Biblical Hebrew associates both thoughts and feelings with the heart. There is no body part to represent intuitions. But the seat of the conscience, as well as the innermost self, is in the kidneys (kelayot, כְּלָיֺת or kilyot כִּליוֹת).
Kidneys are first mentioned in the Torah in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God gives Moses instructions for ordaining priests. The first animal offering prescribed is a bull.
The first eleven verses that refer to kidneys are all part of prescriptions for making animal offerings to God.1 For most types of offerings2 the fattiest parts, including the abdominal organs, are completely burned up into smoke. Other parts of the animal are reserved for other purposes: meat for human consumption, blood for splashing on altars and curtains, and hides either for leather or for burning outside the camp.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (“And he called”)3, describes specific organs burned up along with the belly fat in two types of offerings:
- the shelamim (שְׁלָמִים = wholeness offering) of a community member who wants to thank God or give a voluntary donation.
- the asham (אָשָׁם = guilt offering) of a priest who unwittingly caused the people to disobey one of God’s rules.
And [the priest] shall offer, from the slaughtered animal of the shelamim, a fire-offering to God: the belly fat and the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails; and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, which is on the sinews; and the extra lobe on the liver over the kelayot which he removes. And the sons of Aaron shall turn them into smoke at the altar … a fire-offering, a soothing scent for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 3:3-5)
The same organs are singled out for burning up into smoke when a priest offers a bull as an asham.4
When the instructions for removing and burning these organs were recorded,5 they were literal instructions for the priests serving at the temple in Jerusalem. Before each animal is slaughtered, its owner must lay a hand on the animal’s head, a magic or symbolic act transferring some of the owner’s spirit or identity.6 Then when the animal is offered to God, the owner is offering part of himself to God.7
The meaty parts of the animal are lifted toward God, roasted rather than completely burned, and then eaten by the priests and their families and/or the owners and their guests. Thus the animal’s owner shares his muscles, representing his actions in the world, with God. He will continue to act so as to take care of himself, his family, and his community, but now he dedicates himself to doing so in alignment with God’s laws.
The organs from a shelamim or an asham that are completely burned could correspond symbolically with what the owner is surrendering entirely to God. The extra lobe of the liver8 might represent excess self-importance; by surrendering it, the owner humbles himself.
What part of the owner is being offered with the kelayot. the kidneys?
The kidneys appear as metaphor in poems elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes kidneys refer to a person’s innermost self. For example, the father in the book of Proverbs says:
My son, if wisdom [is in] your heart,
My heart will rejoice in me.
And my kilyot will exult,
When your lips are speaking upright things. (Proverbs 23:15-16)
The father predicts that if he observes his son thinking and speaking wisely, he will be happy both at the level of his conscious mind and at the level of his deepest feelings.
In some biblical poems, the kidneys represent a person’s conscience or moral sense. For example, Psalm 16 implies that the voice of one’s conscience is the voice of God:
I bless God, who has advised me;
Even [during] the nights my kelayot have chastised me. (Psalm 16:7)
And Jeremiah asks God:
… Why does the way of the wicked succeed?
All the treacherous enjoy peace and quiet!
You planted them, and they also took root;
They went and made fruit.
You are close in their mouths,
But remote from their kilyot.
Yet you, God, you know me, you see me.
And you have tested my heart; it is with you. (Jeremiah 12:1-3)
In other words, the wicked talk about God easily, but they have no access to divine warnings from their consciences. Therefore they calmly continue to produce evil results. Jeremiah, on the other hand, is dedicated to God with all his thoughts and feelings; his heart (mind) is in harmony with his kidneys (conscience).9
In the 6th century B.C.E. and earlier, astute Israelites and those who recorded their words understood the human conscience. Jeremiah expected people with a weak conscience to be treacherous and violate God’s laws. Today we identify sociopaths (or people with anti-social personality disorders) as those who have little or no conscience, who lack empathy, and who casually disregard rules. They are “the wicked” of the bible who have no communication with their shriveled kidneys, and therefore are unable to surrender their conscience to God.
The rest of us, who make it out of childhood with healthy “kidneys”, have a chance at connecting with both our innermost feelings and our conscience. But it does not happen automatically.
In Vayikra, the owner of a sacrificial animal dedicates his innermost self, as well as his conscience, to God as the animal’s kelayot are turned into smoke. It is the ultimate act of trust in God.
Today we know that it is wise to check one’s own conscience before following what anyone else says God wants. Some people find the voice of God in their own deepest selves and their own moral sense.
I pray that we all find our own ways to express thanksgiving and become more generous, like the shelamim donor; to pay attention and notice when we have inadvertently done something wrong, like the asham offerer; and to cultivate empathy without selfishness; and to enlarge our own conscience so that we hear the divine voice of love rather than fear or hatred.
- Exodus 29:13, 29:22; Leviticus 3:4, 3:10, 3:15, 4:9, 7:4, 8:16, 8:25, 9:10, 9:19.
- In an olah (עֺלָה), a rising offering, the entire animal is turned into smoke rising up to God.
- The first Torah portion in each of the five books has the same name as the book, which is the first significant word to appear. In this case, both the book and its first portion are called Vayikra, the Hebrew word that opens the book of Leviticus.
- Leviticus 4:8-10.
- Modern scholars agree that Leviticus 1:1-8:36, comprising the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, were written by the “P” source. Although they disagree on the century in which P passages were written, scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries C.E. have all dated the P source to sometime when the first Israelite temple stood in Jerusalem, i.e. between the 10th century B.C.E. and the temple’s destruction in 588 B.C.E.
- Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned or lay (a hand or hands) on. When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9). When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10). The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice. The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & New York, 2002, p. 16-17.
- The Hebrew for “liver” is kaveid (כָּבֵד). The same word also means heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive. Cattle, sheep, and goats have an extra lobe of the liver not found in humans. In Hebrew this lobe is the yoteret (יֺתֶרֶת), from the same root as yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, excess, what is left over.
- Kelayot also appear in Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, and 20:12 as a different part of the mind from the heart.