The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Daf Shvui No. 75
Parashat Acharei Mot
Dr. David Elgavish
Department of Bible
Parashat Aharei Mot speaks of the holiness of Israel
and its purity, opening with the ritual of the purification on
Yom Kippur: "For on this day atonement shall be made for
you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before
the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30). The parashah ends with the demand
that Israel purify themselves by avoiding forbidden sexual relationships.
That both subjects are connected is expressed in the halachah
that the verses dealing with forbidden sexual relationships is
to be read from the Torah at Minhah of Yom Kippur.
The extreme severity with which the Torah viewed
sexual transgressions is also reflected in its literary structure.
The list of forbidden relationships (Lev. 18: 6-23) is preceded
by an exhortation (1-5) and ends with another one (24-30). The
opening speech begins and closes with the expressions "I
the Lord am your God," "I am the Lord," and the
entire parashah begins and ends with the phrase "I the Lord
am your God" (2, 30). These admonishments indicate that the
Torah was not satisfied with a list of prohibitions and added
words of warning to persuade the reader that he best avoid these
The introductory speech (1-5) consists of two parts,
its pattern being "avoid evil and do good" (sur
mera v'aseh tov). To begin, it presents the evil: "You
shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt where you dwelt
or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you
follow their laws." Later, the same demand is worded in the
positive: "My rules alone shall you observe and faithfully
follow My laws".
The list of forbidden relationships in the main body of the parashah (6 - 23) contains prohibitions which fall into three categories:
1. Relationships forbidden because the man and the woman are blood relatives. These include a man's mother (7), his sister by either parent (9), his granddaughter (10) and maternal and paternal aunts (12-13).
2. Relationships forbidden because of a blood relationship with the woman's husband, including: a father's wife, son's wife (15), paternal uncle's wife (14) and a brother's wife. These prohibitions remain in force even after the death of the husband or after the couple is divorced.
3. Relationships forbidden because of a blood relationship between the two women: to marry a mother and her daughter (16), a woman and her granddaughter (16), or a woman and her sister (18).
The above list involves four generations relating to any individual:
1. The generation before him: his mother, his father's wife, his father's sister, his mother's sister, and the wife of his father's brother;
2. His own generation: his sister, his half-sister, the daughter of his father's wife and his brother's wife.
3. The generation following him: his daughter in law.
4. The second generation following: the daughter of his son or daughter.
All above illicit sexual relationships are called incest (gilui arayot literally "to uncover the nakedness"), in contrast to the current usage of the term to refer only to sexual relationships between parents and children or between brothers and sisters.
In our parashah and in Parashat Kedoshim, the Torah
makes the point that these degenerate practices were characteristic
of the Egyptians and of the Canaanite peoples prior to the arrival
of the Children of Israel in the Land (Leviticus 18:3, 20:23).
Numerous other passages in the Bible accuse both the Canaanites
and the Egyptians of lewdness and prostitution. The earliest mention
refers to Ham the son of Noah, of whom the Torah says: "Ham,
the father of Canaan saw his father's nakedness" (Gen. 9:2),
which is interpreted by some authorities as a euphenism for an
incestuous homosexual act (Bavli, Sanhedrin 70a). Since both Mitzrayim
(Egypt) and Canaan were descendants of Ham (Gen. 10:2), they were
seen as being steeped in incest from earliest antiquity. The sexual
impropriety of Egypt is also highlighted in the story of Sarai,
who was abducted to the house of Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-18) and in
the story of the wife of Potiphar, who attempted to seduce Joseph
(Gen. 39). Egyptian promiscuity is described at length in the
prophecy of Ezekiel (16:26; 23:19-21). The degenerate conduct
of the Canaanites is cited in the story of the people of Sodom
(Gen. 19:4-9), in the taking of Sarah to the house of Abimelech
(Gen. 20, and compare Gen. 26:10) and in the rape of Dinah by
Shechem (Gen. 34:2).
Various epigraphic findings lend additional weight
to these descriptions. Egyptian sources speak of Pharaohs who
married their sisters and Canaanite and Mesopotamian legends present
their gods as being especially tainted by vice and adultery. The
chief Canaanite deity, Ba'al, was the god of fertility who brings
the rain. Rain was considered to be the masculine seed of heaven
which fertilized the female earth. Therefore, farmers who prayed
for rain would encourage the gods to fulfill their roles by engaging
in licentiousness to stimulate the sexual appetites of the gods.
These ideas made their way into Israelite culture
as well. The story of Ba'al Peor (Numbers 25:1-3) shows the great
sexual temptation presented by idolatry. When the prophet Hosea
criticized the people of his generation, "For they go off
with the prostitutes and sacrifice with the harlots" (Hosea
4:13), he was indicating the strong link between prostitution
and cultic activity. Isaiah proclaimed: "Those who take comfort
in the gods... on a high, towering mountain did you make your
bed, you also went up there to bring sacrifice" (58:5-8)
and Jeremiah admonished: "Your adultery and your celebration,
the lewdness of your prostitution is on the hills, in the field
I have seen your abominations" (13:27). As we saw earlier,
the agricultural seasons served as special occasions for lewd
behavior: "You loved a harlot's wages above all the harvests
of grain" (9:1). 
Due to the pernicious influence of these ideas the
Bible wages an ongoing campaign against the Canaanite peoples.
Abraham commanded his servant to take a wife for Isaac from among
the women of the country of his birth and not from among the daughters
of Canaan (Genesis 24:3-4). Abarbanel poses one very obvious question:
Were not the people of Aram-Naharaim idol-worshipers as well?
Rabbenu Nissim in his Sermons explains that it is possible to
weed out false incorrect beliefs, but very difficult to eradicate
habits and practices which cater to "the evil desire".
He means that the people of Aram-Naharaim were modest in their
sexual behaviour. Abraham was commanded to perform the covenant
of circumcision (Genesis 17:11) because this mark on the sexual
organ separated Abraham from the rest of the inhabitants of the
Land vis-a-vis the unbridled sexual activity which characterized
the Canaanite inhabitants. The generation which entered the Land
were given strict instructions on this point. They were told:
"You shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe
them -- the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the
Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites ...lest they lead you
into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their
gods" (Deut. 20:16-18). Israel's failure to carry out this
instruction resulted in the influx of negative Canaanite norms
into Israelite society and corrupt practices in the area of sexual
behavior, illustrated in the narrative of the concubine of Gibeah
The struggle against the fertility cult is found
not only in the legal portions but in the speeches of the
Torah and the Prophets as well. The dependence of the Land of
Israel on rainfall which in the Canaanite belief was tied to profligate
behavior, by contrast serves, in the Torah as a means to strengthen
belief. Scripture says: "But the land which you are about
to cross into and occupy, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up
its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord
your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps
His eye from year's beginning to year's end. And it will come
tpass if you carefully listen to My commandments, which I command
you this day... I will grant the rain for your land in its proper
time, the early rain and the late." (Deut. 11:11-14).
The dependence of the Land on rain creates a dependence
of man on the good will of Heaven. However, in contrast to the
Canaanite belief this dependence brings Israel to sanctification
and the Chosen Land fulfills its role as the place which connects
the People of Israel to God and His commandments. Therefore, when
the People of Israel sin, Elijah announces a drought which lasts
for three years (1st Kings 17:1; 18:1); and when the people proclaim
"The Lord - He is God, the Lord - He is God", the skies
grow dark with rain clouds (1 Kings 18:38-45). In this way, Elijah
taught that the rain or the lack thereof was in God's hands, not
Similarly, in the prophecy of Hosea: "For she
did not know that it was I that gave her the corn and the wine
and the oil, and multiplied unto her silver and gold, which they
used for Ba'al... and I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees
of which she has said, These are my hire that my lovers have given
me" (Hosea 2:10-14). The people related the fertility of
the field to Ba'al and to acts of prostitution which accompanied
his worship. In contrast the other lands of the ancient East were
watered by flowing rivers, and were not dependent solely upon
rain. It was therefore impossible to use the threat of drought
as a means of educating them. This should have made their lives
quite comfortable, as they were free to indulge in all they desired.
However, such nations also lacked a warning mechanism which could
have returned them to the path of righteousness and the punishment
for their evil ways then strikes them out of the clear blue sky
without warning. So the prophet Jonah said to the people of Nineveh:
"In forty days time the city will be overturned" (Jonah
3:4), as punishment for their sins.
The unique relation between sexual misconduct and
the Land is brought to the fore two times: "Do not defile
yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations
which I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus was
the Land defiled and I punished its iniquity and the Land spewed
out its inhabitants... So let not the Land spew you out for defiling
it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you" (Lev.
18:24-28). All this is repeated again in Parashat Kedoshim: "Therefore
keep all my statutes and all my judgments and do them, lest the
Land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out" (Lev.
This prohibition teaches us a new category in the
classification of the commandments. We generally accept the definition
of Nahmanides in his commentary to verse 25 of chapter 18, that
forbidden sexual relationships are a personal obligation of each
individual and are not in the category of commandments which are
conditional upon residency in the Land of Israel; yet in the
quotes above the sanctity of the Land seems to be conditional
upon avoiding forbidden sexual relationships. The Land of Israel
as a Holy Land cannot tolerate the abominations of forbidden
sexual relationships. If Israel acts like the Egyptians - what
point was there to taking them out of Egypt? If they behave like
the Canaanites - why should the former inhabitants of the land
be driven out for the benefit of Israel? Nahmanides himself explained
that Rachel died just as Jacob entered the Land of Israel so that
he would not dwell on the soil of the Holy Land while he was simultaneously
married to two sisters, a prohibition in our parasha; Amram married
his aunt Yocheved (Ex. 6:20) but that occurred outside the Land
It should be mentioned that even when idolatry had
been eliminated in Israel, several expressions in the realm of
agriculture which were conceived and born in pagan mythology persisted
in Hebrew; even though no contaminated belief stands behind them
today. Thus, a field which is irrigated by rain is called sedeh
ba'al (a field of ba'al) in the language of our sages (Mishnah
Baba Batra 3,1). This epithet has its source in Canaanite where
Ba'al was said to be responsible for rainfall, or in the sense
that the field was impregnated by the masculine rains (be'ula).
It is for this reason that rains were called reviah (literally
"mating", "impregnating"): "Why was it
called reviah? because it impregnates the land" (Tosefta
Ta'anit 1,4). Further, "Rabbi Levi said: The waters above
are masculine, the ones below, feminine, therefore it is written:
"Let the earth open and bring forth salvation" (Isaiah
46:8) like a female who opens herself before the male" (Yalkut
Shimoni to Prophets, 462).
 R. Patai, Adam Veadamah --
Mechkar Beminhagim, Emunot Ve'agadot etzel Yisrael Ve'umot
Ha'olam, vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1943, p.136; E.M. Yamauchi,
"Cultic Prostitution" Alter Orient and Altes Testament,
22, pp. 213-222.
 For a different opinion, according to which no proof exists
in these verses for cultic prostitution see: M. Gruber, "Hakedeshah,
Mah Tafkidah?" Beer-Sheva 3, (1988), pp.45-51; M
Gruber, "Hakedesh Besefer Melachim U'bemekorot Acherim",
Tarbitz 52 (1983), pp. 167-176.
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