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Torah Sparks

May 13, 2006 - 15 Iyar 5766

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

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The first half of this portion concerns the laws of the kohenim, the priesthood. A kohen is not allowed to defile himself for the dead, except for the funeral of an immediate relative. He may not marry a divorcee, or a woman degraded by harlotry. The laws are even stricter for the high priest, who may not defile himself even for his parents. He may marry only a virgin. Also, any kohen who has a physical defect may not serve in the role of priest or approach the altar. The portion mentions a long list of such disqualifying defects.

The priests are commanded to be scrupulous about the sacred offerings that the people bring to God. No priest who is in a state of ritual impurity may eat these offerings. Purification requires bathing in water and waiting until sunset. The kohen also may not eat any meat from an animal that has died of natural causes, without ritual slaughter, nevelah, or that was torn by beasts, terefah. Jewish law expands these prohibitions to all Jews. The priest's family may eat the sacred offerings, but should a priest's daughter marry a non-priest, she loses that privilege.

Just as the priest himself must be without blemish, so must all offerings be without blemish. Even the offerings of a foreigner must be pure. An animal must stay with its mother for seven days, and can only be offered up after the eighth day. However, an animal and its young cannot be offered on the same day. These laws point towards the central principle, that God's name must be sanctified - Kiddush HaShem - not profaned - Hillul HaShem -among the people.

Most of the remainder of this portion is a detailed account of the various festivals through the Jewish year. The seventh day is the Sabbath. The portion continues with the laws of Passover, the counting of the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and finally the various details of the observance of Sukkot. The Israelites are to bring clear olive oil to light the lights, and choice flour to bake 12 loaves of bread placed on a table before the altar. Finally, in a brief narrative, the portion tells of a man who blasphemed the name of God. God gives a final command that any blasphemer and any murderer shall be put to death. The Israelites were to take the blasphemer outside and pelt him with stones.

Issue #1 - Life and Death

"The Lord said to Moses, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, none shall defile himself for any dead person" (Leviticus 21:1)


  1. Why must a kohen, or priest, even today avoid going to a cemetery or being in a room with a dead body? (Hint - We must remember that we were slaves in Egypt, a country whose religion was a cult of death. The pyramids that tourists flock to see really were ancient tombs. Egyptian priests concerned themselves with the needs of the dead. They were expert at embalming and creating mummies. The Torah was reacting to this cult of death. The new Israelite religion became obsessed with life.)
  2. Judaism is built on separations. The most important separation is between life and death. What are some ways we symbolize that separation? Why do we wash our hands after returning from a cemetery? Why do we insist that mourners eat a meal after a funeral? Could these laws symbolize life following death?
  3. Further examples - Could the separation of milk (the life-giving food for a baby animal) and meat (the flesh of an animal) be related to this separation of life and death? Could the traditional laws of family purity, where a couple avoids sexual relations - an affirmation of life - after a menstrual period - the death of a potential life - be related to this separation of life and death?
  4. The Torah teaches that there is to be a separation between death and life. When given a choice between a path leading to death and a path leading to life, the Torah says "Therefore choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19). The entire thrust of the tradition is to enhance life.

Issue #2 - People with Disabilities

"The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say, No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God" (Leviticus 21:16-17)


  1. Sometimes we learn from difficult, even painful laws. This week's portion speaks of the kohanim, the descendants of Aaron, who served as priests and brought the offerings in the ancient Temple. No priest was allowed to bring an offering if he were disabled in any way. A priest who was blind or lame or had a misshapen limb, a man with a broken leg or arm, a hunchback or a dwarf or anyone with a growth on his body, was forbidden from bringing the offerings. Just as the sacrifice had to be without blemish, so the person bringing the offering had to be without blemish as well. While moderns may find this difficult to accept, it was not out of place in the cultic world. Why?
  2. Perhaps the answer is that the sacrificial offerings were meant to inculcate in the people a sense of holiness of God's presence and God's perfection. To watch a priest with a disability bring the offering would have the opposite effect. People would say, "Look, the priest is blind," or "Look, the priest is a hunchback," and never even sense God's presence in the moment. The Torah knew a fundamental truth about human nature - we have difficulty seeing beyond the disability to actually see the real person.
  3. How can we learn to see past the disability to the human being? The Talmud tells this story: A rabbi came across an extremely ugly man. The rabbi said, "Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?" The man answered, "Go tell the workman how ugly is the vessel he created." Suddenly the rabbi felt terrible and begged the man for forgiveness (Taanit 20a-b). What can we learn from this story?

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