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
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.