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Torah Sparks

May 10, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Lev. 21:1 - 24:23 (Hertz, p. 513; Etz Hayim, p. 717)
Triennial Cycle II: Lev. 22:17 - 23:22 (Hertz, p. 517; Etz Hayim, p. 722)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15 - 31 (Hertz, p. 528; Etz Hayim, p. 734)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Torah Portion Summary

(21:1-22:15) Prohibitions against the priest (kohen) coming near a dead person. The marital laws of the priest, and the special holiness of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) concerning marriage and bereavement.

(21:16-22:16) Laws concerning a kohen who has been rendered ritually impure. Who is permitted and forbidden to eat the meat of the sacrifices.

(22:17-33) Defects that disqualify an animal from being sacrificed, and other related laws. (23:1-34) Laws concerning the holiness of Shabbat, Passover, the bringing of the first omer offering, the counting of the omer, and the holiday of Shavuot. Laws concerning Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

(24:1-9) The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) and the Showbread, twelve loaves left on display in the Tabernacle.

(24:10-16) An incident of blasphemy and the punishment of the blasphemer: death by stoning. The law of blasphemy for the future.

(24:17-23) Other laws which have major penalties - murder and causing severe injury.

Discussion Theme: The Centrality of Shabbat

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. On six days work may be done, but on the se venth day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a Sabbath of the Lord throughout your settlements.” (Lev. 23:1-3)


  1. Leviticus 23 is a calendar of the annual festivals celebrated in biblical times... In conformance with biblical tradition, this calendar also includes the Sabbath, even though it is not, technically speaking, a calendrical festival….The statement “on six days work may be done” emphasizes three norms of conduct basic to the observance of the Sabbath: 1) the prohibition of “melachah,” “work”; 2) the sanctity of the Sabbath; and 3) the requirement that the Sabbath be observed in all Israelite settlements. (Baruch Levine, JPS Commentary)
  2. ”For six days we ask and receive no answers. On Shabbat we are silent and suddenly know... Just as you clean and prepare your home for Shabbat, Shabbat cleans and prepares your soul for wisdom... “You shall be holy” is the challenge of the weekday. You already are holy is the secret of Shabbat... God creates us moment to moment. Each instant is fresh and open to infinite possibility. During the week, we forget this. On Shabbat we remember.” (Gerer Rebbe, Sefat Emet)
  3. Seven days without Shabbat makes one weak. (Anonymous pun)
  4. If we have one insight, it is that ritual is the greatest source of strength. Take the Shabbat, which, for a Jew like me means spending a day when you cannot work, answer the phone, use a car or watch television. It is an extreme form of environmental consciousness-raising because you cannot manipulate the world and instead have the chance to see it as God’s work of art. (Jonathan Sacks)
  5. Shabbat is the main gate to God’s palace. It is a gateless gate. There is no door to open or close. Nothing is hidden. There is nowhere to go. Shabbat is about being not becoming. There is nowhere to go on Shabbat; you are already there. There is no one to be on Shabbat, you already are. (A Hasidic observation)
  6. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: On the eve of the Sabbath, the Holy Blessed One, gives to each Jewish person an enlarged soul and at the close of the Sabbath, God withdraws it, for it says: God ceased from work and rested; once the Sabbath has ceased, woe that the additional soul is lost. (Talmud Beitza 27a)
  7. On Shabbat the soul is more deserving of being visited with this spirit than during the week... By the neshamah yeterah is meant an additional holy spirit (ruach ha-kodesh ha-yeterah), more sublime than any other, as it is written: “Daniel surpassed the others by virtue of his ruach yeterah” (Daniel 6:4). For when this spirit is present in the soul, one is given power to understand and grasp…and on Shabbat, the holy spirit is over all, and the soul reaches its full potential (kochah)... for the soul’s power is enlarged in consonance with the seventh day – that is, Yesod, its source). (Azriel of Gerona)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

Shabbat tops the list of holidays in our passage in this section of Leviticus. It is the only holiday that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. According to Genesis, Shabbat is the pinnacle of creation. Shabbat is also distinctive in that when we describe an observant or religious Jew, we say he/she is “shomer shabbat,” Sabbath observant. Again, the mitzvah of Shabbat is primary.

Why does Shabbat play such a distinctive role? Why is Shabbat selected from among all the 613 mitzvot as the mitzvah to describe a person as a “religious Jew”?

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