Emor: Death Is Not Holy

Why won’t Mr. Cohen go into a cemetery?

Josefov Cemetery, Prague, where a six-foot distance is impossible. (photo by M.C.)

A kohein (hereditary priest) must distance himself from death, according to this week’s Torah portion, Emor. Proximity to a dead body is limited, and mourning practices are curtailed.

An Orthodox Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of the ancient kohanim (plural of kohein) still follows this principle.1 Mr. Cohen (or Kahn, Kagan, or any other variant) is also honored at Orthodox services, where he gets to deliver the priestly blessing, and he chants the first aliyah for a Torah reading.

But unlike a kohein of old, Mr. Cohen no longer acts as an intermediary for God. He neither officiates at the sanctuary nor receives sacrificial offerings at an altar. His role is strictly ceremonial, and has been ever since the year 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he keeps a distance of at least four cubits (six feet!) between himself and any coffin or grave, a rule derived from the portions Emor in Leviticus and Chukkat in Numbers.2

Why does Emor require the kohanim to keep their distance from the dead?


The portion begins with God telling Moses:

Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them: Lo yitama for a body among your own people, except for the blood-relative closest to him: his mother or his father or his son or his daughter or his brother. (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)

kohanim (כֺּהֲנִים) = priests; male descendants of Aaron. (Plural of kohein, כֺּהֵן.)

lo yitama (לֺא־יִטַּמָּא) = you must not make yourself ritually impure, contaminated. (From the same root as tamei, טָמֵא = ritually impure, contaminated, unacceptable for normal contact.)

A priest in the Torah is allowed to be near the body of his recently deceased parent, child, brother, or (in Leviticus 21:3) unmarried sister because he is responsible for the burial.3

A person who is tamei is not allowed to enter the grounds of God’s sanctuary—where all Israelites worship, and the kohanim officiate.

Contact with or proximity to a dead human body is the worst form of being tamei,4 and ritual purity can only be restored if the tamei person is sprinkled seven days later with water containing the ashes of a pure red cow5—ashes that have not been available since the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. An ordinary priest in the ancient Israelite kingdoms stayed away from the sanctuary during his seven days of impurity after attending the death of a close blood relative.6

The high priest, however, is forbidden to go near anyone who has died, no matter how close.

And he must not come where there is any dead body; [even] for his father or his mother lo yitama. And from the holy place he must not go out … (Leviticus 21:11-12)

Why does he have to be ritually pure enough to stay in “the holy place”, i.e. the sanctuary grounds, at all times? The high priest’s extra duties are officiating on Yom Kippur and running the administration of the temple. Except for the week of Yom Kippur, couldn’t he take seven days off from work?

The problem is the required level of holiness. All the Israelites are required be holy by serving God and obeying the ethical rules.7 The kohanim must be as holy as the temple sanctuary and its furnishings, i.e. set aside from profane activities and dedicated to God full-time.

Holy they must be for their God, and they must not profane the name of their God, because those who offer a fire-offering of God, as food of their God, must be holy. (Leviticus 21:6)

Although ordinary priests are allowed a brief lapse from holiness to bury a close blood relative, the high priest must be even holier than that. He even wears a gold plate on his forehead inscribed “Holy to God”.8

In the Torah a person cannot be both tamei (unfit to serve God) and holy (serving God), because the God of Israel must not be associated with death. That is why the kohanim were not only required to avoid corpses in most cases, but also to avoid most signs of mourning.


Pieter Paul Rubens, Franciscan Friar (detail), circa 1616. The hair is rounded back.

The previous Torah portion, Kedoshim, prohibits all Israelites from engaging in two of the common mourning practices in the Ancient Near East: shaving the beard or the hair at the temples, and scarification or tattooing.

You must not round back the side of your head [hair], and you must not destroy the side of your beard. And you must not make an incision for a [dead] person in your flesh, and you must not engrave a tattoo into yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19:27-28)

The Torah is not against shaving per se. Nazirites end their terms as holy lay people by shaving their entire heads.9 When Levites are initiated into the clergy, and when people with the skin disease tzara-at are healed, they have to shave their entire bodies.10

Nor is the Torah opposed to every form of cutting into the skin. Circumcision is required for males, and piercings are condoned for earrings and nose-rings. The Torah only prohibits shaving hair and cutting into skin in the context of mourning.11

The Torah does allow mourners who are not priests to tear their garments, to throw dust on their heads, or to tear their hair. But the kohanim must exercise more restraint.

They must not make a bald spot on their heads, and they must not shave off a side of their beards. They must not incise incisions in their flesh. (Leviticus 21:5)

The Talmud rules in several tractates that a kohein nust not tear his hair to make a bald spot even the size of a grain of rice.

And the great kohein, above his kinsmen, upon whose head anointing oil was poured and who was ordained to wear the [high priest’s] garments, must not bare his head and must not tear his garments. (Leviticus 20:10)

An extreme gesture of mourning by a priest would detract from God’s reputation as a god of life.


Two Egyptian Priests perform the funerary rite “Opening of the Mouth”, 1275 BCE

Modern commentator Jacob Milgrom pointed out that although priests in other religions officiated at funerals, kohanim were limited to tending their own dead. “A polemic may underlie these verses against the Egyptian cult, which was obsessed with death and the afterlife and which contained in every temple a cadre of special priests involved in funerary rites.”12

19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch went further, writing: “Heathenism, both ancient and modern, tends to associate religion with death. The kingdom of God begins only where man ends. Death and dying are the main manifestations of divinity.”13

Crucifixion by Giotto, 14th c.

I suspect Hirsch was alluding to two aspects of most Christian sects: the glorification of the dead body of Jesus on the cross (before resurrection), and the importance of belief in an afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible posits an underground place called Sheol where the souls of the dead go, but those souls are unconscious.

The dead do not praise God, nor any who go down to silence. But we ourselves will bless God, from now until eternity. (Psalm 155:17-18)

Judaism still calls God Elohim chayim (the god of life, the god of living).14 Jews do honor our dead friends and family members in cemeteries—with burial services, headstone unveilings, and leaving memorial pebbles on graves (except, of course, for Orthodox Mr. Cohen). We also honor and remember our dead by saying the Mourner’s Kaddish for our them, though the language of that prayer praises God for granting life. But we do not exalt death or look forward to an afterlife.

When I meet people whose personal religion revolves around an afterlife, I wonder if they are fully appreciating this life. I would rather focus on the holy glory of life in this world, like the kohanim.

  1. Genetic research has shown that most Jews with a last name like Cohen and a family tradition of being called to the Torah with “ha-kohein” appended to their name actually do share a group of common ancestors.
  2. Numbers 19:11-20 explains that a person becomes tamei by touching a dead person, or being in the same tent, or stepping on (or into) a burial site.
  3. A priest’s legitimate wife is added in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 22b.
  4. Ritual impurity is also caused by other reminders of death: the skin disease tzara-at (Leviticus 13:3-46), discharge after giving birth (Leviticus 12:2-8), genital discharges including menstrual blood and semen (Leviticus 15:1-32), touching or eating dead animals that were not properly slaughtered (Leviticus 11:8, 11:24-38, and 11:44-47), and touching a tamei person or thing (e.g. Numbers 19:22).
  5. Numbers 19:1-20.
  6. Ezekiel 44:25-27 (part of this week’s haftarah reading).
  7. Leviticus 19:1-2.
  8. Exodus 28:36-37. See my post Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead.
  9. Numbers 6:13-18.
  10. Leviticus 14:8-9, Numbers 8:5-7.
  11. This also applies to Deuteronomy 14:1. See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.
  12. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 262.
  13. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 703.
  14. This appellation first appears in Deuteronomy 5:23.


Sukkot & Kohelet: Rejoicing Without Justice

Life on earth is the only life humans get, according the Hebrew Bible (except the second-century B.C.E. book of Daniel1).  The souls of all dead humans, good and bad, go to Sheol, an underground place of oblivion.  There is no reward or punishment for human deeds after death.

The reward for virtue in most of the Hebrew Bible is a long and healthy life with male descendants and a good reputation.  The punishment for wicked deeds is an early death, the early death of one’s children, or being forgotten.

Do not get inflamed over evildoers;

            Do not envy those who do wrong.

For quickly they will dry up like grass;

            Like green plants they will wither.  (Psalm 37:1-2)

In a little while the wicked one will be no more;

            When you look at his place, he will not be there.

But the humble will take possession of the earth

            And delight in abundant well-being.  (Psalm 37:10-11)

For the wicked will be shattered,

            But God supports the virtuous.  (Psalm 37:17)

In the Psalms, God is omnipotent and just.  If bad things happen to good people, they are temporary setbacks, and only those who have done something wrong suffer sickness and beg God for mercy.

At Yom Kippur services, Jews pray to a God who tempers justice with mercy.  Besides begging God to forgive us for our misdeeds, we chant God’s self-description to Moses in the “thirteen attributes”, including “a compassionate and gracious god, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and dependability.”2

Four days after the sun sets on Yom Kippur we begin the week of Sukkot, when the Torah commands us to “rejoice before God, your God, seven days”.3  Rejoicing seems appropriate after the work of atonement is done, the last crops have been harvested, and the grapes have been pressed for new wine.  Life is good.

But the Torah reading for Sukkot also says:

In sukkot you must dwell for seven days.  All the citizens of Israel must dwell in sukkot, so that your (future) generations will know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Modern American sukkah

sukkot (סֻכֺּת) = temporary shelters; huts made of branches and mats to provide shade for harvesters in fields and vineyards, for travelers, or for cattle.  (The roofs of ritual sukkot must provide more shade than sun, but still let in any rain.)

So we rejoice even though our shelters are temporary, our harvest is temporary, and our lives are temporary.  During Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, which begins:

Haveil of havalim, said Kohelet.

          Haveil of havalim! Everything is havel.  (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), or hevel (הֶבֶל) = puff of air, vapor; ephemeral, futile, fleeting.  (“Vanity” in the King James Bible.  Plural: havalim (הֲבָלִים).)

All human achievements and human lives are as temporary as puff of air.  Meanwhile the seasons go around forever, like the cycles of the sun, the winds, and the water.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Furthermore Kohelet observes that wisdom and foolishness, virtue and wickedness, make no difference in the fate of human beings.  Kohelet does not question God’s omnipotence, and refers to God as judging humans according to their virtue, but concludes that humans cannot change the quality or length of their lives through good deeds or religious observances.  God has predetermined everything.

And I said to myself: The virtuous and the wicked God will judge …  God sifts them out only to show them they are beasts.  Because the fate of the sons of humankind and the fate of beasts are one fate, since this one dies and that one dies.  The spirit of the human has no advantage over the beast, since everything is hevel.  They all go to one place, they all come from the dust and they all return to the dust.  (Ecclesiasters 3:17-20)

Humans die like beasts.  But does God grant virtuous humans any of the biblical rewards during their lifetimes—

—by  giving them longer lives?

I have seen everything in my days of hevelThere is a virtuous one perishing in his virtue, and there is a wicked one living long in his evil.  (Ecclesiastes 7:15)

—by giving them descendants to inherit what they built?

And I hated everything I earned from my toil that I was toiling under the sun, that I would leave it to the human who will come after me.  And who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?  But he will control everything I earned from my toil that I toiled, and that I gained by wisdom under the sun.  This, too, is havel.  (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)

—or by giving them renown in the memories of those who follow?

There is no remembrance of the wise or of the fool.  For it is already certain that in the days to come everything will be forgotten.  (Ecclesiastes 2:16)

After examining what actually happens on earth, “under the sun”, Kohelet concludes that dispensing justice is simply not something that God does.

Then is there any point in avoiding evil?

Kohelet considers any pleasure in life an unpredictable gift from God.4  But he recommends against either drowning in despair or drowning in sensuality.  The wisest course of action is to enjoy simple physical pleasures, friendship, and love.

Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart, because long ago God was favorable …  At all times let your clothes be clean and let your head be oiled.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)

Friendship is also valuable.

Better are a pair than one alone, for they get good recompense for their toil.  For if they fall, one can raise his friend, but if one falls alone there is no second one to raise him.  Also if a pair lie down together they are warm, but for one alone there is no warmth.  And if one is attacked, the pair can stand against [the attacker].  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Succumbing to a woman who is a sexual predator leads to bitterness, not enjoyment.5  But if one happens to have a good spouse, that is another reason to rejoice.

Enjoy life with a woman whom you love all the hevel days of your life that have been given to you under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 9:9)


According to Kohelet, the only good that humans can do is to appreciate the good things in their ephemeral lives.  But later Jewish tradition adds that in situations even when God is not righting wrongs, humans should do what they can to improve the world.  Kohelet notes the violent oppression that humans commit, but does not advocate taking any action to reduce it.6  Nevertheless, Kohelet says:

All that you find your hand has the power to do, do it, because there is no doing or learning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

I believe that the best life, however fleeting, is one in which we not only enjoy the physical pleasure, friendship, and love that come our way, but also do everything within our own power to improve life for other humans, and for all living things under the sun.

  1. Daniel 12:1-3 describes the resurrection of at least some of the dead, perhaps in messianic times. (See my post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.)  Another work written in the second century B.C.E., the non-canonical Book of Enoch, describes the separation of virtuous souls from wicked souls in preparation for the resurrection of the virtuous and the torture of sinners.  Only after the first century C.E. did the writers of the Christian New Testament and the rabbis of the Talmud imagine an afterlife in which good souls are rewarded in a heaven and bad souls suffer in a hell.
  2. Exodus 34:6.
  3. Leviticus 23:40. The Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot is Leviticus/Vayikra 22:26-23:44.
  4. Ecclesiastes 3:12-14.
  5. Ecclesiastes 7:26.
  6. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.

Emor, Chayei Sarah, & Toledot: Intermarriage

The geir who resides among you shall be like the native-born among you, and you must love him like yourself, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:34)

geir (גֵר) = immigrant, resident alien.  (Plural = geirim, גֵרִים.)

Boaz and Ruth (a geir), by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

We must love our neighbors like ourselves not only when they are from our own people, but also when they are immigrants, strangers from another land; God says so in last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim.1

Native-born citizens are sometimes prejudiced against immigrants, in the Torah as well as in the world today.  This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), ends with the case of a blasphemer.  The writer of this section mentions that the blasphemer is an outsider, the child of an intermarriage.

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites, and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man quarreled in the camp. (Leviticus 24:10)2

For the rest of the story multiethnic man is called “the son of the Israelite woman”, reminding the reader that his father is not an Israelite and implying that he therefore has a lower status.  The other man is called simply “the Israelite”.

And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed, and he treated the name of God with contempt.  And they brought him to Moses …  (Leviticus 24:11)

Moses waits for God to tell him the penalty, and God says the blasphemer should be stoned:

The Blasphemer Stoned, from Figures de la Bible, 1728

“And speak to the Israelites, saying: Anyone who treats his God with contempt must carry his guilt.  And whoever blasphemes against the name of God must certainly be put to death.  The whole assembly must definitely stone him, whether geir or native-born; for his blaspheming the name, he must be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:15-16)

Despite the writer’s bias against the blasphemer’s mixed parentage, God clarifies that the death penalty applies to anyone who desecrates God’s name, immigrant or native.  God generalizes:

“One law must be for all of you, whether geir or native-born, because I, God, am your God.”  (Leviticus 24:22)


As I draft the conclusion of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I am noticing how the book of Genesis addresses intermarriage.  Abraham makes his steward swear:

“… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am living.  Instead, you must go to my land and my homeland, and [there] you will take a wife for my son, for Isaac.”  (Genesis 24:3-4)

He is probably discriminating against the Canaanites because of their religion.  The Arameans in Abraham’s hometown of Charan may well worship more than one god, but at least they recognize a god with the same four-letter personal name as Abraham’s God.3

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

Abraham’s steward brings a bride back from Charan: Rebecca, Abraham’s grandniece; and Abraham’s son Isaac marries her.

Isaac and Rebecca want brides from Charan for their sons, too, but their firstborn son, Esau, disappoints them.

And Esau was forty years old, and he took as a wife Yehudit, daughter of Beiri the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Eylon the Hittite.  And they made the spirits of Isaac and Rebecca bitter.  (Genesis 26:34)

After the tension between Esau and his brother Jacob has escalated until Esau is contemplating fratricide, Rebecca tells Isaac:

“I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from the Hittite women like these, why should I go on living?”  (Genesis 27.46)

Isaac gets the hint.  He summons Jacob and says:

“You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.  Get up, go to Padan of Aram4 to the house of Betu-eil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.”  (Genesis 28:1-2)

Jacob leaves at once for Charan, fleeing from his angry brother Esau.  He marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and he takes their maidservants (who presumably share the family’s religion) as concubines.  Yet he shows no concern over the religious affiliations of the women that his own twelve sons marry.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

On his deathbed Jacob adopts two of his many grandsons so they will inherit equal shares with his sons.  These two are Menasheh and Efrayim, the children of Jacob’s son Joseph and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asnat.  Menasheh and Efrayim, like the blasphemer in the Torah portion Emor, are half Israelite and half Egyptian.  But like God, Jacob does not discriminate against them.  He is not even concerned that their mother will alienate them from his and Joseph’s religion, though Asnat is the daughter of an Egyptian priest of On! 5

In fact, Jacob concludes the adoption ritual by declaring:

“Through you Israel will give blessings, saying: My God place you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  (Genesis 48:20)

This sentence is commonly interpreted as referring to the amity between the two brothers, and later their eponymous tribes, despite the placement of Efrayim (the younger brother) as the dominant one—both in Jacob’s adoption ritual and in the politics of the tribes of the Kingdom of Israel.  But it could also mean that both sons and both tribes were a blessing for the Israelites, despite their mixed Israelite and Egyptian heritage.

May we all judge people by their deeds rather than their origins.  And may we all recognize the blessings that come to us from immigrants and from the children of multiethnic couples.

  1. You must not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against the children of your people; you must love your neighbor like yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
  2. For more on the possible cause of the quarrel, see my post Emor: Blasphemy.
  3. Genesis 24:50-51.
  4. “Paddan of Aram” is a name for the region of Mesopotamia that includes Charan.
  5. Genesis 41:45.

Emor: Libations

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it?  If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1  Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar.  All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2

But what about an offering of wine?  How does God receive a libation?

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought.  The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3  The instructions for two of them include libations.

On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”

and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin.  (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)

nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation.  Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים.  (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)

A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine.  The passage does not say where the wine is poured.

At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.

And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God.  And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God.  (Leviticus 23:18)

Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering?  If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain.  The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.

The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:

These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day.  (Leviticus 23:37)


Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.

from Cassell’s Family Bible, 1880

And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)

vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5

vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out.  A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold.  The bible never uses yatzak for wine.

Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles.  In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.

Libation ceremony, Minoan, 1400 BCE, Hagia Triada

Nobody told him to do this.  But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit.  In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6

The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint.  Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—

—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb.  And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God.  (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)

This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God.  A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:

And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)


According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting.  Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.

The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.

And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods.  (Jeremiah 19:13)

vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out.  (A form of the verb nasakh.)

Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8  The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.

I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God.  A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense.  But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.


Libation amphora, Second Temple coin

The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem.  There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud.  The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire.  The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.

Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:

“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9

“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)

“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)

Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire.  Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.

Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.


Today even our gifts to God are non-material.  We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff.  But what do we donate to God?  Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.

A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.

  1. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
  4. “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
  5. The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25­­ times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
  6. g. www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/libation; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
  7. Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
  8. Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
  9. All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sukkah?lang=bi.


Emor: Blasphemy

Emor: Blasphemy

The scene at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) raises two questions:

  • Should someone with a non-Israelite father be treated differently than someone with two Israelite parents?
  • What should be done in a case of blasphemy?


Medieval manuscript detail on Lev. 24:10

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man quarreled concerning the camp.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10)

The opening line above does not specify the subject of the quarrel.  The Hebrew could also be translated as “in the camp”, leaving the subject completely open.  But one traditional suggestion is that man with the Egyptian father resents being forbidden to pitch his tent inside the Israelite camp.1

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Each man shall camp according to his banner with the signs for the house of his fathers.  Facing all around the Tent of Meeting they shall camp.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 2:1-2)

Camps of 12 Tribes and Levites, all facing the sanctuary

Each tribe, and each clan within the tribe, is assigned its own camping area.    Since an Egyptian father does not belong to any Israelite tribe, his son would not be allowed to camp with his Israelite mother’s family in the area allotted to the tribe of Dan.

… the name of his mother was Shelomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan.  (Leviticus 24:11)

The Torah does not say where the erev rav (the “mixed multitude” or “riff-raff” who left Egypt with the Israelites) camp, but it must be somewhere outside the ring of Israelite tribes, and therefore outside the camp proper.  “Outside the camp” is also where people with the skin disease tza-arat live2, and where dead bodies are taken.3

The fight or scuffle at the beginning of the scene probably began with the “Israelite man” insulting Shelomit’s son, denigrating him as a half-Egyptian who has to live outside the camp.


The son of the Israelite woman put a hole through the name, vayekaleil [him?  it?].  And they brought him to Moses.  And the name of his mother was Shelomit …  (Leviticus 24:11)

vayekaleil (וַיְקַלֵּל) = and he pronounced a curse on, and he denigrated.  (From the root verb kalal, קַלַּל = “belittled, was lightweight” in the kal form, and “denigrated, cursed” in the piel form.)

The Hebrew word I translate as “put a hole through” is vayikov (וַיִּקֺּב), a form of the verb nakav (נָקַב).  This verb is used literally for piercing, boring, and tunneling;4 and metaphorically for designating or cursing a human being.5  Only in the story about Shelomit’s son is the word a metaphor for using the name of God in a curse.  (“The name” without a modifier means the name and/or reputation of God.)  When Shelomit’s son is scuffling with the “Israelite” man, he metaphorically makes a hole through God’s reputation.  This is blasphemy.

Honoring God is an essential commandment in the bible, and lowering God’s reputation would harm the whole community by encouraging idolatry.

Shelomit’s son then denigrates or curses (vayekaleil) someone or something.  The Torah omits the object of his curse.  If he denigrates or curses God or God’s name, he is committing blasphemy a second time—but the penalty is the same no matter how many times he does it in one utterance.

If he had vilified his opponent, “the Israelite man”, without using the name of God, there would be no penalty.  In the Torah one must never curse or denigrate God, a chieftain of a tribe, or one’s own parents.6  Everyone else is fair game, as long as God’s name is not invoked.  But Shelomit’s son makes the mistake of including the name of God in his curse.

The Blasphemer Stoned,
from Figures de la Bible, 1728

This week’s Torah portion continues:

And they put him in custody, to get themselves a clarification from the mouth of God.  God spoke to Moses, saying: “Remove the mekaleil to outside of the camp.  Everyone who heard shall lean their hands on his head, and then the entire assembly shall stone him.”  (Leviticus 24:12-14)  

mekaleil (הַמְקַלֵּל) = the blasphemer, the one who pronounced a curse, the one who denigrated.  (Also from the root verb kalal.)

Before Shelomit’s son denigrates God, he lives outside the camp, where corpses are buried.  Now that he has committed blasphemy, he is killed outside the camp.

Why does everyone who heard the blasphemy lean or lay hands on the blasphemer’s head?  Words have power, and hearing blasphemy psychologically contaminates the listener.  Even today, it is shocking or sobering to hear intentional blasphemy (rather than the common practice of using the word “god” in expletives).  If I heard intentional blasphemy, I would instinctively whisper something apotropaic.  Then, if I knew the person, I would find a time for a conversation about it.  But the ancient Israelites portrayed in the Torah were more action-oriented.  The witnesses to blasphemy cast off their sense of contamination by putting their hands on the blasphemer’s head.  Then instead of talking with him, they kill him.

No Discrimination Regarding Blasphemers

And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: “Anyone who yekaleil his god shall bear his guilt.  One who puts a hole through the name of God shall definitely be put to death.  The whole community shall definitely stone him, foreigner or native-born alike; if he puts a hole through the name, he shall be put to death.”  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 24:15-16)

yekaleil (יְקַלֵּל) = he pronounces a curse, he denigrates.  (From the root kalal.)

This final ruling comes down against discrimination on the basis of parentage.  As in thirteen other passages in the Torah, a foreigner who joins the Israelites must follow the same laws and receive the same justice as native-born citizens, and vice versa.  (See my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant.)  However, other parts of the Torah discriminate against foreigners and children of foreigners.7  The ancient Israelites were divided on this issue, just as Americans are today.

The Torah’s view of blasphemy, however, is harsher than that of modern Western countries.

The Blasphemer, by William Blake, ca. 1800

The ancient Israelites in the Torah are insecure about their survival as a people, a country, and a religion.  Those three things are easy to separate today, but in the ancient Near East they were inseparable.  By attacking the religion, blasphemy attacked the whole social structure.  So the God-character in this week’s Torah portion tells Moses to get rid of the problem by killing the blasphemer.  This is a quick and definitive solution for people who are too afraid of the disintegration of their religion, and therefore of their whole society, to engage in compassion and consideration.


To me, both denigrating God and using a word for God in curses are part of normal life.  When I was a teenager, and the only “God” I knew about was the beard-in-the-sky variation, I often declared God non-existent.  When I swore, I preferred phrases using the word “god” over crude words for sex or defecation.

Now I know that denigrating someone else’s concept of God is a bad idea, since it belittles the person who believes that concept.  But swearing using the word “god” is so widespread in Western society that it is merely an expression of frustration, not serious blasphemy.8 Serious blasphemy is cursing the god you do believe in, or misusing a name of God that is sacred to you.

Within a community of fundamentalists, a young man might, like Shelomit’s son, commit serious blasphemy out of rage against the unfairness of his own people.  Or someone might utter serious blasphemy as a howl of anguish over a concept of God that can no longer be borne.  These blasphemers need sympathetic listeners, and sometimes advocates.  Punishment is no solution.

After all, at some point in our lives (often in childhood), we are all like Shelomit’s son, stuck with a group that excludes us.  Yet most of us find ways to live peacefully in the larger world.

I pray that someday no one will be too frightened of disintegration to tolerate blasphemy.  I pray that more and more people will develop the security and kindness to feel compassion for those who cry out in rage or anguish, and try to help them instead of punishing them.

  1. Vayikra Rabbah 32:3 and Torat Kohanim 24:235 are cited by Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and 19th-century rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in their explanations that Shelomit’s son petitions Moses to camp with the tribe of Dan, and when Moses rejects his petition, the man goes out through the Israelite camp in a state of anger.  His anger makes him ready to pick a fight with the next person who discriminates against him, and also ready to utter curses.
  2. Leviticus 13:45-46.
  3. Leviticus 10:4-5.
  4. 2 Kings 12:10 and 18:21; Isaiah 36:6; Habakkuk 3:14; Haggai 1:6; and Job 40:24 and 40:26.
  5. Genesis 30:28; Numbers 1:17, 23:8, 23:25; Isaiah 62:2; Amos, 6:1; Proverbs 11:26, 24:24; 1 Chronicles 12:31, 16:41; and 2 Chronicles 28:15, 31:19. The book of Job also mentions cursing a particular day (3:8) and someone’s door (5:3).
  6. Exodus 20:7, Exodus 21:17, and Exodus 22:27.
  7. For example, Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 23:4-7 are directly discriminatory. The list of campsites in Numbers 2:2 neglects to provide a camping area around the sanctuary for converts who left Egypt with the Israelites.
  8. This was probably true even in 11th-century France, when Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote that “he put a hole through the name” in Leviticus 24:16 means the death penalty applies only to one who pronounces the four-letter sacred name of God, not to someone who curses using another name for God.

Emor: Flawed Worship

And God spoke to Moses, saying:  “Speak to Aaron, saying:  Anyone from your descendants through your generations who has a moom may not approach to offer the food of his god.” (Leviticus 21:16-17)

moom (מוּם) = blemish, flaw.  (Plural: moomim, מוּמִים.)

In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the word moom is used only for physical blemishes in humans or sacrificial animals. Moom appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only three of those instances refer to a character flaw, rather than a physical flaw.1

Priest tending the altar

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) lays out rules for priests, including this statement that no priest with a moom may serve at the altar. As in other ancient Near Eastern religions, there are many offerings in which select parts of the animals are burned up into smoke for God, while the remaining meat is roasted and eaten by the priests and their households (including their wives, children, and slaves). Priesthood is hereditary; any adult son of a priest gets his share of the food, even if he cannot officiate because he has a moom.

He may eat the food of his god, from the holiest and from the holy [offerings]. However, he may not come behind the curtain [into the Tent of Meeting] and he may not approach the altar, because there is a moom in him… (Leviticus 21:22-23)

After giving a few more rules about eating from offerings, the Torah portion states that the animals brought to the altar must also be unblemished.

Anyone from the house of Israel or from the resident alien in Israel who offers their offering … from the herd or from the flock, it must be flawless to be accepted; no moom may be in it. (Leviticus 22:19, 21)

This week’s portion helpfully provides both a list of disqualifying blemishes for priests (Leviticus 21:18-20), and a list of disqualifying moomim for sacrificial animals (Leviticus 22:22-24).2

Why must both the priests who make the offerings and the animals that are offered must be physically flawless? Rashi3, citing the book of Malachi4, answered that it would be disrespectful to offer God a defective gift or use a defective emissary.

Maimonides5, citing the Talmud6, wrote that people were more likely to think of the temple with awe and reverence if its officiating priests were not only dressed in beautiful garments, but also looked like perfect physical specimens.

Other commentators, including S.R. Hirsch, claimed that the physical perfection of the officiating priests was necessary to symbolize their psychological perfection.7 A man with a moom would be a symbol of a broken and incomplete life; the Israelites were supposed to offer God their whole, complete selves through the rituals at the altar.

We no longer give the lives of our animals to God to express our devotion or gratitude; instead we give God our prayers and blessings. And for almost two millennia8 Jews have not used priests as intermediaries; although we have clergy, any adult can lead a group in prayer9. Physical flaws do not matter in prayer, only the state of one’s heart or mind.10

Do the Levitical lists of unacceptable moomim for priests have any relevance today?

Some psychological, rather than physical, flaws can harden our hearts and impede the act of praying. Does the Torah’s list of moomim that disqualify priests from ritual service address this problem?

Let’s look again at the list of moomim in priests.  Some of the words carry more than one meaning.  Some come from the same three-letter root as other Hebrew words. And many concrete words are used metaphorically in Biblical Hebrew, as in English.

This yields an alternate translation of verses 21:18-20:

Because anyone who has a moom must not present an offering:  anyone who is stirred up, or has been skipped over, or split off from ordinary life, or stretched (too far); (Leviticus 21:18)

Or anyone who is having a breakdown and is unable to walk forward or act; (21:19)

Or who hunches over (with insecurity), or who is stingy, or who has clouded vision, or who has problems that fester and don’t heal, or whose libido is crushed or crushes others. (21:20)

We all have some psychological “flaws” or limitations. And like priests with moomim, we can all absorb some nourishment from praying and blessing. But it is a bad idea to lead prayer, or to offer spiritual insights to others, when one is in the grip of a psychological moom on the list above. Only after you have understood and repaired (or at least set aside) your own moom can you step forward to lead with an open heart.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)

1  Deuteronomy 32:5, Proverbs 9:7, and Job 11:14-15.

2  There were disagreements about what some of the Hebrew words meant even when Talmudic rabbis discussed them in the third century C.E. My translations follow modern translations in William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988; Robert Alter, The Five Book of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004; and The Jewish Publication Society translation of 1999.

3  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus.

4  When you bring up a blind one for sacrificial slaughter, there is nothing wrong? And when you bring up a lame or a sick one, there is nothing wrong? Offer it, please, to your governor!  Will he accept you or favor you? (Malachi 1:8)

5  Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moses ben Maimon), The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 45.

6  The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 43b, states that hereditary priests were also disqualified from serving at the altar if their heads were too square or too bald in the back.

7  Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra—Part 2, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 723.

8  Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

9  However, many Orthodox Jewish congregations still prohibit women from leading parts of the service. The other branches (denominations) of Judaism accept women both as lay leaders and as rabbis and cantors.

10  Texts emphasizing the importance of kavvanah (intention, direction) in prayer go back to the Talmud (about 300-500 C.E.). Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 30b says one should not stand up to pray except in a sincere and serious frame of mind; Berakhot 31a adds that when a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven.

Haftarat Emor—Ezekiel: No Sweat

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) and the haftarah is Ezekiel 44:15-31.

Gold gleaming, censers swinging, men chanting, priests in elaborate robes and headgear … When I saw a special Catholic mass on television, I assumed that the officiants dressed up to impress the congregation with the beauty and holiness of their ritual.

priest ordinary garmentsI used to assume the same thing about priests in ancient Jerusalem when they performed rituals in the outer courtyard of the temple, in front of all the people. These outdoor rituals included butchering animals and burning the pieces on the altar; I pity whoever had to do the priests’ laundry. Nevertheless, their costumes seemed designed to impress the congregation, from the turbans on their heads down to the hems of their long elaborately woven robes.

And for the sons of Aaron you shall make tunics and you shall make sashes for them, and turbans you shall make for them, for magnificence and beauty. (Exodus/Shemot 28:40)

The priests had to look dazzling, I figured, in order to inspire the people into a worshipful state of mind.

This week’s haftarah turned my head around.

The book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of a priest who was deported to Babylon in 593 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem. While Ezekiel was in Babylon, the temple in Jerusalem was razed. Ezekiel encouraged his fellow Israelite exiles by prophesying a future temple in Jerusalem, bigger and better.

In this temple, he said, only the descendants of Tzadok, King Solomon’s high priest, would be priests. (See Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest.) They would follow strict rules of purity in their marriages, their behavior, and their dress.

When they come inside the gates of the penimit court, they must dress in garments of linen; they shall not dress themselves in wool for their attendance inside the gates of the penimit court and its house. (Ezekiel 44:17)

penimit (ַפְּנִימִית) = inner (part of a temple or palace). (From the noun panim = face, faces, surface, expression, disposition. The inner court was where one encountered the disposition of God or of a monarch.)

temple 2Throughout the ancient Near East, a temple consisted of an unroofed outer courtyard for public worship, and a roofed inner court where priests served their god through other rituals.

And when they go out to the outer court, to the outer court to the people, they must take off their garments that are on them and set them aside in the holy rooms, and they must dress in other garments, and not make the people holy with their garments. (Ezekiel 44:19)

According to Ezekiel, the holiest priestly garments must be worn in the penimit court, which only priests may enter. Thus only other priests—and God—could see them in their sacred vestments performing the rituals of the oil lamps, the bread table(s), and the incense altar.

Since the inner court is such a holy place, the garments worn there are also holy. The priests have to change into other garments before they go out into the public courtyard in order to prevent cross-contamination.

Commentators differ on the direction of the contamination. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 C.E.) wrote that ordinary garments are not ritually pure, and therefore would contaminate any holy garments they touched.  But according to Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235 C.E.), Ezekiel was concerned that the holiness of the priests would rub off on the unqualified.

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)
Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

The holy linen garments include headgear and underpants as well as a long tunic and sash.

Turbans of linen will be on their heads and breeches of linen will be on their hips; lo yacheggeru in sweat. (Ezekiel 44:18)

lo yacheggeru (לֹא יַחְגְּרוּ) = they shall not gird themselves, they shall not wrap a belt or sash around their waists.

Girding happens most often in the Bible when men gird on swords or other weapons. A close second is girding oneself with sackcloth as a sign of mourning or repentance; in this case, a man wraps a broad sash of coarse goat hair around his naked midsection. In other references, men gird their loins in order to shorten the skirts of their tunics so they can run or march without encumbrance.

In this week’s haftarah, a priest’s linen sash girds his long linen tunic simply because men wore sashes. In the outer courtyard, a priest’s sash might help to hold his tunic away from spattering blood, or he might shorten his skirts with it to facilitate moving the ashes off the altar. But in the penimit court, the sash is strictly for beauty and propriety.

So are the linen breeches. Linen is cooler than wool; a man wearing linen is less likely to sweat. Today, sweat stains are considered unattractive and inappropriate on formal wear; copious perspiration is associated with either hard labor or excessive nervousness.

The Hebrew Bible refers to sweat only twice: in the sentence from Ezekiel above, and once in the book of Genesis when God sentences Adam to his new life outside Eden, and declares:

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread… (Genesis/Bereishit 3:19)

Here, sweat is a metaphor for hard labor in the fields. But the work of the priests hidden inside the inner court is stately and spiritual. For this holy service, they need refined and holy clothing—not for the sake of onlookers, but for the sake of their own state of mind.

According to Ezekiel, the priests in the penimit court will be in an altered state. They will wear special clothes that are never worn anywhere else. They will not sweat. And they will not put on a show for the general public.

A second Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem, with construction beginning in 516 B.C.E. It did not follow Ezekiel’s plans, though it still separated the inner and outer courts. It was staffed by priests from the Levite tribe, but they were not all Tzadokites. They wore linen tunics, sashes, turbans, and breeches, though their sashes and the hems of their long tunics were embroidered with colored yarn that might have been wool.

There is no record of whether the priests of the second temple sweated inside the inner court.

After Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., priests could no longer perform the sacred rituals. But a new form of serving God was already developing. For the last two millennia, Jews have emphasized worshiping God through good deeds and the prayers of every individual. In that sense, we have become a kingdom of priests (and priestesses), as God predicted to Moses in Exodus/Shemot 19:6.

What can we do today to make our prayers and our good deeds like magnificent and beautiful garments we wear without sweating, in a pure and priestly state of mind?

Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, say to them: For the death of someone among his people he shall not become ritually impure; only for the blood-relations closest to him… (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)

kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים) = priests.  (Singular:  kohein, כֹּהֵן)

Thus this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), opens with instructions from God to the priests on avoiding ritual impurity as much as possible in their personal lives, including who they mourn for and who they marry.  The haftarah (the weekly reading from the prophets) comes from the book of Ezekiel, and also warns that a priest must not marry a divorced women, enter a house where there is a corpse, or engage in mourning practices for anyone except his immediate blood relatives.

The Prophet Ezekiel by Gustave Dore
The Prophet Ezekiel
by Gustave Dore

The details of the two warnings differ, but the general themes are the same, and support the idea that a priest must devote himself completely, body and soul, to the ritual service for God. (All priests were male.) According to both the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and the book of Ezekiel (Yechezkeil), that includes avoiding certain negative conditions as much as possible—physical conditions such as contact with a corpse, and psychological conditions such as the states of mind that arise in mourning, or in dealing with a wife who was divorced by her previous husband.

In the entire Hebrew Bible, priesthood is hereditary.  And even today, men whose last name is “Cohen” share a genetic marker.  The right genealogy was enough to qualify a man for service as a priest in both the portable sanctuary of Leviticus and the temple of Ezekiel.  But both books insist that the priests must also observe certain rules of behavior in order to be “holy” and serve God properly.

The book of Ezekiel was written either by, or about, a man named Ezekiel who was exiled to Babylon, along with other Judahite officials, priests, and craftsmen, after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple in 586 B.C.E.  Ezekiel lived in a community of exiles on the Kedar Canal outside the city of Babylon, where he had a series of visions and became a prophet.  The haftarah begins in the middle of one of Ezekiel’s visions, shortly after a divine guide has given Ezekiel the measurements for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.

And the priests of the Levites [who are] the children of Tzadok, who kept custody of My sanctuary while the children of Israel were straying away from Me, only they shall come close to Me to minister to Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood—declares my lord, God.  Only they shall come into My sanctuary, and only they shall come close to My table to minister to Me, and they shall keep My custody. (Ezekiel 44:15-16)

Tzadok (צָדוֹק) = Righteous one.  From the same root as tzedek (צֶדֶק) = what is morally right or just.

In the book of Leviticus, all the descendants of Aaron (a man from the tribe of Levi who was the brother of Moses and the first high priest) qualify as priests who can perform the rituals involving incense and animal and grain offerings. Men in the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron are classified as Levites, who assist the priests by transporting the (carefully wrapped) holy objects, and by guarding the portable sanctuary while it is erected. (Singing Levites are not mentioned until the first book of Chronicles.)

Ezekiel says that only the descendants of Tzadok will be priests when the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Tzadok is a tenth or eleventh-generation descendant of Aaron through Aaron’s son Eleazar. He first appears in the second book of Samuel, where King David appoints him as one of two priests in Jerusalem, along with Evyatar.  In the first book of Kings, after many adventures, King Solomon fires Evyatar and makes Tzadok the only high priest.

And the king placed Benayahu son of Yehoyada over the army instead of him [Yoav], and Tzadok ha-kohein the king placed instead of Evyatar. (I Kings 2:35)

ha-kohein (הַכֹּהֵן) = the priest; the high priest.

Aaron has numerous descendants; two of his four sons die childless in Leviticus, but the survivors, Eleazar and Itamar, father large dynasties. Why should the priesthood be limited to Tzadok’s branch of the family tree?

A later chapter in the book of Ezekiel explains:

…the holy contribution [of land] for the kohanim: on the north 25,000 [cubits] and on the west 10,000 and on the east 10,000 and on the south 25,000, and the holy place of God will be in its center.  The holy place will be for the kohanim [descended] from Tzadok, who kept My custody, who did not stray continually [like] the Children of Israel or like the Levites. (Ezekiel 48:10-11)

Ezekiel implies that during the last years of the first temple in Jerusalem, there were two factions of priests. The Tzadokites stuck to the rules for serving God, but the other priests, as well as the Levites and the non-clergy, kept straying.  A vision in chapter 8 of Ezekiel shows some priests as well as some Israelites worshipping other gods right on the temple grounds.

Scholars speculate that Ezekiel himself was a descendant of Tzadok, because his visions and prophecies focus on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and reinstating the traditional priestly rituals. Nothing else is important to him; the presence of God must once again have a home in Jerusalem.

In order to make God’s contact point on earth secure, the Tzadokites must be the only legitimate priests—not because of their lineage, but because they remained true to God and continued the ritual service of the God of Israel.  And part of that service, in both the haftarah in Ezekiel and the Torah portion Emor, is maintaining a state of mind compatible with ritual purity.

Despite Ezekiel’s prophecy, non-Tzadokite priests were allowed to serve in the second temple once it was built in 538 B.C.E.  But Tzadokites were the high priests of the second temple from the founding priest Ezra until 153 B.C.E., when the Romans appointed Jonathan Maccabaeus as both king and high priest of Judah.

During the past two millennia, since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., almost all Jews have abandoned the idea of reinstating temple worship.  Unlike Ezekiel, we do not believe that God needs one particular spot to bring the divine presence to earth.

Priestly blessing: birkat kohanim
Priestly blessing:
birkat kohanim

We have also abandoned the idea of hereditary priesthood, except for a few minor customs. (Cohens get to do special blessings at services, and are supposed to stay out of cemeteries.)  Instead of ritually pure technical experts who make temple offerings, we now want spiritual leaders such as rabbis to help us improve our inner selves and our prayers.  Many Jews retain some practices having to do with ritual purity, such as keeping kosher.  But holiness is now about divine inspiration and ethical behavior.

We can still aspire to be “a kingdom of priests” and priestesses, as Moses predicts in Exodus/Shemot 19:6. We can even aspire to be Tzadok the priest. But today, that means being tzaddikim, people who are righteous and ethical, like Tzadok—“Righteous One”.

Emor: Challah with a Hole

When you invite a god to be with you, you want to be a good host. Being a good host for human guests always includes offering them food and drink. So the ancient peoples of the Middle East offered their gods bread and cake.

In his book Leviticus, 20th-century scholar Jacob Milgrom noted: “In Egypt the offerings are placed on the outer altar, but only the fresh bread and cakes are brought into the sanctuary and laid on mats (together with incense) before the god’s table … Ritual bread laying was an early custom in Mesopotamia, appearing in a Sumerian inscription of Urukagina of Lagash (c. 2340 BCE). Babylonians laid sweet unleavened bread before various deities, in twelves or multiples of twelve.”

The book of Exodus/Shemot describes the three holy containers in the inner sanctum of the Israelites’ sanctuary: the gold lampstand (menorah) for making light, the gold incense altar for making fragrant smoke, and the small gold-plated table for displaying bread. The display itself is only described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“say”). It begins:

You shall take fine flour, and you shall bake it into twelve challot; a challah shall be two tenths [of an eyfah in size]. And you shall put them in two rows, six in each row, upon the ritually-pure table in front of God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:5-6)

challah (חַלָּה), plural challot = loaf or cake made of finely-ground wheat flour, leavened or unleavened, probably  pierced with one or more holes (from the root verb chalal (חָלַל) = pierced through).

Half of the 14 references to challah in the Hebrew Bible specify that the challah shall be unleavened (matzah); in these cases, part of the challah is destined to be burned up on the altar, where leavening is banned. However, when the challah is destined to be eaten by people, it can be sourdough. (A thanksgiving offering, according to Leviticus 7:13, requires both unleavened challah to burn on the altar and leavened challah for people to eat.)

Other cultures in the ancient Middle East laid out bread in front of statues of their gods, and replaced the bread every day. The Israelites are forbidden to make a statue of their god, but the bread table stands in front of the innermost room of the tent, where God’s presence manifests over the ark. The bread is replaced only once a week. The twelve loaves are strictly symbolic; nobody pretends that God eats them. In fact, the Torah orders the priests to eat the week-old challot after the fresh loaves are laid out.

And you shall place as an addition to each row clear frankincense, and it shall become a memorial-portion for the bread, a fire-offering to God. Sabbath day after sabbath day it shall be arranged in rows in front of God, perpetually, as a covenant from the children of Israel forever. And it shall be for Aaron and for his sons; and he shall eat it in a holy place, because it is most holy for him, out of the fire-offerings of God; [this is] a decree forever. (Leviticus 24:7-9)

Unlike the unleavened challot people bring as offerings, the challot on the display table are never burned on the altar. Every seven days the priests set out fresh-baked challot and two new bowls of frankincense. They burn the previous week’s frankincense, so God can enjoy the fragrance (see my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy). Then the priests eat the stale bread.

This week’s Torah portion is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that calls the bread on the sanctuary table challah. Elsewhere it is simply “bread in rows” or “the bread of panim”, the bread that faces God. (See my post Terumah: Bread of Faces.) The twelve challot represent the twelve tribes of Israel, all lined up in front of God.

One might imagine each challah as a fluffy braided loaf, since that is what the challah that Jews eat on Shabbat today looks like. But the root of the word challah is challal, which means “pierced through”. The Torah uses the verb challal most often for fatal wounds, but the word also applies to window-openings in walls and to certain loaves or cakes.  Thus the challot in the Israelite sanctuary and temples might have looked like large bagels.

(Talmudic rabbis, considering the small size of the table—2 cubits by 1 cubit, about 4 square feet—speculated that each challah must have been shaped like a lidless rectangular box, so that one row would stack neatly on top of the other with no gaps. But since we do not know how much flour is in two-tenths of an eyfah, nor how dense the bread was, the table might just as well have held two rows of six bagel-shaped challot, one in front of the other.)

Does the shape matter? I think so. Bread begins as grain that grows as a gift from God or nature. But then humans add a lot of labor to transform that grain into bread. When we display our own creative work to God, are we showing off or expressing gratitude? A continuous loaf with no holes is full of itself; it leaves no empty spaces for God to fill. But a loaf with a hole in the middle says: “The center of my life is for You to fill with Your inspiration. I am building my life around that holy hole.”

That is what I want to say to the divine presence inside me.



Omer: Counting 49

I have been counting the omer every evening for two weeks now, and we have five more weeks to go. The omer count begins on the second day of Passover and goes on for 49 days. On the 50th day, we celebrate the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).

Barley sheaf

In the Torah, the priest waves a sheaf of barley each day for 49 days. But after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the omer-counting became a prayer service, and acquired new  meanings. This is the first of several posts I am writing about the fascinating prayers from Kabbalah that come  before and after the daily count in orthodox Jewish prayers.

But first, what does “counting the omer” mean?

The Hebrew word omer first appears in the book of Exodus/Shemot (in the Torah portion  Beshallach), as a measure for manna; one omer of manna feeds one person for one day.

The word omer does not show up again until Leviticus/Vayikra, in the Torah portion Emor. The Torah sets the time for the Festival of Matzah, i.e. Passover, then gives instructions for the next day:

…then you shall bring an omer of the first of your harvest to the priest. And he will wave the omer before God so you will be acceptable; [starting] from the day after the rest-day the priest will wave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:10-11)

And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the rest-day, from the day you bring an omer of the waving, seven tamim weeks. Until the day after the rest-day of the seventh [week] you shall count [to] the 50th day; then you shall bring close a new grain-offering to God. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

omer (עֺמֶר) = a measure for barley.  

tamim (תָּמִים) = whole, entire, intact, unblemished, blameless, sincere.

When the word tamim refers to a sacrificial animal, it means blemish-free. When it describes a human being, it can mean either that the person’s body is unblemished, or that the person is innocent, blameless, honest. So I think the text in the Torah itself invites us not merely to count the days for seven weeks, but to make the days count—by checking for blemishes in our souls.

The culmination of the 49 days of counting is Shavuot, the 50th day. Until the fall of the second temple, Shavuot was a harvest festival. People brought their “new grain-offering” of two loaves of wheat bread to the temple, along with the first fruits from seven kinds of plants (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates).

After the fall of the temple, the rabbis soon found a new meaning for Shavuot, deciding that it marked the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. So for the last 2,000 years, the 49-day count has been linked with preparing, day by day, to be worthy of receiving the divine revelation of Sinai.

Naturally, rabbis over the millennia have enriched counting the omer with other prayers that have a count of  7 or 49. The orthodox omer-counting procedure as it stands today follows this order:

#1.  Opening prayer: a) a sentence declaring the intention of the omer prayer service, b) Leviticus 23:15-16 (translated above), and c) a blessing from Psalm 90.

#2.  Blessing for counting the omer.

#3.  Statement of which day it is in the count.

#4.  A one-sentence prayer about restoring the service of hamikdash = the holy place (usually translated as “the Temple”).

#5.  Psalm 67, which has 49 words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem of supplication written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot area categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

Most non-orthodox Jews who count the omer today simply read or recite two sentences, labeled as #2 and #3 above. That way they get it done quickly—and miss all the juicy parts. Some people, especially in Jewish Renewal, go on to consider the essence of #7, and try to find a personal meaning in the pair of sefirot for the day. There are many books and blogs about what each of the 49 sefirot pairs might mean.

My posts will look instead at the often overlooked prayers in the omer-counting procedure: numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in the list above.  This week, let’s zoom in on just the first prayer in number 1:

For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed is He, and His shekhinah, in fear and love to unify the name Yud Heh with Vav Heh, in complete unity, in the name of all Israel.

shekhinah (שְׁכִננָה) = the indwelling presence of God in our universe (literally, the feminine form of “dweller”)

This opening prayer sets the intention of the rest of the omer-counting prayer service. We are not just counting the days; we are doing spiritual work that helps to change the nature of reality.

This introduction was written (in Aramaic) by the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Luria taught from 1569 to 1572 in Sfat, a town full of Kabbalists about 80 miles north of Jerusalem. In those three years before his death, he founded a major branch of Kabbalah. One of the core Lurianic ideas is that in order to create our universe, God first withdrew a measure of divine “light” to make space, then created ten sefirot, ten forces of creative power, which Luria saw as vessels for the divine light. The first three vessels, the three upper sefirot, could contain the light  poured into them. But the next six vessels shattered. The tenth and the lowest sefirah, Malkhut, cracked.

After the “shattering of the vessels”, the rest of the creation of the universe proceeded differently from God’s original plan, and included evil as well as good. Yet everything in our universe contains a spark of divine light. And human beings have the ability, through good deeds and prayers, to “raise the sparks” and repair the universe. Therefore the Lurianic Kabbalists preceded many prayers with the sentence above, to remind the person praying that the purpose of the prayer service is to unify God Itself with the shekhinah, the divine presence in our world. According to Kabbalah, the shekhinah is in the sefirah of Malkhut, the lowest one, the one closest to our daily physical life on earth. So uniting the Holy One with the shekhinah is also uniting the upper three sefirot with the lower seven  sefirot, and it also uniting the first two letters of God’s most holy Name, yud and heh, with the last two letters of the Name, vav and heh.

Every evening, during the 49 days of counting the omer, when I recite that intention to unify God with my prayers, I feel hollow with awe inside. What nerve! How could anything I do affect God, reality, the nature of being? And anyway, I’m not much of a mystic compared with most of my Jewish Renewal friends. I find the images of Kabbalah powerful, and they feel significant; but my rational mind does not believe any of this stuff.

And yet … if I pray for the sake of the unification of the Creating and the creation…if I pray for the sake of making whole the holiness I glimpse in the world…then maybe this little ritual of counting the omer  has a deeper meaning than I think. Maybe everything I do, everything each of us does, has a deeper meaning than we think.