Readings for Saturday, April 1, 2017
Vayikra (He called)
1:1-5:26 Vayikra (Leviticus)
This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra or Leviticus. Much of this book concerns material that seems foreign to our modern world. It is a world of sacrifices; a world of animals and blood and fire. It is a world that seems far distant from our so-called civilized 21st century practices. So why study this text at all? For several reasons; it is one of the Five Books of Moses and we have been reading it for centuries. The sacrificial system was important to our forefathers and understanding it might give us greater insight into our origins. The sacrificial system and the activities in the Temple provide much of the origin and motifs for the worship services in the Synagogue as well as various home-based customs and ceremonies. Some of the material is very technical so some of the guides may contain large segments of material taken directly from various sources. Don’t worry, unlike a few famous historians, I use quotation marks. Having stated the caveats, let's begin.
Vayikra, both the book and the first sedrah take their name from the first word of the book, which literally means, “He called” as in “He called to Moshe.…” The “He” refers to God. The English name for the book is Leviticus, referring to the Levites, the tribe to which the Kohanim or Priests belong. In the Mishnah the book is referred to as the “Torat Kohanim” or “the Law of the Priests” since much of the book deals with the sacrificial system and the duties of the Priests. Vayikra is dense with laws. If my math is correct, the book contains 247 of the 613 Commandments. However, since many of the commandments involve the sacrificial system, they cannot be performed at this time since there is no Temple.
There are those who contend that Vayikra was written by the priestly class in Jerusalem long after the events in the Wilderness. According to them Vayikra was inserted in the Torah to justify and ensure that the Temple in Jerusalem would be the only place to bring sacrifices and that the sacrificial system would be controlled by the tribe of Levi and specifically by the Kohanim, the Levitical family descended from Aaron. If this were true, one has to ask why there is no mention of Jerusalem in Vaykira. Furthermore, when the Jewish state split after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam established sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel where, according to archaeologists, a sacrificial system along the lines described in Vayikra was followed. Finally, we have evidence that there was a Temple at Elphantine where the Jews of this Egyptian outpost offered sacrifices in the third century before the Common Era. Regardless, the sacrificial system ended in 70 of the Common Era with the destruction of the Second Temple.
While sacrifices were common to ancient man, the Biblical commentators have cast the material in Leviticus in a uniquely Jewish mold. For the Jews, the sacrifices exist as a way for us to express our adoration of God. They do not exist because God needs to be fed or because God needs our sacrifices. This is a topic we explored when we studied the Golden Calf. Also, unlike with other ancient people, the description of the sacrificial system was public knowledge. By making it part of the Torah, all Israelites were to know how the system worked. Among most other peoples, the sacrificial system was part of the secret knowledge known only to the priestly and/or ruling class. The entire system of sacrifices described in Vayikra and the “Holiness Code” that comprises the last nine chapter of the book, were intended to reinforce the notion of Kedoshim, the notion of holiness. Vayikra is written to truly make us “a nation of Priests.”
Vayikra, the first sedrah, contains a series of commands from God concerning a variety of sacrifices. Using the notes from Etz Hayim, we find the following:
Olah or Burnt Offering (1:1-17)
The olah or burnt offering “was burned to ashes in its entirety (except for its hide) on the altar of burnt offerings. It was brought on various occasions, often together with other offerings. Neither the priests nor donors ate any part of it. The Olah could consist of male herd cattle, male flock animals or certain birds. This range of choices - from expensive to inexpensive - enabled Israelites of modest means to participate in religious life because they could present less costly offerings at the sanctuary.”
Mincha or Grain Offering (2:1-16)
“Appropriate for a variety of occasions, the grain offering (mincha) often served as a less costly alternative to animal sacrifices. Both the mincha and olah were regarded as ‘a most sacred offering,’ a status that imposed special restrictions.” It would seem that the grain offering was for those who were too poor to afford any of the animals that would have been used in the olah.
Zevach Sh’lamim or The Offering of Well-Being (3:1-17)
“This category of offering was brought by a person who had something to celebrate.” “Some of the same animals used for the olah could also be used for the Zevach Sh’lamim. The same altar was used for both types of offerings as well as for the grain offering.” Unlike the olah or mincha, “Zevach Sh’lamim was a sacred meal shared by the priests and by the donors of the offerings. Only certain fatty portions of the animal were burned on the altar as God’s share. The mincha could be eaten only by the priests. Thus Zevah represents a distinctive mode of sacrifice, affording worshipers the experience of sharing a sacred meal with the priests.” According to Plaut, the three sacrifices just described were of a voluntary nature.The next series of sacrifices - Chatat and Asham - are obligatory sacrifices. For the modern reader, the reasons for bringing these sacrifices are probably more meaningful than the ritual itself. The reasons for bringing sacrifices provide us with a guide as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the sight of God.
Chatat or Sin Offering (4:1-35)
This offering covers sins that are committed “unwittingly.” The miscreant may be a priest, the whole congregation, a leader or just an individual. The Chatat takes on slightly different forms depending upon who the offending party is.The sedrah then continues with four more special cases when Chatat must be offered (5:1-13).
Asham or Guilt Offering (5:14-26)
Unlike with the Chatat, only a ram may be used in performing Asham. Asham was brought as part of the atonement process for a variety of transgressions, including “unintentional misuse or destruction of sanctuary property,” fraud, robbery, or lying under oath. In the case of the last three, before one could bring Asham, the transgressor had to make restitution to the victim.
115. The specification of the burnt-offering sacrifice known as olah (1:3).
116. The commandment to bring the meal offering known as mincha (2:1-3).
117. The prohibition against offering up leaven and honey on the altar ().
118-119. A negative and positive precept: Not to offer a sacrifice without salt, but to salt all offerings ().
120. The specification of the sacrifice the Jewish High Court offers when it makes an erroneous ruling that causes the entire people to sin (4:13-14).
121. The commandment that an offering known as Chatat is brought for unintentional sins (-28).
122. The duty to offer testimony if one has pertinent knowledge about a crime (5:1).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
When a child began to study Torah, he began with the book of Vayikra. I can find no definitive reason for this well-known and often mentioned practice. Maybe one of you has found it among your resources.
Customs and Ceremonies
The Mincha sacrifice was offered after mid-day or what we call Afternoon. Mincha is now the name given to the Afternoon Service, which may not begin before The custom of dipping bread in salt before eating is a reminder that sacrifices in the Temple were salted.
Sin and Repentance
According to Plaut, Chatat (the Sin Offering) takes its name from the verb “chata” that means, “to miss the mark.” In other words, the person who commits a sin is not necessarily evil. Rather, he or she may have tried and missed the objective. Chata is an admission of that failure along with a commitment to try and not miss the mark next time. But as we can see from the requirements surrounding Asham, bringing a sacrifice is not synonymous with atonement. In requiring the miscreant to make restitution, the authors of Vayikra are driving home the very Jewish concept that forgiveness begins with apologizing to those whom we have wronged and changing behavior. Forgiveness is not gained through ritual alone.
Once again, we are reminded that the Jewish concept of justice is higher than the one we find in civil society. As we read in 5:1, those who withhold evidence because they are not asked or who do not come forward to testify voluntarily are considered to be sinners. When they have had a change of heart and rectify their behavior they must bring Chatat to gain expiation.
The Little Aleph
Aleph is the last letter in the Hebrew “Vayikra.” When the word Vayikra is written in the Torah at the start of this sedrah, it always ends with a small aleph. According to Rabbi Weisblum, the reason for this is as follows. The sedrah concerns itself with the offerings in the Temple. “The small aleph symbolizes that all donations, contributions or offerings, of whatever size, were acceptable.” There are other explanations including ones that have to with structure and spacing of letters in the original text and the humility of Moses. The text is spare; the explanations are varied and dense.
Prayers In Place of Sacrifices
Since the Temple has been destroyed we cannot bring sacrifices. Therefore, we offer prayers in the place of sacrifices. This is an example of how interpretation has allowed us to survive for the past four thousand years. This change is based, at least in part, on a verse from the prophet Hosea “So will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips” (14:3) which is taken to mean, “Let our lips substitute for the sacrificial offerings.” The word “bullocks” refers to the sacrifices.
Rabbi Artson notes that the prohibition against Chametz or leavened grain is connected with observing Pesach. But in Vayikra we find that no offering containing Chametz was to be brought to the Tabernacle or the Temple. “No grain offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven (Chametz), for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as gift to the Lord.” (). One explanation for this ban is offered by the Rambam. In ancient times, idol worshippers used leaven and honey in their offerings. Since our practices were so different from those who worshipped idols, our sacrifices would not use the leaven and honey that they used. But what is the connection between the ban on Chametz in sacrificial offerings and the ban on Chametz at Pesach? Pesach marks the holiday of our freedom from bondage, which was the first step toward making us a holy nation, a nation of priests. With the destruction of the Temple, the ceremonials in our homes stood in place of the sacrifices. When we ban Chametz from our table for the week of Pesach, we are, in effect, elevating our table, to the level of the altar in the Temple where Chametz was banned at all times.
One has to wonder how the different types of animals were selected to be included in the sacrificial system. What was so special about pigeons and turtledoves? Why weren’t other birds acceptable? Why couldn’t goats be used interchangeably with sheep? Yes, there are practical reasons - sociological, historical and agricultural. But it would appear that the real reason will be like all other “Chukat” apparent only with the coming of the Messiah.
According Everett Fox, the phrase “Vayikra Moshe” (And He called unto Moses) appears only twice in the Torah. The second time is in Chapter 1, verse 1 of the book of Vayikra. The first time is in Chapter 24, verse 6 of the Book of Shemot (Exodus) in the weekly reading of Mishpatim. In Shemot, the term “Vayikra Moshe” separates the end of a torrent of laws relating to personal and social behavior from the rules dealing with the building of the Mishkan, the utensils to be used by the Kohanim and the clothing to be worn by the descendants of Aaron as they perform their holy duties that make up the balance of the second book of the Torah. Since nothing is in the Torah by accident, what is the significance of this unique way of God calling out to Moses and why is it found only in these two places? Could it be that God is connecting the laws of Leviticus with the purpose of the Tabernacle? Could it be that we are reminded that by obeying the laws of Leviticus we are figuratively entering into the Mishkan, that portable symbol of the presence of God? Today we have no Mishkan or Temple in which to offer sacrifices. Our prayers serve as substitute for those sacrifices. Could it be that by offering our prayers we are building our own Tabernacle in which we can find a closer connection with the Divine? This is but one possible explanation. The reason we study this year in and year out is to find the meaning behind the meaning.
- List two characteristics of the sacrificial animal mandated by God?
The animal must be a male without a blemish (1:3).
- According to Moses, what aspect of the sacrifices pleases God?
The aroma of the sacrifices is pleasing to God (1: 9, 13.17).
- What happened to the part of a grain offering that was not mixed with oil and incenses?
It was given to Aaron and his sons to be eaten (2:3).
- What two foodstuffs were forbidden to the Israelites for all time?
Blood and fat (3:17).
The Man: From an historic perspective, we do not know anything about the author. For these are the words of the Second Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Exile. This anonymous author lived much later than his historic namesake. He was with the Jews in Babylonia and probably preached sometime after 538 B.C.E. We base this conclusion on the fact that he was referencing Cyrus the Great, the conqueror of Babylonia who let the Jews return to Jerusalem.
The Message: Speaking on behalf of God, the prophet reprimands the people for not fulfilling their sacrificial obligations and yet burdening the Almighty with their sins. He then scorns the work of the idol makers. This might indicate that some of the exiles were losing faith and were turning towards idolatry. And finally, there is the promise of redemption because in the end we are His people. Those who think the prophets were stodgy, pontificating, moralist should read the caustic wit concerning those whole fashion and worship idols made of wood. The is the same kind of mocking humor the prophet Elijah uses in the contest on Mt. Carmel Jewish humor existed long before Tevye or Jack Benny.
Theme-Link: The sedrah contains a detailed description of a variety of sacrifices. The haftarah begins with the condemnation of the people for not observing these very sacrificial rights.
Copyright; April 1, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin