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.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Parshat Achrei- Kedoshim

The Holiness of the Land

The first of this week's two parshiyot give us a stark warning. First the Torah tells us: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes" (Shemot 18:3).

Essentially, God is saying that if behave like the Egyptians, then there was no point in Him taking us out of Egypt, while if we behave like the Canaanites, than then there is no point in Him driving the Canaanites out of the Land.

Then there is a long list of immoral actions, both sexual and social, which we can assume was standard practice in both Egypt and Canaan, followed by a warning as to the consequences:

"You shall not defile yourselves by any of these things, for the nations, whom I am sending away from before you, have defiled themselves with all these things... And let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you" (ibid 24-28).

It is interesting to note that the Torah states that it is the actual Land, not God, that spits the people out. The Land itself that cannot tolerate immorality and the Land does not discriminate according to race. It makes no difference whether one is a Canaanite or an Israelite, the Land cannot simply stomach it.

Indeed, the Bible brings two examples of major evil perpetuated by the inhabitants, which resulted in them being eradicated. The first episode is that of the people of Sedom and Amora (see Bereshit 18:20-19-28). The second is an almost identical incident, this time however, perpetrated by members of the tribe of Bimymin (See Shoftim 19-20). They were also doomed.

The prophet Amos once said: "Are you not like the children of the Cushites to Me, O children of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and Aram from Kir?" (Amos 9:7).

The prophet is saying that God loves all nations, but judges them according to their behavior. God did miracles for both Philistines and Aram. They are both His nations as well. And Israel too, is on the same level as Cush.

Israel does not have a free pass for God's affections. Our rights to the Land of Israel are based on our behavior. If we forget that and betray our mission, well then the Land will tolerate us and we will be lost to it once more.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim entitled: "Rebuking One's Neighbor" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim entitled: "Molech Worship" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim entitled: "The Gathering" appears at

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Parshat Tazria-Metzora

The Brit and the Seven-Day Week

In the beginning of the first of this week's two parshiyot, the Torah says: "If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days… and on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (VaYikra 12:2-3).

Essentially all Jewish boys need to be circumcised when they are eight days old.

This is not the first time the Torah has commanded us about circumcision. God already told Avraham: "At the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations" (Bereshit 17:12), i.e. that all his future male descendants needed to be circumcised when they became eight days old.

We can ask why the Torah repeats the commandment here, especially when the pesukim in Bereshit are the primary source.

The simplest answer is that the Torah's concern in Sefer VaYikra is to teach us about purity and impurity. Therefore, its focus here is to explain the woman's status after childbirth, with the law of circumcision merely mentioned as a byproduct of the birth.

However, we can add a halachik dimension that gives us a fascinating insight into the life of our Patriarchs and their knowledge of the seven day week.

When Sefer VaYikra repeated that the son must be circumcised on the eighth day, the Torah is stressing that even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat, a day when it should be forbidden, the child must be still be circumcised.

This law obviously, could not have been taught to Avraham. Why not? Because Avraham had no idea what the Shabbat was. It would have been a meaningless commandment to him.

The first time that Israel is commanded to keep Shabbat is in Shemot, shortly after the Exodus. There God tells them that the manna would fall for six days, but never on the seventh. The fact some Israelites nonetheless went to gather manna on the seventh day, shows that up until then, they were ignorant of the seventh day being special. (See Shemot Chapter 16).

Joshua Berman, in his book "Created Equal" goes even further and says that Avraham and his contemporary world did not even know a seven-day week and that the Torah's institution of the seven-day week and Shabbat after the Exodus, was revolutionary!!

The seven-day week is a concept that is almost universally accepted today, however, it is not based on astrology or astronomy. The ancient world was able to calculate the months and the years, whether they used a solar or lunar calendar, but the weeks are not part of either cycle. The seven-day week is an artificial concept.

Indeed the ancient Egyptians had a ten-day week. They divided the months into three weeks of ten days each, and at the end of the year they had a five day holiday, before beginning the new year.

Soon after the French Revolution, the French also adopted a ten day week. The workers therefore, had a day of rest once every ten days. This calendar survived for 12 years, before they reverted to the seven-day week. Soviet Russia also adopted a series of new calendars from 1931. First they tried a five-day week and then a six-day week. Their aim was to create a more productive work force, however, they returned to the seven day week in 1941.

Other cultures also had different types of weeks and it was as late as Christian Rome that the seven day week became a universal phenomenon.

It should be noted that in both the French and Soviet examples, they continued with the Gregorian calendar, as the days of the week are not linked to the calendar.

The earliest historical record that we have of the seven-day week is that of the Jewish people in the Babylonian captivity (around 586 BCE). Therefore, it seems that the Torah introduced the concept of the seven-day week. Before the Torah was given, no such concept had existed before and so, Avraham, the forefather of the Jewish people who obviously never had the Torah, did not have it, and so, did not have the Shabbat.

Therefore, even though God had already commanded Avraham to teach his descendants about circumcision, once those descendants, the Jewish people, were introduced to Shabbat, they needed to be taught that circumcision overrides the Shabbat. That command exists in this week's parsha.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Tazria, entitled: "Tzara'a – a Physical or Spiritual disease" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Metzora, entitled: " The Four Lepers" appears at Another

Sedra Short on Parshat Tazria, entitled: "Seven Followed by Eight" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Tazria, entitled: "The Sin-Offering of the Mother" appears at

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Parshat Shmini

Aharon's Two Other Sons

The day was meant to be Ahraon's finest hour; the day that the Mishkan would be consecrated and "the glory of the Lord would appear" (VaYikra 9:6). It would also show that Aharon was truly the one chosen by God to be His High Priest and that that he had been forgiven for the role he played in the apostasy of the Golden Calf.

These events occur, but Aharon pays a tragic price when two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu place an unauthorized fire on the fire pans and "died before the Lord" (ibid 10:2).

Moshe wants Aharon and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Itamar, to carry on with day's ritual as if nothing had happened: "Moshe said to Aharon and to Eleazar and to Itamar, his sons, "Do not leave your heads unshorn, and do not rend your garments…" Take the meal offering that is left over from the Lord's fire offerings, and eat it as unleavened loaves beside the altar… (ibid 6 & 12-15).

Eleazar and Itamar, however, find it impossible to complete the ritual as Moshe had proscribed: "Moses thoroughly investigated concerning the sin offering he goat, and behold, it had been burnt! So he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's surviving sons, saying, Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place? …so you should have surely eaten it within holy [precincts], as I commanded (ibid 16-18)."

Up until now, even at the death of his two sons, Aharon had been silent. However, when his surviving two sons are reproached by Moshe for not completing the ritual, i.e. eating the sin offerings, he finally speaks up:

"But today, did they offer up their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord? But [if tragic events] like these had befallen me, and if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have pleased the Lord?" (ibid 19).

Essentially, Aharon rationalizes their actions saying that they are grief stricken and so God would not be pleased with them continuing with the normal fashion and so they burned the sin offerings instead of eating them, as the eating of the sin offering would have been a joyous act.

How does Moshe react to this defense? Let us first look at he Hebrew and then examine two different translations: וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינָיו

Translation 1: Moshe listened and it was good in his eyes.

This is the standard translation, that Moshe accepted Aharon's response. However, this is strange for surely Moshe understood this argument beforehand and that is why he stressed to them the importance that despite their grief, they must continue with the ritual.

Therefore, we can give a different translation.

Translation 2: Moshe listened [and responded] "It would have been good in His eyes".

Aharon asks under these circumstances whether it would have been good in God's eyes to continue as normal. Moshe responds that indeed, it would have been.

Which interpretation is correct? We can never know. However, it is only when we study the text in its Hebrew original that we can fully appreciate the different dimensions that it has to offer.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shemini, entitled: "Aharon's Shame" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shemini, entitled: "Aharon's Four Sons" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shemini, entitled: "How They Died" appears at

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Parshat Tzav

Eating the Blood

This week's parsha reminds us that we may not eat blood: "Any person who eats any blood, soul shall be cut off from its people" (VaYikra 7:27).

Why is it wrong to eat blood?

To help answer this question, we must look at the first time that the Torah forbids it; after the Deluge: "Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything. But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat" (Bereshit 9:3-4).

The Torah considers blood to be "flesh with its soul". It is not entirely clear what this concept actually means, nevertheless, it seems that blood is more than just a liquid, it is the lifeblood, life itself.

Nevertheless, this should not change why it should be forbidden to eat blood. If one can eat an animal i.e., a living creature, than why can one not eat the blood?

At creation, humanity was only permitted to eat vegetation: "God said, 'Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food'" (ibid 1:29).

Yet, after the Flood, God permitted them to eat meat. Many commentaries explain that this new rule was in concession to humanity's aggressive nature. Allowing people to kill animals for food would curve their nature from being aggressive to fellow humans.

Nonetheless, it was still forbidden for humanity to eat the blood. Eating blood would be one step too far. Rather than releasing the aggression, thereby protecting humanity, eating blood, i.e. eating the soul, would lead Man to be callous about life. It would lead to further cruelty to others. And so it remains off limits.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYikra, entitled: "More on Sacrifices and Offerings" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYikra, entitled: "The Korban Todah and Chametz" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Tzav entitled Understanding Karet" appears at

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