This Week's Torah Portion: How Being Kosher Relates to Holiness

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Shëmini (Leviticus IX, 1 — XI, 47)

This week’s parasha contains many of the basic laws concerning kashruth. The language of the verses introducing this section is peculiar, and bears questioning. We are told:

Vayëdabbér Ha-Shem el Moshe vë’el Aharon lémor aléhem … Dabbëru el bënei Yisra’él.

 “And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon to say to them … Speak to the bënei Yisra’él.” (XI, 1-2).

It is not at all clear from the context who the “them” are in the first verse. The midrash (cited by Rashi ad loc.) tells us that it refers to El‘azar and Ithamar, Aharon’s sons. In the wake of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s other two sons, reported earlier in the parasha (cf. X, 1-7), we thus have all of the kohanim (as of that moment) involved in learning about kashruth.

 But the most startling thing, unique within the Torah, is the plural imperative dabbëru in verse 2. Everywhere else in the Torah we find Moshe enjoined in the singular to impart Torah to Israel, dabbér el bënei Yisra’él. This is the only place in the written Torah in which anybody is associated with Moshe in instructing Israel and (as Rashi again notes, based on the midrash) here we have four people, Moshe and all three kohanim, associated in the command.

Why is this, and why does kashruth merit this special treatment?

It has been noted many times that the single characteristic most vital to the learning and propagation of Torah is that of ‘anava (“humility”). The Ésh Dath, the previous Ozherover rebbe, brings this home most tellingly in his answer to a famous question asked by many commentators on the Haggada shel Pesach. In the song Dayyénu we find a catalogue of all the wonders which Ha-Shem performed for Israel from the Exodus to the inauguration of the Temple, and declare at each stage that if He had only done that thing and stopped performing at that point, then dayyénu (“it would have sufficed for us”).

We follow the logic without difficulty until we read: Illu qérvanu lifnei Har Sinai vëlo’ nathan lanu eth haTorah (“Had He brought us close to Mt. Sinai and not given us the Torah”), dayyénu!

Dayyénu? The entire purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to create the ‘am Ha-Shem. The Talmud tells us (‘Avoda Zara 3a) that the Creator made a condition with the world: “If Israel accept the Torah, it becomes good, if not, I will return you to chaos!” To be dragged before a barren mountain and abandoned in the midst of a howling wilderness without fulfilling the purpose of Creation hardly seems a reason to declare dayyénu!

Some commentators respond to this by citing Rashi’s comment on Exodus XIX, 2: Vayichan Yisra’él neged hahar (“And Israel camped opposite the mountain”), where Rashi is driven by the singular verb applied to all Israel to declare that they were kë’ish chad bëlév echad (“like one man with one heart”), i.e. united in their purpose. But without the giving of the Torah, this amounts to unity for the sake of unity. What is the value of that?

The rebbe calls to mind another Talmudic pronouncement (Sota 5a): “A man should always learn from his Owner” (i.e., G-d), which Rashi goes on to tell us means “to love lowliness.” The Talmud tells us: “[F]or the Holy One, Blessed is He, left all the other mountains and hills and established His Presence on Mt. Sinai.” Sinai was not a mighty mountain, a Middle Eastern Everest or Mount McKinley; it was a modest hill. There is a lesson to be learned from it, as we find in the first mishna in Avoth: Moshe qibbél Torah miSinai (“Moshe received Torah from Sinai,”), not ‘al Sinai or bëSinai but miSinai, but “from Sinai.” The lesson was that of humility, that one who would aspire to greatness must first be humble. Greatness will then pursue him, rather than the other way around.

Therefore, the rebbe tells us, this is what the Haggada means: if Israel had been brought close before Mt. Sinai such that they would achieve such perfection in ‘anava that no one would think himself better or greater than his fellow? If each would be a true ‘anav, dedicated to seeing to the needs of others before himself? Then even if the Torah had not been given, from such a display of humility they would automatically merit the Torah. Dayyénu!

Now let us examine our dramatis personae in light of the above. Moshe’s humility is on display from the very beginning of his career, when the young man raised as a prince by Pharaoh’s daughter did not turn his back on his people. He chose to be identified with them, despite their downtrodden condition, until the Torah itself declares:

Vëha’ish Moshe ‘anav më’od mikol ha’adam asher ‘al pënei ha’adama.

And the man, Moshe, was very much more humble than any person on the face of the Earth (Numbers XIII, 3).

Aharon’s humility is similarly not in doubt. Despite his being the elder brother, and a formidable intellect and prophet in his own right, Aharon’s reaction to being appointed second to Moshe was vësamach bëlibbo (“and he rejoiced in his heart,” Exodus V, 14), and as Rashi explains, “Not, as you think, that he will be upset with you because you are rising to greatness.”

But what of El‘azar and Ithamar?

There is a passage in the Talmud in which the verse umitz af yotzi’ dam (“and squeezing a nose will bring forth blood,” Proverbs XX, 33) is read as meaning: “Every student who remains silent when his rebbe becomes angry with him the first time, merits to distinguish between clean blood and unclean blood” (Bërachoth 73b). As Rashi ad loc. explains, the figurative interpretation is based upon un-translatable puns. The student is hamotzétz ka‘as rabbo vësovëlo (“one who absorbs his teacher’s anger and endures it,” mitz/motzétz; “anger” is a secondary meaning of af). Clearly one who possesses such patience and forbearance is quintessentially humble.

The Nëtziv — Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin — in his Ha‘améq Davar applies this passage to El‘azar and Ithamar. One can only try to imagine the scene: at the climax of the eight days of their installation in the office of the këhunna, in the midst of the ceremonies, their beloved older brothers Nadav and Avihu are abruptly and miraculously put to death. Who can imagine their shock, their grief their terror? As Rashi notes in commenting on X, 12, if not for Moshe’s intervention on their behalf, they would also have died. And yet, when Moshe rebuked them for interrupting the installation, without a word of protest they and their father completed the service.

As the Nëtziv notes: “to distinguish between clean and unclean” is the classic expression of hora’a, the rendering of halachic decisions. It was this super-human display of ‘anava and submission to their rebbe which enabled El‘azar and Ithamar to become the great decision-makers they were. It reflected such honor and credit on Moshe and Aharon, who had educated and raised them, that they merited to stand with their father and rebbe to instruct Israel not only according to the Oral Torah (which is the usual purview of hora’a) but also in a parasha of the writtten Torah.

Very well. But why should that parasha involve kashruth?

The concept of qëdusha — “sanctity” — as has been noted before implies being singled out, set aside, dedicated to some higher purpose. The purpose of kashruth is laid down near the end of our parasha: Al tëshaqtzu eth nafshotheichem bëchol hasheretz hashorétz (“Do not make yourselves disgusting with every crawling thing that creeps,” XI, 43). Why not? Ki Ani Ha-Shem Elo-hechem vëhithqaddashtem vihyithem qëdoshim, ki qadosh Ani (“For I am Ha-Shem your G-d, [therefore] make yourselves holy and you will be holy, for I am holy,” ibid., 44).

Israel’s purpose in the world is to be the mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy qadosh, the holy and priestly nation whose example instructs and enlightens the world. But Israel is also a microcosm of the world in that the descendants of Aharon, the kohanim, are set apart from the rest of the goy qadosh by additional restrictions. Aharon, El‘azar, and Ithamar had just assumed the office of the këhunna, and by their shining example of ‘anava and submission to their rebbe made the effort which was crowned with success. Who better, then, to exhort Israel to separate themselves from the rest of the world and to elevate themselves in qëdusha, the sign of which to the world is kashruth?