The heart of things
Shemini: On the
9, 1 - 11, 47
- The overall meaning of the parasha,
which emerges from the principle themes and mitzvot
- Our difficulty in understanding
- The Sage's difficulty
- Anava (humility, modesty, fear)
- The limits to our comprehension
- Rashi's commentary
- The meaning and function of the sanctuary
- Rabbenu Bahya's commentary: the 8th day
- The sanctuary and man: the importance of rites in
- The sanctuary and peace in the world
- The comments of the Sages on anava
- Test of knowledge
- The overall meaning of the parasha
through its principle themes and mitzvot
Parasha Shemini continues the process
of restoring the universe and humanity through the rules
that govern the Temple.
It describes mitzvot 150-166 which relate to the duties
of the Cohanim in the sanctuary: we know that the Cohanim
" the prototype of ideal man,
" the men who lead the re-creation of the world through
" like them, the Jewish people are a light unto the
nations and help to improve the world through their holiness.
The teachings of the Torah are
not just symbolic, they are concrete prescriptions pertaining
to reality. They deal with the hair of the Cohanim, their
garments, the times when they can enter the sanctuary, and
the details for carrying the sacrifices.
Then, the Torah describes the dietary laws governing what
Jews can or can't eat and lists which animals are pure or
impure. The latter consists in:
" impure animals: beasts of prey, unclean fish and
birds, reptiles and insects,
" impurity due to defects in animals one can eat,
" impurity due to contact with impure animals or with
carcasses that have not been slaughtered in the authorized
The parasha also describes the
death of Aharon's sons.
All these themes are found in Moshe's words to Aharon: "This
is it that Hashem spoke, saying: through them that are nigh
unto Me will I be sanctified" (Vayikra 10, 3).
Our difficulty in understanding
Do not be surprised if you find it difficult to understand
the meaning of all the rites in the sanctuary and the lists
of pure or impure animals. The commentators show that Moshe
himself did not understand all these prescriptions.
We shall examine Moshe's difficulties. First of all, the
fact that he had difficulty contrasts with those who are
quick to interpret the Torah and who base all sorts of psychological,
historical, medical, sociological or political theories
on their interpretations. It is common knowledge that it
is the less intelligent who believe they understand everything
and are convinced that their position is the correct one,
for such people are unable to perceive nuances.
The Sages'difficulty in understanding
In comparison, the greatest Sages, such as Ribbi Shimon
bar Yohai, say that they are only able to understand a few
glimmers in the Torah, particularly in Vayikra. They write
with great caution, using terms such as " it is possible,
efshar" or "as far as my limited knowledge allows
me to say.." All the more reason for us to be cautious!
Even after the detailed descriptions
of the laws governing sacrifices in parasha Tzav, Moshe
still has difficulty understanding. Tractate Hulin, page
42, tells us that Hakadosh Barukh Hu took each animal species
and showed them one by one to Moshe. Moshe could then understand
how the eating of impure animals could harm the state of
benediction in the world. In his turn, Moshe did the same
for the children of Israel: he took each species and described
them in detail, listing what could or could not be eaten
As Tractate Menahot 29 a tells
us, there were other subjects that Moshe, despite his great
intelligence and closeness to God, was unable to understand.
The construction of the menora, the fixing of the first
day of the month (which relates very much to women), the
impurity of reptiles. In each case, he was told precisely
what to do and why (read Shemot 12, 2 and 29, 38; Vayikra
Anava (humility, modesty, fear)
In order help us attain anava
- in all things and particularly in relation to the Creator
- the Torah and the Talmud teach us two important things:
" the Torah opens the passage on the list of animals
that are permitted or prohibited with the phrase dabberu
el bnei Yisrael (speak [plural] to the sons of Israel).
Rashi explains the meaning of the plural form: Aharon and
his sons, Elazar and Itamar were as worthy of receiving
and teaching the Torah to the people as Moshe because: they
kept a dignified silence when the two other sons of Aharon
died, they accepted the divine verdict and they did so with
" the Talmud (Menahot 29 b) describes how Moshe did
not understand the importance of certain details: when he
saw Hakadosh Barukh Hu add coronets (tagim) over the letters
of the Bible, he said: "Master of the world, is it
useful to spend time on such little things?" Hakadosh
Barukh Hu replied: "there will come a man, Ribbi Akiva,
who will draw knowledge from these little signs." Moshe
responded: "If this is so, then he is the one who should
receive the Torah and not me." Hakadosh Barukh Hu replied:
"shetok, silence." Moshe continued: "if this
is the teaching, show me the reward he will be given."
And Hakadosh Barukh Hu showed how Rabbi Akiva's body was
dismembered and sold on the marketplace. Moshe was shocked
and exclaimed: "zo Torah ve ao karkha, this is the
Torah, and this is the reward!" Hakadosh Barukh Hu
answered: "shetok, silence, this is how it is."
The limits to our comprehension
The aim of this story is to make us understand that there
are limits to our comprehension, and even defects. We should
not get upset when we do not understand something: it is
simply a sign that a problem is complex and that we are
not looking at it in the right way.
This is why we have been given the book of Job, consisting
of more than 40 chapters of tragic narrative, of endless
arguments that seem pointless or too intellectual, with
no sense of conviction until Hashem reveals the greatness
of his creation to Job - a greatness which man has difficulty
comprehending. In the course of 5 verses in chapter 12,
Job repents and sees the complexity of creation. It is important
to read chapters 38 to 42 of the Book of Job.
We now turn to Rashi's commentary on verse 11, 2: "zot
hahaya, this is the animal." If we think about all
the meanings discussed above (the role of sacrifices, the
process of drawing close to Hashem, the link between animals
and men), we can understand Rashi's commentary: "animal,
haya, also means life, hayim, for Israel adheres to the
Creator and deserves to live. This is why Hashem singled
Israel out from other nations and gave it the mitzvot."
Rashi takes up the commentary of Midrash Tanhuma which refers
to Devarim 4, 4: atem haddevakim baHashem Elokekhem hayim
kulekhem haom ("you who adhere to Hashem your God,
you are all alive today").
Sacrifices have two dimensions
that are difficult to reconcile:
On one hand, they entail adhesion (devekut) and intimacy:
Devarim 4,4 is the verse which Jewish men recite every morning
as they place the tefilin 7 times around their arm, recalling
Hashem's love through this act. The Song of Songs, Shir
Hashirim, immediately follows the Book of Job.
But alongside adhesion and intimacy, is sacrifice. The link
between the book of Job and the Song of Songs has a double
The meaning and role of the
The sanctuary, and all that takes place within it, is the
juncture where these two irreconcilable dimensions unite.
It is this unity that ensures both dimensions of life -
as represented in man and woman - and which is the source
of love and material life.
Rabbenu Bahya's commentary:
the eighth day
Rabbenu Bahya comments on the title of the parasha, which
is drawn from the first verse: "vayehi bayom hashemini,
and it came to pass on the eighth day." This refers
to the 8th day of the month of Nisan, when the sanctuary
was inaugurated. The number 7 refers to shabbat, to the
yovel and the year of the shemita, the 7 days of Pesah,
the holiday of Succot, the 7 days of mourning and the 7
days of celebration of a marriage, all of which are based
on the 7 days of creation.
In contrast, the number 8 refers
here to the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, who is the servant
of the Master of all creation and is 1. He alone is 1. The
eighth day refers to this ONE, which is above the 7 of our
The restoration of creation and of ideal man in the Book
of Vayikra, is not just a humanist vision which aims to
create a new and better world based on a system of laws
and regulations. The entire process has meaning only because
it is oriented towards the source which is above us (le
avodat el ehad veheshbon shemona ahar shivea, towards the
service of El, One, and his number is eight after seven).
The sanctuary of man: the importance
The process by which we pass from material life, represented
in the 7, to the service of God, who is One, a process found
in prayer and in the rituals of the sanctuary, teaches us
also that we possess a source which impels us in this direction
- this is the heart, lev.
" Without these two dimensions, the divine and our
heart (El, lev), the sanctuary and its rites would have
no "meaning;" without this bipolar dimension,
the world would crumble, as our prophets and Torah tell
" the two dimensions may result in good or bad things,
depending on man's conduct as when the Temple was destroyed
or when man's excessive ideals led to wars and catastrophes.
" The Sages warn us against these excesses of man.
The Temple is the regulator of the impulses of men, both
on an individual and collective level. Without this regulatory
place, disaster awaits all mankind, not just Jews.
This is why, from time immemorial,
Jews pray several times a day towards the heart of Judaism
which is the mountain of the Temple (har habayit) and carry
out these regulatory rites which are prescribed in the Torah.
When the rest of the world understands this and stops destroying
or interfering with this place, which is vital for the good
of humanity, it will follow the steps of the wise King of
Persia of ancient times and order that the Temple be rebuilt
for everyone. Then it will have discovered the meaning of
fraternity and understood the role of the Jewish people
- a people of Cohanim whose role is to better the world.
The Temple is not a type of
super United Nations. It has a regulatory role because the
Creator chose it as the heart of his creation, as the place
which unites what is divine and what is human at all levels,
and as the place where men will be able to live in peace
among themselves and in peace with the Creator: "in
the sanctuary I shall dwell among them."
The comments of the Sages on
Our Sages consider anava to
be THE most important human quality. Let us look at the
commentary of Rabbi Eliahu ben Moshe Di-Vida in Reshit Hohma.
Di-Vidas was a disciple of R. Moshe Cordovera in the 16th
century. A summary by R. Yisrael Alnakawa, called Menorat
hammaor, was added later to his book.
- Avraham was seated and the shekhina stood before him.
- Hashem speaks, then he says his name: this is what is
- Modesty and humility are the signs of someone who is an
adam tzaddik and near to God.
- Man must shun ambition.
- Man must not walk with an arrogant gait, nor raise his
voice, in study or in prayer.
- One must learn from all men, even the simplest.
- All men should be great in your eyes.
- Man must wear clean, modest clothes.
- These men were praised for their anava: Avraham, Yitzhak,
Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Shmuel, David, Mordekhai, the Levites,
- Anava will bring resurrection and the prolongation of
the days of the world.
Test of knowledge of the parasha
according to the traditional method described in my book
1. Re-read this commentary and
learn by heart the plan and the main themes. Develop questions
on the parasha and on your own life, and try to answer them.
2. Look up the references that are mentioned in this commentary.
3. Learn the Hebrew words and phrases cited in this commentary.
4. Return periodically to this commentary:
" in order not to forget it,
" in order to be able to recite it by heart,
" in order to use it as a source for meditation and
personal reflection, together with the study of traditional
This is the traditional Jewish method of study.
5. Re-read the parasha, in Hebrew or in English, together
with Rashi's commentary.