file Musings on Parshat Shemini

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6 years 6 months ago - 6 years 6 months ago #263 by Heshy Berenholz
Musings on Parshat Shemini was created by Heshy Berenholz
Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.


o The eighth day of Inauguration of the Mishkan
o Deaths of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu
o Kohanim warned not to mourn
o Kohanim warned not to enter the Sanctuary if intoxicated
o Forbidden animals
o Forbidden fish
o Forbidden birds
o Forbidden and permitted insects
o Ritual impurity from non-Kosher animals
o Ritual impurity of objects and food
o Ritual impurity of Kosher animals
o Forbidden reptiles and insects on the ground

On setting limits

Robert Alter notes that separation is a major theme in Sefer Vayikra. The concept of setting apart (havdil root) is repeatedly manifest in the broad range of ritual, dietary and sexual laws. By accepting these rules, we the Jewish people set ourselves apart from other peoples to become holy like God. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the need to keep our distance from the sacred Mishkan; no unauthorized person may encroach (lo sikrav, do not come close).

Purification is another major theme. Profane pollutants that need to be avoided include bodily discharges; various skin conditions; mildew and other blights in buildings, utensils and fabrics.

To be allowed in the Mishkan, both priests and individuals need to separate themselves from (avoid contact with) anything that puts them in a state of Tumah, ritual impurity (e.g., corpse, animal carcass, menstrual blood).

In this week’s Parsha we learn about the avoidance of eating certain foods and the procedures for purification should one come into contact with a dead human or animal.

Nadav and Avihu

On the eighth day of the installation ceremony, Aharon offers up his burnt offering and sin offering for atonement. He then offers sin and burnt offerings; a grain offering; and two peace offerings on behalf of the nation. He then raises his hands and blesses the Israelites (for the first time) with the Priestly blessing. When the people witness a fire coming from God and consuming the offerings on the Altar they experience the Divine Presence and sing out, become ecstatic and throw themselves down on their faces.

Then “Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense on it. They offered it before God [but it was] unauthorized fire which [God] had not instructed them to offer. Fire came from before God and it consumed them so they died before God.”

A few verses later God warns that Priests will die if they drink wine or any other in toxicant before entering the sanctuary. They need to be sober to be able to distinguish between the holy and the profane and between the ritually unclean and the clean. This is an eternal law.

Following are some opinions about what sin prompted the supernatural destruction of the lives of Nadav and Avihu:

 They decided how they wanted the service to be performed and brought in fire and incense from outside the Mishkan

 They entered the Sanctuary in a drunken stupor. The introduction of the prohibition of drunkenness so soon after was a warning not to let this ever happen again.

 They were arrogant and irreverent. They refused to marry and have children because they felt no woman was good enough for them in their exalted status

 They had no respect for their father and uncle: “When will these old fellows die that we make take control of the community?”

 They were punished so harshly because of their elevated status. They were pious individuals who offered properly constituted incense. Their motives were noble but their sin was in bringing something that they had not been commanded to do.

 A Midrash concludes that there were four reasons for their death. They…

• Entered the innermost sancta
• Offered a sacrifice that had not been commanded
• Brought fire from the kitchen (i.e., ”unholy” source)
• Each made their own decisions without consulting one another

 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ analysis is that “they were all too eager to exercise leadership” by acting spontaneously. They failed to realize that the roles of leader, king, prophet and priest are not interchangeable. The first three need to be flexible and respond to or anticipate changing circumstances. But Nadav and Avihu were priests whose destiny is to follow a never-changing set of rules.

On Foods

Foods that are permitted to be eaten are generally referred to as being Kasher, (or Kosher). [Note: the real meaning of the Hebrew word is “fit” or “proper” and the word appears only once in the Torah (Megillat Esther) in a non-food context.]

Trefah or Treif are the words in current usage to describe a food that is not permitted to be eaten (the opposite of Kasher).But the technical definition of the word is an animal that is torn apart and is prohibited because it suffers this injury, disease or defect.

The dietary laws

Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi Günter Plaut, among others, have surveyed the range of opinions regarding these rules:

Ravi David Tzvi Hoffman thinks that the ancient distinctions between clean and unclean beasts may be traced to heathen cults’ belief that the universe is ruled by two rival deities, one pure and holy, and the other unclean and abominated. These “unclean” beasts (embodying the unclean deity) are to be hunted down and destroyed and the “clean” ones are to be protected. The former were regarded as destructive forces bringing with them sickness and evil (Professor Yechezkel Kaufmann).

The Torah view stands in sharp contrast to these pagan beliefs in that it denies the existence of an independent god-like Evil force. There is nothing inherently unclean or evil or destructive in living creatures. Uncleanliness is not an independent power in the war between the forces of good and evil that threatens God. The Torah uses the words Tamey (impure) and Tahor (pure)--not Treif and Kasher --to characterize the permissibility of all living creatures. We are commanded to separate ourselves from eating certain creatures only because of a Divine edict.

Rambam thinks that the foods prohibited by the Torah are unhealthy. For example, swine flesh is prohibited because of that animal’s loathsome, dirty life style. Note: Archeological findings show that pork was a common food eaten by the Philistines. It was later in the Hellenistic period that the pig became the “prohibited animal par excellence” (Robert Alter).

Sefer Hachinuch shares this approach--even as he acknowledges that the Torah does not provide us with any explanation--but stresses that the physical disability that results will have a detrimental effect on one’s intelligence, education and character building.

Abravanel and his mentor Rav Yitzchak Arama take issue with the medical approach for a number of reasons. Firstly, if it is about health, why did the Torah not include other harmful and poisonous creatures and herbs? Moreover, empirical observations are that those who eat pork and other prohibited species do not seem to suffer any more illness than the rest of the population.

Ramban and Abravanel observe that the Torah is not meant to be a medical textbook. They conclude that these laws must be motivated by the desire to maintain the purity of one’s soul. Forbidden birds are carnivorous. These birds of prey’s bloodthirsty attacking behavior could be absorbed by the person who eats it. By contrast, the cloven foot, cud-chewing permitted animals do not prey on other creatures.

Some maintain that the rationale is to help us achieve self-discipline and abstinence and to build character in our efforts to fulfill God’s will. The Sages note that a person should not say “I cannot stand pork!” but rather “I would like to eat it, but what can I do since my Heavenly father has prohibited it”. Philo of Alexandria thinks that the Torah wants to discourage excessive self indulgence and therefore banned pork, supposedly the most tasty of meats. Shadal quotes the Stoic philosopher Epictetus who believed that the keys to sin avoidance are “sustine et abstine” (“bear up under hardship and contain yourself from indulgence”). The Torah laws are designed to help us make a habit of self-control. Aaron Barth, a contemporary Israeli commentator, adds that by pausing to examine the food we are about to eat we have the opportunity to convert our impulse into our will.

Richie Snitkoff perceives another facet of the dietary laws in the undesirable, aggressive act of hunting to catch these prohibited attacking animals, fish and birds.

“You are what you eat”

Cloven- footed and cud-chewing animals tend to be domesticated, familiar, herbivorous non-attacking ruminants. We want to absorb gentleness and kindness. The word ruminate means to study, rethink, “chew on” an idea. We want to eat those animals called ruminants that can enhance this behavior in us. Philo of Alexandria further notes that the split hoof aspect points to our need to carefully study things that appear to be the same but really are completely different from and independent of one another (i.e., split).

Dr. Alvin Schiff focuses on the eating and careful digestion aspects that nourish the brain to enable us to think. The split hoof reminds us to watch where we go in life. Jeff Benkoe thinks that the split hoof reminds us of the choices we have in life.

Fish that have fins and scales are permitted. In Hebrew kaskeses means shield and protection. The fish with fins and scales tend to swim closer to the surface and are non-attacking. This contrasts sharply with the fish without fins/scales that tend to be scavengers and aggressive and swim near the dark and murky bottom. The Torah wants us to not ingest this aggressive behavior and psychological darkness.

Prohibited birds tend to be attacking and aggressive, characteristics we want to avoid ingesting and absorbing.

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz
Last edit: 6 years 6 months ago by Heshy Berenholz.

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