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 may 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.
The choice of blessings or curses
55 Mitzvahs (17 positive and 38 prohibitions) covering …
Religious institutions and worship
o Central Sanctuary in Jerusalem
o Eradicating idolatry in Eretz Yisroel
o Private altars prohibited
o Slaughter of animals for food
o Warning not to consume blood
o Avoidance of hideous abomination (like human sacrifice) forms of pagan worship
o Religious seducers
A false prophet
Seducers in one’s own family
A city tainted with idolatry
Laws of Holiness
o Against heathen rites
o Suitable and unsuitable beasts, fishes, and birds
Maaser Rishon [first tithe] to support the Levites
Maaser Sheni [second tithe] taken by the farmer to Jerusalem and eaten there in a state of purity
Maaser Awni [given to the poor]
Disposal of undistributed tithes
Occurs every seventh year
Cancellation of debts at the end of the year
Release of Hebrew slaves
o Dedicating firstborn male of humans and of cattle(blemish-free)
o The Three Pilgrimage festivals to be celebrated with simcha (happiness) and aliyas regel (pilgrimage to Jerusalem
Permission to eat non-sacrificial meat
Not to add to or diminish from the commandments; not to “improve” the Torah by borrowing gentile practices
To remain a holy, separate Nation
Not to mutilate oneself as a sign of mourning (excessive ritual of grief; behavior associated with idolatrous cults)
Permitted animals need to be slaughtered properly before eating
Not to cook a tender, young animal in its mother’s milk
• Loans to poor
• Gifts to Hebrew slaves upon their release after six years
“Re’eh anochi nosain lefnaychem hayom bracha uklala…es habracha aher tishmu…v’haklala im lo sishmu” (“Behold I have set before you today a blessing and a curse…the blessing if you listen…and the curse if you do not listen…”)
Re’eh - from the root to see, meaning to have insight and understanding. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the goal is that “the necessity and positive results of observing the mitzvos become as clear and self-evident as seeing a physical object with one’s eyes”.
Anochi- “I, God.” Use of this pronoun instead of Ani links to the Anochi of the unique Covenant and relationship with God embodied in the Ten Commandments and Mt. Sinai experience
Nosain- “is giving you” in the present tense: ongoing promise from God
Lefnaychem- before you.
Yehuda Valladares thinks that the use of re’eh in the singular and lefnaychem in the plural underscores the idea that although each person can develop a private, individual relationship with God, He gave the Torah publicly to a huge mass of people.
Or perhaps the Torah is communicating that even though an entire nation experienced the unique Covenant and relationship with God, each of us thinks and understands it in his own unique way.
My father, Rabbi Moshe Berenholz A”H, noted that even if the masses act contrary to the Torah ethics, one must stand his ground and behave properly.
Es habracha- on the condition that you listen (Rashi).
The “es” means God gives the Blessings to us now, in advance, confident we will behave as expected, abiding by His laws.
Rav Bahya Ben Asher (fourteenth century) notes that es is an expression of certainty (vs. eem that means if,possibly).
The nineteenth century commentary Malbim perceives that the very performance of a Mitzvah is itself a blessing.
Im lo sishmoo- But if, perchance, we should not live up to this expected behavior, we will be punished.
Nechama Leibowitz concludes that there exists an inherent goodness (ki tov) in the world that God created for us to enjoy-- so long as we adhere to His laws and ethics. The root cause of evil and misfortune in the world is Man’s decision to disobey Him.
“Be Extremely Careful Not to Eat the Blood…
…since the blood is associated with the spiritual nature [life force] and when you eat flesh you shall not ingest the spiritual nature along with it…you can pour it on the ground like water.”
Rabbenu Bachya explains that there was a temptation to eat blood because it was used in many occult mystical practices.
Nechama Leibowitz cites…
Rambam, who understands that the ancient pagans drank blood in the belief that it was the food of the spirits and by drinking blood the demons would join and share information on future events. Or perhaps it would invest the blood drinker with the power of the living creature whose blood was being ingested. Eradicating these idolatrous misconceptions necessitated the prohibition. Furthermore, the role of blood in Judaism is to be a purifying agent as part of a ritual of atonement.
Ramban, who notes that initially Man was a vegetarian. Since all living beings share the same destiny killing animals for food was prohibited. It was only after the Flood that Man was granted a dispensation to eat meat as a way of rechanneling his murderous drives from humans to animals. But blood is the vehicle for integrating spiritual with physical in all living beings. We can kill and eat the physical animal but not its life spirit.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who supports the idea that permission to eat meat is a temporary dispensation. We need to be trained to be considerate of all living creatures and to be reviled by their death.
If we “are what we eat” the prohibition of ingesting animal blood may be a method for avoiding animalistic tendencies so that we can concentrate on our uniquely human character.
Nechama Leibowitz summarizes:
“The mere display of visible miracles is by itself no confirmation of the truth…
Signs and wonders are no criterion of true prophecy…
Anyone who summons us to violate the Torah adducing signs and wonders in his favour, even if he causes the sun, moon and stars to stand still as in the days of Joshua, we must pay no heed to him…since truth cannot be established by miracles or any visual spectacle.”
On Eating Meat
“Ki yarchiv Hashem elokecha es gevulcha…Ki s’avey nafsheca le’chol basar” (“When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border... and your soul longs for meat then you may eat meat on the condition that you slaughter of your herd and flock...in the way I (Hashem) have prescribed”.
During the desert wanderings, the only permitted meat was from the offerings to God. But now, as the Israelites are ready to enter the Promised Land, God permits the eating of any meat for enjoyment (basar taava—meat of desire).
The wording suggests that the permission is being granted grudgingly, with strict regulations, and that we are only given a special dispensation to slaughter animals for consumption and not a total dominion over the animal world
This interpretation is consistent with Rav Kook’s world view. He believed that Creation filled the world with harmony between Man and the animal kingdom, the two highest life forms. Initially Man’s food was to consist of herbs and fruit. But with the moral decay that precipitated the Flood, this harmony was shattered and all Mankind was permitted to be carnivorous.
The killing of animals for food is not an ideal state. Rav S. R. Hirsch notes that in the realm of vegetation there are no plants that are prohibited. Perhaps the Torah seeks to “endorse emphatically the primal state of Man when meat was not allowed as food fit for Man” (Rav Jacobson). But since Man could no longer control himself, says Rav Kook, the Torah channeled these aggressive drives (cannibalism? murder?) to animals, in the hope that Man’s appetite for bloodshed would no longer find expression in killing his fellow Man. In his view, both the rituals relating to slaughtering and the dietary laws were designed to arouse our feelings of injustice committed against the animal kingdom.
It is interesting that the Torah introduces the permissibility of eating meat with the words ki yarchiv, (“when the land will be expanded”) suggesting, perhaps, that the desire for meat is triggered by the expansion of one’s wealth (land). Richie Snitkoff thinks that it is expansion of one’s own internal boundaries (i.e., feeling of superiority, arrogance) that brings on the desire for meat.
The Torah describes the desire for meat as a taava, a lusting after, and sounding like toayva, an abomination-- both pejorative words. Perhaps there is a subtle suggestion that the Torah would prefer we remain vegetarians so as to recapture the primordial state of harmony with Nature and God that existed immediately after the Creation. Rav Kook was a vegetarian.
The Dietary Laws
“Kosher” animals can be identified by two physical signs (simanim in Hebrew), both of which must be present: they must chew their cud and their hooves must be wholly cloven.
The following are prohibited because they have only one siman:
• The camel, the hyrax and the hare because they chew their cud but do not have a completely split hoof
• The pig because it has a completely split hoof but does not chew its cud
Fish must have fins and scales.
The Torah does not provide the required simanim for birds but lists those that are unacceptable including vulture, raven, hawk, owl, stork, heron and bat.
Permitted flying insects are those that have additional jointed legs with which they hop on the ground, including several varieties of locust.
Creeping creatures are forbidden, including:
Much has been written about the rationale for, and meaning of, these rules:
Rav 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 was 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 several reasons. Firstly, if it is about health, why did the Torah not prohibit 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 think 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 tastiest 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 can 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.
Manya Berenholz thinks that the Torah’s use of the word tamey to describe the prohibited animals is meant to underscore how their aggressive predatory behavior results in death, which is the source of tumah.
Jennifer Stein’s observation is that the need for both an external (cloven-hoof) and internal (cud- chewing) characteristics of the permitted animals is a reminder to us to be attentive to our behavior both in public and in private.
To mystics, the main importance in God’s commandments lies in their effect on the universe and on man as the center of that universe. Prohibited food has a damaging effect on man’s soul. The term tamey is used in the Torah not only to describe prohibited food but also to describe principal, moral and religious offences, namely, idol worship and sexual immorality, especially incest. Thus, the mystics conclude, the common language suggests that consuming food that violates the Jewish dietary laws has the same contaminating effect on the soul and moral character of man as idolatry and immoral sexual conduct. The body is the intermediary between the soul and the world, so it matters a great deal whether this instrument is a willing servant of the soul.
Rav S.R. Hirsch’s belief is that the human body is the instrument of the soul. The more passive and submissive the body is, the more it will yield to the dictates of the soul. Vegetables and fruits are all permissible because they are the most passive substances. Cud-chewing, split-hoofed herbivorous animals are certainly more docile and passive than the more aggressive carnivores and birds of prey.
Biblical scholar Mary Douglas hypothesizes that holiness is not merely defined negatively as separation from evil but positively as purity and wholeness. The dietary laws define wholeness. Permitted animals are those that conform to the standard pure and whole types. Fish that conform to the wholeness requirement are those with fins and scales and only those may be eaten. Insects with an indeterminate form of motion, which swarm, are unclean.
Professor Jacob Milgrom reasons that since the demand for holiness occurs with greater frequency and emphasis in food prohibitions than in any other commandment, this must be the Torah’s communicating that this is the best way for achieving a higher ethical life. Furthermore, “the list of prohibited animals forms a unified and coherent dietary system with the blood prohibition and the prescribed slaughtering technique whose clear, unambiguous purpose is to inculcate reverence for life.”
Some have argued that the laws’ aim was to prevent Jews from interacting socially with their non-Jewish surroundings (because they could not eat in their homes). The dietary laws are a reflection and reinforcement of Israel’s special and unique relationship with God. Observance of dietary restrictions is a silent but public announcement of one’s commitment to one’s faith. Professor Milgrom points out that one of the first acts of Christianity was to abolish the dietary laws “to end once and for all the notion that God had covenanted himself with a certain people who would keep itself apart from all nations” because “Israel’s restrictive diet is a daily reminder to be apart from the nations”.
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).
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 in our lives.
Dr. Alvin Schiff A”H noted that “chewing the cud” is about eating and the nourishing of our brain so we can think. The split hoof is a reminder for us to watch where we walk in life.
Jeff Benkoe thinks the split hoof underscores the choices we face in our lives.
“You Shall Not Boil a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk”
This prohibition, which encompasses cooking, eating and benefiting, is the basis of subsequent rabbinic regulations relating to eating milk and milk products together with meat and meat products. Explanations for this restriction include…
• Avoidance of the magical
• Preservation of the milk-giving ability of the animal
• Preservation of health
• Humanitarian (avoid causing an animal pain)
• Prohibition of mixing of diverse kinds of seeds and materials
• Avoidance of this act of moral insensitivity(Ramban)
• Avoidance of the negative interaction of opposing spiritual forces. In Kabalah meat (red color) is the physical manifestation of the Divine power of Severity while milk (white color) is the manifestation of Kindness
Rambam suggests that the prohibition is about avoiding idolatry—an opinion supported by recent archeological findings (cited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut) that describe a then-prevailing Canaanite sacrificial ritual. I think that support for this interpretation can be found in the verse itself. The prohibition appears at the end of a verse that prohibits eating nevayla (carcass) because we are considered a holy nation to God. The immediately preceding topics discussed in the parsha deal with…
• Incitement to worship idol
• City of idol worshipers
• The holiness of the Jewish people
• Listing of forbidden foods
Perhaps here we have another example of “free association”. The Torah first discusses the prohibition of idolatry, pointing out that we are a separate, “holy” nation. Then it points out that as part of this holiness we are prohibited from eating certain foods. The subject of forbidden foods leads to the introduction to a pagan ritual that is so insidious and dangerous (cooking a kid in its mother’s milk)
that the prohibition extends not only to eating, but also to cooking and to benefitting.
On Tithing, Charity and Gratitude
Abravanel (1437-1508) points out that after the Torah discusses how to remain loyal to God through the physical/dietary, it turns its attention to serving God with money and produce.
There are three categories of tithes that must be given during the six-year cycle:
Maaser Rishon [First Tithe] to support the Levites is given annually
Maaser Sheni [Second Tithe] is taken by the farmer to Jerusalem and eaten there in a state of purity in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the cycle
During the third and sixth year Maaser Ani (given to the poor) is substituted for Maaser Sheni
The order of themes is based on the intensity of the demand made on human nature, starting with the easiest and progressing to the more difficult. Isaac Arama (1420-1494) explains that because giving away runs counter to a person’s nature, the Torah starts by the least painful-- restricting use of one’s property (Second Tithe). The beneficiary is the owner himself and his household who are directed to “eating [it] before God in the place He will choose for His name to dwell there[Jerusalem]”:
If the farmer lived far away he could redeem his tithe for silver and then when he reaches Jerusalem, spend it on “anything you desire whether it be cattle, smaller animals, wine, shaychar [old wine or mead or any other intoxicating beverage], or anything else for which you have an urge. Eat it there before God your Lord, so that you and your family will be able to rejoice.”
In the then-prevailing agricultural society, the Torah’s threefold goal was (according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ analysis) to…
Alleviate poverty by the…
Leaving parts of the harvest for the poor
Tithe for the poor given every third and sixth year in the cycle
Seventh and fiftieth year release of debt
Return of ancestral property to the original owners in the fiftieth year
Support the priests and Levites [who dedicated their lives to the service of God and to education and administration of justice] through the required gifts of Terumah (for the Priests) and Maaser Rishon (for the Levites).
Drive home the lessons of gratitude and humility through the bringing of the first fruits and the three pilgrimage festivals. From this we are to realize that the land belongs to God and the earth yields its produce only because of His blessing. This consciousness-raising will help prevent our becoming overly materialistic and smug.
Maaser Sheni [second tithe] …
…does not go to the poor or to the priests and Levites but is eaten by its owner in Jerusalem. But how does this achieve the Torah’s stated goal of “that you may learn to remain in awe of the Lord your God for all time”?
The Sages state that “Second Tithe was only given for promoting study and reverence”. The owner and family will travel to Jerusalem, the seat of religious and intellectual authorities, where they will have the opportunity to study Torah. They will return home with knowledge and uplifting experiences to share with their community (Sefer Ha-chinukh).
The Netziv (1817-1893) thinks that because it is impossible for the owner to consume an entire tenth of his produce in such a brief period, he will either prolong his stay after the festival or leave the surplus funds to support Torah scholars.
Rashbam focuses on the experiential and emotional impact on the individual from being at and viewing the holy Temple and the sacred service.
Rav Moshe Alshikh (1580-1600) explains that the acts of eating, drinking and abundance of rejoicing can bring one to learn to fear God through the realization that one does not own the tithe and that one’s bounty does not stem from his efforts alone. When eating “before God” one can be filled with awe of Him. [Note: One cannot betroth a woman with his Second Tithe because it does not belong to him but to God who permits him to eat and drink of it.]
Rambam (cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) sees a social purpose in that with holiday spirit in the air, feelings of comradery abound. The harvest would be shared with others. Strangers would meet and talk. “There would be a sense of shared citizenship, common belonging and collective identity.”
On Shemittah (Sabbatical Year)
The rules relating to agriculture during this year were presented earlier in the Torah:
• Letting the fields “rest” by not working them;
• Any produce that grows is hefker-- ownerless and free for all to enjoy].
This week’s parsha focuses on the financial aspects of Shemittah as relates to loans and to lending:
• “At the end of (the) seven year (cycle) you must annul all loans…
• He (lender) may not demand payment from his friend or his brother…
• You should give to him (the person in need of a loan) repeatedly and your heart should not feel bad when you give to him…
• You should repeatedly open your hand to your brother and to your destitute (resident) in your land.”
In a predominately agrarian society, a loan constituted a kindness to a fellow farmer in need of capital to work his land. As such, no interest could be charged. Shemittah enabled Society to come together and erase what may have become oppressive debt.
But the unintended consequence was that people avoided making loans as the year of Shemittah neared for fear that they would not be repaid. To correct this situation, Hillel the Elder in the first century BCE, introduced a new lending contract [pruzbul] in which the loan is transferred to the court for collection.
Pruzbul is a Greek word that means “before the court”. The text reads “I give over to you [the beit din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish”. Because the debt is now owed to the court and not an individual, the debt survives the Sabbatical year.
Shemittah and Worldwide Events: Correlation or Coincidence?
World economic and political upheavals have characterized past Shemittah years. Nearly every major stock market collapse since the early 1900’s and the six biggest economic crashes took place during a Shemittah year. A Wall Street Journal compilation of the twenty largest one-day stock market crashes included ten that were in a Shemittah year. The stock market collapses in 2008 and 2001 both occurred on the last day of the Shemittah year, the day on which all debts were wiped away.
The 2014-2015 Shemittah year witnessed …
Worldwide market collapses triggered, in part, by currency devaluations
Civil unrest around the world
Iran, the world’s largest exporter of terrorism, becoming a nuclear threat
Frightening rise in worldwide anti-Israel and anti-Semitism
Growing power of Islamo-fascist terrorist organizations like ISIS.
The 2007-2008 Shemittah year ended on September 29, 2008. Two weeks earlier the US federal government had taken over Franny Mae and Freddie Mac and Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The stock market began a free fall; on October 15th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 774 points.
The 2000-2001 Shemittah year ended on September 17, 2001.On March 20th, 2000 the NASDAQ index lost over 10% when the “dot-com” bubble burst. The market continued to collapse eventually declining a total of 55% in October 2002. On September 11th, 2001, our nation suffered a horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
The 1993-1994 Shemittah year ended September 5, 1994.During this period interest rates climbed sharply fueled by concerns about federal spending; the Federal Reserve bank’s decision to boost short-term rates in response to rising commodity prices and a strengthening economy. Bond investors suffered over a trillion dollars of losses during the bond market massacre.
The 1986-1987 Shemittah year ended September 23, 1987. Just a few short weeks later, on Black Monday (October 19, 1987), markets around the world crashed.
The 1979-1980 Shemittah year ended September 13, 1980. During this period interest rates were boosted (which helped to precipitate a recession); the price of oil spiked to $33 a barrel (or $200 a barrel adjusted for inflation); and the price of gold shot up. On September 22nd, Iraq invaded Iran, in what was to become an eight-year war.
The 1972-1973 Shemittah year ended September 26, 1973.Ten days later the Yom Kippur War began. In October 1973 members of OPEC declared an oil embargo which resulted in a run up in oil prices, which in turn triggered a 1973-74 market crash and a recession that lasted until 1975.