Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

April 21, 2012 – 29 Nisan 5772

Annual: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 (Etz Hayim p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial: Leviticus 10:12 – 11:32 (Etz Hayim p. 635; Hertz p. 447)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18-42 (Etz Hayim p.1216; Hertz p. 948)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Parashat Shemini describes what occurred on the eighth day, following the seven-day process of priestly ordination. The newly authorized priests use the altar for the first time, Moses and Aaron together bless the assembled Israelites, and the people respond with shouts of joy and with worship to the divine fire that demonstrates that the sacrifices have been accepted.

Following this auspicious beginning, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer illdefined and ill-advised “alien fire” before God, and they are consumed in divine fire. Moses offers a brief, somewhat cryptic poetic message of consolation to his bereaved brother. Aaron responds with absolute silence to his devastating loss, and their priestly cousins remove the dead priests’ remains from the sanctuary. Aaron and his surviving sons, in keeping with their unique obligations as priests, are told not to mourn in the usual manner.

God addresses Aaron directly, commanding him and all future priests serving at the altar to refrain from drinking wine or other intoxicants. After a brief set of instructions about the meal, wave, and sin offerings, Shemini turns its attention to the Torah’s fundamental description of the dietary laws, detailing forbidden and permitted species among land animals (split-hooved ruminants are permitted), fish (those with fins and scales are permitted), and birds (no distinguishing physical characteristic are specified, though a lengthy list is provided), and “winged swarming things” – insects. The discussion of foodstuffs is followed by a corollary prescription of ritual impurity and its transfer from forbidden – that is, impure or “unclean” – animals, by means of, for example, physical contact or carrying.

The parashah concludes with a critical statement of the purpose of the ritual requirements that have been detailed: “I, the Lord, am your God. You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” The Masoretic note on 10:16 is a studious play on words: darosh darash — zeh chatzi ha-Torah: “‘to investigate thoroughly’ – this is half of the Torah.”

Theme #1: “And may the blessed man win!”

“Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the purification offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people.” (Leviticus 9:22-23)

Derash: Study

“At the time when he became eligible for the priestly gifts, he also became eligible to bestow the blessing – he and his descendants.” (cited in Maayanah shel Torah)

“‘He stepped down’ – Someone bestowing a blessing must have a connection with the party being blessed. Aaron stepped down from his lofty station of holiness in order to connect with all Israel.” (Rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish, Rebbe of Ashminov)

“First become a blessing to yourself, that you may be a blessing to others.” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

“The most eloquent prayer is the prayer through hands that heal and bless.” (Billy Graham)

“Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.” (Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize winning poet)

Questions for Discussion

Who is qualified to bless another person? How do the insights of Rabbis Hirsch and Kalish help shape your answer to this question? How does the midrash cited in Maayanah shel Torah relate to these two authorities’ teachings?

What is the significance of Aaron blessing the people both before and after entering the Tent of Meeting?

Why did Moses join his brother in offering the second blessing? To increase the intensity and visibility of the act? To compensate for a perceived lack in Aaron? To emulate his priestly brother’s example? To demonstrate a united front in national leadership? What programmatic (or spiritual) implications does this joint blessing offer to modern congregations?

Why does God’s presence appear to the people Israel only after the second blessing?

Whom would you wish to bless? What message would that blessing articulate? Conversely, whose blessing would be the most meaningful to you? How might you communicate the desire to be so blessed?

Theme #2: “Glatt to See You!”

“These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the impure and the pure, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.” (Leviticus 11:46-47)

Derash: Study

“The biblical laws that limit Israel’s diet to only a few of the animals permitted to other peoples constitute a reminder – confronted daily at the dining table – that Israel must separate itself from the nations.” (Jacob Milgrom)

“In the absence of modern economies and cattle-raising techniques, sufficient quantities of animal flesh were mostly unavailable for common consumption. If one of the central purposes of these laws was to separate Israelites from their neighbors, it is very odd that the legislator (divine, collective, or otherwise – I intend this as a metaphor) chose to restrict the laws to foods that were eaten least often, if at all.” (David Kraemer)

“Observing kashrut demands sacrifice, self-discipline and determination, but what is really worthwhile in life that does not?” (Rabbi Samuel Dresner)

“The dietary laws are not incumbent upon us because they conduce to moderation, nor the family laws because they further chastity. The law as a whole is not the means to an end, but the end in itself; the Law is active religiousness, and in active religion lies what is specifically Jewish.” (Rabbi Louis Ginzberg)

“Cooking is a language through which that society unconsciously reveals its structure.” (Claude Levi-Strauss)

Questions for Discussion

What does kashrut reveal about the structure of Jewish society (see Levi- Strauss)? Which is primary? Is the function of the dietary laws in separating the people Israel from other nations? The discipline involved in maintaining the laws of kashrut? The role of keeping kosher in repeatedly introducing “active religion” (see Ginzberg) into our daily lives?

Why is so much of kashrut focused on eating meat? In light of Professor Kraemer’s insight that our ancestors ate meat only infrequently, has the answer to this question changed over time?

How else does Jewish tradition invite us to introduce a sense of sanctity to our daily meals? How else does Jewish tradition introduce “active religion” into mundane daily activities?

Does the observance of kashrut lose meaning as it becomes easier (less of a “sacrifice,” as Ginzberg describes it) – as through availability of more kosher products, kosher restaurants, the efforts of others in preparing our food? Or are ease and enjoyment of kashrut observance a desirable goal and religious virtue? That is, is it better if keeping kosher feels like a sacrifice?

What step are you prepared to take today to enhance your observance (or understanding) of the dietary laws based on Parashat Shemini?

Historic Note

In Parashat Shemini, read on April 21, 2012, Moses offers condolences to a bereaved but stoic Aaron following the death of his two sons, which was a devastating personal blow as well as a traumatic national loss: “all the house of Israel shall bewail the burning the Lord has wrought.” On April 21, 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train departed Washington D.C. to wend its way through a traumatized and bereaved nation.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Unlike its treatment of kosher land animals (Leviticus 11:12) and fish (Leviticus 11:9-10), the Torah does not provide identifying characteristics for permitted fowl. Rather, it lists some 24 species that are forbidden (see Leviticus 11:13-19 and Chullin 63B). Those not listed are presumed to be kosher. Rabbi Isaac Klein (Guide to Jewish Religious Practice) summarizes distinguishing features of permitted fowl deduced by the rabbis: “A permitted bird has a crop; the sac in the gizzard can be peeled off; it has an extra toe – i.e., in addition to the three front toes, it has another toe in the back; it is not a bird of prey.” Included among permitted fowl are chicken, duck, turkey, goose, and pigeon. In practice, determination of which species of fowl are kosher is a matter of received tradition (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah, Rema ad loc).

SPECIAL NOTE: Israelis, who observe only seven days of Passover, having read Parashat Shemini on April 14, read Parashat Tazria today, April 21, and Parashat Metzora on April 28 (when the diaspora reads both Tazria and Metzora). Diaspora communities will catch up with Israel on May 5, when we all will read a double portion: Aharei Mot/Kedoshim.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016