Arayot of Acherei Mot; Arayot of Kedoshim

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Arayot of Acherei Mot; Arayot of Kedoshim


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



  1. INTRODUCTION – A Change of Message


Like most leap years, the reading of our parsha comes in close proximity to the holiday of Pesach.  However, the beginning of the text transports us to Yom Kippur – “And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Tell your brother Aharon that he should not come into the Mishkan at all times … so that he should not die’”.  In our parsha, we read how the Kohen Gadol, standing in the Kodesh Kedoshim, enveloped in the closest contact to G-d humanly possible, attains atonement ‘for himself, his family, and all the community …’.   Yom Kippur morning, we read all of Chapter 16, which describes all of Aharon’s preparations on that fateful Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  His arrangements, which he was required to perform any time he wished to enter the Kodesh Kedoshim[1], became the standard procedure followed by every Kohen Gadol on the following Yom Kippur.  Even Chapter 17, which deals with the prohibitions against offering sacrifices outside the confines of the Mishkan, mirrors the subject matter of Chapter 16.  It is precisely because we are able to achieve such intimacy within the boundaries of the Mishkan, that external offerings are prohibited. 


The opening of Chapter 18, however, abruptly interrupts our discussion about the Mishkan:


And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying:

Speak unto the Children of Yisrael and say unto them, “I am Hashem your G-d.  According to the deeds of the Land of Egypt, where you dwelled, you shall not do.  And according to the deeds of the Land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not walk in their statutes. (VaYikra 18:1-3)


With these verses, the Torah introduces a section that contains numerous laws that cover every aspect of human existence – intimacy, commerce, relationships, communal responsibilities and mutual obligations.  Throughout this section, which begins in Acharei Mot and ends several chapters later, the phrase ‘I am Hashem’ (with the additional ‘your G-d’ appearing occasionally, generally with commandments between man and G-d) becomes a leitmotif that defines the entire portion.  Before, giving the Torah, Hashem charged the Jewish people to become “a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:5).  The first seventeen chapters of Sefer VaYikra present the ritual laws that will trsform the people into “a nation of priests”.  Now, the Torah continues with those commandments will transform the Jewish people into “a holy nation”, and whose fulfillment is imperative if the Jewish people wish to maintain their hold upon the land of Israel[2].  Significantly, Chapter 18 opens this presentation with the categories of arayot, forbidden sexual relationships, before declaring that the Jewish people are to strive for holiness in Chapter 19. 



  1. Arayot and Yom Kippur


Before discussing the literary aspects of the Torah’s presentation of arayot, we note that fascinatingly, Chazal chose this chapter as the afternoon Torah reading on Yom Kippur.  This choice (TB Megillah 31), almost jarring given the rarefied sanctity that pervades this solemn day, provoked much discussion among the commentators.  Several see in this choice a motivational lesson:


Since, from time to time, all people are subject to strong passions, they should hear this chapter and repent in case thy have sinned in this manner (Rashi, ad loc)

The women who attend services on Yom Kippur have adorned themselves, therefore an extra reading in necessary to caution against frivolity.  (Tosafot, ad loc)

We read the portion of arayot during the Yom Kippur Mincha service because people are strongly attracted to sexual misconduct, and this awakens those who are impure to repent.  (Mishna Berura 622:7)


Based on the structural understanding of Sefer VaYikra that we have proposed above, we can suggest another rationale for the reading of Chapter 18 on Yom Kippur.  After 17 chapters dedicated to preserving the sanctity of the Mishkan, the text now directs its attention towards achieving holiness outside the Mishkan.  Similarly, having spent the better part of a day within the sacred walls of the synagogue, engaged in repentance and fasting, the Torah reading for Mincha must direct us how to engage the outside world with the second part of our mission – to become “a holy nation”.


  1. Between Acherei Mot and Kedoshim


This section on prohibited sexual relationships, however, repeats itself within two chapters, in Chapter 20.  In Rabbinic thought, this repetition is the paradigm of the requirement that in order to punish an individual, he must be aware of both the prohibition and the consequence of his action[3].  A brief glance at in which order the Torah presents the laws of arayot in the two parshiyot reveals some fascinating differences:


Arayot in Parshat Acharei Mot

Arayot in Parshat Kedoshim

  1. Mother, father, daughter of father or mother, grandchild
  2. Father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s brother …
  3. Related through marriage: daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, step-daughter …
  4. Prohibited acts: niddah, married woman (that is not related), homosexual intercourse, bestiality...
  1. Wife of another man, father’s wife, son’s wife …
  2. Prohibited acts: homosexual intercourse, bestiality …
  3. Sister, mother’s sister, father’s sister …


What literary message does the Torah intend with the change of order[4]?  The major difference between the two sections is the choice of which prohibited sexual relationship begins the list.  In Parshat Acharei Mot, arayot appear by order of descending consanguinity (literally – the order of descending blood), by the nature of the familial relationship.  In Parshat Kedoshim, the arayot first prohibit unrelated people and acts, and only then do they deal with blood relations.  Clearly, the differing orders serve two separate functions.  Possibly, the arayot listed in Acharei Mot reflect the standards of the Egyptians and Canaanites that the Torah warned us about at the beginning of the chapter. However, viewing the arayot in the context of the parsha as a whole, a larger theme emerges.  Chapter 16 described how the Kohen Gadol enters the Mikdash, and performs the Yom Kippur service.  Chapter 17 delineates the prohibitions of offerings outside the Mikdash.  The two goats of the Yom Kippur service, one to the Altar and one to Azazel, best demonstrate the balance between maintaining intimacy within, while maintaining boundaries without.  Acharei Mot’s arayot reflect this theme.  The list begins with the relationships that most violate a person’s internal sense of self – his family, and only then with people not related to him.  In Parshat Kedoshim, however, the order reflects the focus of the parsha – kedusha (holiness).  In Parshat Kedoshim, kedusha does not emanate from the Mikdash, but from the full range of human activity – business, ritual, social, agriculture, intimate, and communal.  We achieve holiness not through abstention from interacting with the outside, but by demonstrating the capacity to maintain boundaries while being fully attached to a complete existence.  In the Rabbis’ words – “kadesh amtzecha bemah shemutar lecha” - sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you.  For that reason, the list of arayot in Parshat Kedoshim begins precisely with those partners that would, under differing circumstances, been permitted. 



[1] The Midrash states that unlike the Kohanei Gadol who succeeded him, Aharon haKohen was not limited to an annual visit to the Kodesh Kedoshim but was entitled to approach it whenever he desired (see VaYikra Rabbah 21:7).


[2] The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Rosh Yeshiva of the famed yeshiva of Volozhin in the 19th century) in Ha’Emek haDavar suggests that behavior occurs for one of two reasons:  either because it is a socially accepted norm, or it is mandated by the authorities.  In the Land of Egypt, sexual morality was the ‘ma’aseh’ – a socially acceptable form of behavior, while in Cana’an, it was a statute (Hebrew – chok)  enforced by the government.  Exile, suggests the Netziv, only applies when a country enshrines immoral conduct in law, while karet is applicable when such behavior is only the province of individuals.


[3] See TB Makkot 5b.


[4] R. Yoel bin Nun suggests that the Talmudic argument (TB Yevamot 49) defining which offspring of prohibited marriages are defined as forbidden to enter the Jewish people revolves around the fundamental question of whether the list in Chapter 18 or the list in Chapter 29 is the primary list.  A full development of his idea is well beyond the scope of this essay.