Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parashat Emor

A Statement of Love

"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 among his kin" (Lev. 21:1) - The opening to Parashat Emor is unique both in the multiple usage of the root aleph - mem - resh within one single verse and the unique syntax of a double command: "emor" (speak) - "ve'amarta" (and say). Even the combination "vayomer" (and he said) - "ve'amarta" which appears here is found in only one other place among the laws of the Torah (Numbers 15:37-38) and there the verbs are distributed over two separate verses[1].

Thirteen times in the Torah Divine commands use the word "emor" and of those, only two are permanent mitzvot while the other eleven are one-time instructions. One of the two mitzvot is the verse before us, which instructs the priests concerning the question of defiling themselves when those relatives die.[2]

We may therefore ask, if there is any significance to the unusually large number of usages of the root amar in the opening of our parashah?

The Rabbis differentiate between the imperative "daber" (speak) which is emphatic and imperious, since the root appears twice along side the word "qashot" - (harshly), and the speaker is adonei ha'aretz (the master of the land) [Genesis 42:7; 42:30], and the word "emor" which implies a softer, more gentle request. Thus, Mechilta Yitro, Bachodesh, parasha 2, beginning with the words "and Moses ascended" (Ex. 19:3) comments: "Say (tomar) this to the House of Jacob - say it in gentle language, say the principles to the women; and tell it (taged) to the Sons of Israel - be maticulous (tedakdek) with them."

This distinction between amar and other verbs of saying brings us to the conclusion that the excessive and unique usage of the root amar in our verse means, according to our Sages, that the Almighty understood the feelings of the priests who are affected by the limitation on their emotional expression at the time of mourning, and therefore He used gentle language to request of them, rather than demand of them, that they guard their sanctity. This is similar to the interpretation Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (55,7) gives to the words "And he said (vayomer) please take your son," in the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:2): "I request (or beg) of you, please take your son". The excessive usage of the root amar in our verse indicates a feeling of closeness and love for the priests, not the imperial distance between a ruler and his subjects.

The reason for the gentle tone is found in the continuation. The lot of the priests is by no means easy for they are expected to control their emotions more than any other member of the People of Israel. Each priest may properly mourn only the six relatives enumerated by the Torah (mother, father, son, daughter, brother and unmarried sister) and also his wife who is indirectly included according to the Sages in the words "for any (dead) person among his kin" (Lev. 21:2). The High Priest is limited even more: "Neither shall he come near to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother. He shall not leave the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God" (ibid., 11-12)[3]. He may not grieve properly for any relative.

A second reason for the gentleness of the request stems from the fact that the prohibition against mourning is linked to another prohibition, also emotionally difficult. "They shall not take as a wife a woman who is a harlot or is profaned, neither shall they take a woman divorced by her husband" (Lev. 21:7), and the High Priest may "marry only a women who is a virgin" (ibid., 13). Thus, the Torah displays a heightened sensitivity when addressing those from whom it demands such great sacrifices.

Nevertheless, further explanation must be sought for the gentle nature of the Divine request, since one may reason just the opposite: The ordinary Jew may not always desire to observe all the details of the commandments, yet he is spoken to with the word daber, while the pristly elite, to whom we may apply the rule of "noblesse oblige", is addressed in the softer, less demanding style of emor.

Our second explanation is connected to the nature of the relationship between the priest and the people. The priest is above the people but at the same time he is their messenger and representative before the Almighty. He cannot fulfill this role properly if he does not have an emotional identification with each individual in the comminuty. The gentle form of the command which the Torah preferred when limiting the high -ranking priest both in the joy of whom he may marry and the sorrow of his mourning teaches the Kohen that he should not act haughtily nor be patronizing or aloof. He should see himself connected to all his brethren with feelings of gentleness and delicacy just as his Creator has shown those feelings towards him. God could have used strong language but chose instead to approach the priest gently with affection even when He came to remove him from impurity so that he could be worthy to draw near to God in holiness. The priest's role is thus within the framework of a double love relationship - love of God and love for the People of Israel, and does not stem from the imposition of absolute authority.

Even if one assumes that the priest performing his cultic duties in the Temple identifies more with God than with man, symbolized by the fact that when serving God he turns his back to the people; when he blesses the Children of Israel he faces them and he must feel love for them similar to the love of the Creator for the works of His hands (see Gen. 1:28), the love of a father for his son (see Gen. 48:15) or, at the very least, like the love of Moses for Israel when they do the will of God (see Ex. 39:43). In fact, the parasha of the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) in Naso (Num. 6:23) demands of him a feeling of gentleness toward the people: "In this way you shall bless the Children of Israel, say (amor) to them"; here again we find the root amar whose connotation has already been explained. The rabbinically-ordained introductory blessing which the priests recite, prior to the priestly blessing, well supports our idea: "who has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love."

But if the priest must relate equally to everyone in Israel, why did the Torah allow him to defile himself to certain relatives and not others? Would it not make more sense to impose a total prohibition or defilement or else to allow him to attend funerals like everyone else? Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, author of the Meshech Chochmah Torah commentary, answers this question in his commentary to Lev. 21:2: "... Because the main reason (that he can defile himself) for his mother and all his other relatives is because if he does not defile himself for those near to him, no-one else will take care of them (of their burial)...".

From this we can learn that indeed the relationship of the priest to every individual including his relations, is identical. He must involve himself in the burial of his relatives and all people who have no-one else to bury them. Halachically, such people are called "met mitzvah" (it is a mitzvah incumbent on all to bury them). As Rashi says in Sukkah 25b: "For even the priest's own dead relatives are called 'met mitzvah', for it is a commandment to occupy oneself with them, such as those mentioned in (Lev. 21) for whom the priest defiles himself. Even the High Priest is not absolved from burying a "met mitzvah" but he does not participate in burying his own relatives because, due to his importance in the eyes of the people, everyone rushes in to assist him in his hour of need. This is something like what the Talmud tells us in Shabbat 105b: "When a Sage dies - all are his relatives".

Notes:

[1] There it is joined to the imperative form "daber" which is more typical to laws than the word "emor"; In poetic language it may be that the root aleph-mem-resh has another status; see Psalms 33:98; Lamentations 3:37.

[2] And the second - the eternal prohibition against entering the sanctuary when in an impure state (Lev. 22:3); but this prohibition is a continuation of what was said to Aaron and his sons using the word "daber". The right of Pinhas to eternal priesthood due to his zealousness for the honor of the Lord is presented with the word "emor": "Therefore say (emor) behold I give him My covenant of peace" (Num. 25:12); however it may be that there is no command here but rather a statement.

[3] A Nazirite (one who takes a vow of abstinence) is also comparable to the High Priest. Of him it is also said: "For the crown (nezer) of his God is upon his head". Therefore he is similarly commanded: "... He shall not approach any dead body. He shall not defile himself for his father , his mother, his brother and his sister when they die (Num. 6:6-7). Despite this, in the matter of the Nazirite strong language is employed: "Speak (daber) to the Children of Israel" (ibid. 2). The limitations placed on the conduct of the Nazirite are conditional on his willingness to accept them. However, the priest is bound by his limitations from the moment he is born till the moment of his death; the midrash - halachah (legal exegesis) demonstrates this complex reality for us when it learns from the double usage of "emor" and "ve'amarta" that "those of greater stature must warn those of lesser stature" (the elder priests must teach the younger ones).

Yona Bar-Maoz

Department of Bible


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