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'… The prince must not seize (land) from the common people's portion, or rob their holdings. He may give his sons an inheritance only from his own holding, in order that My people will not be dispossessed of their holdings.' (Haftarat Shabbat Hachodesh - Ezekiel 46:18)
The prophet Ezekiel was a kohen - a priest who spent his earlier life in the Holy Land. His period of recorded prophecy, however, took place after his enforced exile to Babylon - during the period before and after the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. His Divine communications were addressed to both those Jews already exiled in Babylonia, and to the people of Jerusalem.
The Book of Ezekiel begins in drama, and climaxes to crescendo. It is a long message with powerful, vivid, and ultra-brilliant images. It starts with the excitement of storms, lightening and fire - the heavens open, and Ezekiel dramatically experiences G-d's words and power. The Almighty calls on him to be a prophet to carry His message to the people through communications emanating from the celestial mobile angelic composition of His throne. The prophecy continues to warn the Jews in the darkest terms of His judgment on them, as a consequence of their having abandoned Torah teachings and basic morality, preferring false prophets, and an idolatrous and grossly self-indulgent lifestyle. It then leaves the Israelites, removing its focus to the doom of the various nations that misled them. By the time the prophecies of Ezekiel return to the Jews, they become warmer and more kindly. Words of threat are replaced with words of comfort and hope: promising a brighter future for the Israelites (the subject of the Haftara), and their revival and unification within the Holy Land, with, after the defeat of the nation of Gog, a fully restored Temple and nation.
The Haftara itself continues Ezekiel's vision of the future Temple. The immediate preceding chapters describe its construction with striking precision, and the Haftara details the offerings that the Talmud (Menachot 45a) understands refer to the actual consecration of that Temple itself, as well as laws relating to Temple rituals. However, the text clearly conveys the message that the worship of G-d must go together with common decency. This is exemplified by its final verses. They state that the Prince is entitled to give part of his estate to his own sons as an inheritance, but he himself is subject to property laws like any other citizen. 'The prince must not seize (land) from the common people's portion, or rob their holdings. He may give his sons an inheritance only from his own holding, in order that My people will not be dispossessed of their holdings.' (46:18)
To which Temple does the passage refer to? It cannot refer to the First Temple that was consecrated some four centuries before Ezekiel's lifetime. It cannot refer to the Second Temple, because its consecration sin offering involved the male goat (Ezra 6:17), not the bull stated here. Thus R. Samson Raphael Hirsch expounds the view that the Haftara details the permanent Third Temple, which will be built in future Messianic times.
Hirsch explains why Ezekiel describes the construction and working of the Third Temple in such great detail. He states that it is 'to ban even the slightest doubt as to the reality of that future (of redemption), and to make our confidence as firm as a rock in the absolute certainty that the Almighty Director of the history of the world will ultimately bring about the attainment. Thus every year on the Sabbath before Nissan, (we read) the word of the prophet Ezekiel, and (it) gives us Divine instruction of the service of the consecration of the Temple on that day. Even if there is much in those words that is beyond our present understanding and, according to the Sages, must wait for the arrival of Elijah, what is most important is that these words are given. The thought of it revives our courage and gives us fresh strength to make our efforts even more energetic to bring that distant day nearer.'
May that day approach soon, and in our times.
Following the above tradition that text of the Haftara describes the consecration of the future Third Temple, why does the Bible apportion so much space to a mere initiation ceremony? And the same question may be applied to the long amount descriptions the end of Exodus, the beginning of Leviticus, and part of the First Book of Kings that detail similar preparations and commencement events.
In looking at offerings in general, there is a difference of opinion between the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Ramban (Nachmanides) as to why G-d commanded the Israelites to bring them in the first place. According to the Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed 3:32), it is because they were concessions to human weakness. During the Biblical period, temple animal offerings were such common universal practice that it would have been counterproductive to prevent the Israelites from following suit. At the same time, G-d wanted to prevent this type of worship from sliding down into paganism. Thus He specified that the Israelites should build a special place (initially the Tabernacle), where they would bring offerings of the nature that He specifically chose, and they would be inherently different than those of other nations. There was no place for passing children through fire, and there were no sexual acts in front of statues. The Rambam brings a proof to his reason from Leviticus (17:5-7): 'So that the Jews will bring their sacrifices to Hashem and not to demons.' In other words, offerings promoted by the Torah were deterrents against serving other gods.
The Ramban disagrees, bringing two proofs. The first offering in the Torah from Cain (Gen. 4:3) was brought before idolatry became widespread (c.f. Rashi to Gen. 4:26). In addition, as the text forming the Haftara implies, the Temple will be rebuilt and offering will be restored. As Zechariah (14:9) puts it, the whole world will know that G-d is the One and Only G-d - 'He is one and His Name is One'. So offerings will become part of life even when paganism becomes a thing of the past. According to the Ramban, they are brought as a sharp reminder to the Israelites to follow the right path. When they see what happens to the animal (the carcass burned, blood sprinkled, etc.) they should realize that its death and dismemberment reflects their own sins - which they should avoid doing in the future.
Follow the Ramban's line: namely that Temple offerings, and by extension, the Temple itself are both means of keeping the Israelites on the Torah path. The first set of elaborate preparations - for the Tabernacle - were most impressive. Their details may be seen as forming the stark background to what followed - the death of Aaron's two eldest sons. Their performing an offering which G-d did not command (and according to Rabbinical tradition, entering the Tabernacle in a drunken state / giving a Halachic ruling in the presence of Moses) may be said to convey one message - that the aristocracy are above the Law - as Horace puts it 'one law for the Jupiter, and one law for ox'. A similar function may be served by the elaborate description of Solomon's consecration of the First Temple, described in Kings I 8. The enormous offerings and the heartfelt declarations of prayer form the sharply contrasting background of what was to follow - Solomon's espousal of women in quantities, qualities, and of origins not sanctioned by the Torah, leading to the Division of the Kingdom.
Thus this aspect of Ezekiel's prophecy regarding the future Third Temple was to put down the haughtiness and pride of the aristocracy, which is seen as a cause of failure in previous holy sanctuaries. As he himself declared in the name of G-d: 'Behold! All souls are Mine.' (Ez. 18:4) All people of all stations in society are accountable to G-d - the Torah does not sanction 'one law for the Jupiter, and one law for ox' - current in many nations then, before, and since. Instead, all classes were to treat the Temple - and approach G-d - with appropriate humility and due regard to other people, whether of high or lowly station in society. This basic Torah value is exemplified by 'the prince must not seize (land) from the common people's portion, or rob their holdings. He may give his sons an inheritance only from his own holdings, in order that My people will not be dispossessed of their holdings.' (46:18)
Perhaps that also serves a reminder of the notion that today's synagogues should be places where people of all backgrounds and walks of life should feel equally at home, and not places where the less fortunate might feel uncomfortable in for example, being obviously passed over for a Mitzva…
QUESTIONS ON PARASHAT SHEMINI AND ITS COMMENTARIES
1. Why, according to Rashi, did Moses summon 'the elders of Israel' (9:1) as well as Aaron, on the 'Eighth Day'?
2. What blessing (9:22) did Moses and Aaron give the people at the end of the service of the consecration of the Tabernacle, according to Rashi?
3. Why, according to (a) the text, (b) Rashi, and (c) the Ramban, did Aaron's eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, die?
4. Aaron was silent after Moses said of his sons' deaths: "This is what G-d speaks… I will be honored by those who are close to Me" (10:3). What do those words mean according to (a) Rashi, and (b) the Rashbam?
5. Which law in this Parasha did G-d communicate to Aaron only - and, according to Rashi, why?
6. What, according to Rashi's interpretation, were the two sides of the dispute between Moses and Aaron's family in 10:16-19?
7. Who won? And how did the 'loser' react?
8. Why, according to Rashi, does the Torah prohibit certain categories of foods?
9. Archaeologists have found that a very high proportion of vessels used in homes from the end of the Second Temple period were made of stone. Why would this have been to their advantage, based on the text of this Parasha?
10. How, according to the text of the Parasha, may water render the pure impure, and the impure, pure?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON PARASHAT SHEMINI AND ITS COMMENTARIES
1. According to Rashi, Moses summoned 'the elders of Israel' so that they might see for themselves that Aaron had been elevated to the position of High Priest by the Almighty Himself, and that he had neither seized it for himself, nor been awarded it though his close family connection with Moses.
2. According to the tradition quoted by Rashi, the blessing that Moses and Aaron gave to the Israelites at the conclusion of the inauguration of the Tabernacle was that later contained in the 'Prayer to Moses' - Psalms 90:17. It was: 'May the pleasantness of the L-rd our G-d be upon us'.
3. Aaron's eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, died:
(a) according to the text - because they offered frankincense in the Tabernacle - which had not specifically been commanded by G-d.
(b) the above offence was aggravated, according to Talmudic sources quoted by Rashi, by their doing it without having consulting Moses (thus having rendered a Halachic decision about a matter on which they should have asked their teacher), or alternatively, that they brought the offering after having drunk too much wine.
(c) according to the Ramban, they offered the daily incense on the Inner Altar - though they had not been commanded to do so.
4. "This is what G-d speaks… I will be honored by those who are close to Me":
according to Rashi (following Ex. 29:43 and Rashi's comment thereon), the text means G-d was honored by the death of Nadav and Avihu. When G-d imposes strict justice even upon the righteous, He is feared and honored. For people will say that if this is what the righteous suffer for their relatively small mistakes, the punishment of the wicked will be much worse. (b) according to the Rashbam, the text does not mean that G-d was honored by the death of Nadav and Avihu, but He was honored through the surviving sons, Elazar and Itamar. Despite their intense grief at the death of their elder brothers, they continued their duties to serve in the Tabernacle (c.f. 10:7). Thus G-d is honored when His people continue to carry out His commandments even under the most difficult circumstances.
5. The commandment was the prohibition of performing the Temple service under the influence of intoxicating drink (10:8-9). Rashi explains that G-d's recognition of Aaron's strength of character in keeping silent after hearing G-d's explanation of the death of his two sons came in the form of His exclusive communication to Aaron of that next Mitzva in the Torah.
6. The dispute between Moses and Aaron's family was over the destruction of a sin offering that should have been eaten (10:16). Rashi quotes sources that the offering in question was the communal sin offering for Rosh Chodesh. Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar all had the status of 'onen' - a person who has suffered bereavement, and not yet buried the dead. Were they allowed to eat from the offerings or not? G-d had commanded that they should eat from the meal offering (10:12), despite their 'onen' status. Moses thought that they therefore were to partake of all offerings - despite their 'onen' status. Aaron and his sons reasoned that that was not so. The meal offering was a once-off offering for the consecration of the Tabernacle (see Rashi to 10:12) - and as such, was permitted to be eaten even by a priest who was an 'onen'. This permit did not apply to regular offerings - such as the Rosh Chodesh offering. Whereas Aaron and his sons made that distinction, Moses did not.
7. 'Moses heard, and he approved' (10:20). As Rashi elaborates, he humbly conceded that Aaron and his sons were in the right.
8. According to Rashi, the Torah prohibits certain categories of foods, because it is the spiritual mission of the Israelites to attach themselves to the Almighty - the Ultimate Source. As such, the Israelites must not consume foods that the Creator states obstruct spiritual progress towards being at one with Him.
9. This is because stone vessels are harder to defile. They only become 'tameh' though their harder-to-reach interior, and not through contact on the outside (11:32-3).
10. Water detached from its source may act as an agent to transmit 'tumah' - defilement - to pure articles (11:38). Water attached to its source - such as a well, may be used to immerse defiled vessels for purification (11:36).
ADDITIONAL ISSUE TO LOOK AT ON PARASHAT SHEMINIRegarding Aaron being privileged to be the sole direct recipient from G-d of the prohibition of performing the Temple service under the influence of drink (10:8-9, as per Rashi to 10:3)…
Aaron was a bereaved father. How was G-d's communicating to him the injunction against serving in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) when drunk, relevant to Aaron's human feelings at that moment? How could this be a reward for keeping silent? Following the tradition brought by R. Ishmael (Vayikra Rabba 12:1) that Aaron's sons died because they entered the Tabernacle after drinking wine, would not telling Aaron that such behavior was punishable by death be rubbing salt into an open wound?
My efforts at tackling the issue raised above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website for Parashat Shemini for 5762.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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