Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Readings for Saturday, April 4, 2020

Readings for Saturday, April 4, 2020

Shabbat HaGadol

The Shabbat preceding Pesach is called Shabbat Ha-Gadol or the Great Sabbath.  There are several possible reasons why this particular Shabbat is so named.  First is its proximity to Pesach.  Second, according to Shemot, this would have been the time during which the Israelites were selecting the lambs that would be part of the first Pesach observance.  Third, in the special Haftarah (Malachi 3:3-24) that is read on Shabbat Ha-Gadol reference is made to that “great day” when the prophet Elijah will re-appear.  According to tradition, Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the Messiah.  We find this theme repeated at the Seder with the Cup of Elijah and the singing of Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) when we open the door in anticipation of his appearance.  There is no special Torah reading for Shabbat Ha-Gadol.  In earlier times, it was customary for the Rabbis to devote their sermons on Shabbat Ha-Gadol to the rules of Pesach to ensure proper observance of this major festival.

Tzav (Command)

6:1-8:36 Vayikra (Leviticus)

Tzav is the second sedrah in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word of the second sentence in the reading.  “Command (Tzav) Aaron and his sons saying…”  As the Stone Chumash points out, up until now “commandments regarding the offerings were introduced with ‘say’ or ‘speak’” since the entire nation was being addressed.  Here the Torah uses the word “command” in terms of the sacrifices because God is addressing the Kohanim directly and instructing them in the duties that they must carry out with zeal.  Tzav is a highly repetitious portion since the first part of the sedrah deals with the sacrifices already described in last week’s sedrah, Vayikra.  One of the major differences has to do with order in which the sacrifices are presented.  According to Etz Hayim, the sacrifices in Vayikra move from voluntary to involuntary while In Tzav; the sacrifices are listed in order of their holiness.  The second part of Tzav deals with ordination or consecration of the Kohanim.

Olah or Burnt Offering (6:1-6)

Minhah or Grain Offering (6:7-11)

Chatat or Sin Offering (6:17-23)

Asham or Guilt Offering (7:1-10)

Zevach Sh’lamim or Offering of Well-Being (7:11-34)

Tzav amplifies the information offered in Vayikra about this sacrifice.  Tzav specifically mentions two different types of, and reasons for, offering the Zevach Sh’lamim.  One was a “Todah” or Thanksgiving Offering (7:10).  The other could be a “Nedavah” or Freewill Offering (7:16).  Apparently included in the second group was the “Neder”, a sacrifice brought upon fulfillment of a vow.  The Hebrew word Neder means vow.

Ordination or Consecration of the Kohanim (8:1-36)

If you think you have read this already, you are right.  In chapter 29 of Shemot (Exodus), God tells Moshe how to conduct the service of consecration.  In Tzav, the ordination process actually takes place.  The consecration takes seven days.  The next sedrah will pick up with the eighth day.



131. The obligation to remove from the altar the ashes of offerings (6:3-4).

132-133. The requirement to kindle a “perpetual” fire on the altar and never let it go out (6:5-6).

134-135. The commandment that priests are to eat the remnants of meal offerings but not cook them so they become leavened (6:9-10).

136. The Specification of the daily meal offerings brought by the High Priest - beginning when he is anointed (6:13).

137. The requirement that the priest’s meal offering should not be eaten (6:16).

138. The specification of how priests are to offer the Chatat or Sin Offering (6:18).

139. The prohibition against eating the offering if any of the animal’s blood has been brought into the Tent of the Meeting (6:23).

140. The specification of the Asham or Guilt Offering (7:16).

141. The specification of the Shalmim or Peace Offering (7:11-14).

142. The specification against leaving overnight any remains of a Todah or Thanksgiving Offering (7:15).

143. The requirement to burn remnants of sacrifices on the third day after they are offered (7:17).

144. That a sacrifice becomes invalidated because of failure to obey the relevant regulations (7:18).

145-146. The prohibition against eating the meat of a defiled offering and the requirement to burn such meat (7:19).

147. The prohibition against eating Helev, or Forbidden Animal Fat (7:23).

148. The prohibition against consuming an animal’s blood (7:26).

From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin


Some of the Laws of Kashrut (keeping Kosher) have to do with dishes and how to purify them.  In reading 6:21, we see some of the Torah underpinnings for the rulings about kitchenware made of different materials.


In the days of the Temple it was customary to bring offerings of Thanksgiving for the joys of life.  With the demise of the Temple, the custom was established of giving a person an aliyah (calling them up to the Torah) to celebrate moments of deliverance or joy.  The Gomel or Thanksgiving Blessing is recited at the end of the reading.  While Psalm 107 lists four specific reasons for reciting Gomel, the most common one today is recovery from a major illness or successful surgery.  Additional moments of joy could include a groom being called up on the Shabbat before the wedding or a father being called up after the birth of a child.  In this last example a special prayer is said for the well-being of the mother.  This is just one more example of how our religious practices are rooted in the Temple service of old.  According to some sages, once the Moshiach has come, all of the sacrifices will disappear except the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving.  The other sacrifices have to do with our shortcomings, which will no longer exist in the Messianic Era.  But even after the coming of the Moshiach we will still be thankful for enjoying the blessings of the Lord.

Appropriate Attire

The Kohanim only wore their special garb while performing their duties in the Tabernacle (6:3).  When away from the Tabernacle, such as when they carried out the ashes (6:4), the Kohanim put on ordinary clothing.  In keeping with the spirit of these references to dress, a tradition of wearing one’s finest garments on Shabbat and Holiday developed in many communities.  So well-known was this custom that in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, spies would report to the authorities any time they saw Marranos dressed up on days corresponding to Jewish holidays.  This was considered a sure sign that their conversion to Christianity was less than sincere.

The Ordination of the Kohanim

Why did God have Moshe dab blood on the ridge of Aaron’s ear, the thumb of his right hand and the big toe of his right foot?  Nobody knows what this particular ritual meant to our ancient forefathers.  However, the sages have provided us with some interpretations that might be meaningful to us in our daily lives.  According to some, the three parts of the body mentioned are “an abbreviated code” for the entire person.  To serve God, we must serve him with the entirety of our personage.  Blood is a symbol of ritual transition.  In the Brit Milah, the drop of blood is a symbol of transition into the Covenant that God made with Abraham.  At Pesach, the blood on the doorposts marks the transition from death (for the Egyptian) to life for the Israelites or the transition from slavery to freedom.  Here the blood marks the passage of Aaron and his sons from being private individuals to being the Kohanim, the public officials responsible for the ritual well-being of the Israelites.  Others have said that the ear reminds us to always listen to God, the thumb (being part of the hand) reminds us to always reach out to God and the toe (being part of the foot) reminds us to move quickly to carry out the will of God.


The Torah repeatedly commands us not consume blood.  So why are we commanded to put blood on the altar of atonement?  The Israelites were commanded not to consume blood because the pagans consumed it as part of their sacrifices.  Also, animals drink blood.  The commandments are intended, in part, to differentiate us from the pagans and to help us control our animal soul.  At the same time, blood is the life force.  That which is prohibited to man, is not prohibited to the Lord.  “The holiness of the blood is demonstrated by putting it on the altar as something only for God and not for humans.”

The Five Senses

The sacrifices appealed to all five of our senses.  Since we can no longer offer sacrifices we have customs and ceremonies to engage all five of our senses:

Sound - The chanting of our prayers and the blowing of the shofar;

Sight - The public display of the Torah and its ornaments;

Smell - The spices of the Havdalah Ceremony;

Taste - Matzah and Bitter Herbs; and

Touch - The Lulav.

In Place of Sacrifices

Since the Temple has been destroyed, we cannot offer sacrifices.  The Sages looked to the TaNaCh to find substitutes.  We have already seen that in the words of Hosea, “Let the offerings of our lips and tongue replace the animal sacrifices of the Temple” they found the justification for prayer standing in the place of the sacrifices.  Verses in Tzav provided further evidence for this transition.  “In the Talmud Rabbi Isaac asked, ‘Why does it say This is the law of the sin-offering, (Vayikra 6:18) this is the law of the guilt-offering? (Vayikra 7:1).’  To teach us that when one studies the law of the sin offering, it is considered as though he had actually brought it on the Altar, and when one studies the law of the guilt-offering, it as though he actually brought it on the altar.’  Rather than merely recite these portions, study them and attempt to learn about the laws and significance of the various sacrifices.”  Furthermore, in the opening words of this week’s sedrah, they found the justification for having the study of Torah stand in the place of the sacrifices.  “Tzav Ah-haron.zoat torat ha-olah.”  “Command Aaron…This is the law (torat) of the burnt offering.”  The Rabbis seized on the word torat, a form of the word torah and concluded:  “In our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings.”

The Permanent Fire

The Kohanim were commanded to keep a “permanent fire aflame on the Altar” (6:5-6).  There are those who contend that the Sanctuary (be it the Mishkan or the Temple in Jerusalem) has its spiritual counterpart within the personage of each Jew.  And the heart of the Jew corresponds to the Altar.  Just as the Kohanim were to keep a permanent fire burning on the altar by tending to it and feeding it wood, so we are to keep the permanent fire burning in our hearts by studying Torah and publicly manifesting our faith.  Sometimes the flame of the fire may burn low.  Sometimes our attachment to our faith reaches a low ebb, but the spark is always there in the heart of the Jew waiting to be nourished so that it may roar again with the light and the warmth of God and his mitzvoth.

“Steak and Sacrifices” by W. Gunther Plaut

(The following comes from the pen of one of the leading rabbis of the Reform Movement. You might be a little surprised by what he has to say about animal sacrifices.)

“Being civilized, modern people, we are likely to shudder at the idea of slicing up animals to express our devotion to God.  Of course, we see nothing wrong with a good steak for dinner, unless perhaps the cardiologist advises against it.  But we leave the killing of animals to others and are not inclined to improve our children’s education or our own by visiting a slaughterhouse.  Yet whole chapters in the Torah are devoted to animal sacrifices; the part of Tzav consists of little else.  What are we to make of instructions elaborating how the animal is to be slaughtered who may eat of it, what disposition shall be made of the fat, and who shall keep the skin?  Or of the rule that the elders of the community will expiate an unwitting error made by the people through laying their hands on a bull and slaughtering it?  The whole notion that the merciful Creator demands the killing of innocent creatures as a sign of human obeisance seems at first glance to be an obvious contradiction.  Yet we would do well to look a little further.  First, we should consider the times and circumstances to which this legislation addressed itself.  The Israelites in the Promised Land were almost all farmers, and therefore had a special relationship to their animals and often would know them by name.  They were not accustomed to a daily diet of meat, and in that respect were no different from the vast masses of humanity then or now.  Animals were domesticated for sale or for the milk or wool they produced.  They represented capital that one did not eat up lightly.  Consuming meat was reserved for special occasions.  Chief among these were visits to the nearest shrine and, later, to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem.  These pilgrimages were acts of festive celebration, expressed as thanksgiving or expiation for sins committed, and marked major events in life.  The pilgrim would take an animal along and slaughter it in the holy precincts.  As an act of worship, sacrifice had two important side effects.  For one, it served to lessen the guilt a farmer felt (and feels) when he killed a creature he had from its birth.  This guilt was attenuated when the killing was done to honor God and when the meal was shared with others.  In balancing the desire to eat meat and the moral problem of killing animals, sacrificial ritual was an extension of the wider dietary laws.  Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, one wrote that all the laws of Kashrut are devised to remind us constantly that we are eating the flesh of once-living creatures.  For that reason, for instance, we do not consume animals’ blood, which in biblical tradition is considered “life itself.”  Another side effect of bringing the offering in a holy environment was the deep impression the ritual was sure to make.  This was not just killing for the sake of pleasurable feasting; it was done for God’s sake.  One came closer to God through voluntary giving of one’s possessions, through sacrificing something.  (The word “sacrifice” combines the Latin word facere which means ‘to make or render’ and the Latin word sacer which means ‘holy.’  It is a translation of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, which literally means ‘bringing close’ as in ‘bringing close to God.’)  And what do we do today?  We buy meat at the butcher’s or in grocery store already cellophane-wrapped.  Small children have no real inkling of where the meat came from.  Any connection to the living creature is totally absent.  These animals are to have been “harvested” in some mysterious way, which even adults would rather not know about.  In contrast, our biblical ancestors never reduced animals to the status of things.  Yet we tend to feel smugly superior to those ancient times.  We do so with little reason.”

Haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Gadol

3:4-24 - 3:23 Malachi

The Man:  We really do not know much about this prophet at all.  Malachi is probably not his name.  Rather it is Hebrew for “my messenger.”  It may be a pseudonym stemming from the third Hebrew word in the first sentence of the third chapter where we find the words of God, “Behold, I send My messenger (Malachi) and he shall clear the way before Me.”  Along with Haggai and Zechariah, Malachi is one of the three post-exilic prophets.  In fact Malachi is the last of all of the prophets.  He is thought to have lived sometime between 500 B.C.E and 450 B.C.E.  By this time the Second Temple had been completed but the Jewish homeland was merely a province of the Persian Empire called Judea.  Malachi preached at a time when spirituality and morality were at a low ebb.  The reality of the reconstruction of the Temple had not lived up to the expectations of redemption and a great reawakening.  In fact, from a historic and spiritual point of view, Malachi actually was setting the stage for the reforms instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah.  According to traditional commentators, after Malachi God did not “select” individuals commanding them to speak in his name.  Going forward, leaders such as the Scribes and Rabbis would speak and teach in the name of God based on the literary traditions of the Jewish people.

Malachi represents a return to the beginning of the prophetic messages.  Some of the early, non-literary prophets were concerned about the ritual of sacrifice. They saw the sacrifices as a key ingredient in man’s communication with God.  The Literary Prophets - Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, for example - shifted the emphasis to social justice and prayer.  With the opening verses of Malachi, we see a return to the message of the importance of the sacrificial system and properly performed rituals such as tithing.  Could it be that in the last words of Prophecy we are being reminded that ritual and social justice are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually inclusive; that to effect a healing of the universe we must nurture Judaism that relies on both aspects of the divine commandments?

The Message:  The reading is short, dense and difficult to summarize briefly in writing,  It is a mixture of reminders of past glory “Surely the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old” admonitions for the present, “Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses” and a vision of the future, Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.  He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

Theme-link:  This time the connection is not with the sedrah but with the calendar.  The prophetic reading for the Sabbath ends with a description of Elijah as the herald of the coming of the final redemption.  This is consistent with the message of the Seder with the opening of the door for Elijah.  Pesach is the holiday of the first redemption, but it came to be seen as the herald of the final redemption in the end of days.  Note the highlighted section above and compare the passage of the Lord through the land of Egypt with his passage through the land in the end of days.  Instead of a daub of blood on the door, love, as exemplified by the reconciliation of parents and children will be the protection from the Lord’s wrath.  Last but not least, Malachai calls upon the people to remember to bring the agricultural tithe to the Temple because it was given to the poor to help them celebrate the holiday of Pesach.  In modern times, Jews increase their contributions so that the less fortunate will have the money for matzo and other items necessary for observing Pesach.

Shabbat Hagadol Pogrom:  In the spring of 1190, the Jews of England were subject to a series of attacks by murderous anti-Semitic mobs.  The worst attack took place at York on Shabbat Hagadol where a mob filled with the fervor of preparing for the Third Crusade attacked the Jews.  They sought shelter in Clifford’s Tower.  But the crusading Christians were not to be deterred.  The next day, the Jews were given the choice of converting or being murdered.  Their leader, Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, advised the Jews to commit suicide rather than submit.  The Rabbi was a man of his word as he took his own life after killing his family.  Most of the Jews followed Yom Tov’s example.  The Christians murdered the Jews who did surrender and then burned the tower that was filled with the body of the Jews who had died for Kiddush Hashem.

Family Connection: Pesach is the ultimate holiday of family connection.  Shabbat Hagadol is supposed to serve as a reminder that Pesach is coming.  In my case it is also an early reminder of the family connection since my father, Joseph B. Levin, of blessed memory, was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat Hagadol.

Copyright; March, 2020; Mitchell A. Levin


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Readings for Saturday, March 28, 2020 and Rosh Chodesh Nisan

Readings for Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rosh Chodesh Nisan

28:1-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)

This is the standard reading for each Rosh Chodesh.  Rosh Chodesh is the name of the minor holiday that marks the start of each month.  The term Rosh Chodesh is translated as New Moon.  The first day of the month is referred to as Rosh Chodesh because the months are lunar and the first day of each month comes with the start of the new moon.  In the days of the Temple special sacrifices were brought in honor of the new moon.  With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial system ended.  In place of the sacrifices, Jews read a description of the sacrificial offerings, which is described in the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 in the book of Numbers.  The Torah reading takes place during the daily morning service.  There are many Jews who have no desire to return to the sacrificial system.  They use these readings as a way of providing a connection with the past which is one of the keys to our future.  Because of its connection with the moon, Rosh Chodesh is thought to have a special meaning for women.  Some sages suggest that wives and mothers should be given gifts on Rosh Chodesh.  You would think that the Jewish Jewelers here in Cedar Rapids would seize on this as a marketing gimmick.  There are other sages who think that Tzedakah should be given in the name of these women.  Once again, Jewish fund raisers would seem to be missing a golden opportunity (no pun intended).

Nisan is the first month of the “religious calendar” and the seventh month of the year counting from Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah refers to Nisan as “the first of the months of year” and as “Abib,” the month of spring.  The Biblical references to the month as “Nisan” are found in the books of Nehemiah and Esther, showing that this appellation came into use during the Babylonian exile.

The 15th of Nisan marks the seminal event in Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt which is marked by the celebration of Pesach (Passover).  The 15th of the Nisan also marked the start of the harvest season in ancient Israel.  This gave rise to the counting of the Omer which starts on the 16th of Nisan.  In Israel, the 27th of Nisan is Yom Ha-Shoah or Holocaust Memorial Day.  The 14th of Nisan is the day on which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is memorialized.

Readings for Saturday, March 28, 2020

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.

The sacrificial system stopped with the destruction of Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.  Interestingly enough, no attempt was made to offer sacrifices at other locations after this.  There are those who contend that Vayikra was written by the priestly class in Jerusalem long after the events in the Wilderness.  It 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.  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.”

Minhah or Grain Offering (2:1-16).  “Appropriate for a variety of occasions, the grain offering (minhah) often served as a less costly alternative to animal sacrifices.  Both the minhah 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 minhah, “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 minhah 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 (2:11).

118-119. A negative and positive precept: Not to offer a sacrifice without salt, but to salt all offerings (2:13).

120. The specification of the sacrifice of 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 (4:27-28).

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 Minhah sacrifice was offered after mid-day or what we call Afternoon.  Minhah is now the name given to the Afternoon Service, which may not begin before 12:30 p.m.  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 were 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.” (2:11).  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.

Sacrificial Selections

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.

Vayikra Moshe

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 or 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.

Vayikra Quiz

  1. List two characteristics of sacrificial animal mandated by God?

The animal must be a male without a blemish (1:3).

  1. According to Moses, what aspect of the sacrifices pleases God?

The aroma of the sacrifices is pleasing to God (1: 9, 13.17).

  1. 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).

  1. What two foodstuffs were forbidden to the Israelites for all time?

Blood and fat (3:17).


43:21-44:23 Isaiah

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, March 2020, Mitchell A Levin

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Readings for Saturday, March 21, 2020

Readings for Saturday, March 21, 2020

Shabbat Hachodesh

Two scrolls are used on this Shabbat.  The first is for the regular weekly portion.  The second is for the special reading for Shabbat HaChodesh

First Scroll

Vayakhel (Assembled)

35:1-38:20 Shemot (Exodus)

Vayakhel is the tenth sedrah in the Book of Shemot.  It takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “Vayakhel Moshe” or “Moses assembled (Vayakhel) all the congregation of the children of Israel and said unto them....”  This comparatively brief sedrah describes the actual building of the Tabernacle and all of its furnishings.  It appears to be a recapitulation of the information presented in Terumah.  According to the sages, Terumah described the plan.  Vayakhel describes the actual construction of the holy dwelling places and its vessels.  As the commentators in Etz Hayim point out, Terumah began with a description of the items in the Mishkan and ended with a description of the Mishkan.  In Vayakhel, the order is reversed which would be logical.  First you build the edifice and then you make the things that will go inside.  (First you build the house, then you buy the furniture.)  The basic explication of the text will follow the divisions in Etz Hayim combined with sub-headings from the Stone Chumash as well as a couple from the author.  Together, they provide definition for the reading while avoiding the numbing detail found in some other texts.  The parenthesized notations indicate earlier mention of these items in Shemot.

The Convening of the People - 35:1-19

The People’s Response - 35:20-29;

The Master Craftsmen - 35:30-36:1;

·        The Sabbath;

·        The Contributions for the Tabernacle;

·        The Construction of the Tabernacle.

The sedrah begins with Moshe assembling “Kol Adat B’nai Yisrael,” literally “all the congregation of the children of Israel.”  He has returned from his second trip to the top of Mount Sinai.  He has returned with the new set of Tablets.  So now it is time to reassemble the whole nation; to re-kindle the original spirit that had existed when the whole nation had stood at Sinai before the Golden Calf episode.  Moshe has called them together to begin the building of the Mishkan.  But he starts with a repetition of the commands concerning the observance of Shabbat.  From this we learn that the observance of Shabbat is of critical importance; it is even more important than building the Tabernacle, the Ark and the holy vessels.

The Overabundance of Donations - 36:2-7

The generosity of the people was overwhelming.  Moshe finally had to call a halt.  He had what was needed.  To go beyond that would be the kind of greed or self-aggrandizement associated with potentates, not Moshe or the Lord he served.  This generation stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the leaders described earlier (35:27-28).  They made their donations of precious stones for the breastplate only after the rest of the people had brought their donations.  According to some commentators they waited until last for what they thought was a good reason.  They assumed that there would be a shortfall in the offerings and they planned to make up for whatever had not been given.  If this was their fear, then they should have lead by example - if they had made generous contributions at the outset they would have encouraged the rest of the nation to do likewise.  In the game of life, leaders ante up first.

The Work of Construction - 36:8-36:37

·        Making the Curtains;

·        Making the Cover;

·        Making the Planks and Their Components;

·        Making the Partitions;

·        Making the Screen;

The Manufacture of the Furniture and Accessories - 37:1-38:20

·        Making the Ark - 25:10-21;

·        Making the Cover;

·        Making the Table - 25:23-30;

·        Making the Menorah - 25:31-40;

·        Making the Incense Altar - 30:1-10;

·        Making the Oil and Incense - 30:22-37;

·        Making the Elevation-Offering Altar - 27:1-8;

·        Making the Laver;

·        Making the Courtyard - 27:9-19;

·        Making the Screen.



114.  The prohibition against making a fire on Shabbat (35:13):  “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.”

Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin


In reading Shemot, we have seen laws pertaining to Shabbat given over and over again.  Considering the obvious importance of Shabbat, it is quite fitting that the last commandment in Shemot should be one concerning the observance of our most frequent holiday.  The placement of the commandment just before the description of the building of the Mishkan and its furnishings provides the source for the Rabbis to deduce the 39 types of activities that constitute work and are thus prohibited on Shabbat.  According to the Oral Law, the prohibition against “kindling any fire” means you cannot create a fire on Shabbat but you can enjoy the heat and light from a fire started before Shabbat.  The Karaites, an eighth century sect founded in Babylonia, rejected the Oral Law.  Amongst other things, this meant they had no fires burning in their homes at all on Shabbat.  In modern times, the question has arisen if turning on an electric light violates this prohibition.  For the Orthodox it does.  For Reform it is a meaningless question.  And as usual, the Conservative Movement is split.


Once again the Torah provides examples of the importance of women.  They contribute along with the men when Moshe makes his request.  There are those who say that it was really the women who gave the jewelry because the men had wasted theirs on the Golden Calf.  Also, it was their mirrors that provided the copper for the holy vessels.  Finally, there is the explicit mention of the “skilled women” who did the spinning and weaving.

The Sukkah and the Mishkan

According to the commentators, Moshe told the people about building the Mishkan on the day after Yom Kippur.  In English we call the Mishkan the Tabernacle.  It is customary to start building a Sukkah after one comes home from the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur (which is technically the day after Yom Kippur).  In English we call the holiday of Sukkoth The Feast of Tabernacles.  Is there a connection between these two building activities?  Supposedly we build these booths to remind ourselves of the time our ancestors spent in the Wilderness.  Is a Sukkah a “poor man’s” Mishkan?  This is a question you can discuss at Sukkoth when you sit in your Sukkah.


The same Hebrew word that begins this sedrah is also found in Shemot 32:1.  In the earlier reading which describes the making of the Golden Calf, the text states, “the people assembled against Aaron” and demanded that he “make us a god.…”  Here, Moshe assembled the community to tell them about building the Tabernacle and to prove that God had forgiven them for the Sin of the Golden Calf.  Once again, it is not just what you do, but why you do it that matters.

More on the Mishkan

The Torah spends quite a bit of time describing the Mishkan or Sanctuary.  The question one must ask is why the Torah devotes so much space to describing a temporary edifice that will only be used until the building of the Temple.  Why is so much time and attention devoted to what is a “one shot deal?”  When the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, why didn’t they build a Mishkan?  Again, when the Second Temple was destroyed, why didn’t anybody build a Mishkan since they had the complete blueprint?  (In fact, they used an edifice that is not mentioned in the Torah - the Synagogue or Shul.)  This is your chance to supply the answer because I do not have one.

The Shabbos Goy

“Reb Nachum of Chernobyl once spent Shabbat at the home of Reb Shimon of Shlomo…  In accordance with the custom of the household a long candle was lit before sunset which was to last until morning, in order to give light to anyone wanting to rise and study Torah before daybreak.  A little after midnight, the host and his family saw Reb Nachum groping his way about the house like one moving in absolute darkness, and were afraid lest he bump into something and hurt himself.  Hearing that they were also awake, Reb Nachum asked them:  ‘Why did you not light a candle to last through the night?’  This they could not fathom; that very room was in fact illuminated by the candle they had lit.  They investigated and found that it had earlier blown out, and the gentile maid had relit it.  But because it had been lit on Shabbat, the tzaddik was able to see nothing by its light.”

This Chassidic tale is included in a compilation by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin of blessed memory.  The story is intended to reinforce the commandment found in this week’s Torah portion:  “You shall kindle no fire…on the day of Shabbat” (35:3).  But Reb Nachum may have been trying to teach us a deeper lesson.  Reb Nachum was no slouch since he was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the successor to the Baal Shem Tov.  It was a common practice among many observant Jews to retain a “Shabbos Goy,” a gentile who would perform functions on Shabbat that Jews were forbidden to perform.  In the story we just read, it would make sense for Reb Nachum not to have seen the light if the candle had been lit by a Jew.  But the gentile maid was not violating a commandment by lighting the candle on Shabbat, since only the Jews are commanded to “observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  So if Reb Nachum could not see the light from a candle kindled by a “Shabbos Goy” lit in violation of the commandments we can assume that we are not supposed to hire people to perform activities forbidden to Jews.  For Reb Nachum, hiring the “Shabbos Goy” was not a way around the law, it was just another way for Jews to violate the law.

Saving the Sedrah

For as long as I can remember, I have found this week’s portion to be boring, repetitive and rather pointless; something for Popular Mechanics rather than the TaNaCh.  Since nothing in the Torah is without meaning, the challenge has been to keep at it until I found it.  Thanks to Rabbi Sacks, this seemingly interminable building project finally provides one of those timeless messages for which we are always searching.  Sacks encourages us to step back and view this week’s portion as part of a series of events that began with the Golden Calf.  When Moses came down from the mountain “the people were peruah, meaning ‘wild disorderly, chaotic, unruly or tumultuous.’”  Initially, the only way Moses could establish some sort of control was to impose martial law (the Levites slaughtering three thousand men).  But this was no way to create a community, to make the term the House of Israel a reality as opposed to just a literary expression.  Drawing on his managerial skills, Moses knew that giving the people a common activity would draw them together.  As Colonel Nicholson saw in the Bridge on the River Kwai, there is no better way to draw people together than to have them building something and the Mishkan was big, really big.  The building project forced the people to come together and cooperate in reaching a common goal.  More importantly, in building the Mishkan, the people were building a connection to God.  Abstract ideas, and there is no more abstract idea than an omniscient, omnipresent, non-corporeal deity, can be difficult for people to connect to on an ongoing basis.  So the trick is to build a bridge where the actions of the person can connect the person to God.  This is the function of ritual.  Ritual - whether it is prayers, observance of Kashrut, lighting Shabbat candles or baking Hamantaschen - provides that physical connection.  Judaism is a religion of action, of deeds.  These deeds, like the building of the Mishkan, bring us closer to one another and closer to God.

Pekuday (Count or Enumerate)

38:21-40:38 Shemot (Exodus)

Pekuday is the eleventh and last sedrah in Shemot.  It is also the fourth and final sedrah dealing with the construction of the Mishkan.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  “Ayleh Pekuday Hamishkan” or in English, “These are the countings (or enumerations) of the Tabernacle.…”  It is a brief sedrah.  Based on Etz Hayim Chumash and The Stone Chumash, the sedrah may be divided as follows:

A Tally of the Metals - 38:21-31

Moshe insists on a tally of the precious metals used in the construction.  The need for honest accounting did not begin with the financial meltdowns in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century.  The author(s) of the TaNaCh understood that people were only human where great wealth was involved.  The givers need to be assured that their offerings did not stick to any fingers.  And anybody can be accused of having sticky fingers, including Moshe.  In Devarim, he will proclaim his virtue by announcing that he never took anything and that nobody ever proved that he did.

The Making of the Priestly Vestments - 39:1-31

·        The Ephod;

·        The Breastplate;

·        The Robe of the Ephod;

·        The Tunics of Linen;

·        The Headplate.

The message here is quite clear.  How we dress, how we appear to others says volumes about who we are and what we do.

Completion and Inspection - 39:32-43

According to Rashi, Moshe did not do any of the actual construction work himself.  But when the people brought the Mishkan to him, the walls were lying down.  It was Moshe who miraculously lifted the walls.  Also according to Rashi, when Moshe accepted the work of the people the blessing he offered included a prayer that God would rest in the Mishkan and the spirit of the Lord would abide among the people.

Assembly and Dedication - 40:1-15

Moshe is commanded to set up the Tabernacle and to anoint Aaron and his sons.  According to the text, this was all supposed to happen on the first day of Nissan, the month of the Exodus.  According to the Midrash, the work was actually finished in the month of Kislev.  In order not to hurt the feelings of Kislev, God promised that another Sanctuary would be dedicated during Kislev.  This promise came true with Chanukah when the Second Temple was re-dedicated.

Fulfilling the Instructions - 40:16-33

Here the Tabernacle is actually erected.  According to the text, Moshe did all of the work himself.  Earlier, we had wondered where the Tablets were kept before the Ark was built.  According to a comment by Ramban on 40:20, Moshe kept them “in a wooden box in his own tent…”  There is one difference between the instructions given to Moshe (40:1-15) and what he actually does (40:16-33).  He is instructed to anoint Aaron and his sons.  But, here at any rate, he does not do actually do it.

Appearance of the Divine Presence - 40:34-38

The sedrah and Shemot end with God showing his acceptance of the work of the Israelites by filling the Tabernacle with His glory.  This scene is reminiscent of the last part of the Seder called Nir’tza or Accepted.  It is a request that God accept the Seder we have completed.  For no matter how correctly we may think we have done it, without God’s approval it was for naught.  Well, the same is true of building the Tabernacle, or any other endeavor.  Until it has found favor in God’s sight, it has no real value.  God had “learned” from the experience of the Golden Calf.  The Israelites needed tangible proof of His presence.  So a cloud filled the Mishkan as a symbol of the divine presence.  When the cloud rose up it was time to move.  When the cloud stayed put, so did the Israelites.  The cloud was with them in the day and a pillar of fire showed that He was with them in the night.



Interestingly enough, there are none in this last sedrah of Shemot.  Could it be that God and Moshe sensed that the Israelites needed a rest from learning and needed time to savor what had happened?

Coming Attractions

All that has been described took place in the first month of the second year of the Exodus.  The next book, Vayikra (Leviticus) primarily concerns itself with laws pertaining to the Priests and the sacrifices.  The book following Vayikra, Bamidbar (Numbers), picks up where Shemot ends since its first words are “On the first day of the second month in the second year following the Exodus.…”


Moshe is told to anoint Aaron’s sons as well as Aaron.  This is proof that Moshe accepts the leadership role that is passing to his brother’s house.  Moshe does not ask for special favor for his two sons.  As a father, Moshe may have been bothered by the lack of a special place for his offspring.  But as a leader, he accepted the divine plan without a hint of complaint.


The phrase “that God commands” is written eighteen times concerning the building of the Tabernacle.  There are eighteen benedictions found in the Amidah.  Could it be that each time we recite the Amidah we are building our own Tabernacle, which we hope God will enter?

The Ark

What went into the Ark?  The text says Moshe put the Tablets in the Ark.  In Hebrew the word used is “Ay-doot” which is a plural form of the word.  From this, the commentators concluded that Moshe had put both the First (the broken) Set and the Second Set in the Ark.  In our highly disposable society it is interesting to note that our ancestor clung to the broken stones.  There is no mention of a place for the Torah.  Only in Devarim will we read of the Torah being placed in a special spot just outside of the Ark of the Covenant.

Limitations of Language

In Hebrew Moses puts the “Ay-doot” in the Ark.  The problem is that different authors use different English words in translating “Ay-doot.”  According to at least two sources, the word “Ay-doot” is the plural form of the word for Testimony so the Commandments can be viewed as a testimony to the relationship between God and the Jewish people.  “Ay-doot” is also the plural form of the word for a female witness.  There are those who believe that the Shechinah is a “female manifestation” of God and that it is the Shechinah that settles into the Tabernacle at the end of this Torah portion.  For those who believe this, it would be fitting to see the commandments as the perpetual witness who saw the development of the unique relationship God and the Jewish people begin at Sinai and who is always there to remind us of its timeless existence.

Positive Reinforcement

“And when Moses saw they had performed all the tasks - as the Lord had commanded…Moses blessed them” (39:43).  According to the Gersosnides, the 14th century French Talmudist, “We learn from this that a leader ought to bless those under his direction when they obey him so that they will be readier to do his will.”  Once again, we are reminded that one of the reasons that the Torah has been studied for so many centuries is because it speaks to the human condition without regard to time or place.  Here the Torah teaches the importance of saying thank-you and not taking it for granted when people behave in a desired manner.  Psychology majors will recognize what Moses did as the forerunner of B.F. Skinner’s concept of Operant Conditioning using Positive Reinforcement.  Since Judaism believes in the concept of Free Will, people can choose to do the right thing or to do the wrong thing; it is appropriate to thank them (in this case with a blessing) when they choose the right path.

Divine Revelation

The Hebrew word for fire is “aysh.”  At the beginning of Shemot God first appears to Moshe “b’lahbaht aysh,” “in a flame of fire.”  At the end of Shemot we read that “fire” or “aysh” is the nighttime sign of the Lord’s presence.  Not only that, but “aysh” is the last symbol of the divine presence that is mentioned in Shemot.  In other words, God’s first and last revelation comes in the form of fire.  He begins by revealing Himself in fire to one man.  He ends by revealing Himself in fire to the entire nation.  Furthermore, in non-leap years Vayakhel and Pekuday are read on the same Shabbat.  Vayakhel begins with a command prohibiting the kindling of fire or “aysh” on Shabbat.  Fire is a symbol of the divine presence.  We are allowed to enjoy a pre-existing fire on Shabbat.  We just are not allowed to create a fire on Shabbat.  This means that by observing Shabbat we enjoy the divine presence (fire) that is with us all week long but which we can only fully appreciate on the Day of Rest.

“The Medium Is Not the Message” by Mordechai Beck

The best known Jewish statement of principle on art is, unfortunately, the ban given at Sinai on making graven images with a likeness of “anything in the heavens above or the earth beneath”.  Despite this prohibition, a few chapters later the same jealous God commands Moses to erect a tabernacle and fill it with objects of beauty that are described with such precise detail as to suggest Divine acceptance of the power of the visual on the imagination of His children.  How do we explain this radical change of heart?  Is art not only to be permitted but even lauded as a means of reaching the Divine?

The key to this riddle is found in the figure of Bezalel - or to give him his full name, as it appears when he is first mentioned and again at the beginning of Pekudei - “Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, from the tribe of Judah” (Exodus 31:2, 38:22), who “made all that the Lord had commanded Moses.”  He was an artist and craftsman capable of fashioning objects that inspired awe, in the same way, perhaps, that the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo did for their contemporaries.  Does this mean that God repented His objections to the visual image?  What did Bezalel bring to his work that made it kosher?  According to Midrash Tanhuma, the answer lies in the very lineage mentioned in the Bible when Bezalel was introduced.  “What need is there to recall here the name of Hur?  Because he (Hur) gave up his soul for the Holy One, Blessed be He.  In that hour that they sought to make the (golden) calf, he stood before them - between the people and his uncle Aaron, the high priest - and rebuked them; and they stood against him and killed him.  Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Hur:  ‘By your life, I will compensate you for this…by elevating all your progeny.’  Thus it is written:  ‘See, God has called Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur…and filled him with the spirit of God.’”

The sudden explosion of Bezalel’s artistic activity is here seen as a response to the incident of the golden calf.  That incident proved to the hidden mysterious God that a spiritual life on earth was impossible without some visual, external props.  To this He agreed, but on one condition:  that the objects act merely as a medium, valuable only insofar as they brought greater glory and praise to God.  Said the invisible Creator of the Universe, recounts the Midrash:  “Even My own children are not prepared to recognize the truth.  And if they, who saw with their own eyes all the wonders and miracles which I wrought in Egypt and in the Exodus from Egypt, do not believe, how much more so those who did not see such things!”  So God searched for someone who could distinguish between art and idolatry.  He searched and He found Bezalel.  Not that Bezalel was a born artist; rather, God saw his potential to serve the Divine purpose with his hands and heart and, given his lineage, could be presumed able to remain pure of idolatrous intent.  King Midas, of Greek myth, had hands whose touch turned everything to gold.  Everything gold touched by Bezalel turned into something holy.  Bezalel got similar results from silver, copper, ram skins, and acacia wood, as he did from stone and other materials crafted with sophisticated cutting techniques of high artistry.

The Torah’s extended descriptions of the objects of the Tabernacle fill chapters of Exodus, suggesting awareness of the profound need for the aesthetic in our lives.  Visual art, the Torah seems to concur, is a powerful tool.  It touches the root faculty of our humanity - our imagination.  It can be used to enhance or destroy us, depending on the purpose to which the artistry is put.  The medium, that is to say, is not always the message.  Often the artist’s technique disguises his true purpose.  The objection to idolatry is not to the materials themselves - since all material has its source in God - or to their being worked into tangible images.  The objection is to the assumption that material - or the image - has some intrinsic value.  For idolatry is when the material presence replaces the reality it represents.  This is what modern philosophers call reification, and what the Sages in their wisdom saw as a substitution of the container for the content.

Conclusion of the Reading

This marks the end of the reading of the book of Shemot.  Each time the congregation completes the reading of one of the Five Books of Moses it is customary to recite “Chazak, Chazak, ve-nit-chazek” or in English, “Be strong, Be strong, and let us be strengthened.”  Variants of this statement appear in several places and are tied to the study of the Torah.  One of the most common references is to the Book of Joshua where the statement Chazak ve-matz (Be strong and of good courage appears three times in Chapter one, verses 6 through 9).  In the mention in verse 7 the reference “is directly tied to importance of the observance of the Torah.”  So this Shabbat, you will have earned the right to stand and recite Chazak,

Chazak, ve-nit-chazek.

Shabbat Ha-Chodesh (Sabbath of the Month)

12:1-20 Shemot (Exodus)

Shabbat Ha-Chodesh is the fourth of the four special Sabbaths (not counting Shabbat Ha-Gadol) that proceed the holiday of Pesach.  Each of these special Sabbaths has a special connection with the story of the Exodus or the preparations for observing the holiday.  On Shabbat Ha-Chodesh two scrolls are taken from the ark.  The first scroll is used for reading the sedrah of the week.  The second scroll contains the special reading for the holiday.

This passage opens with the words “This month (ha-Chodesh ha-zeh) shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”  The month referred to is Nissan, the month in which Pesach falls.  The reading that is part of the sedrah called Bo, describes how the Israelites are to behave on the night of the first Pesach.  This also provides us with the basic rules for observing the holiday in the future.  The Torah portion is always read on the last Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  If Rosh Chodesh Nissan falls on Shabbat then it is read on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  When Shabbat Ha-Chodesh falls on Rosh Chodesh a third scroll is taken from the Ark.  The special reading for Rosh Chodesh (Bamidbar 28: 19-25) is read after the regular weekly reading but before the special reading for the special Shabbat.

Special Haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Chodesh

45:16-46:18 (Ashkenazim)

45:18-46:15 (Sephardim)


The Man:  Ezekiel was one of the three Major Prophets.  He was a younger contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah.  He was part of the Jewish population that went into exile after the destruction of the First Temple.  He preached to the Jews of Babylonia in what were some of the darkest days in ancient Jewish History.

The Message:  In this reading, Ezekiel describes the rituals and ceremonies that will be observed in the Temple that will be built by the returning exiles.  There is a strong message of ritual observance and purification in the public place most connected with the manifestation Divine Spirit.

Theme-Link:  This is one of those times when the connection between the haftarah connects with the calendar and not the regular weekly Torah portion.  The emphasis of the special Torah portion is on the on the observances tied to the first Pesach.  The prophetic portion deals with the observances connected with the Pesach of the future.  Both Torah and Haftarah are directed at exiles.  The message Shemot is directed at the exiles who are about to experience the Exodus.  The message of Ezekiel is directed at the exiles in Babylonia who are waiting for the day when they will be told that they are returning to the Promised Land.

Copyright March 20 Mitchell A. Levin