by Scott Greenberg
How often do you remember your half-birthday, that magical moment when you’re just as far away from the last anniversary of your birth as the next one? I know that I forget my half-birthday on a regular basis, only to remember it a couple days later.
Funny enough the Torah has a half-birthday as well – not just when the Hagbah favors the ambidextrous or when Simchat Torah is six months away. The Torah’s official half birthday actually comes in this week’s parshah, Shemini.
Many people who have read a Torah text have come across little footnotes, written in Hebrew, beneath or on the sides. Known as Masoretic notes, these are annotations of the Torah text. They come in various forms – some tell us when a letter in the Torah scroll is bigger or smaller than usual, some tell us when a word in the Torah is read differently than it is written, some tell us when a word is specially dotted, and some tell us when there is an unusual grammatical, spelling-related, or musical feature of the text. They make an excellent field of study if you’ve got some spare time.
The coolest thing that Masoretic notes do, in my opinion, is that they count. In many editions of the chumash, though not the Etz Chayim, after every parashah and book, they will provide a verse-count – how many verses were in that parashah – and a helpful mneumonic device to remember that count (usually one connected to the theme of the text being counted). In one parshah, Miketz, it even says how many words were in the parashah.
So what’s the connection to the Torah’s half birthday? These notes happen to point out not only the exact middle word of the Torah, but also the exact middle letter. Think of it! Somebody counted through all of the words and letters in that giant huge scroll to find the exact center! The Torah has 5,845 verses and 304,805 letters; it’s a huge task. Funny enough, both of these “middles” come in this week’s parashah, Shemini.
The middle words of the Torah, according to the Masoretic tradition (and backed up by Kiddushin 30b in the Gemara), are darosh darash, or “inquired,” in Leviticus 10:16. They come from the story of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aaron who died by the hand of God after offering a “strange fire.” In the chaotic aftermath, we see Moses inquiring about what happened to all of the offerings that would have been offered if not for the tragedy (hence, “inquired”).
The middle letter of the Torah comes a chapter later, in Leviticus 11:42. The verse says, “You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination.” This passage comes near the end of an extensive section dealing with kashrut, or Jewish dietary law, in Leviticus 11:42. By the Masoretic tradition, the vav in the word for belly is the middle letter of the Torah; in fact, it is enlarged in the text of the scroll.
If we think of the midpoint of something as capturing its essence, then what better way to capture the essence of the Torah than these two midpoints. The first, the word “inquired,” shows the spirit of studying the Torah – asking tough questions and finding answers. As the Etz Chayim chumash puts it, “The essence of Torah is continued inquiry and study.” The middle letter of the Torah, on the other hand, comes in the middle of a section of boring laws. What can this teach us? Maybe it’s that the Torah isn’t supposed to all flash and glamour – that it’s true “middle” can be found in the nitty-gritty legalism.
All of this would be a fitting “half-birthday” for the Torah – if it were actually true. For rabbis and scholars have discovered that these words and this letter cannot actually be the midpoints of the Torah for numerical reasons. So what do we make of this? Like so much of our tradition that is self-contradictory, we Jews must try and make sense of the lessons behind it – that we must continue to inquire into the Torah’s mysteries, even if it means sorting through complicated rules and texts.
Happy half-birthday, Torah!
by Mike Kay
There is a famous poem which begins, “I never saw a purple cow.” Well, it’s true – I’ve never seen, heard, nor even read of a purple cow. However, the same cannot be said for a RED cow. This week’s special Maftir portion, termed Parashat Parah, tells of the bizarre rite, conducted by Aaron and Eliezer, which involved slaughtering a perfect red heifer and using its ashes in the Mei Nidah — the water of purification. Through this ritual, all the Israelites could be deemed pure enough to partake of the Passover sacrifice (thus the close proximity of this special reading with Pesach). These enigmatic verses invite many questions: Why must the ceremony be conducted using a red heifer? And, how can we relate Parashat Parah to the regular weekly parsha, Parashat Tzav? Here we go . . .
Parashat Tzav details the many types of sacrifices offered by the Israelites in the Tabernacle and later in the Bet Hamikdash: the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the peace offering. The Torah spends three chapters detailing the exact protocol to be followed by the Kohanim when performing these sacrifices on behalf of the people. It is seemingly quite easy to sum up the theme of Parashat Tzav in one word: Sacrifice. However, upon further review, the issue becomes much less clear. Is it truly a sacrifice for a shepherd possessing dozens of flocks to give up one small lamb in order to attain forgiveness? Is it truly a sacrifice for a rich Israelite to slaughter one bull in order to demonstrate his love for God? The Hebrew word which is translated as sacrifice, korban, actually comes from the root “karov,” meaning “close.” The purpose of the ceremonies detailed in Parashat Tzav is not for the people to feel the sense of loss associated with “sacrifice,” but to become karov, closer to God — the same purpose for which we use prayer today.
The true example of sacrifice, in my opinion, occurs not in Parashat Tzav but in this week’s special maftir, Parashat Parah. The animal which is being slaughtered is “a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke” (Bemidbar 19:1). Such a beast was obviously exceedingly rare. By making such a demand, God was asking the Israelites to slaughter an animal which was, in essence, perfect. It is as if, today, God would ask the owner of a mint-condition Mickey Mantle rookie card to burn his perfect possession so that the community would be pure. This action would be a true sacrifice. By slaughtering the rare, flawless red heifer, the Israelites were acknowledging that the only true perfection in the universe belongs to Hashem. No cow, regardless of its monetary worth, can equal the value of purity endowed upon the community by God.
There is one more interesting parallel to be drawn between Parashat Tzav and Parashat Parah. Anyone who is versed in Torah cantillation, or trope, will notice that a very rare note is used in the sixth aliyah of Tzav (Vayyikra 8:23 to be exact). The note is called a Shalshelet, and its long, drawn-out sound forces the congregation to focus intently on the word being read — in this case, vayishchat, (and he slaughtered.) A similar word, vishachat, (and he shall slaughter,) is used to describe the action to be taken on the red heifer in the Maftir. This connection implies that similar focus was given to each slaughtering. Once the red heifer was slaughtered, the ceremony was official. The community had given up its valuable, perfect, red cow in return for purity. It is ironic that only now, after this sacrifice, were the Israelites pure enough to partake of the “true” korbanot outlined in Parashat Tzav.
by Hadar Schwartz
“I want to suck your blood.” As great as the temptation is to eat the blood of an animal (yes, we all aspire to be like Dracula), the Torah specifically prohibits this practice in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav. In Chapter 7, verses 26-27 of the Book of Vayikrah, the Torah states: “And you should not eat any blood…every person that eats blood, that person will be cut off from the nation.”
This punishment may seem harsh, which it is, but it also seems validated. Jews put such a high value on life. Through this, Jews show how differently they regard life, how special life is to them. Unlike the other nations, the Israelites are now saying, “No, we will not drink blood.” Ancient peoples used to drink blood as a remedy or to give them strength. Jews were saying to the other nations, “Life means more to us than that.” The Children of Israel were also separating themselves from the animals. Animals eat what they whatever they want, whenever they want it. They don’t care if there is blood. Jews are meticulous about washing away all the blood and spilling the blood of an animal after it has been slaughtered.
Through this simple commandment, we Jews separate ourselves from other nations and elevate ourselves from the animals. Now we understand why there aren’t so many Jewish vampires.
by Anna Hutt
Can you imagine ever doing something so bad that even your family or another fellow Jew wouldn’t forgive you? Judaism is a religion that believes in second chances; is there any sin so horrible that a Jew could be cut off from his people completely?
The name of this week’s parsha is Tzav, which means command (coinicidentally found on page 613 of the Etz Hayim Chumash!). It consists almost entirely of Hashem’s instructions to Moshe regarding Aaron and the other kohanim. Tzav is full of rather graphic, detailed descriptions of all the ceremonies to be performed for various burnt offerings, grain offerings, purification offerings, reparation offerings, ordination offerings and well-being sacrifices.
While the parsha itself may be rather mind-boggling for Jews living in a world without a Beit Hamikdash (temple), there is one verse that raises a concept that all can wonder about: that of being cut off from one’s people eternally.
Leviticus 7:20 states: “But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”
The end of this verse, the Hebrew phrase “nich’retah hanefesh hahi me’ameha,” appears not just once or twice, but four times in the parsha (one time as a variation of this exact wording).
Contemplating this concept of karet, spiritual excision, is difficult. What does it mean to be cut off from one’s kin? Interestingly, as was discussed at Heschel Kinnus last weekend, the Torah uses the word “nefesh” to mean person; nefesh is often translated as “soul” and refers not to the physical, but the internal identity of a Jew.
Rashi writes that the punishment of karet really implies death to one’s children, thus cutting off the sinner’s line of heritage in the Jewish people for all eternity. Ramban, however, believes that the punishment of being cut off depends upon the severity of the crime and how meritorious the person is besides this one wrongdoing. He states that if a person is mostly righteous but breaks one of the commandments in Parshat Tzav, he may die young or childless but will keep his share in Olam Habah, the world to come, and thus only be cut off from the Jewish people temporarily, on earth.
This Shabbat, which is Shabbat Hagadol (immediately preceding Pesach), we look ahead to eight days of rather stringent commandments. The punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is also karet, having one’s soul cut off from the Jewish people (“nich’retah hanefesh hahi mi’yisrael” in Exodus 12:15). By considering Ramban’s interpretation, we can perhaps take the phrase as a positive reminder instead of viewing it as a warning of eternal punishment. We can see it as a reminder that if we do obey Hashem, we will remain spiritually connected to our people not only while we are living but even after death when only our souls remain. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach!
by David B. Helfand
This week we read from two different sedrot. We read the weekly parasha of Parashat Tzav, the second parasha from the book of Vayikra. We also read the special maftir reading for Shabbat HaGadol, the special parasha before Pesach. Both Parashat Tzav and Shabbat HaGadol have very important messages for us as readers.
Parashat Tzav addresses the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, about the sacrificial work that they do. The ashes of the Korban Olah – the burnt offering on the altar throughout the night – are to be removed from the area by the Kohen after he takes off his special linen clothing. The Olah offering is brought by someone who forgot to perform a positive commandment of the Torah. The Kohen retains the skin. The fire on the altar must be constantly blazing. The Korban Minchah is a meal offering that is made from flour, oil and spices. A handful of it is burned on the altar, and a Kohen eats the remainder before it becomes leaven. The parasha describes the special korbanot offered by the Kohen Gadol each day and by Aharon’s sons and future descendants on the day of their inauguration.
The Chatat, the korban brought after an accidental transgression, is described, as are the laws for the slaughtering and sprinkling the blood of the Asham, the “guilt-korban” for certain transgressions. The details for the Shlamim, various types of peace korbanot, are described, including the prohibition against leaving the remains of the Todah, the thanksgiving korban, uneaten until the morning. All sacrifices must be burned after they may no longer be eaten. No sacrifice may be eaten if it was slaughtered with the intention of eating it too late.
Once they have become tame (ritually impure) korbanot may not be eaten and they should be burned. One may not eat a korban when he is ritually impure. Blood and Chelev, forbidden fats of animals, are prohibited to eat. Aharon and his sons are granted the breast and shank of every Korban Shlamim. The inauguration ceremony for Aharon, his sons, the mishkan and all of its vessels is detailed.
This week we also celebrate Shabbat HaGadol, which literally means the Great Shabbat. Shabbat HaGadol is always the Shabbat that immediately precedes Pesach. The Mishnah Beruah, a work of Halacha complied by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan/Chofetz Chaim in the late 1800s, states “the Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol because of the miracles that happened.” The miracles that they refer to are both the Korban Pesach and Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Pesach offering and the Exodus from Egypt. The statement goes on and explains that you should prepare your self for Pesach and for the sedarim by saying excerpts from the Haggadah.
Another reason for the name of Shabbat HaGadol because during this week’s haftarah, that comes from Mishlei/Proverbs, that Hashem reveals that he will one day send the prophet Eliyahu to the Jewish people in preparation for the Mashiach and redemption. Every year on Passover during the Seder, we as Jews open our doors in hope of Eliyahu’s return and the fulfillment of the prophecy. The term “Great” or “HaGadol” is because of the importance of Pesach among the Jewish people.
Chag Kasher Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.
by Charlene Thrope
This Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. Traditionally, rabbis would give only two sermons a year – one on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah, and one on Shabbat HaGadol, this Shabbat. This week’s sermon would describe all of the complicated laws surrounding Pesach.
While it is unclear where exactly its name comes from, Rashi says that Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat) is named for a miracle that occurred on the Shabbat before the original Pesach. On the 10th of Nisan, the Israelites tied up the lambs they would sacrifice on the 14th of Nisan for the Pesach sacrifice. The Egyptians worshiped sheep, it was likely the Egyptians would kill the Israelites, but luckily they did not. This miracle makes this Shabbat gadol, great.
Shabbat HaGadol is our last reminder that Pesach is coming. Pesach stills seems weeks away during the four other Shabbatot leading up to Pesach – Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat HaChodesh. This week, however, we know that Pesach begins not in a few weeks, but in a few days. Now is the time to clean our houses and buy our matzah – there’s not much time left.
by Max Bartell
Even though I have been a student at a Jewish day school since kindergarten, I still occasionally find it difficult to relate to a particular Parsha. When I first read through Parshat Tzav, nothing really jumped out at me. However, upon reading the Parsha a second time, this time at a deeper level, a number of interesting nuances jumped out at me. First of all, this Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor. After their liberation from the land of Egypt, the Jewish people faced a long and treacherous path through the Sinai desert to reach Israel. As was customary, all of the men who were able-bodied and strong enough, traveled in the front to repel attackers while those unable to fight rounded out the nation. While the front of the nation was prepared to ward off any potential attackers, the latter portion was not in as advantageous of a position. When the nation of Amalek (one of B’nai Yisrael’s biggest enemies) decided to attack the passing people, they did not attack from the front. Instead, they attacked from the rear, where they massacred the defenseless Israelites. After this battle, the Torah tells us that we must “Remember what Amalek did to you upon your departure form Egypt. You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.” Here the message is clear: do not forget what the nation of Amalek has done to our people. Upon reading this a second time, I realized something interesting and mildly disturbing. This is one of, if not the, only times that we, as Jews are expressly commanded to do something against the Ten Commandments. On the two tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai, it expressly says, “Thou shalt not murder.” However, we are expressly told that we must “erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.” Upon further research I realized that this textual discrepancy is not a new one by any means. In fact, historians have come to a consensus with regard to the interpretation that best fits the situation. In the quoted verses, the “memory of Amalek” is actually the hatred and violence that Amalek spread everywhere they went. Subsequently, the Torah is not telling us to take the life of another person, but instead to perpetuate tolerance, respect and remembrance in the place of the hatred and violence.
This parsha also has an interesting relationship to Purim, the holiday it directly precedes. It is widely believed that Haman, the villain in the Purim story, is a descendant of the nation of Amalek. Not only are we commanded to remember what Amalek was able to accomplish, but also to rejoice in the fact that Haman failed in his attempt to murder the Jews of Shushan. Furthermore, Shabbat Zachor is not only a time to remember the atrocities committed by Amalek, but also a time to remember the atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition. This past summer, with Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage Group 9, I was privileged enough to visit the concentration and death camps in Poland and the Czech Republic. Throughout the entire two weeks in Eastern Europe, I wore an Israeli flag. Not only was this a source of comfort for me, but it was my way of remembering what Amalek, the Spanish, and the Nazis did to our people, and our extraordinary survival.
The final connection that Shabbat Zachor has to Parshat Tzav is the establishment of the Ner Tamid, or “everlasting light.” There is much more to the Ner Tamid than just a light. It was the duty of the Kohanim to vigilantly keep watch and ensure that the light didn’t go out. Today the Ner Tamid symbolizes much more than just a source of light, it represents the Neshamah, or spirit of the Jewish people. The light also represents the Jewish people as a whole. Like this small light, the Jewish people are resilient and, despite numerous attempts to eradicate us, we have remained strong and vibrant. It is extremely important that now, when the Conservative movement is in a precarious position, we continue to stay strong and devoted to Judaism.
As this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, it is only fitting that we remember with love and cherish the memories of Ehud, Ruth, Yoav, Elad, and Hadas Fogel. The Fogel family was viciously stabbed to death in their West Bank home this past Shabbat, when one or more Palestinians broke into their home. May they be remembered by all the Jewish people and may their memory be for a blessing.
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