Tags: torah portion, Leviticus, Vayikra, mold, skin disease, household
Priests spend most of their working hours, according to the Torah, on three kinds of tasks: maintaining God’s dwelling-place, whether tent or temple; processing the offerings made there; and ritually purifying people who have become ritually impure.
There are many ways a person might become ritually impure, and therefore excluded from communal worship—or even from the whole community—until the situation is rectified. This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, goes into great detail about one: the disease called tzara-at.
If a human has on the skin of their flesh a swelling, or scales, or a white patch, and it becomes a mark of tzara-at on the skin of their flesh, then they shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:2)
tzara-at (צָרָעַת) = a disfiguring disease of human skin, characterized by patchy white discoloration; something causing patchy red or green discoloration in fabric, leather, or wall-plaster.
Priests are not healers, but they do diagnose the presence or absence of that one disease. Tzara-at was previously mistranslated as “leprosy”, but the descriptions in Leviticus/Vayikra show that human tzara-at is a relatively harmless skin disease, perhaps a form of leukoderma. Sometimes it heals by itself. When the disease is present, the human being must be quarantined from the rest of the community. When the tzara-at is cured, the priests conduct a ritual for re-entry.
The quarantine also applies when a priest finds tzara-at in fabric, leather, or the plastered walls of a house.
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of tzara-at in a bayit on the land you possess, then the one who has the house shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in the bayit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building, home; household (consisting of family and servants living together).
Then the priest shall give an order, and they shall clear out the bayit before the priest comes to look at the mark, so nothing in the bayit will become ritually impure. After that the priest will come to look at the bayit. And he will see the mark, and hey! the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, yerakrakot or adamdamot, and appears deep in the wall! (Leviticus 14:36-37)
yerakrakot (יְרַקְרַקּוֹת) = thin greens.1
adamdamot (אֲדַמְדַּמוֹת) = blood reds.2
In that case, the priest must quarantine the house for seven days. If the green or red patches have spread when he returns, the discolored portion of the wall has to be dismantled and its stones must be carried off to the dump. The plaster over the rest of the walls in the house must be scraped off and taken to the dump. Then the house owner has to rebuild the missing section of wall and re-plaster the whole interior. (Leviticus 14:37-42)
If discoloration reappears in the house, and a priest confirms that it is tzara-at again, the entire house has to be torn down and the rubble taken to a dump outside the city. (Leviticus 14:43-45)
Black mold is common the damp climate of western Oregon; I’ve been fighting it for the past twenty years. In some buildings the only permanent solution includes stripping the walls down to the studs, not to mention removing all the grout from bathroom tile. I have not encountered red or green mold, but I know these molds still plague some buildings. Ritual impurity is not an issue for us, but when I scrub my walls or my tile and still see black stains, I feel as if our living quarters are contaminated.
At least the tzara-at contaminates only our walls, not our marriage. But in the Torah portion Metzora, tzara-at of a bayit can also be interpreted as a contamination of the family unit. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a household or family rather than a physical house. And the word tzara-at appears to come from the same root (צרע) as the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) = dread or despair sent by God, causing people to flee.3
So we could translate the Torah’s introduction to tzara-at in the bayit this way:
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of despair in a household in your land, then the head of the household shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in my household. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
In other words, the head of the household notices that someone in his family is stricken with despair. He (in ancient Israel, the head was always a man) could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the despair might spread. Servants or members of his family might even run away. And those who stayed would be ritually impure, unable to mingle with the rest of the community.
So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest. He and his family must clear out all the baggage they can. Then the priest comes in to observe whether the household looks normal.
If he sees signs of yerakrakot, “thin greens”, perhaps the family is too repressed, so its members cannnot grow and flourish like healthy green plants. If he sees signs of adamdamot, “blood reds”, perhaps someone is not respecting the Biblical rule that “the blood is the life”: there may be an invasion of personal space and inner life, or even psychological bloodshed.
Both colors of tzara-at sink deep into the household, causing tzirah—depression, dread, or despair. So the priest must separate the members of the household from one another for seven days. If this vacation does not help, the only solution is to start tearing down and replacing some of the family dynamics. And if even that does not work, the household must be disbanded.
Male heads of households in the Torah do not invite interference, but in the case of tzara-at they are required to ask for interference by experts. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business, and try to ignore signs of distress.
But if the problem is bad enough, a household cannot continue in its old ways without every member becoming contaminated by despair. The family needs help from an expert. And if that does not work, separation is necessary. People must suffer through divorce or the estrangement of children. Individuals who choose to stay together must build new households or new relationships.
May everyone become able to diagnose tzara-at of the family with the skill of a Biblical priest, and may everyone become able to make major changes.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)
1 Yarak (יָרָק) = green plant, vegetable. Rak (רַק) = thin, slight.
2 Adom (אָדֺם) = red. Dam (דָּם) = blood.
3 12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the word tzirah must be related to the word tzara-at, since it has the same root letters, and concluded that tzirah was a disease. His opinion is reflected in the most recent (1985) translation of the Bible by the Jewish Publication Society, in which “the tzirah” is translated as “a plague”. Another tradition, followed by the King James Bible, translates the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) as “hornet”, but some modern scholars dispute this. Robert Alter uses the traditional translation “hornet”, but proposes that tzirah actually means a supernatural agent called “smasher”. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, footnotes on pp. 453 and 919; Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013, footnote p. 100.) Everett Fox translates tzirah as “Despair” with a capital D the first time it appears in his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 389), but inexplicably reverts to “hornet” the second time (ibid., p. 887).
Tzirah appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always with the prefix meaning “the” (הַצִּרְעָה):
…and I will panic all the people who you come among … And I will send the tzirah before you, and it will drive out the Hivvite and the Canaanite and the Hittite away from you. (Exodus 23:27-28)
And also God, your God, will send the tzirah against them, until those who remain and those who hide from you perish. (Deuteronomy 7:20)
And I sent the tzirah before you, and it drove them away from you, the two Amorite kings—not your sword nor your bow. (Joshua 24:12)
In context, tzirah appears to be an overwhelming dread, sent by God, that induces people to abandon their land and flee.
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, holiness, Leviticus, torah portion, Vayikra
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
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
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
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: 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.
Tags: ark of the covenant, holy place, King David, Leviticus, torah portion, Vayikra
Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:
Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure. And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)
lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish
hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.
In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.
The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.
According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.
The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, 20 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav who serve the ark are Achio and Uzza.
They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)
Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.
They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)
While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.
King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.
David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)
efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.
David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.
Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.
They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)
David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.
When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.
This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.
The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.
Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.
The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:
Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.
Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.
I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.
Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.
Still, one question remains in our modern age: What counts as serving God?