Not Leviticus

  • Rav Yair Kahn







The Yeshiva wishes a very warm Mazal Tov to Rav Mordechai and Debby Friedman and all the family on the bat mitzva of their daughter Ora Leba.



Not Leviticus


By Rav Yair Kahn



1.  Between Shemot and Bamidbar


Sefer Vayikra focuses on the Mikdash.  It begins with the various sacrifices, shifts to a discussion of the laws of ritual impurity regarding things that can potentially defile the Mikdash, and continues with laws specific to the Kohanim and Kohen Gadol who serve in the Mikdash.  The sefer concludes with a detailed discussion of various ways to donate to the Mikdash.  Our sages called VayikraTorat Kohanim,” apparently because of this focus on the Mikdash and the priests.  (We should understand the title Leviticus, meaning relating to Leviim, in a similar way.) In this week’s shiur, we will discuss Sefer Vayikra as a whole and consider the meaning of its special title. 


When we view Sefer Vayikra as a whole, we note how removed it is from the narrative or historical context of the Torah.  It is possible to read from the end of Sefer Shemot, skip Vayikra, and continue on to Sefer Bamidbar without noticing the omission.  In fact, Sefer Shemot ends with the following pesukim:


Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan… And whenever the cloud rose from the Mishkan, the Children of Israel went forward, throughout all their journeys.  But if the cloud did not rise, then they would not travel till the day that it rose.  For the cloud of Hashem was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.  (Shemot 40:34-38)


The Torah returns to this theme towards the beginning of Bamidbar. 


And on the day that the Mishkan was erected, the cloud covered the Mishkan So it was always: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of fire by night.  And whenever the cloud arose from over the Tent, then after that the Children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud rested, there the Children of Israel encamped.  (Bamidbar 9:15-17)


By returning to the concluding theme of Shemot, the Torah seems to be signaling to us that there is a smooth narrative flow from the end of Sefer Shemot to the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar.  Sefer Vayikra, on the other hand, is predominantly halakhic, not narrative.  The historic space occupied by Sefer Vayikra is limited to the days of the “miluim,” with the main focus on the eighth day.  Although the narrative of the “megadef” (the episode of the blasphemer; 24:10-12) is also found in Vayikra, its location there is problematic, as we will discuss in our shiur on Parashat Emor.  In any case, aside from documenting the events of the days of miluim, including the dramatic and tragic events of the eighth day, and with the exception of the story of the megadef, Sefer Vayikra is totally halakhic. 


Parenthetically, it is notable that our description of a narrative continuum from Shemot to Bamidbar is not completely accurate.  Shemot ends with a description of how the glory of Hashem prevented Moshe from entering the Mishkan:


Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.  And Moshe was unable to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.  (Shemot 40:34-35)


Sefer Bamidbar begins with Hashem speaking to Moshe in the Mishkan: "And Hashem spoke to Moshe in Midbar Sinai in the tent of meeting …" (Bamidbar 1:1).  If Moshe was prevented from entering the Mishkan, how could he enter to receive the word of Hashem? The missing link is found in the opening line of Sefer Vayikra:


And Hashem called unto Moshe and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting.  (Vayikra 1:1)


At the beginning of Vayikra, Hashem calls Moshe and invites him into the Mishkan (see Targum Yerushalmi).  Rashi notes that the voice of Hashem emanated from above the kapporet in between the two keruvim, which the Ramban notes (Shemot 25:1) is an expression of the fact that the Mishkan is a continuation of the revelation of Sinai.  Similarly, the Ramban in our parasha notes that Hashem had to invite Moshe to enter the Mishkan, just as he was invited to enter the cloud on Har Sinai, which had been engulfed by Hashem's glory, in order to receive the Torah.


And the glory of Hashem abode upon Har Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day He called unto Moshe out of the midst of the cloud.  (Shemot 24:16)


Thus, we are forced to concede that the opening verse of Vayikra contains an important point necessary for the narrative flow.  Nevertheless, the Torah story still seems to skip over the entire sefer. 


2.  Priest Related Laws?


As we already noted, our Sages called Sefer VayikraTorat Kohanim.” This title is a bit strange.  After all, most of the sefer discusses the Mishkan and its related laws; Torat Ha-Mishkan or Ha-Mikdash would have been a more appropriate title.  The primary focus is on the Mishkan, while the Kohanim who minister the Mishkan are merely of secondary concern.  For instance, Sefer Vayikra opens with laws of korbanot that were given to all of Yisrael: “Speak to the children of Yisrael and say to them: A person of you, if he shall bring an offering to Hashem” (1:2).  It is only Parashat Tzav, which contains details of the various sacrifices, that was addressed specifically to the Kohanim: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the torah of the burnt-offering” (6:2).


Even the parasha that is devoted to the laws of the priests (chapter 21) is merely a subsection of larger segment that focuses on the entire nation.  The segment begins, “And Hashem spoke unto Moshe, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Yisrael, and say unto them: You shall be holy; for I Hashem your God am holy” (19:1-2).  After introducing a long and varied list of laws which apply to the entire nation, the Torah sums up: “And you shall be holy unto Me; for I Hashem am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine” (20:26).  Only then does the Torah introduce priestly laws, continuing the same refrain: “He shall be holy unto you; for I, Hashem, who sanctify you, am holy” (21:8).  After additional laws, only some of which relate to priests, this segment concludes: “And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Yisrael: I am Hashem who hallows you that brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am Hashem” (22:32-33).  The impression is that the primary focus is on Yisrael as a holy nation, with the priests mentioned as a subset.


This segment is followed by the laws of festivals, which is relevant to all Yisrael.  The laws of shemitta and yovel come shortly thereafter.  Sefer Vayikra continues with blessings and curses that are a result of following or not following Hashem’s statutes.  Why should all this be included in a sefer focusing on the priests?  


The Ramban, in his introduction to Sefer Vayikra, is forced to concede that the main topic of the sefer is the Mikdash and the sacrifices:


This sefer is the Torah of the priests and the Levi’im; in it will be explained the issues of all the sacrifices and the protection of the Mishkan … Most of the sefer is concerned with sacrifices; laws of sacrifice, and of those that bring the sacrifices … and certain [unrelated] mitzvot will be tagged along with these ... 


However, it is difficult to accept the Ramban’s assertion that the unrelated mitzvot are only tagged along.  For instance, according to the Ramban, the entire festival section was introduced because of the sacrifices of those holidays.  This is quite problematic, considering that the details of the sacrifices are not mentioned in Vayikra at all, but are in fact documented in Sefer Bamidbar (chapters 28-29).  (For the Ramban’s response to this problem, see his commentary on Vayikra 23:2.)


3.  The Festival Section


A closer examination of the section dealing with the festivals may yield a different perspective on the entire sefer.  We will begin with the end of this section, which deals with Sukkot.  After introducing this festival,  the Torah seems to conclude the entire festival section:


These are the appointed times of Hashem, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to bring an offering unto Hashem a burnt-offering, and a meal-offering, a sacrifice, and drink-offerings, each on its own day…   (23:37-38)


After this epilogue, the Torah returns to document various laws of Sukkot:


However, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have harvested the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of Hashem seven days… And you shall take for you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of lush trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God seven days… You shall dwell in booths seven days… that your generations may know that I made the children of Yisrael to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Hashem your God” (23:39-43). 


Then the Torah concludes the festival section for a second time: “And Moshe declared unto the children of Yisrael the appointed times of Hashem” (23:44).  How are we to account for the concluding phrases found in the middle of the laws of Sukkot?


Many answers have been given to this question, but I prefer an answer which the Torah itself seems to provide.  A glance at the beginning of the festival section will show that there is a dual introduction, parallel to the dual conclusion.  The section begins:


And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the children of Yisrael, and say unto them: The appointed days of Hashem, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My appointed times.  Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is Shabbat.  (23:1-3). 


After mentioning Shabbat, the Torah reintroduces the festivals before continuing to the laws of Pesach: “These are the appointed days of Hashem, holy convocations, which you shall proclaim in their appointed time (23:4).  It is reasonable that the double conclusion mirrors the repeated introduction.  If we succeed in deciphering the duality of the introduction, we may have a working model that we can apply to the conclusion. 


The first introduction includes Shabbat along with the festivals, while the second introduces the festivals but excludes Shabbat.  In what regard is Shabbat considered a festival and in what regard is it not? The term that is used with regard to Shabbat as well as all other festivals is “mikra’ei kodesh,” which refers to days that contain inherent sanctity (kedushat ha-yom).  The prohibition against work, which is meant to separate the day from the routine, is one of the major expressions of kedushat ha-yom.  As far as kedushat ha-yom is concerned, Shabbat should not only be included, but should be at the top of the list of the holidays.  After all, if we use the litmus test of prohibition against work, the level of “kedusha” on Shabbat exceeds that of other festivals.  On festivals, one is allowed to do certain melakhot in order to prepare food, but on Shabbat, all melakha is prohibited.  Violation of the work prohibition on the festivals is not punishable by death, but on Shabbat, the punishment is stoning, which, according to the accepted halakhic opinion, is the most severe of the four capital punishments. 


I once heard from my Rebbe, R. Soloveitchik zt”l, that the number of aliyot called up for keriat ha-Torah is a reflection of the kedushat ha-yom level.  According to the accepted halakhic opinion, there are seven aliyot on Shabbat, six on Yom Kippur, and only five on a regular Yom Tov.  The premier status of Shabbat with respect to “mikra’ei kodesh” is noted in the zimraYom zeh mekhubad:” “Rishon hu le-mikra’ei kodesh, yom shabbaton, yom Shabbat kodesh.” 


On the other hand, the gemara in Arakhin (10b) states that Shabbat is not considered a ‘moed.” The gemara is not challenging the inherent kedusha that Shabbat clearly has, but rather noting that Shabbat is not a date, but a day (see Ramban, Vayikra 23:2).  In other words, Shabbat is part of the routine and is not rooted in a unique cosmic or historic event.  It is a consistent reminder of Hashem as Creator, but, in contrast to Rosh Hashana, it does not commemorate the creation itself.  Just as Hashem rested, as it were, after the six days of creation, we rest on Shabbat – but  Shabbat is not the date upon which Hashem rested. 


While the first introduction focuses on “mikra’ei kodesh,” which includes Shabbat, the second introduction, which comes after Shabbat, prefaces those festivals that are “moadim in the sense that their kedusha is based on a singular point of the year and is rooted in a cosmic or historic event: “These are the moadim of Hashem, mikra’ei kodesh, which you shall proclaim in their appointed time (23:4).  It is only at this point that festivals such as Pesach, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur are mentioned, because they contain both elements.  They are both “mikraei kodesh” as well as “moadim. 


Let us now return to the end of the festival section and see if the same models can be applied to the dual conclusion.  The first thing that we notice is that the term “mikra’ei kodesh” is found only in the first segment, which precedes the first conclusion.  This segment only mentions two aspects of Sukkot – the prohibition against work and the musaf sacrifices.  Both of those aspects are found with respect to Shabbat as well, and are therefore reflections of the “kedushat ha-yom.” At this point, the Torah has concluded the “mikraei kodesh” aspect of the festivals and summarizes: “These are the moadim of Hashem that you shall call mikra’ei kodesh…” (23:37-38). 


The segment following the first conclusion focuses on the unique aspects of Sukkot.  Emphasis is placed on the singular mitzvot of Sukkot, lulav and etrog, and dwelling in a sukka.  The term “mikra’ei kodesh” is totally absent from this segment.  It therefore seems clear that the initial conclusion is the dividing line between Sukkot as one of the “mikraei kodesh” and Sukkot as a unique “moed.”  The final pasuk ends the “moed” component: “And Moshe told the moadim of Hashem to the Children of Yisrael” (23:44).


4.  And You Shall be to me a Kingdom of Priests


Based on this analysis, it becomes clear that the Torah is focusing on the various aspects of the kedusha of moadim, not on the sacrifices.  The sacrifices are only mentioned as an expression of the inherent kedushat ha-yom, as opposed to the festival section in Parashat Pinchas, which deals with the sacrifices themselves.  In Vayikra, the subject is “kedushat ha-zeman,” a concept that continues in the subsequent sections of shemitta and yovel.   


In general, the entire sefer, whose historic context is the inauguration of the Mishkan, deals with various aspects of kedusha.  The sefer opens with Hashem calling Moshe to invite him into the Mishkan to receive the divine word on behalf of Yisrael.  The initial focus is on the idea “kedushat makom” (sanctity of space).  Within that context, the Torah describes the Mishkan and the various korbanot sacrificed there.  It continues with the inauguration of the Mishkan and the death of Aharon’s sons, who were killed because they entered the hallowed space improperly.  The sefer follows that tragedy with the need to protect the Mishkan and to prevent it from becoming impure or defiled.  Vayikra then describes the proper way to enter the Mishkan (the High Priest on Yom Kippur).  This section ends with the call not to defile Eretz Yisrael through various transgressions and abominations. 


The second section focuses on the sanctity of Man.  It begins with the call for Yisrael to act with kedusha, just as Hashem is kadosh.  Many laws are listed in this context, however the purpose is summed up at the end of Parashat Kedoshim: “And you shall be holy to Me for I am Holy and I have separated you from the nations to be for Me” (20:26).  The section continues with the specific kedusha of the priests and the High Priest.  The Torah concludes the section saying: “And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Yisrael: I am Hashem who hallows you, that brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am Hashem” (22:32-33).


The final aspect of kedusha mentioned in the sefer is kedushat ha-zeman (sanctity of time).  As we saw, this section begins with the various aspects of kedushat moadim and continues with the laws of shemitta and yovel. 


The sefer ends with the root of the various aspects of kedushat Yisrael, the covenant between Hashem and the Children of Israel.  The Torah details how Yisrael will be treated if they abide by those terms.  It also describes the tragic consequences that will befall Yisrael if they do not abide by those terms. 


Admittedly, I have used very broad strokes in the portrait I have painted of Sefer Vayikra.  A closer examination will reveal many details that remain to be explained.  Nevertheless, the thesis that Vayikra, which begins with the call to Moshe to enter the Mishkan, revolves around various aspects of kedusha, is a valid one.  In light of the above, perhaps the title Torat Kohanim is not a reference to the children of Aharon, but rather to the vision that Yisrael be a “mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh” – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shemot 19:6).