586 B.C.E. Ezekiel lived in a community of exiles on the Kedar Canal outside the city of Babylon, where he had a series of visions and became a prophet. The haftarah begins in the middle of one of Ezekiel’s visions, shortly after a divine guide has given Ezekiel the measurements for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
And the priests of the Levites [who are] the children of Tzadok, who kept custody of My sanctuary while the children of Israel were straying away from Me, only they shall come close to Me to minister to Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood—declares my lord, God. Only they shall come into My sanctuary, and only they shall come close to My table to minister to Me, and they shall keep My custody. (Ezekiel 44:15-16)
Tzadok (צָדוֹק) = Righteous one. From the same root as tzedek (צֶדֶק) = what is morally right or just.
In the book of Leviticus, all the descendants of Aaron (a man from the tribe of Levi who was the brother of Moses and the first high priest) qualify as priests who can perform the rituals involving incense and animal and grain offerings. Men in the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron are classified as Levites, who assist the priests by transporting the (carefully wrapped) holy objects, and by guarding the portable sanctuary while it is erected. (Singing Levites are not mentioned until the first book of Chronicles.)
Ezekiel says that only the descendants of Tzadok will be priests when the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Tzadok is a tenth or eleventh-generation descendant of Aaron through Aaron’s son Eleazar. He first appears in the second book of Samuel, where King David appoints him as one of two priests in Jerusalem, along with Evyatar. In the first book of Kings, after many adventures, King Solomon fires Evyatar and makes Tzadok the only high priest.
And the king placed Benayahu son of Yehoyada over the army instead of him [Yoav], and Tzadok ha-kohein the king placed instead of Evyatar. (I Kings 2:35)
ha-kohein (הַכֹּהֵן) = the priest; the high priest.
Aaron has numerous descendants; two of his four sons die childless in Leviticus, but the survivors, Eleazar and Itamar, father large dynasties. Why should the priesthood be limited to Tzadok’s branch of the family tree?
A later chapter in the book of Ezekiel explains:
…the holy contribution [of land] for the kohanim: on the north 25,000 [cubits] and on the west 10,000 and on the east 10,000 and on the south 25,000, and the holy place of God will be in its center. The holy place will be for the kohanim [descended] from Tzadok, who kept My custody, who did not stray continually [like] the Children of Israel or like the Levites. (Ezekiel 48:10-11)
Ezekiel implies that during the last years of the first temple in Jerusalem, there were two factions of priests. The Tzadokites stuck to the rules for serving God, but the other priests, as well as the Levites and the non-clergy, kept straying. A vision in chapter 8 of Ezekiel shows some priests as well as some Israelites worshipping other gods right on the temple grounds.
Scholars speculate that Ezekiel himself was a descendant of Tzadok, because his visions and prophecies focus on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and reinstating the traditional priestly rituals. Nothing else is important to him; the presence of God must once again have a home in Jerusalem.
In order to make God’s contact point on earth secure, the Tzadokites must be the only legitimate priests—not because of their lineage, but because they remained true to God and continued the ritual service of the God of Israel. And part of that service, in both the haftarah in Ezekiel and the Torah portion Emor, is maintaining a state of mind compatible with ritual purity.
Despite Ezekiel’s prophecy, non-Tzadokite priests were allowed to serve in the second temple once it was built in 538 B.C.E. But Tzadokites were the high priests of the second temple from the founding priest Ezra until 153 B.C.E., when the Romans appointed Jonathan Maccabaeus as both king and high priest of Judah.
During the past two millennia, since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., almost all Jews have abandoned the idea of reinstating temple worship. Unlike Ezekiel, we do not believe that God needs one particular spot to bring the divine presence to earth.
We have also abandoned the idea of hereditary priesthood, except for a few minor customs. (Cohens get to do special blessings at services, and are supposed to stay out of cemeteries.) Instead of ritually pure technical experts who make temple offerings, we now want spiritual leaders such as rabbis to help us improve our inner selves and our prayers. Many Jews retain some practices having to do with ritual purity, such as keeping kosher. But holiness is now about divine inspiration and ethical behavior.
We can still aspire to be “a kingdom of priests” and priestesses, as Moses predicts in Exodus/Shemot 19:6. We can even aspire to be Tzadok the priest. But today, that means being tzaddikim, people who are righteous and ethical, like Tzadok—“Righteous One”.
Tags: God, holiness, Leviticus, torah portion, Vayikra
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole assembly of the Children of Israel, and say to them: Kedoshim tiheyu, for kadosh [am] I, God, your god. (Leviticus/ Vayikra 19:1-2)
kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = holy; set apart for religious ritual. (plural kedoshim).
tiheyu (תִּהְיוּ) = you shall become, you shall be.
This divine directive, which opens the Torah portion Kedoshim, bundles together three statements:
1) You can, and should, become holy.
2) God, the God of Israel, is holy. (Or God will be holy. English requires a form of the verb “to be” between “holy” and “I” in this sentence, but Hebrew omits it, so we can only guess whether God is holy, or used to be holy, or will be holy.)
3) God’s holiness is related to human holiness.
First, what does it mean for a human being to be holy?
A place is called “holy” in the Hebrew Bible if it is physically close to a manifestation of God. (When Moses stands in front of the Burning Bush, he is standing on holy ground. The Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or temple is where the voice of God manifests.)
Objects (such as incense pans) and days (such as Shabbat) are holy if they are set apart for religious use. The holy status of the high priest of the Israelites is probably due to both his proximity to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and the dedication of his life to service in the sanctuary.
The Torah mentions two other ways human beings can become holy. One way is by always obeying God’s laws and decrees.
This day God, your god, commands you to perform these decrees and the laws, and you must observe and perform them with all your heart and with all your soul. … And God promised to you today you will be Its treasured people … a holy people to God, your god, as It has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)
Another way that a person can become holy is by always acting ethically. In Kedoshim, after telling the Israelites to become holy, God provides a list of general rules of behavior which scholars call the Holiness Code. The opening of the Torah portion is followed by a list of general rules, most of which are about treating other people ethically, from You shall respect your mother and your father (Leviticus:19:3) to You shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
So human beings become holy if they are set apart for religious ritual, if they observe and perform all of God’s laws and decrees, or if they consistently behave according to the ethics laid out in this Torah portion.
What does it mean for the God of Israel to be holy?
The god portrayed in the Bible is not holy in any of the three ways humans become holy. God is not set apart for religious ritual; “He” also interferes in a variety of human affairs, telling people what to do, sending plagues, and frightening armies. God does not obey “His” own laws and decrees, since they are written so they only apply to humans. And the God character in the Torah violates at least two of the ethical imperatives in the Holiness Code.
You shall not do injustice in judgement … (Leviticus 19:15)
The God character often makes a judgement in anger and then wipes out the innocent with the guilty. For example, “He” floods the earth and kills every human being except for Noah’s immediate family—deliberately drowning thousands of innocent children. Another example is when God is responsible for killing all of Job’s children and afflicting him with horrible diseases—just in order to find out what Job will do.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall certainly reprove your fellow person and …you shall not take vengeance. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
In other words, when someone’s behavior angers you, you must give that person an opportunity to repent, rather than lashing back in revenge. But in the Torah, God is often keen on vengeance. For example, in the poem at the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God vows:
When I whet the lightning of My sword
And my hand seizes it with judgement
I will give back vengeance to My adversary
And My hated enemy I will repay. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:41)
In later parts of the Hebrew Bible, God becomes more ethical. A shining example is the book of Jonah, in which God rescues Jonah from drowning even though he has refused to obey God’s order to go to Nineveh, makes sure Jonah reproves the inhabitants of Nineveh so they have an opportunity to repent, withholds vengeance against them when they do repent, and reproves the refractory Jonah with a lesson in compassion.
The directive at the opening of Kedoshim is usually translated:
You shall be holy, for I, God, your god, am holy.
But maybe we should translate it this way:
You shall become holy, for I, God, your god, will become holy.
Another way to explain the difference between human holiness and divine holiness is to note that God in the Bible seems to be holy by definition; anything pertaining to God is, or ought to be, holy.
One of the names of God is Ha-kaddosh, “the holy one”. In the Prophets, God’s holiness appears to refer to a numinous experience of the divine beyond our ordinary perceptions.
In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my Lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace. Serafim are standing up above him, six wings, six wings to each: with a pair it covers its face and with a pair it covers its feet and with a pair it flies. And it would call, one to another, and say: “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts! Its glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
How is God’s holiness related to human holiness?
Nevertheless, there must be some relationship between God’s holiness and human holiness, or the opening directive in Kedoshim would not instruct us to become holy because God is holy.
In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates humankind “in God’s image”. Even the primeval adam, human, seems to lack most of God’s traits, but he-she can speak and name things, has the potential to make new objects, and has the potential to acquire knowledge of good and bad—like God. Before they can actually make things or distinguish between good and bad, humans have to spend time learning and thinking.
I think that humankind also has the potential to become holy like God. The first stage is to learn how to serve the divine and how to behave ethically. Next we must dedicate ourselves to a divine purpose and to always striving to do the right thing. After that comes practice. I have met a few people who had practiced for a long time, and to me they seemed to embody holiness. I could sense it just by being in their presence—the way someone who beheld God might be moved to sing out Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Tags: Bereishit, brit milah, circumcision, covenant of Abraham, Genesis, Leviticus, torah portion, Vayikra
The ancient Israelites did not invent circumcision. It was practiced in Egypt even before 2400 B.C.E.. Biblical references indicate that although some tribes living in the ancient Near East did not practice circumcision, the Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites did.
However, all of these peoples circumcised boys either at puberty or in preparation for marriage. The Israelites were unique in circumcising their males at the age of only eight days.
The first time the Torah mentions circumcision, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, from infants to old men. (Abraham himself is 100 at the time.) Then God declares:
U-nemaltem the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the brit between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you yimmol, throughout your generations… (Genesis/Bereishit 17:11-12)
u-nemaltem (וּנְמַלְתֶּם) = And you shall be circumcised.
brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, treaty, pact.
yimmol (יִמּוֹל) = he/it shall be circumcised.
Why does the Torah change the age of circumcision to eight days, and make it part of a covenant with God?
In Biblical Hebrew, the idiom for formalizing a covenant is “cutting” it, not sealing or signing it. One method of concluding a covenant in the ancient Near East was to cut one or more animals in half and walk between the pieces. (See my blog post Lekh-Lekha: Cutting a Covenant.) If you wanted a more impressive and lifelong covenant, what could you cut?
The directions for Abraham to cut a covenant with God by circumcising all the males in his household conclude:
A foreskinned male, one who has not yimmol the flesh of his foreskin: that soul shall be cut off from its people; my brit he has broken. (Genesis 17:14)
Ironically, this leaves male Israelites with a choice between two kinds of cuts: cut off the foreskin, or be cut off from your people.
In fact, only a convert gets to make a personal choice. Fathers in the Torah have their eight-day-old sons circumcised, and household heads have their newly-acquired male slaves circumcised, without their consent.
Circumcision on the eighth day is mentioned again in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”). At first glance, it appears to be a gratuitous aside in a passage about how long after childbirth a woman is ritually impure and must stay away from public worship:
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of menstrual flow of her menstruation she is ritually impure. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:1-2)
On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin yimmol. (Leviticus 12:3)
And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of ritual purification; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her ritual purification are completed. (Leviticus 12:4)
In 1517 C.E., Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote: “If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision … this is not the right place! Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision is holy and pure—why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a kohen into a graveyard?”
Why does the Torah bring up circumcision in this context?
The obvious connection is that two things happen on the eighth day after a boy is born: the son is circumcised, and the mother transitions from one state of ritual impurity to another. For the first seven days after the birth of as son (while her blood flow is like that of menstruation) the mother’s bedding and anything she sits on is considered “impure”; anyone who touches these things must immerse himself and his garments in water, and refrain entering the sanctuary or temple the rest of the day. The mother herself must abstain from sexual intercourse as well as from going to the sanctuary.
On the eighth day after a boy is born, the places where the mother lies and sits are no longer ritually impure, and she may have intercourse again. But she still may not come to the sanctuary or touch objects used in the sanctuary until 40 days after her son is born. Then she immerses herself in water and brings two sacrificial birds to the priest at the entrance of the sanctuary. These acts return her to her former state of ritual purity and reintegrate her into public worship.
According to 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, even the blood that nourishes an infant in the womb counts as menstrual blood, and it takes seven days after the umbilical cord is cut for a son to become ritually pure from his mother’s blood. He cannot be circumcised until he is ritually pure.
But I doubt that this is the reason the Torah calls for circumcision on the eighth day. After all, the Torah does not require immersion or animal sacrifices on behalf of the infant. Instead, a son’s circumcision is a religious promotion, turning him into an Israelite dedicated to God through the brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision”, as it came to be known in the Talmud.
milah (מִילָה) = circumcision (a noun in post-Biblical Hebrew, derived from the Biblical Hebrew noun mulah, מוּלָה).
Other commentary points out the connection between the circumcision of an Israelite boy and the sacrifice or a calf, lamb, or kid. In two places, Exodus/Shemot 22:29 and Leviticus/Vayikra 22:27, the Torah says herd and flock animals must stay with their mothers for the first seven days after they are born. On the eighth day, they can be brought to the altar as an offering to God.
According to the Zohar (written in the 13th century by the Kabbalist rabbi Moses de Leon) the drop of blood from a circumcision brings atonement to the father—just as an animal sacrifice brings atonement to the man who offers the animal.
The custom of circumcision faded among most Near Eastern peoples as the uncircumcised Greeks became dominant. Many Semitic tribes began imitating the Greeks even before they were conquered by the Seleucid Empire in the fourth century B.C.E. Circumcision continued only among some Egyptians and Arabs, and Jews. The ruling classes—first Greeks, then Romans, and then Catholics—identified Jews in the Near East and Europe by their circumcisions.
The practice of circumcision did not spread to non-Jewish Westerners until the early 20th century. Today the pendulum of public opinion is swinging against circumcision again. Yet even Jewish atheists commonly circumcise their sons on the eighth day. Even if they do not believe in a covenant with God, they still believe in a covenant between their own family and the rest of the Jewish people.
I was not a Jew when my son was born, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have immersed myself in a mikveh 40 days later. To me, the categories of ritually pure and impure are merely historical.
But when I converted to Judaism, I had my two-year-old son circumcised. Was I dedicating him to the God of Israel? Not really; I expected he would make his own decisions about religion when he came of age. I did want him to fit in with other Jewish boys. And I did want him to at least grow up as Jew, as a member of the people whose religion I had dedicated myself to. Thus, in a roundabout way, my son’s circumcision was part of my own covenant with the God of Israel.
One way or another, the tradition continues.
Tags: Leviticus, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, wine
In this week’s portion, Shemini (Eighth), Aaron and his four sons complete the eighth day of their ordination as priests by presenting an animal offering at the new altar. God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes everything on the altar, and all the people shout with joy and bow down to the ground. Then Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes them. (See my earlier post, Shemini: Strange Fire.)
Moses gives instructions regarding removing the bodies and mourning. Then God tells Aaron:
Wine or sheikhar do not drink, you or your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die—a decree forever for your generations—and to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually -pure; and to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that God, your god, has spoken through Moses. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9-11)
sheikhar (שֵׁכָר) = strong drink. (From the root verb shakhar, שׁכר = was drunk, became intoxicated.)
Sheikhar is not liquor or fortified wine, since distilling was not inventing until the fourth century B.C.E. The alcoholic drinks available to the ancient Israelites were wine from grapes, wine from other fruits, and beer from grain. Judging by other Biblical passages containing the word sheikhar, the word might mean any of these fermented drinks, if they happened to be especially strong.
The Torah distinguishes between new wine, chemer (חֶמֶר), and old wine, called shemer (שֶׁמֶר) or sheikhar. New wine has only progressed through the first stage of fermentation; old wine has fermented for at least 40 days (according to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a) and has more alcoholic content. (The Torah also refers to both new and old wine as yayin (יַיִן), which simply means “wine”.)
Does God give Aaron the injunction above shortly after Nadav and Avihu’s fatal error because they were drunk when they brought the unauthorized incense? The commentary is divided. Either way, God states the reason why priests must not drink on duty: alcohol decreases reasoning and discernment, and therefore would interfere with several of the priests’ duties: judging whether something is holy, judging whether something or someone is ritually pure, and teaching the laws correctly.
However, the Torah does not banish wine altogether from the sanctuary or temple. Priests are required to give offerings of wine to God, poured out as libations on the altar. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar even specifies strong wine for God:
And you shall say to them: This is the fire-offering you shall bring close to Hashem: male yearling lambs, unblemished, a pair for the day, as a perpetual rising-offering. The one male lamb you shall do in the morning, and the second male lamb you shall do in the evening. … And he shall pour out a fourth of a hin for the one male lamb, on the holy place, to provide a libation, a drink-offering of sheikhar for Hashem. (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:3-4, 7)
During the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, the wine libation was poured into a silver bowl with a hole in the bottom, located near the southwest corner of the altar. The wine flowed down through the hole and continued through the altar into the ground underneath. The wine of a libation had to be be entirely poured out; Jews did not follow the Greek practice of pouring a libation and then drinking the rest of the wine.
On the other hand, it was acceptable for non-priestly worshipers to drink their own wine in front of the sanctuary.
You must definitely tithe all the yield of your planting, what comes out of the field, year by year. And you shall eat in front of God, your god … so that you will learn to be in awe of God, your god, all the time. And if the road is too long for you … Then you shall give silver, and you shall bundle up the silver in your hand, and you shall go to the place that God, your god, will choose. And you may give the silver for what your nefesh craves: cattle, or sheep, or wine, or sheikhar, or anything that your nefesh asks you for. And you shall eat it there in front of God, your god, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:22-26)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; the soul that animates the body.
Here the Torah seems to approve of imbibing (as well as feasting) as an aid to feeling both joy and awe when serving God. Yet in the first book of Samuel/Shmuel, the high priest Eli criticizes Hannah for coming to the temple when she is, apparently, drunk.
And Channah, she was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. And Eli considered her leshikorah. And Eli said to her: How long will you go on making yourself drunk? Remove your wine from over yourself!
But Channah replied, and she said: No, my lord, I am a woman of heavy spirit, and I have not drunk wine nor sheikhar, but I have poured out my nefesh before God. (1 Samuel 13-15)
leshikorah (לְשִׁכּוֹרָה) = to be drunk.
By pouring out her soul before God, Channah is, in effect, making her own libation offering. And she is dedicating something stronger than old wine.
Perhaps the priests must avoid drinking at the sanctuary not only to keep their minds sharp, but also to serve God with appropriate levels of joy and awe, avoiding emotional excess. Their libation offerings could be interpreted as pouring out their own emotionality, emptying themselves in order to become holy vessels for their work.
When I lead prayer services, the people in front of me seem to find more comfort, or insight, or elevation, when I manage to step away from the emotions that I walked in with, but retain my rational alertness. At those times, I find myself empty and available for inspiration, yet also able to notice when I need to change the volume or tempo of a song, to skip something I had planned, to say something different, to invite comment or to move back into song.
If only I could do that every time!
Next time, I will imagine pouring out all my sheikhar, my old, strong wine, in a libation to God before the service begins. Then maybe I can be both clear and clear-headed in the sanctuary that it is my duty to help create.
Tags: Exodus, matzot, Passover, Pesach, torah portion
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:
* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.
* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food. This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.
* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.
Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.
Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn. Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.
Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:
The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt. The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.
I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing. If the normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house. Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour? The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.
Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:
Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz. Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.
Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays. Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year. Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.
But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.
In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.
Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person. He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.
Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence. Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):
Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.
By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses. We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.
That is as far as Hirsch went. But I wonder: Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine? What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?
During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah. We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.
But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.
But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.
The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel. By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week. That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.
So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.
May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.
Tags: fire offerings, leavened, Leviticus, matzot, minchah, prayer, todah, torah portion, unleavened
If you mix flour and water, spread it flat, and slap it in the oven at once, what comes out is a matzah (plural: matzot): “unleavened bread” that is really a large, bland cracker.
If you mix flour and water and let the mixture sit indoors for six to nine days, adding more flour and water each day, you get frothy sourdough starter, thanks to the activity of wild yeast—invisible microorganisms that cover everything, even flour. Add more flour to the starter, spend a day kneading it, shaping it, and letting it rise twice, and put the balls of dough in the oven. What comes out is chameitz: loaves of leavened bread. To get from flour and water to loaves of sourdough bread takes at least seven days.
The difference between matzot and chameitz is critical in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), and even more critical in the Torah readings for the following two weeks, during the holiday of Passover/Pesach.
The Torah first mentions matzot in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, when Abraham’s nephew Lot meets two strangers in the town square of Sodom and invites them home.
He urged them very much, so they turned aside to him and came into his house. And he prepared food and drink, and he baked matzot, and they ate. (Genesis/Berieshit19:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = (plural) unleavened “bread”.
Lot’s wife is not involved in this act of hospitality. Lot himself, who may not even know whether she has dough rising somewhere, simply mixes flour and water and spreads it on the hot inner surface of the oven, so that at least his guests will have crackers to eat with their meal.
The first mention of chameitz in the Torah is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God tells Moses what the Israelites should eat during the night of the final plague in Egypt, in preparation for the exodus the next morning. They must eat their meat roasted (the fastest way to cook it) and their bread as matzot (the fastest way to bake it). And every year after that, they must remember the event with matzot:
Seven days you shall eat matzot; but on the first day you shall eliminate se-or from your houses, because anyone who eats chameitz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel—from the first day to the seventh day. (Exodus/Shemot 12:15)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = leavening agent, sourdough starter.
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
The Torah forbids the people of Israel to eat or own leavened bread during Passover. It also says that leavened bread must never be burned on the altar for God. But this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives directions for two kinds of offerings that include matzot burned on the altar: the grain offering and the thanksgiving offering.
And this is the teaching of the minchah: Sons of Aaron, bring it close before God, to the front of the altar. Then (one) shall elevate his handful: some of the fine flour of the minchah and some of its oil and all of its frankincense. Then he shall make it go up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma, a memorial portion for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:8)
minchah (מִנְחָה) = grain offering; tribute or gift to express respect and allegiance.
The loose flour sprinkled with oil and frankincense can be burned on the altar because it is dry, and therefore unleavened.
A similar rule applies to the thanksgiving offering, which is made by someone who has emerged safely from a dangerous or oppressive situation. This type of offering includes both meat and grain products, and is divided into three portions: one to burn up on the altar for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat.
And this is the teaching of the slaughtered-animal of the wholeness-offering that is brought close to God: If as a todah he brings it close, then he shall bring close along with the slaughtered-animal of todah [the following]: round bread of matzot mixed with oil, and thin matzot sprinkled with oil, and fine flour loaves soaked through with oil, along with loaves of chameitz bread. He shall bring close his offering: along with the slaughtered-animal, his whole todah. (Leviticus 7:11-13)
todah (תּוֹדָה) = thanks; thanksgiving offering (one category of shelamim = wholeness-offering).
In other words, the donor brings animals for slaughter, three kinds of matzot, and loaves of leavened bread. Portions of the animals and the matzot are burned on the altar. The officiating priest gets one of each kind of item (including a loaf of chameitz). The rest of the food, including the chameitz, is eaten by the donor and his guests.
Once again, matzot are considered more “holy” than chameitz.
In the first century C.E., Philo of Alexandria wrote that leaven is forbidden on the altar because it makes dough rise, and nobody should be inflated and puffed up by arrogance or insolence in front of God.
In the 19th century C.E., Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that chameitz stands for independence, and matzot for dependence. In a thanksgiving offering, Hirsch wrote, the chameitz represents the donor’s well-being and independence in the world. The matzot acknowledges that he regained his worldly independence only through God, upon whom he is always dependent.
As a modern Jew, I am happy to offer prayers and blessings as my tribute (minchah) and my thanks (todah) to the divine. But when I am addressing God, I do not want to waste my time begging a parent-figure to give me what my inflated ego wants. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of humility, like tribute to a king, like matzot in a minchah offering.
I also want to give thanks for the amazing and wonderful universe I live in, knowing that I and the rest of the universe exist only because of forces I cannot imagine or control. I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of dependence and appreciation, like giving thanks, like the matzot in a todah offering.
And while I’m at it, I want to express my gratitude for life by sharing my food with others, like the donor of a todah. One of the things I want to share is some chameitz, some lovely leavened bread that stands for my joy over the small sphere of independence and power I have been given.
(Next week, check my blog for Tzav & Pesach: Unleavened, Part 2, which will discuss how ideas about leavened versus unleavened bread apply to the holiday of Passover.)
Tags: God, Leviticus, Masoretic text, torah portion, Vayikra
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)
vayikra (וַיִּקְרא) = and he/It called, proclaimed, summoned; and he/It met.
The book of Leviticus and its first Torah portion are called Vayikra, the opening word. In Hebrew, the word looks different here than in any other place in the Bible, because of the size of the last letter:
Early copies of the Torah had no diminutive letters. But when the Masoretes wrote their definitive 9th-10th century versions of the Torah, they spelled 28 words with small letters, including Vayikra with a small alef, and the word has appeared that way ever since.
Torah scrolls omit the vowels that the Masoretes added to the text, but keep the Masoretic diminutive letters. So in a Torah scroll, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:
Most of the Masoretic additions to the text of the Hebrew Bible make it easier for someone to read (or chant) the Bible out loud. The nikkudim (marks above, below, and inside letters to indicate vowels and doubled consonants) clarify pronunciation. The trope (cantillation marks above and below letters) indicate which syllables to accent, and which melodic phrases to use for chanting. With both kinds of markings, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:
There are also places where the Masoretic text gives two versions of a word, one (ketiv) in its original spelling (an actual word, but probably a scribal error), and one (kere) in a spelling that makes sense in context.
But the 28 words with diminutive letters would be spoken or chanted the same way regardless of the size of their letters. Why did the Masoretes use small letters?
Some versions of 10th century Masoretic texts include marginal notes, and at least six of these notes on small letters say (in a rough translation of the Aramaic) “small [name of letter] to state the accepted version”. The footnotes for at least four more just say “small” (ze-ira), probably an abbreviation of the note that the letter is small to indicate the accepted version.
In other words, in the versions of the text that the Masoretes found unacceptable, the words were spelled with the controversial letters omitted. For example, the first word of Leviticus was spelled ויקר.
In the accepted version of the text, the words were spelled with the controversial letters included. Vayikra was spelled ויקרא. The Masoretes spelled these words according to the “accepted” version—but they made the controversial letters undersized to document that they were missing in some Torah scrolls.
Out of the 28 words with diminutive letters, seven are proper names, and ten are not even Hebrew words without the small letter. So only eleven of the words might mean something different if the diminutive letter were omitted. And one of these is vayikra, the first word of this week’s Torah portion.
Without the alef (א) at the end, vayikra (וַיִּקְרא = and he/it called, summoned, met, encountered) would be vayiker (וַיִּקֶר = and he/it happened to, befell). The opening sentence would read: And It happened to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.
God “happens to” (וַיִּקֶר) the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam in Numbers/Bemidbar 23:3. God tells Bilam what to do, and then when it is time for him to utter a curse or blessing, God puts the words into Bilam’s mouth. It is a one-way relationship.
But the prophet Moses has a two-way relationship with God. They have long conversations, and sometimes argue with one another. So God wants to get Moses’ attention, God “meets” him or “calls” to him.
In an earlier post, Vayikra: A Voice is Calling, I mentioned that God “called” Moses three times, the first two times from Mount Sinai, and the third time (with the diminutive alef) from the Tent of Meeting. I cited commentary in Rashi and the Zohar that the miniature alef indicates a restriction or muting of the call, and suggested that God switched to an “indoor voice” when the people switched to connecting with God through the vehicle of the sanctuary tent.
This year, I’d like to add that whether you encounter God in a sanctuary, or anywhere else in your life, there are two kinds of encounters. Sometimes a mystical experience just happens to you. If you are like Bilam, your mind is wired in such a way that it happens relatively often.
The other kind of encounter begins when you merely notice the possibility of the numinous—as Moses noticed the bush that burned but was not consumed. You stop and pay attention, and try to figure out what is going on. If you are quiet enough, you may discover that the divine is calling you—as God called to Moses in the first portion of Exodus:
God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him from amidst the bush, and It said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus/Shemot 3:4)
18th-century rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or ‘Eynayim , “God the cosmic aleph is present in miniature form within each Israelite, calling us to return. These are our pangs of conscience, but we do not perceive them as God’s own call to us.” (Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, p. 250.)
Thus a conversation with the divine voice could be a much quieter affair than when God “happens” to someone.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God calls Moses with a small alef. Then Moses realizes that completing the Tent of Meeting according to God’s specifications is not the end of his work. Even though God’s radiance has filled the sanctuary, Moses hears the divine inner voice urging him to go back into the Tent of Meeting for further instructions.
May all of us learn how to be still, pay attention, and listen for the call inside ourselves.