Shiur #16: Vayikra Rabba 3:3-4 Repentance and the Digestive Tract

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 3:3, like its predecessor, is a petichta that lacks the standard opening form: “Rabbi X opened (patach).”  In the printed editions it also lacks the standard citation of the parasha verse at the end of the petichta. This is probably just a mistake of the part of the printer, as all of the manuscripts of this passage end with the parasha verse.


The petichta verse in this case is a famous verse from Isaiah, which we read in the haftara on the afternoon of fast days:


Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts

And let him return unto the Lord, and He will have compassion upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7).


This verse is one of the most dramatic calls to repentance in the Bible. It is most appropriate that the midrash should use this verse as a catalyst for an extended meditation on the topic of repentance:


R. Bibi b. Abaye said:

How should a person confess on the eve of the Day of Atonement?

He should say: ‘I confess all the evil I have done before You; I stood in the way of evil; and as for all [the evil] I have done, I shall no more do the like;

may it be Your will, O Lord my God, that You should pardon me for all my iniquities, and forgive me for all my transgressions, and grant me atonement for all my sins.’

This is [indicated by] what is written, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, etc.”


This passage is a halakhic text. It prescribes the proper practice for erev Yom Kippur. The presence of such a halakhic passage within an aggadic work should hardly surprise us. The division between halakha and aggada is not hard and fast. Indeed, Vayikra Rabba as a whole, which is an aggadic midrash on a halakhic section of the Torah, testifies to the interrelationship between halakha and aggada. We often find halakhic themes in aggadic texts and aggadic themes in halakhic texts. This is especially the case when it comes to discussions of prayer. Discussions of prayer have feet planted in both camps. On the one hand, prayer is governed by rabbinically ordained rules. Hence, such discussions are halakhic in nature. Yet, prayer is, by definition, theological in nature. It establishes a relationship between humans and God. Such theological concerns fall under the category of aggada.


The midrash here seeks to understand this pre-Yom Kippur prayer in light of the petichta verse. The connection between the two is straightforward. In the verse, the evildoer must first reject his evil ways and only then will God forgive him. In the prayer, the penitent first disavows his previous actions and then calls upon God to forgive him. By juxtaposing the prayer and the verse, the midrash gives the impression that the verse vouchsafes forgiveness to those who earnestly recite this prayer.


Margulies now cites a cryptic passage from two manuscripts which is absent from the printed editions.


As it is written,

“Ya’azov rasha darko”

It is written yazav.


This is a classic example of a derasha on a ketiv and a keri. In some cases, the way in which a word in the Tanakh is pronounced (keri) is different from the simplest pronunciation of the spelling. The midrash likes to call attention to these differences in order to multiply the possible meanings of the verse. In this case, the midrash calls attention to the fact that word “ya’azov” in the petichta verse is spelled without a vav.  A vav would unambiguously indicate that the sound following the zayin is a long O sound.  The spelling without a vav is hardly unusual, however, the midrash takes advantage of its absence to argue that the word technically should be pronounced “yazav”. Unfortunately, I am at loss to understand the meaning of the verse in this reading and hence the significance of the midrash in this case. 


            The midrash now continues with its theme of repentance and forgiveness:


R. Isaac and R. Yose b. Chanina [each gave a simile].

R. Isaac said: It is like a man fitting together two boards, and joining them one to another.

R. Yose b. Chanina said: It is like a man fitting together two bed-legs and joining them one to another.


Both Mirkin and Margulies understand that underlying this section is an implicit derasha on the petichta verse. The derasha involves reading the word virachameihu (“he shall have mercy upon him”) as vilachameihu (“he shall stick together”).  This is based on the notion that “l” and “r” sounds are closely related and therefore can be substituted one for the other. (Think of the way in which some Chinese people have trouble differentiating the two sounds.)


The idea is that in response to true repentance God does an act of binding or healing. R. Isaac and R. Jose b. Chanina each give a simile from the world of carpentry to illustrate this point. R. Isaac speaks of the way in which two boards are joined together while R. Jose b. Chanina speaks of a the joining together of two legs of a bed.


What is the difference between these two images?  It is possible that there really is no difference. The two rabbis might just have used two slightly different images to make the same point. Possibly, however, they refer to two different acts of binding. The image of putting together two boards might suggest God binding himself to the penitent. The image of the bed, in contrast, might suggest God fixing, or healing the penitent.


            The next section of the Midrash turns suddenly to deal with the parasha verse:


“And let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion upon him (ibid.).” 

The Rabbis and R. Shimon b. Yochai commented on this.

The Rabbis said: The Holy One, blessed be He, showed Abraham our father (peace be upon him) all the expiatory offerings, except that of the tenth of an epha.

R. Shimon b. Yochai said: Also that of the tenth of an epha did the Holy One, blessed be He, show to Abraham our father.

Here [the word] ’these’ is used [viz. The meal-offering that is made out of these (Lev. 2:8)],

and there [too, the word] ’these’ is used [viz. And he took him all these (Gen. 15:10)].

Seeing that ’these’ used here is a reference to the tenth of an epha, so, too, is ’these’ used there a reference to the tenth of an epha.


This passage is part of a longer discussion of Genesis 15:9 found in Bereishit Rabba. The verse in Genesis comes from the berit bein ha-betarim, the “covenant between the pieces” that God made with Avraham. The verse itself reads in the JPS translation:


Bring Me a three-year-old heifer,

a three-year-old she-goat

a three-year-old ram

a turtle dove and a young bird


However, the midrash in Bereishit Rabba (44:14) understands the term meshulash not as “three-year-old” as in the above translation, but as “three-fold”. Based on this understanding the midrash produces the following reading:


He showed him three types of cows,

three types of she-goats,

and three types of rams.

Three types of cows:

The cow of Yom Kippur;

The cow which is brought for all of the mitzvot;

And the egla arufa.

Three types of she-goats:

The goats of the pilgrimage holidays;

The goats of Rosh Chodesh;

The goat of the individual.

Three types of rams:

The asham of certainty;

The “hanging” asham;

and the sheep of the individual…


When confronted with the animals of the berit bein ha-betarim, the rabbis are struck by the fact that they are the types of animals used in sacrifices. They thus correlate each of the animals with a specific sacrifice. The midrash understands that the revelation of the institution of sacrifices was central to the berit bein ha-betarim. In particular, sacrifices which offer the people expiation and forgiveness, were revealed to Avraham. These sacrifices are central to the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.


We now have the context from which our passage in Vayikra Rabba is taken. The Rabbis state that not only did God show Avraham the sacrifices listed above, he showed him all of the sacrifices that offer expiation. However, the verse in Genesis makes reference only to animals.  The Rabbis learn from this that God did not reveal the meal offering at that time.


R. Shimon b. Yochai disagrees. He holds that God revealed even the meal offering. How does he know this? From a gezera shava, which is the creation of a link between two different subjects in the Torah based on a common word. Here the common word is eleh, “these”. In Genesis, the verse says of Avraham, “And he took these,” namely the animals of the covenant. But which “eleh” does the midrash refer to with regard to the meal offering?


Most sources understand the verse in question to be Vayikra 2:8: “When you present to the Lord a meal offering that is made in any of these ways.” This makes sense because this verse comes from the same passage as the parasha verse and thus connects the discussion to the Torah reading. However, the sacrifice discussed in this passage is a voluntary sacrifice which does not bring with it expiation.


It has therefore been suggested that R. Shimon b. Yochai is actually referring to Vayikra 5:13, “Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for whichever (me-eleh) of these sins he is guilty”.  This verse deals with a different meal offering, which is offered as expiation for various sins. If this is correct, then the petichta never refers back to the parasha verse. Perhaps, originally this derasha was said in reference to Vayikra 5:13. Later, this entire passage was appropriated as part of our petichta and the derasha was reinterpreted as referring to Vayikra 2:8 in order to create a connection with the parasha verse.


Finally, we come to R. Judah b. Simon’s statement:


“And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (ibid).

R. Judah b. Simon said, in the name of R. Ze'ira:

This means that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave us an additional means of [obtaining] forgiveness of Himself, namely the tenth of an epha.


He agrees with the Rabbis that the meal offering was not revealed to Avraham. However, this was not because God withheld anything from Avraham. To the contrary, originally God did not intend to give the meal offering to Israel as a form of expiation. Hence, He did not show it to Avraham. Rather, God decided, at the last minute as it were, to grant Israel one extra means of expiation, namely, the meal offering. Since the meal offering is geared mainly to the poor, this was an important addition to the sacrificial system, making expiation available to all Jews. Once again, the midrash emphasizes the special nature of the meal offering.



Vayikra Rabba 3:4


The next section of the midrash is not a petichta but rather something of a freeform meditation:



What is written prior to this matter

“And he shall take away its crop with the feathers thereof, and cast

it beside the altar, in the place of the ashes” (Lev. 1:16).

R. Tanchum b. Chaninai said:

This bird flies about and swoops throughout the world, and eats indiscriminately; it eats food obtained by robbery and by thievery.

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Since this crop is filled with the proceeds of robbery and thievery, let it not be offered on the altar’;

for this reason is it said, “And he shall take away its crop.”


This passage opens with a citation of the parasha verse about the meal offering. However, it immediately turns away from this verse and focuses on a verse in the previous chapter which discusses the bird offering.


     The Torah instructs us to remove the crop from the bird sacrifice and place it away from the altar. What is wrong with the crop? First we must understand what the crop is. According to the crop is “a pouch in the esophagus of many birds, in which food is held for later digestion or for regurgitation to nestlings.”


     The problem according to the midrash is that birds are thieves by nature.  They fly everywhere and take food where they find it. They have no respect for other’s territory or property. How, then, can we offer the crop, which is filled with these stolen items, on the altar? Hence, the crop must be removed before the bird can be sacrificed. This teaches us about the severity of theft and especially of offering stolen goods on the altar.


The Midrash then goes on to contrast the bird with other animals:


On the other hand, the domestic animal is reared on the crib of its master and eats neither indiscriminately nor of that obtained by robbery or by violence;

for this reason the whole of it is offered up.

Therefore it is said, “And the priest shall offer the whole and make it smoke on the altar” (ib. 5:13).


Domesticated animals are fed by their masters. They do not eat stolen food. Hence, their innards are pure and they can be offered in their entirety. This claim is a little strange, because, as is pointed out numerous times in rabbinic literature, “small livestock” i.e., sheep and goats, are known for their thieving ways. They eat indiscriminately, often going into private property. Shepherds were notorious for their complicity in this behavior.


The midrash now takes a most curious turn:


Because a soul [i.e. a living being] uses robbery and violence,

come and see how much trouble and exertion it [viz. nefesh (a living being)] undergoes before its food issues forth from it.

From the mouth to the gullet,

from the gullet to the stomach,

(from the stomach to the first stomach),

from the first stomach to the second stomach,

from the second stomach to the maw,

from the maw to the intestines,

(from the intestines to the small winding intestine, and)

from the small winding intestine to the large winding intestine,

from the large winding intestine to the mucal sieve,

from the mucal sieve to the rectum,

from the rectum [to the anus, and from the anus] outside.

Come and see how much trouble and exertion

it has before its food issues forth from it.


The midrash turns to human beings and notes that they too steal. Like birds, their punishment is connected to their digestive system. Humans have an extraordinarily long digestive tract, which the midrash describes in excruciating detail. The midrash seems to see the long journey which our food takes in our body to be a punishment for thievery. The implication seems to be that the digestive process is some sort of expiation for theft of the food.


This is a remarkable passage because it appears to suggest that, like birds and unlike domesticated animals, all humans are thieves and eat stolen food. But if this were the case, one would think that their domesticated animals would eat stolen food as well! One way or another, this passage takes a most pessimistic view of the human condition. Man is so inherently sinful that God has built  punishment and expiation into the very workings of the human body.


Now that we have completed this passage, another problem becomes apparent. Nowhere does it relate to the verse with which it opened regarding the meal offering. Why is this derasha not back in the previous parasha which deals with the bird offerings? The only connection to the verse about the meal offering is the fact that the midrash refers to the human being as a “nefesh," the same term used in the verse about the meal offering. Perhaps there is something in the term “nefesh” that somehow suggests thievery.  It is quite unclear.


Taken together, the two passages we have just studied present two contrasting images of the human condition. The first passage celebrated the power of repentance and the ability of individuals to grow close to God. In addition to repentance, God provides humans with sacrifices as well, which help them gain redemption from sin. On the other hand, the second passage shows man as a sinner, physically imperfect. He is not much different from the bird who takes without regard to property or territory. Taken together, these passages show both the human potential for moral spiritual greatness and for being little better than the animals.