Blemishes of the Priests

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Blemishes of the Priests


By Rav Michael Hattin





            Parashat Emor begins with matters that pertain to the kohanim or priests.  As servants of God who minister in His Mishkan, they are to maintain their state of ritual fitness by eschewing any contact with the dead.  Only in the contingency of the death of an immediate relative are they permitted to attend to the burial but under no circumstances are they to perform mourning rites that either cause their debasement or else demand self-mutilation.  That is to say that in deference to their exalted office, the descendents of Aharon are to remain composed, even under the trying circumstances of the death of a loved one.  The High Priest, of course, must practice even greater restraint, for he may not attend even the funeral of his immediate family members.  In the holy precincts he must remain, dismissing death from his thoughts even as it is banished from his surroundings, for everywhere and at all times the Mishkan radiates life everlasting.


            The sharp distinction between the Kohen Ha-gadol and the regular priests is underlined by another provision.  Whereas the kohanim may not marry prostitutes, divorcees or women that are the offspring of these unsanctioned unions, the High Priest may not even marry a widow, for he must instead take only a virgin for his wife.  Once again, the glory of the office that the Kohen Ha-gadol represents must be upheld even at the cost of his personal preferences.




            These themes are emphasized by the provisions that follow, for they pertain to the matter of blemishes:


God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to Aharon and say to him – if there is a descendent of yours that has a blemish, for all generations, then he shall not come near to sacrifice the food of his Lord.  Every man that is blemished shall not draw near, if he is blind or lame, or flat-nosed or long-limbed.  Neither shall he who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or else is hunchbacked, dwarfish, has a blemish in his eye, boil-scars, scurvy or crushed testicles.  Any man who has a blemish from among the descendents of Aharon the priest shall not draw near to sacrifice the fire-offerings of God, for he has a blemish and therefore shall not draw near to sacrifice the food of his Lord.  But the food of his Lord, even from the holy of holies and of course from the holy, he shall eat.  But he shall not come near to the dividing curtain nor approach the altar for he has a blemish, and he shall not desecrate My holy precincts for I am God who sanctifies them.  Moshe spoke these things to Aharon and to his sons and to all of the people of Israel (Vayikra 21:16-24).


The above section effectively disqualifies a blemished priest from offering sacrifice upon the altar or even performing associated rituals, such as sprinkling the blood of certain sacrifices upon the dividing curtain or entering the Holy of Holies that is beyond it (see, for instance Vayikra 16:12-15).  While the list of disqualifying blemishes seems miscellaneous and diverse, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) detects a definite ordering principle:


First the text specifies those blemishes that involve deficiencies of organs such as blindness or lameness.  Then the text discusses blemishes that relate to size, such as a nose that is too small or else a limb that is too large.  The Torah then turns its attention to blemishes that pertain to broken bones such that even if a man's limbs are neither missing nor disfigured, he is nevertheless disqualified if they are broken.  Next, the Torah excludes even blemishes of appearance such as a back that is hunched or else eyes that have seed-like spots.  Afterwards, the Torah rules out even blemishes that pertain to the flesh of the body, for he must be immaculate and flawless.  And finally, the Torah adds he that suffers from swollen testicles, even though this malady often strikes the aged and is not to be considered a blemish that afflicts the bones or the flesh.  Our Rabbis derived many other blemishes based upon these, for all of those that the Torah mentions (in our Parasha) are to be regarded as general categories… (commentary to 21:20).


            According to the Ramban, then, the Torah effectively lists these blemishes in descending order.  It begins with more serious flaws that relate to dysfunction, deficiency or disfigurement and then addresses breaks of otherwise whole limbs, blemishes that mar bodily or facial appearance, lesions of the skin, and even flaws that are typical or else expected.  For the Ramban, then, the overall effect is to highlight the gravity of the sacrificial service, for each additional provision introduces a disqualifying blemish that is not the obvious extension of what preceded it.  In the end, of course, these provisions limit the performance of the sacrificial service to only those priests that are physically whole and complete.  Significantly, though, while the blemished priest may not minister at the altar as long as he is afflicted, he may nevertheless partake of the sanctified sacrificial meats like all of the other priests.  And as Rashi (11th century, France) points out, quoting a tradition of the early Rabbis, "if the blemish passes (so that he returns to state of wholeness) then he is fit to offer sacrifice at the altar…"(commentary to 21:21).




            The classical commentaries do not explore the nature of these disqualifications at length, and Rashi offers only a passing but trenchant remark, one that is curiously omitted from some manuscripts:


            "Every man that is blemished shall not draw near" – it is not proper for him to draw near, just as it states: 'Offer it to your governor!' (Malakhi 1:8).


            While Rashi's reading may seem cryptic, a quick perusal of the relevant passage in Malachi quickly dispels any confusion.  In this section, the prophet Malachi, who was active during the difficult days of the beginning of the Second Temple period, decries the people of Israel’s cavalier attitude towards the service that took place within its confines.  While the people may outwardly swear their allegiance to God, they nevertheless routinely debase His service by offering animals that are unfit.  Unwilling to part with their best, they instead bring forth to the altar animals that are blemished or else defective.  With their actions, the people declare that there is nothing wrong with presenting God with second-best or worse, as if they would dare to offer such gifts to a governor of flesh and blood!  Malachi upbraids the people for their miserly disdain, and the passage in its entirety reads as follows: "You bring a blind animal to sacrifice it as if nothing is wrong, and you bring a lame or sick animal to sacrifice it as if nothing is wrong!  Offer it instead to your governor!  Will he be desirous of you or will he forgive you?" asks the Lord of Hosts. 


            It is possible to understand Rashi's comments as declaring that the service of blemished priests is an affront to God.  After all, just as one may not offer animals that are sick, lame or otherwise flawed, for that demonstrates a lack of respect on the part of the supplicant, so too for blemished priests to serve shows irreverence towards that Divine service.  Would the subjects of an earthly monarch demonstrate their reverence for him by appointing an honor guard composed of the lame and the blind?  Should the public display of the king's great glory be undermined by the inclusion of individuals that tend to attract attention not by virtue of their loyal service but rather because of their infirmity?  While reading Rashi in this fashion presents us with a serious challenge to our more enlightened sensibilities, there is no doubt that such was the sentiment of at least some of the medievals. 




            But the 14th century anonymous Sefer Ha-chinukh begins the process of moderating the matter by ascribing the real fault to someone other than the priest who possesses the blemish:


At the root of this command is the fact that a person's deeds tend to be desirable to those that observe them as a function of the doer's importance and bearing.  When a person is imposing in appearance and good in his conduct then he finds favor for all that he does in the presence of others.  When the opposite is the case, so that a person is ugly or strange in appearance and does acts that are improper, then his actions cannot find as much favor in the hearts of his observers.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the messenger upon whom atonement depends should be a man who is beautiful in appearance and form, and upright in conduct, so that other people are encouraged to think about the import of his service… (Sefer Ha-chinukh, Negative Mitzva #296).


Note that the Sefer Ha-chinukh is careful to temper his words with his discreet demand that fine appearances be twinned with good deeds, thus indicating that the observer's impressions are conditioned by both.  It is therefore not the case that those that are handsome will automatically find favor simply by virtue of their appearance while those that are homely will not.  Rather, "when a person is imposing in appearance AND GOOD IN HIS CONDUCT then he finds favor for all that he does in the presence of others… (and when) a person is ugly or strange in appearance AND DOES ACTS THAT ARE IMPROPER, then his actions cannot find as much favor in the hearts of his observers…"  Nevertheless, the thrust of his reading is to suggest that priests that are blemished will have a more difficult time finding favor in the hearts of their observers and that this is the reason for their disqualification from the service of the altar!  Of course, while the reading may strike us as harsh, it does relieve the blemished priests of the responsibility for their exclusion.  It is the PEOPLE OF ISRAEL who have difficulty separating outward appearance from essence and who (unjustly) confuse external form with the service of the heart. 


            The ambivalence in the words of the Sefer Ha-chinukh is palpable, for while he cannot explain the disqualification of the blemished priests as anything but a function of their physical deformity, he also realizes the implied injustice of that reading.  Did compassionate God not create all people in His image and inspire them all with infinite worth?!  Therefore, the Sefer Ha-chinukh "blames" the people of Israel for necessitating the Torah's legislation, as if such a law is required because we are excessively impressed by external appearances and erroneously draw our conclusions about another’s true merit accordingly.




            Now armed with the insight of the Sefer Ha-chinukh, perhaps there is another way to understand the above Rashi.  We note that when Rashi compares the service of the blemished priests at the altar to the presentation of blemished animals upon its hearth, he fails to draw upon the obvious source for that linkage which would have been our Parasha itself.  Just a few sections after our passage, the Torah explicitly forbids the presentation of blemished animals:


God spoke to Moshe saying: speak to Aharon and to his sons and to all of the people of Israel and say to them – when any person from the house of Israel or from the convert that dwells among Israel shall offer his sacrifice, whether it be in fulfillment of a vow or else as a freewill offering, all those that are sacrificed to God as burnt offerings, then they shall be offered to find favor for you as unblemished males from among the cattle, the sheep and the goats.  All that are blemished shall not be offered, for it shall not find favor for you… (Vayikra 22:17-20).


Instead, Rashi directs us to a series of verses in the book of Malakhi that highlight the tendency of the people to fulfill their obligations by offering those animals that are not particularly valuable to them and that do not represent a serious commitment.  The people want to appease God with "inferior" goods because that the Divine service is not precious enough in their eyes to them to deserve the investment of anything more extravagant.  In a similar vein, suggests Rashi, the service of blemished priests at the altar is not a progressive act of inclusion on the part of the other priests but rather an implication that they themselves are uninterested in performing the Divine service.  According to Rashi's reading, it is as if the other unblemished priests declare: "the service of the altar is beneath our dignity!  We have better things to do with our time!  Let these blemished priests, who are otherwise unfit for productive labor, serve God with sacrifice!"  With his explanation, Rashi once again deflects the "unfitness" from the blemished priests themselves and instead places it squarely upon the shoulders of their seemingly more whole companions.  Just as the presenter of a blemished animal signals his disdain for the service and his desire to keep the best for himself, so too the service of blemished priests at the altar would be a damning declaration that the other fit priests cannot themselves be bothered to serve.  They would prefer instead to dispense their obligation by enlisting others to do the task.


            In the end, of course, the service of God is debased and derided, because those that ought to serve Him are unwilling to do so.  The matter of blemishes is therefore an important lesson in self-awareness, and in appreciation of one's noble responsibilities – onerous though they may sometimes seem.  May we be counted among those that sincerely and enthusiastically strive to serve God. 


Shabbat Shalom