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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shemini
April 6, 2013 – 26 Nisan 5773

Annual: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 (Etz Hayim p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial: Leviticus 11:1-11:47 (Etz Hayim p. 636; Hertz p. 449)
Haftarah (A): 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17 (Etz Hayim p. 645; Hertz p. 454)
Haftarah (S): 2 Samuel 6:1-19 (Etz Hayim p. 645; Hertz p. 454)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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

Following this auspicious beginning to the efforts of the Israelite priesthood, Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer ill-defined – and ill-advised – "alien fire" before God. The errant priests are consumed in divine fire – the malignant equivalent of the fire which earlier consumed Israel's first sacrifices as an indicator of divine favor and approval. Moses offers a brief, somewhat cryptic, poetic message of consolation to his bereaved brother. Aaron responds with absolute silence to his devastating loss. The remains of the stricken priests are removed from the Sanctuary by their priestly cousins. Aaron and his surviving sons, in keeping with their unique obligations as priests, are adjured not to mourn in the usual manner.

God addresses Aaron, commanding him and all future priests serving at the altar to refrain from drinking wine or other intoxicant. Wine is deemed an impediment to the priestly mission of distinguishing "between the sacred and the profane, between the unclean and the clean" as well as the priestly duty of transmitting God's commandments to the Israelite community.

After a brief set of instructions regarding the meal, wave, and sin offerings, Shemini offers the Torah's fundamental basis for the Dietary Laws. 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), as well as "winged swarming things" – insects. This discussion of food stuffs is followed by a corollary prescription of ritual impurity and its transfer from forbidden – i.e. 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 centrality of this message is reinforced by the fact that Parashat Shemini is identified by the Masoretes as including the very center of the Torah: the customarily majuscule gimel of gachon in 11:14, if counting by letters… or the imperative infinitive darosh darash [customarily the last and first words of consecutive lines] in 10:16, if counting by words. 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: "Impressive Fire"

"Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces." (Leviticus 9:24)

Derash - Study

Shouted – They praised God. (Targum Onkelos)

The fire came from within the Holy of Holies and the altar of gold… the same place where the sons of Aaron stood by the altar of gold and were consumed by flame. (Rashbam)

God's fire issued from the kavod, which itself was a fire that was enveloped in a thick cloud and pervaded the tent. It was a blessing to those who pleased God but destructive to those who angered Him. On this occasion the ignition of the altar fire was cause for rejoicing. (Baruch Levine, JPS Commentary)

Climax of climaxes. This is what it is all about… what it all comes down to, or, rather, UP to. Life is about being inspired and inspiring. It is about being spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally stirred up to the point that one wants to shout out praise to God… Praising others, and especially God, reveals just how much we are able to get out of ourselves and be objective, the goal of life. It is then, and only then, that we can become fitting conduits for the light of God, the true goal of life and success of a person. (Rabbi Pinchas Winston)

The physical voice we use in prayer need not be great nor startling; even should we not lift up any great cry or shout, God will yet hear us. (Origen)

Questions for Discussion

Targum Onkelos insists that the Israelite's shouting was praise for God. How else might we understand this term – Song? Expressions of fear? – Would that change our reading of this narrative?

Is shouting praise or prayer and falling to the ground in awe of God the Jewish ideal of worship? Is it really "all about being… emotionally stirred up" as Rabbi Winston puts it? Do you find more spiritual meaning in the shouts and movement of ecstatic worship… or in the quiet insights of Torah study? How might Origen (a third century Christian theologian from Alexandria) have reacted to this passage?

Compare our verse to Leviticus 10:2 – where "fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed" Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons. The very same language is used in both verses… and, as Rashbam notes, the fire proceeded from the selfsame location. What does this indicate about the nature of God, and about the worship of God? Is it a dark statement about God's anger? About divine caprice? About the possibility of good and pious people suffering and meeting an untimely demise? About the dangers of innovation or unauthorized and unconventional forms of worship and religious expression?

What moral lessons can we draw from the assertion that God's power – surely awesome in scope – can be either horribly destructive of cause for celebration? What other (perhaps less divine) forces have a similarly ambiguous quality?

Theme #2: "Suppressing Ire"

"Moses inquired about the goat of purification offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, ‘Why did you not eat the purification offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.' And Aaron spoke to Moses, ‘See, this day they brought their purification offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten purification offering today, would the Lord have approved?' And when Moses heard this, he approved." (Leviticus 10:16-20)

Derash: Study

Look at what anger can do, even to a person as wise and pious as Moses. When Moses became angry, his knowledge of the Law left him, and he forgot that a priest in mourning was not permitted to eat of the sacrifice. (Midrash Rabbah)

Moses was not ashamed to admit that he had been wrong, saying: ‘I did not understand.' (Rashi)

Moses rejoiced at the sound reasoning of his brother and his sons, who saw and taught clearly. (Sforno)

Moses was pleased with Aaron's reaction to the tragedy that had befallen him. When Aaron was silent at the time of the death of his two sons, one could have attributed his silence not to resignation to the will of God but to grief and bitterness too great to be put into words. But when Moses saw that Aaron's mind was clear enough to be able to discuss laws, make distinctions between them and render decisions superior to his own, he was satisfied that Aaron's silence was due not to the numbness of shock and grief, and was pleased that his brother had so calmly and willingly accepted the decree of heaven." (Chatam Sofer)

A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good. (Henry Ward Beecher)

Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. (Aristotle)

Questions for Discussion

Leviticus 10:16 is considered the very center of the Torah. Aside from the emphasis on inquiry, what might we infer from the central location of this extended narrative: Moses' initial anger and subsequent change of heart in response to Aaron's explanation?

How might Aristotle or Henry Ward Beecher (19th Century Congregationalist minister and abolitionist) respond to Midrash Rabbah? Is anger ever a constructive emotion? An indicator of moral or spiritual depth? Is Aaron's defense – "Such things have befallen me!" – a sign of his analytical dispassion, as the Chatam Sofer suggests… or an indication of the defining nature of his grief, a natural and understandable – and perhaps even healthy – erosion of his previous, stoic silence? Does his rhetorical question to Moses ("Would the Lord have approved?") border on the morose? The petulant or sarcastic?

Is Moses an appealing character in this scene? An effective leader? A sensitive, loving, and understanding brother? Do the perspectives of Sforno, Rashi, and Chatam Sofer enhance or detract from Moses' stature?

Historic Note

Much of Parashat Shemini, read on April 6, 2013 is devoted to the enumeration of animal species: those ritually clean and permissible for human consumption, as well as the ritually impure and forbidden species. On April 6, 2010, scientists announced discovery of three new (non-kosher!) animal species of the phylum Loricifera. The microscopic, marine sediment-dwelling animals spend their entire lives without oxygen.

Halachah L'Maaseh

"These you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours… locusts of every variety, all variety of bald locusts; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper" (Leviticus 11:21-22). Crickets are kosher?! According to the Star-K kashrut supervisory organization, "The Torah states that certain types of grasshoppers are kosher. However, we no longer have the ability to identify which type is kosher. Therefore, we refrain from eating all grasshoppers"… as well as crickets! While certainly true for Ashkenazim, it should be noted that some Jewish communities among our Moroccan and Yemenite brethren have maintained an unbroken chain for tradition of identifying and eating certain grasshoppers… and crickets… as kosher. Other species that are theoretically kosher, but for which no received tradition of proper slaughter and kosher consumption has been transmitted… include giraffe!

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