Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemini 5764/April 17, þ 2004


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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




How to Perform a Commandment Properly?

Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig

Faculty of Law


Should we perform a commandment immediately, at the first moment possible, on the grounds that it is good to be “prompt to perform the commandments,” or is it preferable to wait in order to perform a “choice” commandment?  This question is discussed by the aharonim, later rabbinic authorities, with arguments in support of either side. [1]   In the present article I would like to add a new dimension to the discussion, based on events in the Parasha, which I have not previously encountered in the halakhic literature.


Delaying in eating the offering on the eighth day of consecration

After the death of Aaron’s sons, Moses said to Aaron and his remaining sons, “Take the meal offering that is left over from the Lord’s offerings by fire and eat it … the breast of elevation offering and the thigh of gift offering … eat …” (Leviticus 10:12-14).  Further on, come several obscure verses (16-20):

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned.   He was angry with Aaron’s remaining sons, and said,  Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? … And He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them … Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary,…  And Aaron spoke to Moses, “See, this day they brought their sin offering …, and such things have befallen me! … would the Lord have approved?”   And when Moses heard this, he approved.

How should their argument be understood?   Two approaches are presented by the Sages, explicitly set forth in Zevahim 101a:


A.  Sacred offerings of the specific moment as opposed to sacred offerings for all generations.  Rabbi Nehemiah was of the opinion that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that the meal offering and offering of well-being which they had brought be eaten by them the same day, despite their being in aninut (the period between the passing of a close relative and burial of the deceased).   Moses’ understanding was that they had been commanded to eat sacred offerings even in aninut, against the general rule.  But Aaron answered him, arguing that one should distinguish between “sacred offerings of the moment” (kodshe sha’ah) and sacred offerings for all generations. The meal offering and offerings of well-being were sacrifices of the moment that they had been commanded to bring on the eighth day.  In addition, they ate another two sin offerings, which were also part of the commandment of the day: the sin-offering of the eighth day (Lev. 9:3), and the goat that had been brought by Nahshon, the first of the chieftains, who brought his offering the same day (Num. 7:16). Yet on that same day an offering of a goat for the new month had also been sacrificed, since the eighth day of consecration fell on the first of Nisan.  The latter was a regular offering “for all generations” for which it could argued, deducing by kal vahomer from the easy case of the second tithe to the hard case at hand, that it should not be eaten in a state of aninut.   Moses gratefully acknowledged Aaron’s explanation.

Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon (referred to as Rabbanan in this Talmudic discussion) had three questions regarding this approach:

1)         If the sin-offering had been burned because of their being in aninut, then the three sin-offerings of that day should all have been burned.   We observed that according to Rabbi Nehemiah’s approach, a distinction is drawn between the sin-offering of Rosh Hodesh (sacred for all generations) and the sin-offerings of the eighth day and of Nahshon (sacred offerings of that specific moment).  Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon, however, did not accept this distinction.

2)         If it was burned on account of their being in aninut, they should have waited until the evening and eaten it, since aninut during the nighttime is only a rabbinic prohibition. The answer to this reservation is explained further on in the discussion, namely that Rabbi Nehemiah considered aninut during the nighttime also to be from the Torah, and if so there would be no reason for waiting.

3)         If it was burned on account of their being in aninut, one must consider the fact that Phinehas was with them.   Why did he not eat it, since he was not in aninut?  Rabbi Nehemiah’s answer, in the continuation of the discussion, is that Phinehas had not yet been appointed a priest at that time.

Now we come to the second explanation of the argument between Moses and Aaron, put forth by R. Judah and R. Simeon because of their three questions against R. Nehemiah’s explanation:


B.  The sin-offering had become contaminated.  In this version of the argument between Moses and Aaron, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon did not distinguish between sacred offerings of the moment and sacred offerings for all generations.  Moses said they were commanded to eat the offerings even though they were in aninut.   That being the case, he asked Aaron why they had not eaten the offering; perhaps in their concern over their bereavement they had not taken sufficient care and the sin-offering had become contaminated?  Aaron answered in the negative: No, the offering had not been defiled, but, he asked Moses, had he not heard that they may eat it only in the nighttime, since aninut in the nighttime is only a rabbinic prohibition, but in the daytime it is forbidden to eat it? [2]   Moses acknowledged his explanation.   The gemara asks why in fact they did not eat it in the evening, and answers that after waiting around for several hours until the evening the meat had perforce become contaminated, and therefore they did not eat it in the evening either.

Thus far we have seen the explanations given by Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon as to the first two questions which they posed to Rabbi Nehemiah.  In their opinion there was no difference between sacred offerings of the specific moment and sacred offerings for all generations and therefore there was no difference between all three sin-offerings.  Moreover, in their opinion aninut in the nighttime did not make it impermissible to eat the offering, rather, it was not eaten because it had become contaminated.  What explanation did they have for their third argument, why Phinehas had not eaten the offering during the daytime, before the meat became contaminated, since in their opinion Phinehas had already been appointed priest and was not in a state of aninut?   Why does the gemara not relate to this problem?

One could say that Phinehas indeed could have eaten during the daytime but waited until the evening so that he could eat together with the rest, be it out of respect for his father and uncle, be it because they were the ones who had offered the sacrifices of the day (before the death of their brothers), or be it because he thought that by waiting for the others and eating together they would find solace, or be it for whatever other reason.

Here Rashi’s commentary on Zevahim 101b (s.v. tum’ah be’oness) should be closely attended.  Following Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon, Rashi explained the answer “that they did not eat it because the sin-offering had perforce become contaminated” with the following words:  “For they wished to hold off with it until nighttime and eat it all together, but perforce it became contaminated.” [3]

One must ask what was meant by “they wanted to hold off with it”?   After all, were they not compelled to hold off, since they were not permitted to eat it during the daytime when they were in aninut?   Moreover, what does the word “together” refer to, when it says they wished “to eat it all together”?  Surely it could not mean eating the sacred offering of the moment with the sacred offering for all generations, for the Rabbis drew no distinction between these types of sacred offerings, and during the daytime the sacred offerings of the moment were also forbidden.

Apparently Rashi intended to explain the Talmud’s words about contamination of the offering as coming to anwer the question, why Phinehas had not eaten the offering alone.  Namely, it was Phinehas who wished to postpone eating it until the night, at which time they could eat it all together, Phinehas along with Eleazar and Itamar. [4]

If we are correct in our analysis, then this shows that it is preferable to put off “prompt performance” of a commandment in order to perform a “choice” commandment.  On the other hand, one could argue that the very fact the offering perforce became contaminated serves to teach us that waiting is likely to lead to non-performance of a commandment. [5]   In any event, it would seem that the evidence tends to the position that haste is not necessary; rather, we may hold off to perfkorm a mitzvah in a better manner, provided care is taken that the opportunity to perform the commandment is not missed. This entire question merits further study.

[1] Cf. Encyclopedia Talmudit, under zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot, vol. 12, pp. 409, 416.

[2] According to the Talmud Zevahim, R.Simeon held that the onen could eat of the sacrifice by night, since the notion of aninut at night is only a rabbinic proscription.  R. Judah held that aninut during the nighttime also stems from the Torah. However, on that particular evening it was rendered permissible by a one-time ruling ( hora’at sha’ah).

[3] Rashi continues:  “Granted what the rabbis say, that it is one way for the sacred offerings of the moment and one way for the sacred offerings of all generations; that it was permissible to eat at night, but not in the day, and that they wished to hold off with it until the night.”

[4] Rashi’s choice of words should be closely examined.   Why did he say “they wished” instead of  he [namely, Phinehas] wished”?  Perhaps they were all of like mind in wishing to hold off.   Further, why did he write “all” in the feminine, not the masculine?  The feminine form, kulan, it should be noted, does not necessary indicate the feminine, and perhaps it was simply instead of kol, all.  This needs further study.  Indeed, one could say that “they wished” is not necessary literal and actually meant, “ they had to.” Secondly, “To eat it all together” in the feminine might refer to all the sacrificial offerings, not all the people.    

[5] Perhaps precisely under special circumstances such as they faced, where Moses thought that because of their concern over their mourning they had not taken care regarding impurity, one should be concerned that if they were to rely on themselves there is still the danger of unintentional con-tamination.