Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

My Photo
Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Parshat Tazria-Mezora

The Sin-Offering of the Mother

"When the days of her purification have been completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep in its first year as a burnt offering, and a young dove or a turtle dove as a sin offering, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the kohen. (VaYikra 12:6).

In simple terms: after bearing a child, a woman must bring a sin-offering (Korban Chatat) and a burnt-offering (Korban Olah).

We can understand the need for a Korban Olah. The woman must show her gratitude to God for granting her the ability to bring life into the world. However, why the sin-offering? What sin has she done? On the contrary, she has obeyed humanity's very first commandment (See Bereshit 1:28). This issue needs explaining.

This question also bothered the Rabbis. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains: "When she kneels in bearing she swears impetuously that she will have no intercourse with her husband" (Niddah 31b).

Essentially, labor is so painful that during the experience the woman will swear that she will never again be intimate with her husband. However, since she will eventually be with her husband again, she has sworn falsely and therefore, has sinned.

This answer is difficult to accept for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are surely many women that do not make this oath. Secondly, the Torah commands the bringing of the sacrifice as part of her purification process, irrespective of whether she has committed this sin or not. And finally, as Rabbi Yoseph points out, the expiation for false oaths is an "asham" not a "chatat".

Modern scholars have suggested that our problem with this law is based upon our mistranslation of the Hebrew word: "חטא" (sin) and because of our lack of understanding of ancient culture.

The ancients were anxious over the state of "tuma" - "impurity". Being impure was like walking a tight rope; one tiny slip and you fall into the abyss of sin, risking G-d's wrath. Therefore, being impure necessitated varying levels of restrictions and eventually purification, which resulted in resuming a normal life.

While we in the modern world take childbirth for granted, it is actually a very dangerous time for both the infant and the mother. Mortality rates for newborns and their mothers were very high in the ancient world.

The release of blood as well as the pain and any complication at childbirth were life threatening. Being close to death, the mother was automatically impure. Upon recovering, the mother needed to return to normalcy. This was cdone by expiating the "tumah", i.e through purification.

The Korban Chatat is a purification offering, not a sin offering. It also purifies the sinner from sin and that was its major purpose. Indeed, the word "chet" means "impure" as well as "sin". This we can show by examining the use of "chet" when it appears as its antonym.

"To cleanse (לחטא) the house, he shall take two birds ..." (ibid 14:9)


"He shall [thus] cleanse (וחטא) the house with the blood of the bird, the spring water..." (ibid 52)

In these instances (and in many others), the verb means: "cleanse" or "purify". Therefore, in its regular form it "unclean" or "impure".

When seen in this manner, we can understand why the mother needs to bring the Korban Chatat. She needs to shake off the dangerous "tuma" that has enveloped her. She does that by bring a Chatat; a purification offering.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Parshat Shemini

How They Died

Parshat Shemini focusses in on the Mishkan's opening day. Sefer Shemot already tells us that: "Moshe completed the work and the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:33-34). However, from this week's parsha, we note that the process of going from the Mishkan's completion to the glory of the God resting on it, was not that smooth. We will note that in the time between the completion of the work and the Shechina resting on the Mishkan, two of Aharon's sons died. How did this happen?

To begin with, imagine the tension and expectation. For months the children of Israel had been building the Mishkan. They were promised at out the outset: "They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst" (Shemot 25:8).

The Mishkan was now ready and they had been practising all the ceremonies for seven days, to ensure that everything was done correctly. Moshe then assembled the entire people (VaYikra 9:1), Aharon told them all that he was about to do (ibid 3) and then Moshe told them all to approach and stand before the Lord declaring: "This is the thing the Lord has commanded; do [it], and the glory of the Lord will appear to you" (ibid 5-6).

Everyone must have been asking themselves whether God would truly appear and whether all their labor had been in vain.

However, after Aharon carried out the procedure nothing happened: "Aaron lifted up his hands towards the people and blessed them. He then descended from preparing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering" (ibid 22). Still nothing happened.

Moshe and Aharon went to investigate: "Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting. Then they came out and blessed the people..." Only then: "the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people and fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering" (ibid 23-24).

However, Moshe and Aharon were not the only ones to investigate: "Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord unauthorized fire, which He had not commanded them" (ibid 10:1).

As the Rashbam comments, Nadav and Avihu took it upon themselves to bring the fire (a normal procedure for an officiating priest, but unauthorized for that day) precisely because the heavenly fire had not come. Therefore, the events described in 9:24 and 10:2 occurred simultaneously:

"Fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering" ibid 9:24.

"Fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them" ibid 10:2.

That is, as the fire traveled from the Holy of Holies to the Altar, it hit Nadav and Avihu and continued to the Altar. Fire did not go out twice.

We recall that that when the Shechina rested on the Mishkan, "Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:35).

Unfortunately, for Nadav and Avihu, they found themselves in the Mishkan at that precise moment and they paid the ultimate price.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Parshat Tzav

Understanding Karet

This week's parsha brings to our attention an interesting punishment:

"A person who eats the flesh of a peace offering of the Lord, while his uncleanness is upon him, that soul shall be cut off from its people" (VaYikra 7:20).

This punishment of one's "soul being cut off from its people" (וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ), called "Karet", also applies to males who are not circumcised (Bereshit 17:14), someone who eats chametz on Pesach (Shemot 12:15, 19), someone who breaks Shabbat (ibid 31:14), someone who does any of the actions described in VaYikra Chapter 18 (see passuk 29) and for a host of other sins.

The commentaries have trouble understanding what "Karet" actually entails. Most commentators understand it as a form of heavenly punishment despite the fact that Bamidbar 15:31 implies that it is to be applied by humans. Some say that Karet is childlessness. This would fit in with the concept of "being cut off from the people", if the sinner is young and has no children. Others understand it as death before the age of 50 or between the ages of 50 and 60. In these cases it is difficult to understand what makes this death: "cut off from the people".

We can perhaps suggest two alternatives by looking at the antonym of this expression. It appears at the deaths of Avraham, Yitschak, Yishmael, Aharon and Moshe. We will examine the expression with Avraham:

"Avraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah" (Bereshit 25:8-9).

Now, we must understand what "gathered to his people" (וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו) means.

Note how the "gathering to his people" occurred after death but before burial. There are two ways to understand this.

Firstly, in ancient Israel, there were two stages in burying a person. First the body was buried. A year later, the grave was re-opened and the bones were then gathered and buried in a family tomb. Therefore, if the "gathering to his people" means the gathering of the bones and the re-internment in a family tomb, then we can understand "Karet" as a procedure that would mean that the sinner's bones were not re-interred in the family tomb - effectively he is cut off from his people.

However, it is difficult to apply this explanation to the deaths of Aharon and Moshe as their bones were not re-interred in the family tomb.

Other commentators suggest that this expression is a reference to the world to come. The Tenach does not talk about life after death, but it is possible that this expression hints at it. Therefore, if "being gathered unto one's people" implies being granted a place in the world to come, then "being cut off from one's people" means being denied a place in the world to come.