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Parashat Shemini

April 18, 2015 – 29 Nisan 5775

Annual (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47): Etz Hayim p. 630; Hertz p. 443
Triennial (Leviticus 10:12 – 11:32): Etz Hayim p. 635; Hertz p. 447
Haftarah (I Samuel 20:18-42): Etz Hayim p.1216; Hertz p. 948

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC


On the eighth day of the consecration of Aaron and his sons, Moses instructs Aaron to take a calf for a sin offering and an unblemished ram for a burnt offering, and to tell the Israelites to bring several other offerings, since this would be the day that God would “appear” before Israel. After Aaron blesses the Israelites, a fire emerges from God and consumes the burnt offering and fats that are on the altar.

But Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, each take a fire-pan with fire and incense, resulting in a “strange fire” that God had not commanded. Instantly, fire emerges from God and consumes Nadav and Avihu. Moses offers a cryptic explanation for their deaths, which is met by Aaron’s silence. Moses coordinates the removal of Nadav and Avihu’s bodies, then tells Aaron and his surviving sons not to mourn and not to leave their posts in the Tent of Meeting. God then speaks to Aaron, commanding the new priests not to be under the influence of wine or beer while in the Tent of Meeting. Moses then squabbles with Aaron’s other sons, Eleazar and Itamar, for not eating the purification offering. This time, Aaron is not silent; he defends his sons, because they are mourning the loss of a sibling. Moses backs off.

The text presents a lengthy list of the animals that are proper for the Israelites to eat. Permissible land animals must have a cleft hoof and chew their cud. Permissible water creatures must have fins and scales. There are no particular criteria for permissible birds; rather, a list of impermissible birds is given. Winged insects that walk on “all fours” are prohibited, except for those that leap with jointed legs above their feet. Other reptiles and amphibians are prohibited by name. To varying degrees, people who come into contact with impermissible animals are rendered impure; an affected person’s clothing, vessels and foodstuffs are also subject to such impurity. This even applies to someone who touches the carcass of a permissible animal – he is impure for the duration of the day. God tells the Israelites not to “draw abomination upon” themselves.

Theme #1: Moses and the Mourners

[Moses said to Aaron about the purification offering,] "Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." And Aaron spoke to Moses, "See, this day they brought their purification offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten purification offering today, would the Lord have approved?" And when Moses heard this, he approved. (Leviticus 10:18-20)

The end of Leviticus 10 features a halting conclusion of the Nadav-and-Avihu incident, giving us a revealing glimpse at two brothers in the wake of a family tragedy.

“Here again Moses speaks of himself as commanding something concerning Aaron. And here again there is uncertainty about the text, since other versions differ from this reading in the Masoretic Text; they read that it is God who commands Moses. The uncertainty in the technical matter of the differences in the manuscripts underlines the larger issue: the growth in the stature and authority of Moses.” — Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, pg. 345

“What is the proof that, through anger, Moses forgot to speak of a law about the conduct of a mourner before the burial of his dead? From what happened when Nadav and Avihu died, and their brothers Eleazar and Itamar refused to eat consecrated food. At that time, we are told, ‘Moses was angry with Eleazar and with Itamar’ (Leviticus 10:16), and, having become angry, he forgot to speak of the law that, prior to the burial of his dead, a mourner may not eat consecrated food. At that, Aaron set forth to Moses … a man is asked to declare of the tithe, which is of lesser sanctity: ‘While in mourning, I have not eaten of it prior to the burial of my dead’ (Deuteronomy 26:14). How much more should a restriction in eating a sin offering, which is of greater sanctity, apply to such a mourner! As soon as ‘Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight’ (Leviticus 10:20), and he issued a proclamation to the entire camp of Israel, saying, ‘I made an error in the law, and Aaron my brother came and set me straight.’” — Leviticus Rabbah 13:1; Yalkut, Mattot, 785

[Aaron said:] I and my four sons offered up the sin-offering to atone for ourselves. In spite of this, look what happened! My two sons died. Evidently we are not acceptable to God. If then our partaking of the sin-offering is to atone for the congregation, is it conceivable that we can atone for the congregation while we are thus out of favor with God! If we had insisted on partaking of the sacrifice, congratulating ourselves that we still enjoyed the Divine favor, “would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the Lord?” Would He not rather have been even more angry with us? -- Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

Questions for Discussion:

There are very few narratives in the book of Leviticus, as most of it is devoted to laws; therefore, the handful of stories that we have speak volumes about the character development of Israelite leadership. Do you sense that Moses appears bolder in Leviticus 10, as Friedman claims above? If so, can you think of previous episodes that indicate an increase in Moses’ poise? And how much of Moses’ confidence can be attributed to the fact that he is dealing solely with members of his family in this chapter? To what extent, if any, do your actions differ depending on whether you are dealing with your family or the general public?

The Midrash quoted above states that Moses incorrectly criticizes his nephews for improper ritual behavior because of his anger, which Aaron assuaged. Can Moses’ initial reaction be seen as pro-active, since he had just seen two of Aaron’s sons die due to incorrect ritual behavior? Or do you think that Moses is mainly venting out of frustration? When we try to protect the people we care for most, how easy is it to overreact out of love? Is our indignation excusable, and when must we apologize for taking it too far?

Does Moses need to apologize for his anger in front of all of the Israelites, as the Midrash above claims? When leaders make mistakes, when do they need to publicize their regret, and when should they do so privately? Does a leader need to inform the public of every mistake he/she makes?


Theme #2: Preferred Ingredients

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, and that chews the cud -- such you may eat. (Leviticus 11:1-3)

The theme of differentiating between the sacred and profane continues in Leviticus 11 with a long list of animals that one can and cannot eat, and the impurity that befalls us when coming into contact with an animal carcass.

“The main purpose of these [Kashrut] laws is spiritual: to sensitize our hearts, not our minds. Kashrut’s taboos teach us how to conduct our lives. … And blood too is forbidden, because it is a symbol of life, which we must hallow. Similarly, contact with a dead animal contaminates those who are living. And if we must kill to eat, we must do it consciously, meticulously, humanely. We are not only what we eat but also how to eat and how we harvest life.” — Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam, pg. 162

“The sages in the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: ‘the camel, because it chews its cud’ (Leviticus 11:4). The Ruler of His world knows that there are not creatures other than the camel [and the rock badger (Leviticus 11:5)] that chews its cud and yet are unclean. Therefore, Scripture made a point of singling out the camel [as well as the rock badger] with the pronoun ‘it.’ ‘And the swine because it parts its hoof’ (Leviticus 11:7). The Ruler of His world knows that there is no creature other than the swine that has a parted hoof and yet is unclean. Therefore, Scripture made a point of singling out the swine with the pronoun ‘it.’” — BT Hulin 59a

“It is quite clear that the dietary regulations in Leviticus 11 do not represent … health and survival norms. If they were intended as such, they would not fail to address the crucially important realm of plants. There are probably far more poisonous plants than unwholesome animals. And the present text says not a word about any possible health hazards from ‘impure’ or ‘dangerous’ animals. No, the restriction of these  dietary commandments to the animal realm clearly shows that the consumption of animals that must be killed … was problematic in and of itself.” — Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary, pg. 133

Questions for Discussion:

Dr. Frankel believes that the rules in Leviticus 11 should not necessarily be understood intellectually, but rather emotionally. To what extent do these rules make sense to you intellectually, and should it matter? To what extent is food an emotional undertaking in your life? To what extent is it intellectual?

The above excerpt from Hulin explains that God needs to mention both the category of a forbidden animal and the animal’s name as well. Why do you think God found it necessary to mention both?

Do you agree with Dr. Gerstenberger that the rules of proper and improper animals reflect the text’s discomfort with eating animals? If so, why would Leviticus permit certain animals in the first place?

Modern society is filled with new information about vegetarianism and veganism, the benefits of eating organic food, and a growing concern about what is truly in our food. To what extent does Leviticus 11 speak to those concerns? To what extent does it run counter to them?

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