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Torah Sparks

April 2, 2005 - 22 Adar II 5765

Annual: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial: Leviticus 9:1 - 10:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Maftir: Numbers 19:1 - 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16 - 38 (Etz Hayim, p. 1287; Hertz p. 999)

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

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Parashat Shemini begins with the inauguration of the altar through the first implementation of one of the offerings about which we've been reading. Moses instructs Aaron in what is to be done and Aaron and his sons come forward to complete the task. Once the altar has been prepared through the offering of the hattat, it is now ready for the people's offering, after which Aaron blesses the people as part of the priestly ritual. Moses and Aaron enter the Tent of Meeting and when they return, they bless the people again and the altar is filled with miraculous fire.

The next episode is both shocking and, perhaps, incomprehensible. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's sons, bring fire to the altar unbidden. God's fire comes forth and consumes them, killing them instantly. Moses offers an oblique message about God's holiness being manifest through those who are near to God and Aaron is silent. Moses forbids Aaron and his remaining sons (Elazar and Itamar) from ritual mourning or even leaving the Tent of Meeting.

Following a prohibition against alcohol consumption prior to entering the Tent of Meeting, Moses continues his guidelines for the sacrificial system. He explains that the grain offering must be eaten at the altar, but other offerings that are shared with the priestly families, can be consumed in any pure place. He inquires about the status of the purification offering and is angered to find out that it has been fully burned and not consumed, as he had instructed. Aaron defends himself by noting that it was not appropriate for him to complete the purification ritual on a day in which his family had sinned. Moses concurs.

We shift now from the appropriate conduct of sacrificial ritual to instructions on what is appropriate for Israelite consumption (the laws of kashrut). God explains that cud-chewing animals with split hooves are permitted. A list of animals which have one but not the other - and are forbidden - follows as reinforcement of this point. Fish are permitted only with fins and scales - this rule applies to anything which dwells in the water. Birds are classified as permitted and forbidden, rather than according to particular characteristics. Among insects, those which have both wings and four legs are forbidden, unless the legs are jointed, for leaping (like several types of locusts).

Those animals and insects which are forbidden confer impurity when one comes in contact with their carcasses. This also applies to a permitted animal which has died of natural causes or in any way independent of preparation for consumption.

Discussion Topic 1: "No Words for the Pain of Loss"

"Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.' And Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:3)

Derash: Study

  • "This implies patience and resignation as in the text: 'Resign (dom) thyself unto the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.' (Psalm 37:7) Aaron regained his peace of mind and his soul did cleave to God who is sanctified through His holy ones." (Biur, Naftali Hertz Weisel)
  • "R. Yose said [to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, on the death of his son], 'Aaron had two grown sons, both of whom died in one day, yet he was comforted for the loss of them, as it is said, 'And Aaron was silent' (Lev. 10:3) - his silence implies a willingness to be comforted. You, too, must be comforted." (Mekhilta, Yitro, Ba-hodesh)
  • "The reason it says 'And Aaron was silent' is that he was crying loudly and at this [Moses' words], he fell silent.'" (Ramban on Vayikra 10:3)
  • "The misfortunes of good people are not only a problem to the people who suffer and to their families. They are a problem to everyone who wants to believe in a just and fair and livable world. They inevitably raise questions about the goodness, the kindness, even the existence of God." (Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People)
  • "When we lose someone, especially when we have had little if any time to prepare ourselves, we are enraged, angry, in despair; we should be allowed to express these feelings." (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death And Dying)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Moses' words of comfort to Aaron are puzzling. Is he implying that God has taken Nadav and Avihu because they are close to God? Have they violated some precept that required their punishment? (The text in Vayikra does suggest this possibility.) What would be just cause on God's part for meting out such a severe punishment? (Tradition offers, alternately, that they were not called upon to bring fire and that they entered the Tent of Meeting in a state of intoxication. This theory is derived from the injunctions which follow the story.)
  2. Aaron's silence in the face of his immense loss is chilling. Without looking at the texts above, how do you understand his reaction? What are the possible explanations? What would be other possible responses?
  3. What happens between the lines in this text is crucial to our understanding of Aaron as a person and to our own experience of loss. How do we read Aaron's continued dedication to his ritual responsibilities in this light? As Harold Kushner queries, does this tragedy lead us to question God's beneficence? If it does, how do we move forward and rebuild our essential relationship with God?
  4. The various explanations offered by the commentaries above lead us to believe that Aaron's silence was praiseworthy. Do you agree? Can they be reconciled with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' statement on grief?

Discussion Theme 2: "Sanctifying Our Basic Needs: The Laws of Kashrut"

"These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs and that chews the cud - such may you eat." (Leviticus 11:23)

Derash: Study

  • "I maintain that the food which is forbidden by the Torah is unwholesome. There is nothing among the forbidden kinds of food whose harmful character is doubted, except pork and fat." (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed)
  • "R. Eliezer b. Azariah said: Whence that a man should not say: I can't abide wearing shaatnez, I can't abide pork, it is impossible for me to commit incest, but rather, I can, but what shall I do when my Father in Heaven has declared such things out of bounds for me? - from the text: 'I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.' He thus separates himself from transgression and accepts upon himself the yoke of Heaven." (Sifra: Kedoshim)
  • "A socioreligious intent clearly underlies the dietary classification system. Ideally, humankind should be sustained by the produce of the earth. When, instead, other living creatures are used as food, as is permitted, such use should be restricted to living creatures that sustain themselves with what grows on the earth and that do not prey on other living creatures or attack man." (Baruch Levine, Excursus to Leviticus)
  • "Holiness means to hallow our lives, but it also means to be set apart for the Lord. Thus one of the primary functions of kashrut is to distinguish us from others, to separate us from the nations, to preserve us amidst the maelstroms of history." (Samuel Dresner, The Jewish Dietary Laws)
  • "We can conclude that holiness is exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused." (Mary Tew Douglas, Purity and Danger)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The laws of kashrut have no apparent reason. No reason is given and none is logically deduced. Prior to an attempt to understand, in what ways do they transform the everyday and the mundane and make them holy? In what ways are we changed by this focus on how and what we eat? Tradition tells us that the mitzvot (our obligations) come from both l'tzaref, to purify and uplift and litzrof, to bind together. How does kashrut serve these dual purposes?
  2. Rambam suggests that the laws of kashrut stemmed from a concern with proper diet and health. Does this understanding make sense in a 21st century context? What is the impact of this view on how we value these regulations? What are its educational benefits and pitfalls?
  3. Are any of the explanations above particularly salient for you? How would you explain and support the laws of kashrut to someone who didn't understand or rejected these practices? Might we weave together a combination of these answers, or might none of them be relevant at all? Is it possible to accept this system without justification?
  4. The social and anthropological answers given by Levine and Douglas create a neat and orderly understanding of how these laws might have come to be. In particular, Mary Tew Douglas explains that the laws of kashrut stem from prohibitions on all those creatures which do not fit neatly into one category or another. In an academic context, these statements are quite compelling. Need we reject them in order to find a religious answer? How do we take scientific reality and reconcile it with a Divine context? Do we require a bridge from one to the other, and if so, what might that be? Ultimately, we must ask, what is the power of kashrut and what compels us to accept it?

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