This week’s torah portion discusses the priests, offerings of the priest, marriage prospects for a high priest, sacrifices, Sabbath, reminder about Passover, sacrifice of the Omer, counting of the omer till Shavouth, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, the lighting of the gold menorah, the loafs of bread and the laws of a blashphemer.


Beth Shifra Torah Portion Emor אמר Question and Answers


1.         What is the name of the parsha? What is its significance?

It means “Say!”.- in reference to Hashem telling Moshe to say to the Cohens their special obligations and prohibitions.  Interesting to note that the term for speech ‘emor’ is used as opposed to ‘daber’ as just we saw in last week’s parsha Kedoshim.
We have discussed that amar/emor refers to a softer, more colorful and warm form of communication than ‘daber’.  In light of this we can understand that since Moshe is being told to tell the class of Cohens that they are to have a more demanding task in life, that the more appropriate way to inaugurate them is through personable encouragement (‘I’m so excited for you..”, “you are so fortunate to have this opportunity..” “I know they chose the right person for the job”) as opposed to frank directives (“this is what God commands you to do”, “here are your directives”, “listen up well, or else you will be in trouble”.  This is an important principle for all teachers, managers and parents, in order to help others foster a positive relation with their roles and duties.
In light of this we can make a similar interesting note, that as opposed to the classical opening phrase for a parsha “And Hashem spoke (daber” to Moshe, that he should say over (emor) – our parsha chooses the term “And Hashem said (Emor) to Moshe…
In other words, Hashem is demonstrating by example how to communicate in the gentle, lively way that He is asking Moshe to do to the Cohens, and Moshe is experiencing the difference between the two, increasing his empathy for his audience.

2.         What are some of the unique halachos (laws) pertaining to the Cohens?  Why?

A:  In general a Cohen is required to be more separated in realms of life that contain impurity or void, and the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) has this to an even more refined degree.  For example – not to be in contact with death, especially when involved in their Temple service, including eating of the offerings; who they can marry is limited to those with whom they will be able to have a more complete unity, and in general he must be more pure and available to serve the nation’s relationship with Hashem, and to reveal the awesome sanctity and angelic power nesting within each of us.  To this end, even their family is responsible to maintain a higher level of purity (E.g. the parsha writes about a Cohen’s daughter who defiles herself to have defiled her father).

The measures to be removed from death, and even customs surrounding death, such as burying, funeral processions, mourning, afflicting themselves, etc. are also to help them hone into positive sources of motivation.  Everybody recognizes that avoidance of death is a universally powerful motivator, schools of psychology are based on this idea, but we must recognize that it is a way that bears consequences. This idea is found in a gemarra which discusses what one should do when his evil inclination or lower side attacks or overcomes him.  The first way to succeed, the gemarra says, is to drag it to the Beis Midrash – in other words fight fire with fire, destroy him with the clarity of truth and reveal his vanity.  If you do not feel capable of such a direct assault, then learn Torah, for the general holiness and creative good that lies within it will strengthen you and flood out the negativity.  If however, you have been to overcome to properly throw yourself into Torah in a meaningful way, and then the third piece of advice is to say the Shma, thereby accepting the yoke of Heaven, and testifying to the underlying unity in Creation, thereby annulling all derisive forces and destructive thoughts.  Lastly, if one lacks even the clarity and energy to do any of these, he should think of his day of death, and his lowly, wormy detestable end should humble his spirit, coupled with the sobering thoughts of divine judgment, and the price he will pay.
SO we may ask – if this last is the most effective, why do we save it for a last resort?  The answer is that it is TOO powerful, sort of like chemotherapy which not only kills the disease, but it also takes some of the living with it; so too brushing with death is so powerful because it destroys one’s spirit, but it does not isolate the ugly heads, rather it burns the roots.  In a similar vein, it is known that excessively harsh discipline and instilling of fear in children, will dampen the full development of their personalities.  Therefore the Cohen, who is the Torah’s model of a proper Jew, as well as our conduit to the Almighty, should be as full of life and good as possible, yet far removed from impurity and death.

The leader of our people at the time when the Reform Movement was taking hold, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor made a remark on how to approach outreach and involvement with the public from the first verse in our parsha “Hashem tells Moshe – speak to the Cohanim, even though you are son’s of Aaron, and primed for leadership, and gifted in interpersonal matters, and responsible for the spiritual state of the people, nevertheless you must know that there is a limit on how far you are to go for the sake of peace and unity, namely do not become defiled amongst the masses.

3.         Why must a Cohen not have blemish in order to serve in the Temple?

A:  First – as we said – a Cohen is dedicated to a more direct and intimate service of the Creator, thus Rashi and Ramban explain that it is more honorable to the king to have more perfect servants and ambassadors.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Mitzvah Education) offers a more pragmatic reason – namely that serving in the Temple, while possessing one of these invalidating blemishes would be a distraction for him and his colleagues (and their work was unbelievably demanding physically and mentally).
The Maharal, and others give another reason, on the lines of what we said that a Cohen must be perfect, and removed from evil and void, and that in earlier days, when the gap between the Creator and the creation was less, and the physical more clearly reflected its spiritual root (as seen in the spiritually-caused physical afflictions of tsaras, and one’s portion of Manna in the desert being a product of one’s merit’s, when the sick went to the prophet and not the doctor, in order to show him where he is erring in his religious duties that such a malady would manifest), then a physical imperfection portrayed an internal imperfection.    (This idea also explains why the Torah and our traditions make mention of the beauty of the patriarchs and matriarchs – for this was an external manifestation of their internal beauty.)

4.         Where do we see a stress on carefulness about eating in the parsha? Why does the Torah consistently discuss these gourmet matters (aren’t there more important things that God should be adjuring His people about)?

A:     If Hashem wanted us to be free of physical endeavors and to be liberated for spiritual pursuits like angels, then He would not have placed us in our mundane world and given us such animalistic bodies, compete with all our base desires.  Obviously then, our task of being ‘kedoshim’ (as we saw in last week’s parsha, with all its detailed social, financial, and family laws) is in specifically such a context.  Our job is to reveal the potential for Truth and Good in the nuts and bolts of life, to reveal the divine nucleus and essence of all matter (a transcendent interpretation of the equation E = mc2).
Perhaps the most ubiquitous and common to all animals is the act of eating.  We all have seen some people eat  and replied with common phrases like  “they were raised in a barn” or ‘like a pig’, is not too far off.  We don’t want to let our animal side of us believe our higher self, and we try hard to raise our children to overcome their base tendencies when placed before the object of their desire, and to control themselves in order to act like a mensch.  When this goes well, it is quite wondrous and elevating to see – about a few of our pious teachers it has been said that Darwin would have never considered man to have descended from apes if he had seen him conduct himself.

The word for food and eating in Hebrew is EChOL  – which is the word Chol – meaning All or every, with an aleph in front.  This shows us that food is not a small thing, but it is a microcosm of reality, relating to the entire person; for one can engage more than his mouth and digestive system in his eating habits, rather it is a forum to have thoughts of gratitude and contentment, to give and receive, to praise and to reflect, to refocus one’s energies and to control one’s animalistic and childish relation to the world of pleasure.  In other words our interactions with the physical world can become more than merely physical, and specifically because we have such a strong innate tendency to engage in such matters with only our physical side, is it such a formidable challenge to show ourselves and others that we can be holy and express Torah even while eating, in the mall, trading floor, bathroom, bedroom, beach, amusement park, street, etc, etc.

5.         The middle of the parsha the festivals and their ordinances are discussed – so is something else, seemingly non-sequitor – what and why?

A: Agricultural gifts to the poor.  I am sure we could all come up with good reasons for this if we think about it. Rashi brings a midrash stating that these mitzvos of tzedaka are juxtaposed on both sides by the festival offerings to show us that one who fulfills these mitzvos of kindness properly is considered as if he had built the Holy Temple and brought up offerings inside it.  It is not unusual for the Torah to intersplice mitzvos of a seeming ‘religious’ nature (i.e. they relate to Hashem), with mitzvos of a more social nature, to show that they exist interdependently and holistically, and you can’t take one without the other.

6:   Another interesting oddity regarding the discussion of the festivals is that the parsha opens up “and these are the festivals which you should call in their appointed times:” (referring to days of Yom Tov which fall on specific days of the month, and are thus determined by our sanctifying the new moon) – and then continues “For six days do creative activity, and the seventh is a day is a Sabbath of complete rest”  – (which has nothing to do with ‘appointed times, since Shabbos always falls on the seventh regardless)>  Why?
A:   Rashi writes that this teaches that whomever keeps these festivals is considered is as if he kept shabbos, and conversely if one violates them it is as though he violated shabbos.  I think Rashi means that one might think that since the laws of Yom Tov are more permissible than shabbos – for carrying, certain creative acts involved in cooking, are permitted on Yom Tov, and also the punishment for violating shabbos is death, whereas for Yom Tov one receives lashes – one might think they are not as important, thus the Torah repeated the law of shabbos here to show us that in the Heavenly scales they are of equal weight.
The Vilna Gaon (Genius from Vilna – mid 1700’s, but figure of such phenomenal greatness that he is considered to be on par with our spiritual and intellectual giants from the times of the Ramban (1200’s) – and some say even to the post-Talmud generations (one who has seriously studied the works of the different generations can truly marvel at such claims).  – says that we are not speaking about shabbos at all here. One proof is that even this ‘shabbos’ is called here ‘a holy calling’ a term only found (and according to the Zohar only appropriate) by festivals and not shabbos.  Rather he says the six days of permitted creative activity is referring to the six days of Yom Tov : The 1st and 7th of Pesach, Shavous,  Sukkos, and Shmini Atzeres, and 2 days of Rosh Hashana, “and the Seventh is a Sabbath of Sabbaths” upon which none of these is permitted, refers to Yom Kippur, which has the same restrictions as Shabbos – which are exactly the days the parsha now sets out to delineate.

7.  On which day are we told to commence Yom Kippur?  What general rule do we learn from this?

A:   “On the eve of the ninth of Tishrei” – even though Yom Kippur is the Tenth.  From here we learn the mitzvah to ‘add from the holy to the mundane; – in other words to bring in Shabbos and Yom Tov early.   If we think about this idea it is rather phenomenal that we can make the secular become sacred, and tilt the balance of the world to holiness by our preparations and intentions.

8a) Why is Rosh Hashana referred to only as ‘a day of memorial blowing’ – and not a day of judgement – which would seem to be the crux of the day to us.

A:   The Kli Yakar says we can understand this from a pedagogical perspective: if we knew that one day was set aside for judgment, then we would act our best the rest of the year, and we would save up our tshuvah (repentance and self-improvement) for that day.  Therefore Hashem concealed from us that Rosh Hashana is a Day of Judgment, thereby placing us in a situation much like the mishna in Pirkei Avos :Do tshuvah sometime before you die – and since you do not know when that day will be, you had better not delay.
b)         We also don’t see Shavuos being mentioned as the  festival of the giving of the Torah – why not?  Can you think of a common answer for the two?

In a similar vein, the Kli Yakar says that if we were told a specific time was designated for receiving Torah, then we might release ourselves from the task of learning and appreciating Torah the rest of the year.  Therefore since the Torah and it’s honour is so important, and the world and the Jewish people would not exist if not for it, the fact that it happened to be given on a specific day was hidden in the Torah, so as not to deemphasize the rest of the year.  The Mishna at the end of Pirkei Avos expresses this idea that Toarah is to be viewed as a necessary and ongoing supply and demand:  “Everyday a heavenly voice calls out from Mount Horev (Sinai) crying ‘woe to the creations (us) for the shame of the Torah (not being learned and practiced)…”

Rabbeinu Bachaya (student of the Ramban) gives a more ethereal reason to explain them both together.  He gives a parable, that a star may be the most dim because of its smallness or because it is more distant from us regardless of its size and intensity.  The idea is that an emanation from above which relates to Torah or Divine Judgment is higher and closer to the Source than the rest of the holy days in our calendar, and thus we do not perceive a clear view of their essence, except through our oral traditions and the wisdom of our sages who were able to discern the truth of everything.

9.         What sort of fruit does the Torah instruct us to shake on Sukkos?

A:  A beautiful (hadar) one. Or one from a beautiful tree – Only through exegesis and oral tradition do we know that this refers only to an Esrog, and to make a blessing on any other pretty fruits would be in vain and in violation of the ten commandments.

There are no shortage of examples of mitzvos where some of the most central information is left out of the written law (Tefillin, mezuzah, tsitsis, shechita, kashrus, shabbos, etc.) leaving us to rely on our oral traditions to be able to make any safe moves in the world of a Jew.

10.       What is the difference between a ‘neder’ (vow) and a nedava (volunteering)? What is a stringency and leniency from each?

A neder is a personal obligation to do something – e.g. offer a cow as a peace offering.
A nedava is obligating a certain thing to be offered – e.g. Betsy to be a peace offering.
A neder more stringent in that even if the cow you are bringing dies or runs off, you still have a personal obligation to bring another.
A nedava is more stringent in that once you dedicate Betsy for an offering it becomes holy, and cannot be used, abused or exchanged.


Have a majestic and priestly Shabbos