Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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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.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Parshat Tzav

The Korban Todah and Chametz

Last week we saw that it was forbidden to burn chametz on the altar (VaYikra 2:11). Indeed, Chametz cannot be brought with any of the korbanot, aside from two: The Shtei Halechem (ibid 23:17) and the Korban Todah, the thanksgiving sacrifice (ibid 7:13), which is in this week's parsha.

Aside from the Chametz aspect, the Korban Todah and the Korban Pesach are very similar sacrifices:

  • They are the only korbanot that are brought with bread/matzah (ibid and Shemot 12:8).
  • They are the only korbanot that must be eaten by the morning after their sacrifices (VaYikra 7:15 & Shemot 12:10).
  • Both korbanot can be eaten by non-kohanim.

Indeed, these korbanot are very similar in their essence. The Chizkuni explains the reason that the Korban Todah must be consumed by the morning. It is impossible for one person to eat an entire animal by himself. This law forces the person to invite a large group of people to join him in eating the Korban Todah. He is therefore, required to supply them with bread in order to make a seudat mitzvah. During the course of this meal they would naturally discuss the reason why the person brought this thanksgiving sacrifice. Indeed, the person would explain "Know that the Lord He is God; it is He that has made us" (Tehillim 100 – Mizmor LeTodah, which is not recited on Passover, because it could not be sacrificed then because of the chametz).

Thereby, a large group of people would be made aware of the miracle that God had done for this man.

This is the essence of the Korban Pesach. A large group of people must sit together to enjoy the meal and they have the duty to discuss the Exodus from Egypt, the miracle that God performed for the entire Jewish people, and the reason why the Korban Pessach is being brought. This is the mitzvah of "Maggid" and Jews today fulfill this mitzvah by reciting the Hagadah on Seder Night, the first night of Pessach.

It turns out that the Korban Pessach is a national Korban Todah and hence their similarities.

Of course, while a regular Korban Todah needed chametz bread, this was not possible for the Korban Pessach, as chametz is forbidden for the whole of Passover.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Tzav, entitled: " Understanding Karet" appears at

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Parshat VaYikra

Korbanot, Honey and Chametz

The Torah gives long, detailed explanations as to the items that can be offered as korbanot, in this week's parsha. They include certain animals and foods. However, the Torah adds that: "No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made out of chametz. For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any chametz or any honey, as a fire offering to the Lord" (VaYikra 2:11).

The Torah does not explain why, but neither chametz nor honey (probably the nectar that comes from dates and figs, as opposed to that of bees) can bed offered up as a korban to God.

We can only theorize as to why these foodstuffs were forbidden in the Temple. A popular explanation as to why chametz cannot be offered includes the idea that chametz is grain that has risen, i.e. puffed up, showing evidence of pride. This would counter the purpose of a korban, whose essence is to show humility before God.

Another idea is that unleavened grain, just like salt, which is a requirement of every offering, never decays and becomes moldy. This would symbolize God's covenant with Israel; it is eternal and will never decay.

It is far more difficult to understand why honey was forbidden as an offering to God. Rambam suggests that honey was a main ingredient used in the pagan worship of gods, and was therefore excluded from Israel's rituals. While modern scholarship suggests that Rambam was correct, it does not explain why wine and other foods also used in pagan worship, were permitted.

Nevertheless, we have a biblical source which shows that this stricture was upheld.

While castigating the inhabitants of Shechem who had anointed Avimlech as king, enabling him to murder his seventy brothers, Yotam, the only surviving brother, tells a story predicting their doom (see Shoftim Ch. 9). The story tells of the trees seeking a king. They approach, the olive, the vine and the fig trees. All three reject the position. The olive tree states: "Should I leave my fatness, seeing that by me they honor God and man" (ibid 9), showing that that olives (or the oil produced from it) were used in the worship of God. The vine states: "Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man" (ibid 13), showing that it was also used in worship. However, the fig tree states: "Should I leave my sweetness and my good fruitage" (ibid 11). It does not mention God, showing Israel, in this regard at least, did not copy its pagan neighbors and use honey in the worship of God.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYikra, entitled: "Moshe's Calling" appears at

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Parshat VaYakhel-Pekudei

Raising the Cash

The children of Israel begin and complete the building of the Mishakan in this week's parsha.

However, before they built it, they needed the raw materials that would become the Mishkan. Therefore at the outset, Moshe makes a call for donations: "Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it" (Shemot 35:5).

The people were so generous that Moshe was told that "the people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the Lord had commanded to do" (ibid 36:5) and so Moshe calls them to stop bringing things.

This type of donation is in contradistinction to what the Torah had called for in last week's parsha: "everyone who goes through the counting shall give half a shekel…The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel (ibid 30:13-13).

In our parsha each person could give how much or how little they wanted to do, while in the previous parsha, there was no choice; each person was required to give the same amount.

We find a similar thing in the next two parshiyot. Sefer VaYikra begins by describing the different sacrifices a person could bring should they feel the urge to sacrifice – the whole parsha is described in a voluntary manner. While the following parsha, Tzav, describes obligatory sacrifices.

What is the Torah trying to teach by describing voluntary and obligatory features in the same aspects of worship?

These two features recognize the reality of the human spirit. There are times when we feel deep religious conviction and do not need any prompting in our worship or in our desire to give, while at other times we need prompting and direction, as we do not always feel the urge.

The same rules regulate our prayers. Jews are required to pray three times a day, whether or not they feel the urge to pray. At the same time one can pray at any time of any day for any reason.

We recognize that we need regulation in our lives. Our spiritual yearnings cause us to codify our religion, and yet that codification automatically stunts our desire and often even removes the spiritual urge.

The challenge is to find the medium, to somehow bring spirituality into our regulations, to treat our obligatory duties as if they were voluntary.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYakhel-Pekudei, entitled: "The Builders of the Mishkan" appears at

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Parshat Ki Tissa

Counting the People

Moshe made a number of population censuses during Israel's wandering in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the Tanach, especially before battles, the people are counted. Nevertheless, counting the people could lead to disaster and therefore the Torah says that a donation of half shekel should be made as part of the census. This will be considered as atonement for their souls so that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted" (Shemot 30:12).

There was one instance when the disaster struck Israel as the direct outcome of a census.

In the final chapter of Sefer Shmuel, King David tells Yoav: "Go now to and fro throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-Sheva, and count the people, that I may know the sum of the people" (II Shmuel 24:2).

Yoav's response is one of caution: "May the Lord your God increase the number of the people many hundreds of times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it; but why does my lord the king desire this thing?" (ibid 3).

It is clear that Yoav was against the mission and saw it as asking for trouble.

Nevertheless, being a loyal servant, Yoav traverse the country and counts the people. After nine months and twenty days he reports his conclusions (1,300,000 fighters) back to the king. David immediately recognizes his mistake and his "heart smote him after that he had numbered the people" and he admits he has "been very foolish" (ibid 10).

70,000 people die as a result of a plague, a punishment that David chose, as a result of the census.

What is so bad about a census and why can it be catastrophic?

The answer is nothing; as long as there is a purpose to the census. The fact is that in order to prepare a country for the future, governments need to know its population tally, both nationally regionally and the projected growth in the different areas.

Yet, David's only desire was to "know the sum of the people", i.e. to know how powerful his kingdom was. So Yoav tries to dissuade him telling him that that he should be even greater but that he doesn't really need to know the exact figure.

However, when Moshe and others count the people, it is because they need to know how many fighters they have at their disposal, as they are preparing for battle.

That is why the actual counting is dangerous. The minute the people (AKA men of military age) are being counted, fear sets in that war (and possibly even a new taxation) is imminent. When will they see their families again, who will tend to the farm and ensure that their families are safe and looked after, and will they even be returning? The effect on the morale, the economy and other aspects of family and national life can be devastating.

Therefore, counting the people for no purpose is not just pointless, it's counter-productive.

In order to offset the breakdown in morale, the Torah asks that everyone counted submit a half shekel donation to the Temple. The people, who are confident in God's protective powers, will then have the assurance that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted". They and their families will be safe.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tissa, entitled: "Blood Money" appears at

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Parshat Tetsaveh

The Mizbeach HaKetoret – Part 2

In last year's Sedra Short, we noticed how the Incense Altar appears to be a forgotten item. The command to build it is mentioned at the end of Parshat Tetsaveh, after God has completed Hs instructions for building the Mishkan, totally out of place.

We brought the explanation of the Sephorno, that the Mizbeach HaKetoret is not an integral part of the Mishkan, but merely a medium to allow Israel to being the gift of incense to God.

I would like to bring the Ramban's explanation. If we recall, the purpose of the Mishkan was to allow Israel to approach God, however, approaching God could be fatal!! If that is the case, the whole purpose of the Mishkan is contradictory and implausible. How could Israel approach God if that approach would kill them?!!

This is where the incense comes in, according to the Ramban.

The Incense Altar sits immediately in front of the curtain that separates the Holy from the Holy of Holies. Behind the curtain unimaginable holiness lies. Should anyone enter, they would be incinerated by the holy fire.

Yet, that is exactly what the High Priest is meant to do on Yom Kippur!! Therefore before entering the Holy of Holies, the Kohen must light the incense. When the incense burns it creates smoke. Once the smoke has become a thick cloud that fills both the Holy and the Holy of Holies, the Kohen Gadol can remove the parochet and enter the Holy of Holies. What does he see? Nothing!! The whole area is covered with the thick cloud of incense. It protects the Kohen from God's presence and He can therefore approach God and live.

In this manner, Aharon used the incense to save Israel when a plague swept out from God killing the people. Aharon took a fire pan and "placed the incense on it and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased" (Bemidbar 17:12:13).

On one side of Aharon, the plague came from Good killing the people, but on the other side, was the incense acting as a barrier, blocking God's presence from harming anyone else.

Therefore, while every other item in the Mishkan was designed so that God "can dwell among the children of Israel" (Shemot 29:45), and are therefore, included in God's instructions to build the Mishkan, the Mizbeach HaKetoret was designed to allow Israel to approach God.

As Ramban explains, God will rest in the Mishkan without the Altar of Incense. It is therefore, not part of the Mishkan's grand design. Therefore, even though it is in the inner sanctum and closer to the Holy of Holies than any other object, its instructions were only given once the items that fitted the Mishkan's main purpose was completed.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Tetsaveh, entitled: "The Mizbeach HaKetoret " appears at

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