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.
24 positive commandments and 39 prohibitions
Laws addressed to the priests:
• Not to defile themselves by contact with the dead
• Not to make bald patches on their heads (as a sign of mourning)
• Not to shave the extremities of their beards
• Not to make gouges in their skin
• Not to marry a divorced woman or an immoral or profaned woman (born from a marriage between a priest and a woman forbidden to him)
Laws addressed to the high priest :
• Not to go without a haircut
• Not to allow his vestments to be torn
• Not to come into contact with a dead body
• Not to marry a divorcee, or a profaned or immoral woman
• To marry a virgin
Listing of blemishes that disqualify a priest from service but permit him to eat from the offerings
Priestly consumption restrictions
Offerings of a blemished animal are prohibited
Laws relating to animal slaughtering:
• The calf must remain with its mother for seven days
• The calf can be sacrificed on the eighth day
• Not to slaughter a female animal and its child on the same day
Laws relating to, and reasons for, Shabbos and Festivals:
o Omer offering
o Counting of the Omer
o Rosh Hashana, a day of Shofar blowing
o Yom Kippurim, a day of atonement for those returning to God
o Succot, a week of celebration, of living in booths, of holding and waving four plants
o Shemini Atzeres
Clear olive oil from hand-crushed olives needed for daily lighting of the Menorah
Twelve loaves of bread (two stacks of six each) are to be baked weekly and placed on the Table. The loaves that are removed are eaten by the priests
A blasphemer who pronounces and curses God’s name is put to death by stoning
Monetary compensation for injuries inflicted by one person on another
Equal treatment of convert and native
Not to Slaughter an Ox or Sheep (Mother) and Her Child in One Day
After listing the blemishes that make an animal unsuitable for sacrifice, the Torah introduces other disqualifiers. A newborn calf, lamb or kid may not be offered until seven days have passed. A korban cannot have a complete spiritual impact unless it is perfect and unblemished in every way. Sefer Hachinuch explains that during the first week of its life an animal is not fit for anything; “no one will covet it to partake of it or do business with it or give it as a gift”. Others think that the reason for the prohibition is to prevent inflicting needless suffering to both mother and child.
According to Rambam, the not slaughtering of mother and child on the same day is another example of preventing cruelty to animals (as is utilizing the most humane method of slaughtering). If this is the extent to which the Torah goes to prevent suffering of bird and beast, how much more so in dealing with humans!
Ramban shifts the focus entirely to us—that we should cultivate the quality of mercy and avoid cruelty in our lives.
“You Shall Not Profane My Holy Name”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the concepts of sanctifying God’s name (kiddush Ha’shem) and desecrating His Name (chillul Ha’shem) evolved over time. The Torah statement is directed at the Priests whose job it was to serve God in the mishkan. As guardians of the holy, they needed to be especially careful in their behavior.
Avraham Avinu pleads with God not to cause chillul Ha’shem by destroying the righteous along with wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The prophets considered chillul Ha’shem to mean immoral conduct that dishonors God’s code of justice and compassion. Amos rails against people who “trample on the heads of the poor”. Jeremiah sees chillul Ha’shem in the circumvention of Torah laws by those who capture and re-enslave slaves that they emancipated earlier. Malachi criticizes the Priests who profane God’s name, even as the nations of the world honor it.
Ezekiel viewed exile as chillul Ha’shem in that the other nations would interpret God’s action to allow the Israelites to be conquered as His inability to protect his people.
The victims of the Holocaust “died al kiddush Hashem,” that is, for the sake of sanctifying God’s name. Though martyrdom in the past meant choosing to die for the sake of God during the Nazi genocide Jews were not given the choice. “By calling them in retrospect, martyrs, Jews gave the victims the dignity in death of which they were so brutally robbed in life.”
Rambam’s opinion is that chillul Ha’shem occurs when people of great Torah stature and renowned for their piety, do not treat their fellow humans in an exemplary manner. “When people associate religiosity with integrity, decency, humility and compassion, God’s name is sanctified. When they come to associate it with contempt for others and for the law, the result is a desecration of God’s name.”
Concludes Rabbi Sacks: “To be a Jew is to be dedicated to the proposition that loving God means loving His image, humankind.”
Shabbos and Festivals
The Torah introduces the festivals as follows:
“God spoke to Moshe telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: There are appointed [moadi] times that you must celebrate as sacred assemblies [mikra’ei kodesh] to God. The following are My appointed festivals [mo’adai]: You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Sabbaths, a day of sacred assembly [mikra kodesh]. It is a sacred holiday to God, when you shall do no work. Wherever you may live, it is God’s Sabbath.”
The Torah then states “These are God’s appointed times [mo’adei] that you must proclaim [tikre’u] as sacred assemblies [mikra’ei kodesh] at their appointed times” [be-moadam] then launches into a chronological listing of the holidays and their unique rituals; their sacrificial offerings; and their work restrictions.
The structure is puzzling in that:
• There seem to be two introductory beginnings for the festivals
• Sabbath is interjected among the festivals and
• Sabbath is referred to as a “sacred assembly”
Sabbath is qualitatively different than the festivals in that it is a weekly, not annual occurrence and in that its holiness derives directly from God, unlike the festivals whose proclamations are dependent on the calendar fixed by the Supreme Court [Bet Din]. What does Sabbath have to do with festivals? Why is it included here?
Rashi’s answer is that the Torah is alerting us to the fact that the festivals, though seemingly of a lesser sanctity than the Sabbath (because certain types of work like cooking and carrying are permitted) need to be observed as scrupulously as the Sabbath.“ Whoever desecrates the festivals is as if he had desecrated the Sabbath.”
Ramban sees an implicit warning that just like the all-important work of building the Tabernacle does not override Sabbath, so too should the festival fall out on a Sabbath, the latter prevails and carrying and cooking are prohibited.
My father, Rabbi Moshe Berenholz, shared with me the very original and creative approach of the Vilna Gaon. In his view, when the Torah states “The following are My appointed festivals [mo’adai]: You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Sabbaths, a day of sacred assembly [mikra kodesh]” it is not referring to the Sabbath but to the festivals.
In this introductory paragraph, the Torah is informing us that it will be listing and detailing the six holidays in the Jewish calendar on which certain work is permissible (carrying and cooking)—first and seventh day of Passover; one day of Shavuot; one day of Rosh Hashanah; the first day of Succoth; and Shmini Atzeres. But there is also a seventh day, Yom Kippur, (which will be later described by the text as “Sabbath of Sabbaths”) on which all work is prohibited. Yom Kippur is to the year what Sabbath is to the week.
There is another fascinating aspect to the interrelationship between and pattern of the festivals, the calendar, and creation in the form of the repetition the numbers seven and one. Creation in six days is followed by one day of Sabbath. Passover is in the first month and lasts seven days. One day after the seven weeks of seven day cycles is the holiday of Shavuoth. Rosh Hashanah is observed on the first day of the seventh month. Succoth is a seven day holiday; one day after is Shmini Atzeres. The shemittah year of release is the one following six ordinary years. Yovail is the fiftieth year, the year after the completion of seven, 7-year cycles.
The relationship of the holidays to Sabbath and creation is an ongoing reminder of the creation of the universe; of God the Creator; and of God the continuing force of Nature and the prime mover in Jewish history.
Rav Tzvi Dov Kanatopsky expands on this necessity to stress over and over again the notion that all our agricultural success emanate from God. The Sabbath, whose message transcends all seasons and all natural cycles, gives testimony to God’s creation of the universe. After listing the festivals, the Torah concludes with a description of the shew-bread which was replaced on the sacred table every Sabbath. The cycle begins with Sabbath and concludes with the Sabbath.
Rabbi David Fohrman thinks that the Sabbath is the paradigm for the festivals and each festival has an element of the Sabbath in it. In his view, the original Sabbath represented the “letting go” of the urge to continue to create. Letting go is the final stage of any creation. God “rested” on the Sabbath and commanded Man to do the same. It is at that moment of completion, of standing back to experience the thing created and now independent of its creator.
Why is it that when we read this section on a festival, the reading begins with the earlier, seemingly unrelated prohibition of not slaughtering a new-born calf for seven days but instead waiting until the eight day, seven plus one? Rabbi Fohrman offers that this law is an introductory suggestion of the deeper underlying common denominator in each festival. By staying with its mother for seven days, the calf and its mother, its creator, are able to bond. It is only then that the calf is complete and independent enough to be let go. This is a Sabbath-like experience of letting go.
Passover is about Man’s creative dominance of agriculture, controlling the fate of wheat by first planting it, thereby giving it life, then killing it by harvesting. Man takes the seeds, smashes them (preventing perpetuation of the species) and makes it into flour. He adds water and then makes it alive again with the addition of yeast. The dough rises until bread is made. We have molded the wheat to our needs.
Sabbath is about bringing to a stop the powerful forces of dominating creativity for man’s needs that happen in the six days of the week. On Passover we are kind of taking a rest from our dominance of the world of vegetation by omitting the yeast and only eating unleavened bread.
The Three Pilgrimage Holidays (Shalosh R’galem)
These holidays have historical meaning but also link with Nature and with God, the foundation of Nature.
In his analysis of the Parsha, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag makes a number of interesting observations…
The use of the Hebrew word moed (instead of the word chag) to identify the holidays. Moed, which means a fixed time, is also used to describe the Mishkan (Ohel Moed).
The identification of the dates of the holidays by referring both to the solar calendar (corresponding to the various seasons) and to the lunar calendar (the date of the month) which is based on the monthly cycle of the moon.
The first mention of the three holidays occurs in Parshat Mishpatim, where the holidays are described only by their place in the agricultural cycle. The primary mitzvah for each is to visit God at the Mishkan/Temple(aliyah l’regel)…
• Passover, Chag Ha’Matzot, takes place in the Spring
• Shavuot, Chag Ha’katzir, the wheat harvest, takes place in the early Summer
• Succoth, Chag Ha’asif, the fruit harvest takes place in the Autumn
A later summation in Parshat Re’ay in Sefer Devarim adds where the aliyah l’regel is to take place--“At the site that God will choose to have His Name dwell there”—and that the holidays should be celebrated joyously not only with one’s family but also the stranger, the orphan and the widow. We celebrate and thank God for the bounty of our harvest and share our good fortune with the less fortunate.
In Parshat Pinchas, the Torah details the specific additional offerings that need to be brought (korban musaf) on each holiday according to its lunar date.
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to a specific mitzvah that is unique to each holiday:
• Passover—eating matzahs; special Omer (barley) offering
• Shavuot—Shtei Halechem(two loaves of bread made from wheat)
• Rosh Ha’Shana—blowing the shofar
• Yom Kippur—fasting
• Succoth—sitting in the Sukkah ; taking the Arba Minim (lulav, etrog, hadassim, arovot)
Furthermore, though they presented chronologically by their lunar dates (month and day) each holiday also references where they are in the agricultural cycle (based on solar calendar date). Regarding the lunar date, the Torah requires that on that day(s)…
o The nation must gather together
o No physical labor be done
o A special Musaf offering be brought (as listed in Parshat Pinchas)
Rabbi Leibtag explains the need for both the solar and lunar dates.
The agricultural mitzvahs are dependent on Nature. The Omer offering on Passover is brought from barley, the first grain crop to ripen. During the next seven weeks the wheat crop’s ripening culminates in the offering of the two loaves (shtei halechem) on Shavuot. The arba minim brought on Succoth represents the agricultural importance of the fruit crop and the need for water in the coming year. When the Torah describes these mitzvahs it refers to the respective holidays as shabbaton, a word related to Shabbat which in turn relates to the days of the week and the daily cycle of Nature produced by the sun (i.e., the world revolving around the sun in 365 days).While rejoicing during the celebration of the holidays we need to recognize and acknowledge that God is behind Nature—and to be grateful for all we receive from Him.
The lunar dates of the holidays underscore their historic significance to us, perhaps deriving from the Torah statement (when commemorating the Exodus from Egypt) that “This month will be for you the first month”. [Note: Guila Kotler comments on the significance of celebrating Passover and Succoth on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month when there is a full moon.] It’s interesting that the moon waxes and wanes every month—first not being visible then gradually growing until it is full and then getting smaller and smaller until it is no longer visible. This may mirror both our lives and our history: the repeating cycle of darkness/emptiness giving way to light and brightness, then shrinking again to darkness and despair only to optimistically begin again on the path to light/hope.
Rabbi Leibtag reasons that by combining the two calendars, the Torah is sensitizing us to the realities that during the critical times of the agricultural cycle we need to thank God both for His providence over Nature and for His providence over our history. He is both the Force behind Nature and the One Who guides history. The Hebrew word moed stems from the root word that means “meeting”. It is at these special appointed times of the year that we have the opportunity to meet, experience and build a relationship with God in His “home” (Mishkan /Temple).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks adds that it is in this parsha that the Torah focuses not on the social and sacrificial dimensions that we find elsewhere but on the “the spiritual dimension of encounter, closeness, the meeting of the human and the divine”. This explains the repeated uses of the words mo’ed (that can also mean the deeply felt love of lovers who make up to meet at a particular time and place) and mikra kodesh (“a meeting to which we have been called in affection by One who holds us close”). Because we live in a material world, it is especially difficult for us to be spiritual. We have been given the special gift of every seventh day (i.e., Shabbos) and seven days every year to consider and embrace the divine.
On “Ayen Tachas Ayen” (“an Eye for an Eye”)
Throughout history, this Biblical rule has been cited to justify cruel retributive behavior used by critics against Jews to show the (alleged) barbaric behavior of Jews and of the Torah (in contrast to the Christian ethic of “turning the other cheek”).
But the Rabbis clearly understood this law to mean monetary compensation. The punishment needs to be commensurate with the crime and if the meaning is to literally blind the offender inequitable outcomes could result.
Ibn Ezra, citing Rav Sadya Gaon, notes the difficulty of an exact reproduction should the eye wound have been in a dangerous spot that could cause the death of the offender if the reproduction be attempted in the eye of the offender. If the offender dies during the removal of his eye, he would have lost both his eye and his life for poking out only one of the other person’s eyes. An injustice will occur if the offender was already blind in one eye and his good eye is to be removed because he will be left totally blind while the victim still has one good eye. How is one punished for causing partial loss of eyesight in one eye?
Rabbi Benno Jacob finds the key in the word tachas, since that word’s use in other places in the Torah can only mean approximate, or substitute for. In never means an exact replacement. For example, during the Akeda story Avraham offers a ram “tachas b’no” not an identical, not an exact equivalent, but something that is “in place of” or “instead of” his son. Therefore, tachas can only mean something monetary that is a substitute for (or an approximation of) the value of the eye but absolutely not the eye itself. Under Torah law, retribution for physical damages means monetary compensation, except in the case of intentional homicide.
The trup supports this conclusion since the phrasing is “eye” then “in lieu of an eye” which means that “(for) an eye” something “in lieu an eye” needs to be given.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that “based on the earliest known Jewish records, Jewish courts did not blind those who deprived others of sight”. Robert Alter indicates that monetary compensation for these physical damages was widespread in ancient Near Eastern codes.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut thinks that the intention of this progressive advance in criminal law may be to limit private revenge, particularly in family and tribal feuds. These laws try to blunt the bloodthirsty search for revenge characteristic of primitive family and tribal feuds, in order to build a functioning and civilized modern society.
As to why the Torah does not explicitly state that monetary compensation is meant, some have suggested that the point is that the money is not enough. The offender also needs to beg forgiveness. The very juxtaposition of the verse discussing payment for damage of property next to the verse discussing the monetary damage for causing loss of limb underscores the sharp contrast between the two. Cattle are only chattel, but a human being is unique and special and created in God’s image Any damage caused to his person merits a more intense response.