file Musings on Parshat Shemini

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3 weeks 2 days ago #736 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.

Life Lessons from the Parsha

• Need for limit-setting
• Need to follow orders
• Need for avoid extremity in religion
• Need for self-discipline
• Need to bear up under hardship
• Reverence for animal life
• Need for separation and purification


• Six positive commandments and eleven prohibitions
• The eighth day of Inauguration of the Mishkan
• Promise of the enormity of experiencing and embracing the Glory of God
• Aharon brings animal offerings of atonement for himself and for the nation:
 A sin-offering denoting purification
 A burnt offering, indicating self-surrender to God.
 A meal offering, signifying consecration of labor
 A peace offering, symbolizing fellowship with God
• Aharon greets the people and, for the first time, blesses them with the Priestly Blessing
• Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu are burned to death by a heavenly fire after they bring unconsecrated fire and incense into the Sanctuary
• Aharon, the distraught father, is speechless, unable (or unwilling) to speak, probably because he was in shock
• Priests instructed not to rend their garments and let their hair grow long in what were to later become the rituals of mourning
• Priests warned not to enter the Sanctuary when intoxicated
• Disposal of the Initiatory offerings
• Dietary laws:
o Permitted animals
o Permitted fish
o Listing of forbidden birds
o Permitted and forbidden insects
• Ritual impurity is transferred to objects and foods that encounter death (animal carcasses)
• Prohibition of eating 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 too 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 encounter a corpse or an animal carcass.

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.” Rabbi J.H. Hertz reasons that the fire took the form of a lightening flash, killing them without destroying their garments. “Their souls were consumed; their bodies remained untouched”.

What was it about these two brothers that prompted them to behave this way? Interestingly, the first time that we are introduced to them is at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai when they are listed among the relatively few people whom God directed to go up the mountain. [The others were Moshe, Aharon, and the seventy elders of Israel. The nation of Israel was gathered at the foot of the mountain.] But it was only Moshe who was then commanded to proceed to the top of the Mountain for a direct contact with God. Nadav and Avihu may have been unhappy at not achieving this higher level of interfacing with God that Moshe experienced. So now they rushed to enter the Holy of Holies with their fire pans hoping to experience this closeness to God that they missed on Mt. Sinai. Understood this way, the moral of the story is that no matter how badly one wants to embrace God, there are boundaries that may not be crossed. An opposite interpretation sees the brothers, having been one of the very few who got to close to God on Mt. Sinai, becoming arrogant; feeling “holier- than-thou”; and convincing themselves that they could do whatever they want. Understood this way, the ethical message to the extremely religious and the extremely knowledgeable is to be on guard, and not fall into the trap of feeling more empowered than--and better than-- anyone else.

Their father Aharon “held his peace”, having resigned himself to the tragedy that befell him or too shocked to respond.

A few verses later God warns that Priests will die if they drink wine or any other intoxicant 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.

Some commentaries conclude that the proximity of this topic to the story suggests that the brothers’ sin related to drunkenness. Others think that perhaps this was a warning to Aharon not to “drown his sorrows.”

Following are opinions regarding the nature of the sin that caused the deaths of Nadav and Avihu:

 Their hubris (excessive pride). It was they who decided how they wanted the service to be performed and brought in unrequested 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?”

 The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks that the two were holy people who sought a heightened, ecstatic, spiritual high that they (mistakenly) thought could be obtained by drinking. They died because they “no longer wanted a bodily existence”. Perhaps the prohibition relating to wine is a broader warning to all not to ingest/inject foreign substances that enhance or create a heightened religious experience. Too, spiritual inspiration from one’s intense yearning for an experience with the divine must be re-focused back on everyday life in the physical world.

 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.

 Rabbi Gunther Plaut observes that “The priestly ideal is one of conformity not of innovation”

 A Midrash explains 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.

 Furthermore, explains Rabbi Sacks, their burning religious passion made them believe that God had inspired them to “do deeds in defiance of law and convention”. This type of extreme enthusiasm needs to be constrained (by law and by ritual) lest it become a raging inferno of extremism, fanaticism and religiously-motivated violence.

Turning to the Mundane

Rabbi Hertz makes the point that thus far in the Book of Vayikra, the Torah has been concerned with matters relating to the priests and korbanot (offerings). But now (and for the remainder of the Book) the Torah deals with daily life. Regulations instituted for all aspects of one’s life (both private and public) are designed to have a spiritual worth and reinforce the interdependency of the physical with the spiritual. The Israelites were destined to be a holy nation alone and apart from the surrounding heathens and distinguished by outward purity of behavior that symbolically expresses an inner sanctity. The first subject in the laws of purity to be presented is food, because the daily diet “intimately affects one’s being”.

On Foods

Foods that are permitted to be eaten are generally referred to as being kasher (or kosher). [Note: the actual meaning of this 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 parlance to describe a food that is not permitted to be eaten (the opposite of kosher). But the actual definition of the word is an animal that is torn apart and is prohibited because it suffers a fatal (within twelve months) injury, disease or defect.

The terminology employed by the Torah to characterize the unacceptable is tamey, “spiritually unclean”.

The Dietary Laws

 Kosher animals can be identified by two physical signs (simanim in Hebrew), both of which must be present: their hooves must be wholly cloven, and they must bring up their cud. Ruminants have four stomachs. The animal swallows its food after enough chewing to moisten it. (The moistened food is called cud.) The food descends into the first and second stomachs where it ferments and is broken down. The food then is regurgitated and chewed a second time, after which it descends to the third and fourth stomachs where the moisture is squeezed out and where it mixes with the digestive juices then makes its way to the intestine to be completely digested.

The hooves must be completely split, as illustrated below.

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
[Note: Rabbi Natan Slifkin reasons that four animals are listed in the Torah merely as examples of local animals from the region of the Land of Israel and that other types of animals exist (perhaps in remote regions of the world) that possess only one kosher sign.]

 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. Nevertheless, the Talmud deduces that the following characteristics are necessary for a bird to be acceptable:

 It is not a dores (hunts and attacks its prey)

 It has an extra toe and a crop and a gizzard that can be peeled

 There exists a mesorah (tradition) from teacher or from a parent that the bird is kosher

Regarding the permissibility of eating turkey, the Netziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin,1816-1893) argued that once a bird is widely accepted it ipso facto has a mesorah, and only if it is seen to be predatory can the mesorah be overturned. He posits that when the indik (turkey?) was brought from India there were questions about its status, and for some people those questions remain. However, most of the Jews have accepted it as kosher. Once that has happened, unless there is overwhelmingly compelling evidence to declare it non-kosher, such as that it is found to be truly dores, it cannot now be declared non-kosher. The rule that birds are eaten only if a mesorah exists coupled with the fact that the origins of a specific mesorah are unknown, is insufficient reason to declare an accepted bird unacceptable. Rather, we treat it as if we now have a mesorah and follow the rule that when a reliable mesorah exists there is no need for further investigation and the bird may be eaten unless it is found to be truly a dores, in which case it would be assumed that the mesorah was in error and must be rejected. That has not happened with turkeys.

 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:

• Snakes
• Worms
• Scorpions
• Centipedes

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.

The dietary laws are symbolic of proper conduct and obeying the laws condition man to act in that manner. They are designed 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. To arrive at holiness, God embraces purity and wholeness and abominates mixtures. Permitted animals are those that conform to the standard pure and whole types. Animals like sheep and goats are clean because they have split hooves and chew their cud while animals lacking these characteristics are considered unclean. 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. Holiness requires that individuals conform to the class to which they belong.

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.”

Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo views these laws as “an act of disobedience against a consumerism that encourages human beings to eat anything as long as it tastes good.”

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”.

“You Are What You Eat”[/i

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. The Torah encourages one to consider and re-consider and think-through an issue before arriving at a course of action. 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). The need for discernment is critical as we walk on the paths of our lives.

Dr. Alvin Schiff focused 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 must make in life.

Fish that have fins and scales are permitted. In Hebrew kaskeses means shield and protection. Most 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.

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz

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