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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT SHEMINI - BIRKAT HAHODESH
April 14, 2007 – 26 Nisan 5767

Annual: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial: Leviticus 11:1 – 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 636; Hertz p. 449)
Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1 – 7:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 645; Hertz p. 454)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Parashat Shemini opens with the culmination of the process of inaugurating the portable sanctuary, the mishkan. Under Moses’ tutelage, Aaron and his sons complete the initial sacrifices, and a miraculous fire consumes the sacrifices.

At this auspicious moment, something goes terribly wrong. Another divine fire appears, killing Aaron’s two eldest sons. Aaron is stunned and silent. God commands him and his two younger sons to avoid all alcoholic beverages when they perform their ritual duties. (We are left to wonder whether this is a hint as to why two kohanim were just struck down, or whether this is simply a general instruction aimed at differentiating the Israelite pattern of worship from those of the neighboring religions.)

Moses and Aaron discuss the hesitation that Aaron and his remaining sons feel about continuing wholeheartedly with their ritual activities at this juncture in their lives.

The final chapter of this week’s parashah focuses on describing the species of animals that may be eaten within the framework of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Mammals must chew their cud and have a split hoof. (The examples are of animals that meet one of these criteria but not both, reinforcing the point that both are required.) Fish must have both fins and scales. Rather than enumerating for us the criteria for determining which birds may be eaten, the Torah simply lists those species of birds that are prohibited.

Issue #1: Mourning Laws and Customs

The Torah does not command us to mourn in a particular fashion after losing a family member. However, there are certain assumptions about mourning practices that lie just beneath the surface of the Torah’s text.

After the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the bereaved family would want to mourn, but outward expressions of grief would be highly problematic in the middle of the ceremony inaugurating the mishkan and initiating the Kohanim. There is a tension between the personal needs of the bereaved and the needs of the community. Thus we can understand the need for the following injunction:

Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, El’azar and Itamar, “Do not dishevel your hair and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.” (Leviticus 10:6)

Over time, many mourning rituals have become part of Jewish tradition. The observance of the shiva period is an example of the mourning family and the comforting community coming together.

Shiva lasts seven days. The day of the funeral is the first day and one hour of the seventh day counts as a full day. Shivah is suspended at 1 o’clock Friday afternoon and is resumed after Shabbat is over. If a major holiday, such as Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur falls during the shiva period, shiva ends at 1 o’clock on the eve of the festival. Speak to your rabbi for further details.

The shivah period begins after the funeral with a simple meal, the seudat havra’ah, the meal of consolation. People often rinse their hands with water before entering the house for the meal. This meal, traditionally provided by family and friends for the mourners, is not meant as a social occasion; neither meat nor wine, two symbols of joy, should be served. Because it is a time to rest and reflect on the day’s events, only family and the closest friends should attend. A party-like atmosphere should not be allowed to develop.

In its wisdom, our tradition recognizes that when someone undergoes a major life change, he or she must step out of everyday activity for a while. Your rabbi can get in touch with an employer to explain the practice and make arrangements to allow the mourner to miss work.

There are a number of practices associated with observing shiva. We cover mirrors in the home, to show that we reduce the importance normally placed on personal vanity. Mourners are encouraged not to wear shoes and to sit on low stools. This shows that we change the way we live during this time.

People pay shiva calls to fulfill the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners. These visits demonstrate community concern at the time of loss. The visits help the mourners with their feelings of isolation or desertion, which are natural after the death of a loved one. Even if many people have gathered, those present should be sure that the gathering does not feel like a party. Conversation should center around the life of the dead person; it is appropriate to share memories.

Mourners are not obligated to have food or drink available for visitors. Selected from Death and Mourning Customs, by Rabbi Paul Drazen)

One of the visible signs of Jewish mourning is the rending (tearing) of clothing by the mourner. [In some communities, where this practice is not observed literally, the mourner will tear a black ribbon and wear it during shivah.] Another theme of Jewish mourning is the lack of concern for personal appearance, represented in the Biblical passage above by disheveled hair. What other traditional mourning practices can be learned from a reading of the command to Aaron and his family?

In the passage above, since Aaron and his sons were unable to express their mourning fully at that specific time (due to other divine commandments that had been directed to them specifically), the rest of the community was called upon to mourn on behalf of the bereaved. What role does the community ordinarily play vis-à-vis those who are sitting shivah? In what ways can community members provide support for the mourners?

Issue #2: Kashrut and Holiness

Judaism would agree that feelings and beliefs are essential to holiness, but it would assert that the struggle for holiness on the part of a human being does not begin there (nor should it end there for that matter). Judaism is not a one-day-a-week religion, nor does it concern itself only with prayer or Synagogue or ritual, nor does it limit itself to catechisms. On the contrary, its great claim, as expressed throughout the entire range of its literature from the Torah to the latest responsum, is that it must encompass the entirety of a man's being; that it is, in fact, a way of life, affecting all of one's days or none of them, relevant to one's total manner of living or to none of it, just as concerned with the seeming trivialities as with the exalted aspects of one's existence. Indeed, it would assert that it is precisely with these seeming trivialities, these common, everyday actions of ours which are matter-of-fact and habitual and apparently inconsequential that we must commence, in order to create the holy man. And what is more common, more ordinary, more seemingly trivial and inconsequential than the process of eating?...

Attitudes often derive from activities. Now we can better understand what the mitzvah of Kashrut is attempting to achieve and can see it in its proper context. We are commanded to be a holy people. "Thou shalt be holy for I the Lord thy God am holy." "Thou shalt be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Israel is commanded to be holy; again and again commanded to be holy. But how do we become holy? We become holy by making holy, by hallowing. (Rabbi Samuel Dresner in The Jewish Dietary Laws, pp. 17-18 (Available from USCJ’s Book Service)

For those who are not vegetarians, one of the central rules of Kashrut is the manner in which the animal is slaughtered. (We are aware that slaughterhouses are not always as humane as they should be, and we encourage attempts to heighten sensitivity to the pain of animals about to be slaughtered, and to keep that pain to a minimum. But that is not the focus of this question.)

The rules for kosher slaughtering are derived from the manner in which animals were to be slaughtered as sacrifices in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple. Is it surprising that a set of rules derived from religious worship (Remember: sacrifices were once a form of worship!) came to be required for a seemingly secular activity (the supplying of food for our meals)? What does this tell us about the expectations that Judaism has for the way that we take care of the mundane aspects of our daily lives?

Issue #3: Kashrut and Health

We have often heard people say that the Jewish dietary laws were instituted for health reasons. Reread Chapter 11, which outlines these regulations. (Optional: read Deuteronomy, Chapter 14, too.) What information, if any, does this material communicate about health aspects of Kashrut? If we accept the understanding of kashrut and holiness noted above, should any health claims (or lack of them) impact a decision about keeping kosher?


 
 
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