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Torah Sparks

May 14, 2005 - 5 Iyar 5765

Annual: Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Triennial: Leviticus 21:1 - 22:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15 - 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 735; Hertz p. 528)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


Parashat Emor opens with rules specific to maintaining the integrity of the holiness of the priestly class. The priest may not come in contact with a dead body (save that of an immediate relative), shave his head or the corners of his beard nor make cuttings in his flesh. He may not marry a divorcee or a widow. The priest may not participate in the sacrificial service if he is blind, disabled or has any type of bodily malformation. All those phenomena which we previously noted (particularly in Parashat Metzora) render an individual impure, will render the priest temporarily unfit for his duties.

Only a member of the priest's household may partake in the food garnered from offerings: the stranger and the hired help are forbidden; the daughter is forbidden once she marries out of the priestly class (but regains her status if she moves back into her father's home single).

Animals presented for sacrificial offering must be perfect and without blemish or damage. The animal should be presented no sooner than the eighth day of its life and an adult animal and its young may not be killed on the same day.

The text shifts slightly to a discussion of the festivals, linked here by a description of their offerings. The seventh day, Shabbat, is the first of the feast to be mentioned, followed by Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and sukkot. Each is identified by its month and date, as well as the offerings it requires. The first and last days of Passover are set aside as holy; all the days are marked by the consumption of unleavened bread. The holiday is accompanied by a recognition of the first fruits of the wheat harvest. From Passover, seven Sabbaths are counted, a total of 50 days, before the next celebration and set of offerings is required. This, too, is marked as a harvest festival.

The first day of what the Bible considers the seventh month is a day of the blowing of trumpets, known to us - but not to the Bible - as Rosh HaShanah. The tenth day of that selfsame month is a day of atonement, a day free from work and devoted to the affliction of the soul. Finally, the fifteenth day of that month marks a final harvest festival, with days one and eight marked by elevated sanctity. Here we receive instruction on the need for and composition of the lulav, as well as the commandment to dwell in sukkot, or booths.

We are next instructed in the requirement of an eternal flame and its maintenance, along with the requirement of twelve loaves for The Sabbath, both for the Tabernacle.

Next we learn of the punishment for one who curses God. He is to be stoned to death by all those who heard the blasphemy. This is followed by a reminder that the penalty for taking a life is a life, and that similar parallels exist for loss of limb - an eye for an eye, etc.

The same system of laws is to apply to both Israelite and stranger.

Discussion Theme 1: "A Palace in Time"

"On six days work may be done, but on the seventh 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." (Leviticus 23:3)

Derash: Study

  • "Remember The Sabbath day and keep it holy…" (Exodus 20:8)
  • "Observe The Sabbath day and keep it holy..." (Deuteronomy 5:12)
  • "Throughout your settlements: In your land and outside your land; in the house and on the way." (Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 23:3)
  • "'Remember' and 'observe' were said in a single utterance." (Babylonian Talmud 20b)
  • "All week we struggle to make a living; we fight for our social and economic existence. There is war in every marketplace and every business is a battleground. On this day we declare an armistice." (Samuel H. Dresner in The Sabbath)
  • "What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the hearts? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit's precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine." (Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Note the different language employed by the Ten Commandments in each of their iterations, in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. How are they alike? How are they different? Are there ways in which they conflict?
  2. The rabbis note this conflict in the Talmud and many commentators address it. Imagine two words in a single utterance. What might that sound like? What would you take that phenomenon to mean? What do we learn about the rabbinic understanding of Shabbat from this particular resolution?
  3. Ibn Ezra's comment on our passage in Leviticus implies a certain totality of Shabbat. He is focusing on the location of Sabbath observance. What question is he trying to answer with his comment? What is he troubled by? What are the implications of his interpretation in practical terms? Are there other interpretations which come to mind?
  4. Reading Dresner and Heschel's comments together provides the synthesis implied by the single utterance. Are these approaches consecutive in any way? Do they suggest cause and effect to you? In what ways might you enhance your own Sabbath experience to be a reflection of the synthesis of "remember" and "observe?"

Discussion Theme 2: : "Just a Little Off the Sides"

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger: I the Lord am your God." (Leviticus 23:22)

Derash: Study

  • "… R. Avdimi said in the name of R. Yosef: Why did the text find it fitting to give these rules between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot on one side and Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot on the other side? To teach that one who gives his gleanings, forgotten fruits and corners [of the field] to the poor as expected is considered as if he has built the Holy Temple and offered his sacrifices within." (Rashi, Leviticus 23:22)
  • "These are the deeds for which there is no prescribed measure: leaving crops at the corner of a field for the poor, offering first fruits as a gift to the Temple, bringing special offerings to the Temple on the three Festivals, doing deeds of lovingkindness, and studying the Torah." (Mishnah Peah 1:1)
  • "… For four purposes the Torah ordered the corner crop to be left at the end of one's field: against robbing the poor, against wasting the time of the poor, against suspicion and against cheaters." (Babylonian Talmud 23a)
  • "If we took these verses absolutely literally, we would learn a powerful moral teaching about setting aside some of our resources to help those in need. However, we can also infer that the creation of a caring, interdependent community is a greater priority than strict property rights -- for ultimately, the land belongs to God, not its human steward." (Neal Loevinger, A New Look at Philanthropy,
  • "The January 25, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone brought 100's of new volunteers to an already flourishing organization. Rock and Wrap it Up! has fed 600,000 people since its start in August, 1994. Organized through a volunteer food rescue force of 250 members, they offer all bands who tour the opportunity to make sure that the edible leftover food from their contract rider is designated to feed those who hunger in soup kitchens and shelters throughout the world." (from a press release by founder Syd Mandelbaum, with thanks to Danny Siegel)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. If you were a farmer, deriving your livelihood from the produce of your fields, how would you react to this requirement? What is the justification for such a system in a social context? In a religious context?
  2. Rashi notes the peculiar location of this particular set of rules. The interruption of the flow of the text's description of the holidays makes us sit up and take notice. Why does Rashi tell us the rabbis associated this obligation with the sacrifices in the Temple? What does this imply about their sanctity and importance?
  3. The Talmud takes a slightly different approach in justifying the mandate. What is the motivation defined here? Do you think our system of laws is intended to be Hobbesian in nature, directing us against our likely intent, or more like John Locke, defining our natural moral instincts?
  4. In an era in which the majority of the Jewish population no longer lives according to an agricultural system, and when so many of the agricultural laws are said to apply only in the land of Israel, what is the import of this set of laws for the North American city dweller? Are there lessons to be derived even for us?
  5. Syd Mandelbaum's response to the deprivation of his Holocaust-era parents was to build an organization dedicated to eliminating hunger through the simple act of collecting leftovers. Are there institutions in our communities devoted to the distribution of excess resources? Are there steps that we can take as families and individuals which enable us to leave the corners of our "fields" for the poor?

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