Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Acharey Mot-Kedoshim

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Acharey Mot-Kedoshim 5759/1999

Rabbi Abraham Walfish

Department of Talmud

Between Holy and Holy: On the Placement of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim

Trying to understand the placement and order of the laws that appear in the weekly readings of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim raises many difficult questions. However, clarifying these questions will bring us to a better idea of the structure of the entire book of Leviticus.

In fact, if we begin to investigate the larger structure of Leviticus first, we will immediately see the difficulties in the placement of Parashat Aharei Mot within this book. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, in his preface to his commentary on Leviticus, bases the structure of Vayiqra (Leviticus) on a pivotal verse said prior to the theophany at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:6): "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." This verse dictates that Leviticus begin with Sefer Kohanim, or the Priestly Code, (chapters 1-15),[1] whose general idea is as follows: "After the Israelites were commanded in Exodus 25, 'Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,' ... and after the account of the fulfillment of this command and of G-d appearing in His glory in the Holy of Holies, finally the Israelites are called upon [in Leviticus] to aspire to commune with G-d in this sanctuary of His and to distance themselves from everything that the Divine Presence finds abhorrent."

This "code" (A) can be divided into two parts. Part 1 deals with sacrifice (Lev. 1-10) and "imposes on Israel the duty of being steadfast to G-d, ... atoning by means of sacrifice the breach in the covenant with G-d caused by sinning." Part 2 deals with purity and impurity (chapters 11-15), since "in order to safeguard and maintain the Lord's dwelling amidst Israel, and to keep away all impurity ... all those who are in a state of impurity must keep their distance from His dwelling and from the Lord's sacrifices and must observe the laws of purity."

After that section of Leviticus dictated by the idea of a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:6), the Torah turns to the second half of Leviticus (B), which follows the second concept in the above verse, "a holy nation". This section of Leviticus is thus called "The Holiness Code" (chapters 19-27), whose object is to make the members of the "holy people" able to "excel in greater sanctity."

Parts 1 and 2 of the first section in Leviticus, the Priestly Code, relate to holiness as a ritual concept. Holiness is tied to the Divine Presence dwelling among the people and the ways the Divine Presence can be approached and retained in their midst. The "Book of Holiness" (B) on the other hand extends the concept of holiness, treating it more abstractly and spiritually. Here, beginning with Parashat Kedoshim, holiness (kedusha) finds expression in the sanctification of those things which ordinary people--not Priests-- do in their daily lives.

A striking feature of this overall analysis of Leviticus is that the content of Parashat Aharei Mot (chapters 16-18) does not fit in well with the structure of the book. The three chapters in this week's reading deal with three subjects which belong neither to the section and part preceding them (A1) nor to the section following them (B). Chapter 16 deals with the sacrificial worship on the Day of Atonement, chapter 17 with the laws on eating and offering sacrifices, and chapter 18 primarily with forbidden relationships (arayot). Chapters 16 and 17, dealing with the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement and where and how to slaughter animals, could ostensibly be viewed as an appendix to (A1), which dealt with sacrifice, but the placement of this appendix not after (A1) but between (A2) and (B) is perplexing.

Leaving aside our "macro" view of the arrangement of Leviticus, the problematic location of Parashat Aharei Mot is actually perceived on the "micro" level from the first verse of the reading, and has been discussed at length by commentators from the Midrash to the present day. How is one to understand the opening words, "The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron," considering that so much text has intervened between the account of the death of Nadab and Abihu in Parashat Shemini (10:1-2) and this week's reading?

Some commentators[2] understand this week's reading to have been spoken a long while after the death of Nadab and Abihu, not immediately following it, relying on the remarks of R. Elazar ben Azariah in Sifra that the connection between the deaths of Aaron's sons and the Yom Kippur ritual in ch. 16 is related to the analogy of the subject matter, not the chronology: "'Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come'...-- so that he not die as his sons did" (Rashi). Other commentators[3] took the opening verse at face value, namely that the description of the sacrificial worship on the Day of Atonement was given immediately after the death of Nadab and Abihu,[4] and in their opinion the intervening material (the end of Parashat Shemini and the readings of Tazria and Metzora) was put there because "Scripture first noted the warnings G-d gave all of Israel against ritual defilement (unclean foods, leprosy, etc.) and then wrote the warnings against ritual defilement which apply to the individual [Aaron the High Priest]" (Nahmanides). Nahmanides' comment provides a possible explanation for the placement of chapter 16,[5] but does not account for the placement of chapters 17 and 18.

The key to understanding the placement of these chapters lies, based on our view of the greater structure of Leviticus given above, in perceiving them as transitional chapters between the " Priestly Code" and the " Holiness Code." As we shall see below, this week's reading places us at a major crossroads in the saga of Israel's redemption.

The nature of chapters 16-18 as transitional chapters can be seen in the fact that these chapters use the terminology characteristic of the "Book of the Priests" but in a sense which is closer to that the "Book of Holiness." Let us explain this further:

1) Chapter 16, the Yom Kippur ritual, serves as an appendix not only to the part on sacrifice but also to the part dealing with purity and impurity, since the purpose of the offerings discussed in the chapter is to atone (le-khaper)[6] and to purify (le-taher): "Thus he shall purge (ve-khiper) the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins" (Lev. 16:16); "For on this day atonement shall be made for you (yekhaper) to cleanse you (le-taher) of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord" (16:30). In the first verse these words are used in their ritualistic sense, i.e., purifying the Tabernacle from the uncleanness that adhered to it,[7] but in the second verse the words "you shall be clean" have a broader, metaphorical significance: to purify oneself from the impurity of sin. Witness the fact that this verse is the cornerstone of our Yom Kippur prayers and the idea of Teshuvah or Repentance.

2) Chapter 17, as well, combines appendices concerning sacrifice -- the slaughter of animals for food, the prohibition against eating blood and the requirement that blood be covered -- with additional laws on uncleanness (e.g. of dead animals). Nevertheless, even though the terminology is connected with the language found in the "Book of the Priests," the point of view in this chapter is different from that in (A). While the first half of Leviticus deals with the question of how to worship the Lord through sacrificial offerings, chapter 17 begins from the opposite point of view: "If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, ... and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord, before the Lord's Tabernacle, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed blood; that man shall be cut off from among his people." According to the plain sense (cf. Nahmanides 17:2-3), the text deals with a person who slaughters an animal with the intention of eating it, not in order to worship the Lord. The Torah teaches us here that as long as Israel are encampedaround the Tabernacle and in its proximity,[8] they may eat meat only if the animal is slaughtered as a sacrifice of shelamim. Thus the Torah instructs us how the sanctity of the Tabernacle can be brought into the individual's private kitchen, and this is the prominent trend for most of the laws in this chapter (save for verses 6-8).

3) Chapter 18 mostly contains laws about illicit sexual relationships. The close connection between this chapter and the second half of Leviticus is strongly felt in the clear parallels between the punishments at the end of Parashat Kedoshim (chapter 20) and the list of prohibitions in this chapter. In addition, chapter 18 noticeably employs language characteristic of the "Book of Holiness," such as the repeated use of formulas such as "I am the Lord," and "I the Lord am your G-d." Nevertheless, this chapter is also tied to the " Priestly Code," and as Nahmanides noted in his preface to Leviticus: "It follows that He warned about illicit relationships, because such relations cause uncleanness (tum'ah), and transgressing them brings defilement, causing the Divine Presence to withdraw and leading to exile." Nahmanides' remarks here allude to verses 24-30, summing up the prohibitions in this chapter with the warning lest the land spew them out for defiling it. This chapter uses the term defilement (tum'ah) in a broad and abstract sense, as befits the distinguishing characteristic of the transitional chapters of Aharei Mot.

To sum up: Parashat Aharei Mot is situated at the transitional point between the ritual concept of sanctity pertaining to the Tabernacle, in the "Book of the Priests," and the abstract and spiritual concept of holiness in one's daily life, in the "Book of Holiness." In the three chapters comprising the Sabbath reading, Scripture shows how to extend the meaning of these formal concepts pertaining to the sanctity of the Sanctuary and apply them on the level of each and every individual's private existence. In this way Parashat Aharei Mot provides a fitting introduction to the command, "You shall be holy (Lev. 19:2)," which begins the "Book of Holiness."

Parashat Aharei Mot can be seen as transitional in another sense, as well, which appears in the proem to its last section (18:3): "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." Egypt and the land of Canaan hardly appear in the "Book of the Priests,"[9] but they play an important role in the "Book of Holiness."[10] Here, in chapter 18, both countries appear together as nations whose practices and laws we are not to follow. Support can be found for Rashi's point that these two nations symbolize the depths of moral depravity, especially as regards sexual relations; moreover, the language of the verse hints at another reason for coupling Egypt with Canaan in this context. Egypt represents the Israelites' past ("where you dwelt") and Canaan represents its future ("to which I am taking you"). More than any other nation, these two nations are likely to have an impact on the character and values of the people of Israel. G-d warns His people to sever themselves totally from the values characterizing the people from whose midst Israel was recently delivered, and not to adopt the laws and ways of the people in whose midst they are going to live.

In the wilderness the Israelites were suspended between two cultures, and G-d commanded them to maintain their spiritual independence with respect to both. Severing themselves from the laws of Egypt marks the culmination of the process of redeeming the people from Egypt, and keeping their distance from the laws of Canaan marks the beginning of the people's preparing to enter the land. As Nahmanides explained in his preface to Exodus, redemption from Egypt was complete only when the Presence of the Lord dwelled in their midst (as written at the end of Exodus). The "Book of the Priests" describes the consequences of the Lord's dwelling amidst the people, and in this way completes their spiritual redemption. This notion is summed up in the command that opens chapter 18: to stay away from the practices of the land of Egypt. By freeing themselves of these ways, which cause spiritual defilement and remove the Lord's Presence, the people complete their spiritual redemption from Egypt and become a "kingdom of priests," worthy of the Lord dwelling in their midst.

The last part of Leviticus is addressed to a people who had achieved complete redemption and the unique status of the Lord's servants. At this point the servants of the Lord are called upon to attain the level of a "holy people," worthy of settling the land promised to the progeny of the three patriarchs. In the Book of Holiness the sanctity of the people of Israel is tied to the sanctity of the land of Israel. Note, for example, how the commandment concerning the jubilee places the liberation of slaves hand in hand with freeing lands ("each of you shall return to his holding" [25:13]). The people are the Lord's ("For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt" [25:42]), and the land is the Lord's ("for the land is Mine" [25:23]); therefore, no member of the Israelite people may sell either himself or his land in perpetuity, but only until the jubilee. This section of Leviticus is preceded by chapter 18, containing the commandment not to follow the laws of the land of Canaan. Observing the laws on illicit relationships is a guarantee for preserving the sanctity of the individual and of the land, that it not be defiled and spew them out.

The two parts of Leviticus thus symbolize the stages in the spiritual formation of the people of Israel. The transition from leaving Egypt to preparing to enter the land is accompanied by a change in emphasis from the sanctity of the Divine Presence, in whose presence Man dwells, to the inner sanctity of the person himself. The sanctity of the Divine Presence finds expression in a tremendously powerful religious experience, with the concomitant the danger of coming too close (Nadab and Abihu) and of transgressing in ways that cause defilement and remove the Divine Presence from our midst. On the other hand, obeying the command, "You shall be holy," does not involve any powerful experience; this is a quiet, ongoing sanctity and finds expression in the person's daily life and deeds. At the juncture of these two worlds are the chapters comprising Aharei Mot, which combine these two worlds of holiness. The G-d who reveals Himself to humans through cloud and fire is the same G-d that dwells in the depths of each person's soul.

[1] See pages 10-11 of his preface and compare Nahmanides' remarks in his preface, which begins with a similar analysis to that of Rabbi Hoffman, but continues to say that "most of this book deals with sacrifice" -- a statement that leads him to interpret the placement of many chapters of Leviticus in a rather far-fetched manner. According to Hoffman, also chapters 16-17 belong to the Book of Priests, and chapter 18 to the Book of Holiness. I prefer to view the Book of Holiness as beginning with the command, "You shall be holy" (19:2), and shall discuss to where chapters 16-17 belong later on.

[2] Rashi, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor, and Hizkuni. Ibn Ezra should also be read this way.

[3] Nahmanides, Hoffman, as well as more recent commentators such as M. Bulla in Da'at Mikra and J. Milgrom in the Anchor Bible.

[4] Cf. the latter part of Nahmanides' remarks, where he explains how to reconcile the language used in this verse according to "the words of our rabbis": "The sense of the text would be that the Lord said to Moses as follows: 'After the two sons of Aaron died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord, tell him not to come at will into the Shrine, lest he die.'" This clearly is not the plain sense of the text.

[5] The following arguments can be made against Nahmanides' explanation of the placement of chapter 16: 1) The "warnings that He gave Israel lest they die through their uncleanness" in Parashat Tazria and Metzora are also addressedto individuals who might defile the sanctuary because of uncleanness of menstruation, discharge, or leprosy, and not to the entire congregation. 2) Nahmanides hints that the primary subject of chapter 16 is the warning against unlawful entry into the sanctuary. On this hypothesis, see below.

[6] The root k-p-r (atone or purge) is characteristic of both the section on sacrifice (1:4, 4:20, 26, 31 et al.) and the section on purity (14:20, 21, 29, 31, et al.)

[7] Cf. Milgrom in the Anchor Bible, p. 254 ff., and in his response to the criticism by N. Zohar in JBL 109/1 (1990), pp. 111-113.

[8] I.e., until they enter the land and its boundaries are extended, as described in Deuteronomy 12:20-28.

[9] Each appears once: Egypt, 11:45; Canaan, 14:34.

[10] The Land of Egypt appears 10 times from ch. 19 onward, and in the Holiness Code there are many commandments relating to the Land: Orlah, the Omer, the two Breads, the Festival of the Harvest, sabbatical and Jubilee.

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