The portion of Emor continues many of the same themes found thus far in the book of Leviticus. It expands upon the laws of the priest which set him apart from the rest of the community, as well as those that apply only to the High Priest. It adds details regarding animals which may be brought for the service of God. It enumerates the holidays additional, non-sacrificial Temple rites. Finally, it ends with one of the few narrative passages of the book, telling the story of the blasphemer.
Laws of the Priest
While the entire nation of Israel is commanded to “be holy” (Leviticus 19:2), the Torah now delves into the special measures the priests must take to remain so. The first set of instructions forbids a priest from becoming ritually impure by making contact with the dead, with the exception of the seven closest family members. It goes on to forbid several mourning practices, such as tearing out hair or cutting the skin, which were common in the region. From there, the Torah proscribes marriage to a divorcee. The High Priest is forbidden from marrying a widow, as well. The Torah then continues by listing the physical blemishes which disqualify the priest from serving in the Tabernacle or Temple. Such a priest may still eat from the consecrated food, however. Finally, the Torah instructs the priests to safeguard God’s holy offerings, being careful not to administer them while ritually contaminated in any way.
The Israel Bible shares a wonderful teaching from the Sages regarding the status of the High Priest. Whereas other priests may attend to the burial of their closest relatives, the High Priest may not even contaminate himself ritually for them. There is one exception. The Torah specifies he may not “defile himself for the dead among his people.” From here, the Sages learn that where there are others to attend to the needs of the deceased (other than a close relative), a priest must not do so. However, if the dead individual is not among his people, meaning he has nobody to bury him, even the High Priest must do it. This teaches us that being of elevated status does not make one above the rest of the people. On the contrary, it invests him with a greater responsibility to make sure everyone is cared for, even at the expense of his own holiness.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the restrictions on High Priests are greater than those set for ordinary priests?
Laws of Animal Sacrifices
The Torah now tells us who may or may not eat of the holy food which is consecrated for the priests. We are told that a layman may not partake, even if he lives with or works for a priest. If he is a slave owned by a priest, however, he is permitted to eat. The priest’s unmarried daughter may eat, as well, but if she is widowed or divorced, she can only partake if she has no children. Anyone who eats the consecrated food by mistake must repay it with an added fifth of value.
Much like the priests which bring the offerings, the animals themselves which are to be sacrificed must be unblemished, we are then told. An offering from a stranger is also unacceptable. A new-born animal must remain with its mother for a week before it can be brought for sacrifice, and a mother animal and its offspring may not be slaughtered on the same day. All offerings from which the offerer is meant to partake as well must be eaten within the allotted time frame, so as not to desecrate the name of God.
The Israel Bible points to the juxtaposition of the sanctification of God’s name and the exodus from Egypt at the end of this passage. The scholar Rashi says this teaches us the redemption from Egypt was conditioned on the Israelites sanctifying God’s name. The Talmud indicates the primary way to sanctify God’s name is through one’s behavior. Kindness, consideration and honesty bring others to realize “fortunate are the parents and teachers who raised such a person.”
Points to Ponder
The rules regarding which blemishes disqualify a peace-offering are more lenient than other offerings. Why do you think that is?
This passage delineates the holidays God has designated for the Children of Israel. Beginning with the Sabbath, it lists the unique commands of each holiday and an overview of its sacrificial service. Passover, or Pesach, is next, with its unleavened bread, followed by the command to bring an Omer offering from the first of the harvest. From the second day of Passover, when the Omer is brought, 49 days must be counted until the next holiday, Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. Then we are told that on the first day of the seventh month, the new year, Rosh Hashana, is marked, and on the tenth of the month is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, during which the people must afflict themselves with fasting. The fifteenth is Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, where the Children of Israel are commanded to dwell in booths, and the eighth day of this seven-day holiday is called Shemini Atzeret, which is also consecrated.
The Israel Bible includes several fascinating insights into these holidays. Of the Omer, it says the offering is meant as a reminder of God’s role. Throughout their travels in the desert, God provided the Israelites with Manna. Tradition says the Manna stopped falling on the second day of Passover following their arrival to Israel. The barley offering of the Omer reminds the people that despite all the effort they have put into planting and harvesting the grain, it is only through God’s blessing that it grew.
On Sukkot, God commands the Children of Israel to take four species together and wave them. The Sages liken the species to four types of people: the citron, which has both taste and smell, is like one who has both wisdom and good deeds. The myrtle, with its pleasant scent, is like one who has wisdom only. The date palm, with its sweet fruit, is like one who is not knowledgeable, but does good deeds. Finally, the willow, with neither smell nor taste, is like one who lacks both wisdom and action. By taking all four types together, we symbolize the importance of uniting everyone in the service of God.
Sukkot is also the time in which the Talmud says God judges the people for rain. Yet the Torah specifically commands the people to be happy at this time. How can a nation so dependent on rain (Israel’s primary water source) rejoice while they are under such scrutiny and uncertainty? By making the people dependent on rain, God strengthens their connection to Him. That connection is the source of great joy.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the new year is marked in the seventh month and not the first?
Temple Rites and the Blasphemer
This brief section tells of two additional rituals which took place in both the Tabernacle and the Temple. The first is the lighting of the Menorah, and the second is the arrangement of the showbread.
The Menorah must be lit continually, burning pure olive oil. It is Aaron’s responsibility to arrange the lights each day. Likewise, each week the showbread must be baked and arranged on the Table. At the end of the week, when the breads are replaced, the previous week’s showbread is given to Aaron and his sons to eat.
The Israel Bible explains the symbolism of both the light and the showbread. The intangible light represents the spiritual life of the people, while the bread stands for their physical needs. When the Children of Israel rest on the Sabbath day, the day when the showbread is changed, they focus on their spiritual lives. In turn, God ensures that their physical needs are cared for, as well.
The Torah then goes on to tell the story of the blasphemer. An individual, whose mother, Shlomit the daughter of Divri, was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian, got into an altercation with another man, and during the fight, blasphemed the name of God. Those around him at the time did not know what course of action to take, so they brought the blasphemer before Moses.
God instructs Moses to take the guilty party outside of the camp. All those who witnessed his transgression are to place their hands upon his head, and then he is to be stoned. God tells Moses that this is to be the law in all similar cases in the future. He then reiterates that in other cases, mortal injury is met with execution, and all other injuries, physical or monetary, require the guilty party to pay restitution. The portion ends with Moses and the Israelites carrying out God’s sentence.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the personal details of the blasphemer were significant enough to be mentioned in the Torah? What can we learn from them?