Tags: holy of holies, Tent of Meeting, torah portion, Vayikra
There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.
The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)
vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).
This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?
One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4
Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.
Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested on it the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place. (Exodus 40:35)
Moses is not willing to try again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5 The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6
A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.
Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7 No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.
The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8
The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.
From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.
What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice? I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God. In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9
The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10 Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom. The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive. Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.
But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?) In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar. Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.
Everyone is involved in serving God. But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.
Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top. People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe. Those experiences are precious. But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life. After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them? Is anyone today like Moses?
When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people. We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform. We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.
If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God. We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)
1 And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus 3:4).
2 And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob… (Exodus 19:2-3)
3 And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain. And Moses went up. (Exodus 19:20)
4 Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud. Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.
5 “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)
6 And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)
7 During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).
8 Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.
9 Exodus 19:16-19.
10 Exodus 20:15-18.
Tags: book of Isaiah, book of Jeremiah, haftarah, idol worship, Leviticus, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, Vayikra
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.
The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.
The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.
The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below. The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.
Yotzeir of an idol—
All of them are emptiness;
And what they crave
Cannot be useful. (Isaiah 44:9)
yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.
Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.
Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:
And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)
The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.
Thus said God, king of Israel
And its redeemer, God of Armies:
I am first and I am last
And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)
The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.
And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)
And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)
But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.
The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:
I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion
And like a cloud your transgressions.
Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)
How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?
This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.
Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)
Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.
This people yatzarti for Myself:
My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)
yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)
Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.
But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.
We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.
A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.
But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.
Tags: God, Leviticus, Masoretic text, torah portion, Vayikra
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
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.
Making a fire-offering in front of the Israelite sanctuary was nothing like lighting a candle at a pretty home altar. For every type of fire-offering except the grain-based minchah, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the donor must bring an animal, lay hands on its head, then watch the priests slaughter and butcher it, sprinkle the blood, and burn all or part of it on the communal altar to generate smoke for God’s pleasure.
Killing and burning animals may have been spiritually moving to the ancient Israelites, but today we can apply their categories of offerings to a more ethical set of procedures. Last week I suggested new meanings for fire-offerings in general, as well as for the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.)
In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the other five types of fire-offerings are:
2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect. (Minchah offerings are made out of grain.)
A person who offers a minchah for God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it …and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God. (Leviticus 2:1-2)
When I burn part of my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm. But before I eat bread, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it. The blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.
3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering. (From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace.)
If he offers it as thanks … then he shall offer from each one, out of the whole offering, a gift to God; it shall belong to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the shelamim. And if the slaughtered animal of his offering is for a pledge or a donation … (Leviticus 7:12-16)
The animals and grain products in the shelamim were divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence.
When we give thanks today, we often thank the people who helped us (even though they did not sprinkle blood). We add a tangible gift or a donation for more generous thanks. And every time we make a donation, we add to the world’s supply of generosity—which brings more wholeness and holiness into the world.
4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering. (From the root chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)
If one person from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the commandments of God that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—if the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering … and the priest shall make reconciliation for him and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27-31)
What can we do today when we realize, after the fact, that we did something wrong? When I inadvertently violate a practice I have set for myself (for example, when I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and discover bacon in my mouth), I rectify the error to the extent that I can, and say a short prayer for discernment. For me, that is sufficient reconciliation with the divine inside me.
But when I realize I did something that hurt another person, I have to do something harder in order to reconcile both my conscience and the person I wronged. I have to find a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize. Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them. If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego. Then I ask what I can do to make up for what I did. If the other person says “nothing”, but still seems hurt, I make a suggestion. When we have agreed on reparations, I perform them. Only then can I be forgiven, both by the other person and by myself.
5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering. (From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)
If a person offends and betrays God’s trust and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth … And he shall bring his asham to God … And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for anything that he does to become guilty. (Leviticus 5:21-26)
Today we have many reasons to pass a guilty verdict on ourselves, including the reasons listed above. The Torah says that when we become guilty, in order to be forgiven we must make reparations to the person we have wronged, and also bring an asham, a guilt-offering, to God.
I think we need an updated version of the asham in order to forgive ourselves. When you have made reparations, and you still feel guilty, what ritual can you perform to clear yourself? For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor. For others, the answer might be to conduct a ritual that includes washing with water and saying prayers borrowed from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.
6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering. (From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill. Filling someone’s hands meant ordaining someone as a priest.)
Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. (Leviticus 8:22)
The milu-im appears to apply only to people ordained as clergy. But if our goal is to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give ordination-offerings whenever our hands are filled up—whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.
What can we give today in return for this authority? Humble service, regular prayers that we might be worthy, and the grace to step down again at the right time.
When the ancient Israelites wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, they could come to the altar and follow the established rituals. They knew what to do, and probably the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive for them.
Today we have to think harder about our practices. Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts. We can rise higher (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).
Let’s keep on giving our own offerings! And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.
Tags: fire offerings, Leviticus, torah portion
Every year, when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, my teeth clench. The first two Torah portions (Vayikra—“And It Called”, and Tzav—“Command”) consist of rules about offerings at the altar. And most of these offerings involve bringing forward a living animal, laying a hand on its head, and then slitting its throat, sprinkling blood, butchering it, and waving around or burning various pieces.
This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 18 years ago because they are too much like human beings.
The Torah teaches that we should not offer human beings at the altar, only animals and grain. But the instructions for offering a mammal always include laying hands on the animal’s head before it is slaughtered. This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so killing and offering it is like sacrificing oneself for God.
For the ancient Israelites, domesticated mammals and birds had economic value. That made them suitable gifts for God. But what use would God have for a dead animal? In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animals are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent pleases God. When the priests or the donors eat other portions of the animal, they are partaking in the holiness of the sacrifice.
I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed. I am also grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar. But what we can give to God instead?
The portions Vayikra and Tzav lay out the procedures for six kinds of gifts to God. For all six, at least part of the gift is a fire-offering, burned on the altar. The first type of fire-offering the Torah discusses is the rising-offering.
…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)
olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up.
isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)
For the ancient Israelites, fire was not just the way to cook meat and make smoke. God manifested as something that looked like fire. And Biblical Hebrew, like English, used words like “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate consuming emotions such as anger.
Today, we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating with a specific intention about passion. If our passions about spiritual matters are easily inflamed, we might imagine offering our emotionality on the altar to burn itself out. We might visualize the smoke rising and dissipating into a clear, calm sky. Then we can be at rest with the divine.
If passion seems to be lacking in our search for God, we might imagine feeding the fire on the altar through our words or breath, so that the sparks of our buried feelings can become flames and rise like smoke.
The first type of offering in Leviticus, the olah, was the only one which stayed on the altar fire all night, until it was completely burned up into smoke.
Today, if we want our souls to keep rising up toward the divine, day and night, we have to keep tending the fire of our desire to make the most of our lives. The last thing we need is a wet blanket.
I have often smothered my own fire with a wet blanket of repetitive worrying. I am training myself to notice when the dripping edge of my blanket flops down again, so I can flip it away from the embers. For me, a good intervention is to sing a prayer or chant. It’s even better if I walk around the block while I am singing. After my mood has risen higher, I can have a better conversation with myself.
Next week I will look at the other five types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.
Humans tend to bring gifts to their gods. They have done it all over the world, from the beginning of history. In the Torah, the first human to offer a gift to God is Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve … and God rejects his offering. Religions help people to avoid the fear of being rejected by their gods by spelling out what gifts are and are not acceptable.
The first part of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (And It Called) is devoted to instructions about offerings for the altar. What kinds of animal and grain offerings will be acceptable to God? The first Torah portion begins by considering animals for burned offerings.
If one brings an olah from the herd, he shall bring an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the opening of the Tent of Meeting, liretzono before God. And he shall lean his hand upon the head of the olah, and it will be nirtzah for him, to atone for him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:3-4)
olah = an offering that is completely burned, so its smoke will rise to the heavens
liretzono = to be accepted for him
nirtzah = favorably received, acceptable, counted as good (from the same root as liretzono, רצה)
After an initial review of animal offerings, the Torah gives particulars about the minchah offering: a gift of homage to God, made from grain. (See my blog post “Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver”.) Embedded in the minchah instructions is a ban on any leavening or sweetener in a burned offering:
Every homage that you bring to God you shall make without chameitz; for you shall not bring any sourdough or any devash into an offering by fire to God. (Leviticus 2:11)
chameitz = leavened bread, fermented food
devash = syrup, bee honey, fruit nectar
Leavened loaves of bread can only be brought to the sanctuary for the priests and their families to eat; they must not be burned on the altar. Fruit syrup or jam can only be brought at the annual festival of first fruits, Shavuot, and the fruit preserves were also eaten by the priests.
Why are leavened bread and syrup are banned from burned offerings? Philo of Alexandria, who lived 2,000 years ago, began a long line of Jewish commentatary comparing bread rising to a human puffing up with self-importance—the opposite of the humility needed to pay homage to God. Another view stresses the instruction in the book of Exodus/Shemot to eat unleavened matzah on Passover/Pesach in order to remember that the Israelites did not have time to let their dough leaven before escaping Egypt. Since matzah is “the bread of our affliction”, the Israelites presumably did not have time to watch bread rise during their years of slavery, either. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphel Hirsch, leavened bread therefore represents political independence, which the Israelites achieved not by their own efforts, but only by following God’s Torah. Fruit syrup represents ownership of land where dates and other fruit trees grow naturally—another gift from God. Hirsch argued that an acceptable offering to God could only be something that the Israelites had acquired by their own efforts. (Presumably the Israelites put a lot of their own labor into making flour and tending their animals.)
I am not persuaded by either Philo or Hirsch. I suspect that the key lies in the way the ancient Israelites viewed leavening. For modern Americans, leavened bread is sweet and yeasty, and sourdough bread is an interesting variation. But the ancient Israelites had only sourdough leavening, and their word for leavened bread, chameitz, comes from the same root as the word for vinegar, chometz. In Biblical Hebrew, when something leavens or ferments itself, yitchameitz, it turns sour and sharp, whether it is flour becoming sourdough bread or grape juice becoming vinegar.
An offering that is going to straight up to God in smoke should not be sour. If we give ourselves to God in a sour mood, our offering will not be accepted.
Nor should an offering sent straight to God be sweetened, as if the donor wanted to make it more palatable to God. If we try to sweet-talk our way into God’s favor, or to adopt a sweetness that we do not feel inside, our offering will not be accepted.
After banning leaven and syrup in burned offerings, the Torah says that all offerings to God must be salted:
Every offering of your homage you shall salt with salt; you may not omit the melach of the brit of your God from your homage. You shall put melach on every offering of yours. (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:13)
melach = salt
brit = covenant, pact, alliance
Why is salt required for acceptance? Salt was not a rare commodity in Canaan; the Israelites used to quarry rock salt near the Dead Sea, which the Hebrew Bible calls the Sea of Salt. The salt quarries between that sea and the city of Sodom may be the “Valley of Salt”, the site of at least two battles in the Hebrew Bible. When God annahilates Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and becomes a pillar of salt (one of many strange salt formations left by the evaporation of the Dead Sea). In Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses warns that when the Israelites worship idols in the future, God will destroy their land, and visitors will compare its barrenness to burning with sulfur and salt.
Yet the proper care of a newborn infant included bathing it in water and rubbing it with salt, according to the book of Ezekiel/Yechezkeil; and the prophet Elisha “heals” a contaminated spring with a dish of salt in 2 Kings/Melakhim. Salt is both a preservative and a condiment for food. Thus the Hebrew Bible associates salt with both death and life.
This week’s Torah portion refers to salt as a form of covenant. A covenant of salt also shows up in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. After disposing of Korach’s threat to the rights of priests, God tells the high priest Aaron:
All holy upraised offerings that the children of Israel raise up to God, I give to you and to your sons and to your daughters with you, as a decree forever; it will be a brit melach forever; it is before God for you and your offspring with you. (Numbers/Bemidbar 18:19)
And in the second book of Chronicles, Aviyah, king of Judah, says:
Listen to me, Yaravam and all Israel! Don’t you know that God, the god of Israel, gave kingship to David over Israel forever, to him and to his sons, a brit melach? (2 Chronicles/2 Divrei Hayamim 13:4-5)
Salt apparently makes a covenant especially unbreakable and long-lasting. Many commentators attribute this to the fact that salt was the main preservative used by the Israelites. But salt was also their universal seasoning, set on the table for every meal. Eating a man’s salt was an idiom for being either his friend or his dependent. So a covenant of salt might imply not only durability, but also dependence or even friendship.
Now that we reach out to God by praying instead of by burning animals and matzah, we can apply the ideas in Leviticus about leaven, syrup, and salt in a more subtle way. All too often, when we stand before other people, we have to paste on a sweet smile. But when we stand before God, we need to abandon any false sweetness, as well as the pride and the sourness implied by leavening. And we need to be serious about life and death, offering our whole selves, and acknowledging that we all eat our salt at God’s table.
Imagine you own nothing. You are homeless, penniless, hungry. Then someone gives you a farm with good soil, crops in the ground, and seeds. All you have to do is work the farm and trade your harvest for everything else you need. The farm still belongs to your benefactor, but he or she lends it to you rent-free for your lifetime, and you can even pass it on to your children.
As soon as begin to feel secure, you are moved to thank the farm’s actual owner. So you send your benefactor a nice selection of its produce. Maybe you also include a loaf baked from the wheat you have grown. It’s the best you can do to express your gratitude, and perhaps your humility.
This is how I imagine ancient peoples felt when they made sacrifices to their gods. They knew their lives depended on the gifts of rain, sun, and soil, as well as the plants and animals that were already in the world before humans came along. People wanted to recognize this by making a formal expression of humble gratitude, a gift to pay homage. But how could they deliver their gift? Some cultures made idols for their gods to inhabit, and set their gifts in front of the idols. But the ancient Israelites shunned idols. Until they built the sanctuary for God to dwell in, the only address they knew for God was “the heavens”. So they built altars, laid offerings on them, and burned them, sending the smoke up to the sky. It was the best they could do.
The first offering to God in the Torah is Cain’s.
And it happened, at the end of a period of time, that Cain brought from the fruit of the ground a minchah for God. And Abel, he also brought, from the firstborns of his his flock and from their fat … (Genesis/Bereishit 4:3-4)
minchah = gift to a superior, homage, tribute, offering to a god
The Torah does not say whether Cain and Abel built altars and burned their offerings. But it is clear that the first offering to God is Cain’s minchah, consisting of the fruits of his harvest. Abel follows his brother’s lead by offering animals from his flock to God, and the Torah also calls this offering a minchah.
The rest of the offerings mentioned in the first two books of the Torah, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, all appear to be animals, and none of them is called a minchah. That word is used again a few times in Genesis, but only for gifts from one human to another. Jacob gives a minchah to his estranged brother Esau to butter him up, and Joseph’s brothers bring a minchah to him when he is the viceroy of Egypt, for the same purpose. The Torah uses other Hebrew words for animal offerings. The standard procedure in Genesis, starting with Noah, seems to be building an altar out of stones, laying firewood on it, slaughtering the animal, and burning it.
In the book of Exodus, the instructions for offerings to inaugurate the sanctuary include the word minchah three times, and all three refer to an offering that is neither an animal sacrifice nor a libation. Are we returning to Cain’s vegetable offering? The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra answers with a technical definition of the proper types of minchah:
And a soul who would bring near an offering of minchah (homage) to God, his offering shall be wheat flour; and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it. And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron, the priests, and one shall scoop from it … a memorial portion on the altar, a fire-offering, a fragrant aroma for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:1-2)
The Torah then describes four ways the minchah can be cooked before it is offered. The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into loaves of unleavened bread, or into flat bread wafers. It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot. But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense, and then salt, before a piece of it is burned up into smoke. Furthermore, the bread of the minchah must never be left to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup:
Any minchah that you bring near for God you shall not make leavened, for you must not make any sourdough or any syrup go up in smoke with a fire-offering for God. You shall bring them near to God as an offering of first-fruits, but they shall not be upon the altar, nor go up as a fragrant aroma. (Leviticus 2:11-12)
Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits on Shavuot, which also includes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim. These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar.
Why does a minchah have to be unleavened and unsweetened, while offerings for Shavuot, the Day of First-Fruits, include both leaven and fruit syrup?
There may be a connection between the observance of Passover, when no leaven may be eaten, and the observance of Shavuot exactly seven weeks later, when the bread brought to the priests must be allowed to rise. Yet the Torah describes Passover as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot as a harvest festival. (Shavuot was not associated with the revelation at Mount Sinai until much later, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.)
I believe the key difference is that a portion of every offering of unleavened, unsweetened bread is burned on the altar to make smoke for God, while leaven and syrup are given to the priests with a ritual recitation instead of burning. (See my blog “Ki Tavo: The Perishing Aramean”.)
Plain flour and oil, whether cooked or not, represents basic subsistence. This makes an unleavened flour or matzah offering an expression of humility and gratitude that God makes life possible at all. Sourdough loaves and fruit syrups are examples of foods that go beyond basic subsistence, providing the luxury of pleasant tastes. As offerings, these foods express gratitude for a richness of life beyond what is strictly necessary to survive.
The offering of gratitude for the bare fact of life is turned into smoke. Perhaps the smoke is not only a metaphorical fragrance for God to enjoy, but also a sign of the evanescence of life. We are lucky to have life at all — and all too soon, we fade away. But we are grateful for every moment of life.
The offering of gratitude for luxuries and extras is not turned into smoke. It is a way of rejoicing that the early harvest is going well, that life is going well, with surpluses to enjoy. We can rejoice out of the fullness of our hearts, without any grim reminders of death. But we only indulge in this kind of gratitude once a year, as spring turns to summer. The rest of the year, we still need the reminder of the smoke.
(This blog was first posted on March 14, 2010.)
And the priest will make them go up in smoke, a food offering by fire, for a soothing fragrance. All fat belongs to God. A law for all time for your generations: You will not eat any fat, nor any blood, in any of your settlements. (Leviticus 3:16-17–Vayikra)
chalev = fat, especially abdominal fat
dam = blood
The blood and the abdominal fat of livestock are reserved for God in chapter 3 of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, which provides instructions for making zevach shelamim, the animal sacrifices that are offered by an individual for the sake of shaleim, “wholeness”. This type of offering is not made for atonement, but rather to express gratitude to God, or to confirm peace with the people invited to share the feast afterward.
In brief, a man brings an unblemished cow, sheep, or goat to the altar, leans his hand against the animal’s head, and then slaughters it. The priests splash the animal’s blood against all four sides of the altar. The priests burn the fat covering the entrails, liver, and kidneys. The fragrance of the smoke is the donor’s gift to God. Then the donor and his guests eat the meat in celebration (and according to Leviticus 7:31-35, the priests are given the breast and the right thigh to eat).
Splashing blood is certainly a dramatic ritual, and fat burns well. But fat and blood are not merely reserved for the ritual at the altar. The Torah prohibits the people from eating any abdominal fat, or any blood, anywhere. Even far away from the altar, even in a time when there is no temple, abdominal fat and blood are reserved for God. Why?
A reason for not consuming blood is given in Leviticus 17:14: You may not consume the blood of any flesh, because the nefesh (soul, animating force) of all flesh is its blood. Genesis 9:5-6 also links blood with the nefesh of a human or animal, and forbids humans to eat flesh with the blood still in it. Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) wrote that someone who eats an animal’s blood dilutes his own nefesh and becomes less spiritual, more animal.
So blood is equated with the nefesh, the animating force that makes a creature alive. What does abdominal fat stand for?
Rabbi R.S. Hirsch wrote in the 19th century that the blood of an animal is its essence, while the fat is what it produces for its own needs. The essence of an animal must never become a human being’s essence, and the needs of an animal must never become a human being’s needs. Human nature must not be equated with animal nature.
I would add that abdominal fat is stored up as a reserve calorie supply against a hungrier time. It’s like a pot of silver buried against hard times; in modern terms, it’s like a stock portfolio. Stockpiling resources can be a good strategy. But we must not become so attached to our stock portfolios that we despair when the market plunges. We cannot really control our savings, so in a way they do not really belong to us. The fat belongs to God.
Similarly, it’s good to tend to our health, to enjoy each day of life, to “choose life” for ourselves and others. But my life, my nefesh, ultimately belongs to God.