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SALT 2015 - Parashat Emor

Rav David Silverberg

Motzaei Shabbat

            The Torah in Parashat Emor presents the special laws that apply to the kohen gadol, who is forbidden from coming in contact with a dead body even for the purpose of burying a family member.  Moreover, whereas regular kohanim may not perform rituals in the Temple immediately after a family member’s death, the Torah says about the kohen gadol, “He shall not leave the Temple” when grieving for a family member.  The reason, the Torah explains, is because “the crown of his God’s anointing oil is upon him” (21:12).  He is specially designated to serve God in the Mikdash, and he must therefore remain there even during times of personal tragedy.

            While this law is unique to the kohen gadol, the underlying message applies to each and every one of us.  We are each, in his or her own particular way, “anointed” as “kohanim,” charged with the duty of serving the Almighty.  As such, we are all to live our lives in the proverbial “Mikdash,” as “kohanim” devotedly fulfilling the duties assigned to us by the Almighty.  While the kohen gadol followed this lifestyle in the most literal sense, spending all his days in the Temple directly serving God, the rest of us fulfill our duties outside the Beit Ha-mikdash, in various different capacities, each according to his or her talents and set of circumstances.  The idea, however, is the same: we live as “kohanim” devoted to the uncompromisingly faithful service of the Almighty.  And, like the kohen gadol, we are commanded, “Min ha-mikdash lo yeitzei” – we may not leave the “Mikdash” even under difficult conditions.  The “crown” upon our heads, the call to duty that accompanies us throughout our lives, remains with us at all times, even in periods of hardship and challenge.  Thus, although the Torah allows and even requires us – as opposed to the kohen gadol – to mourn and grieve after the loss of a family member, in a general sense, we are to follow the kohen gadol’s example of unflinching consistency.  Even when challenges arise and difficulties present themselves, we are bound to fulfill our duties as avdei Hashem.

            This model of the kohen gadol is the model which was shown and transmitted to us students of Yeshivat Har Etzion by our beloved and revered Rosh Yeshiva, Moreinu HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l.  One of the primary messages he taught, loudly communicated through both word and – mainly – personal example, is that convenience and comfort are not factors that should come under consideration when setting our goals and priorities.  He taught us to live with a sense that “neizer shemen mischat Elokav alav” – we are assigned the role of God’s servants which obligates us at every moment of every day, regardless of any day’s particular challenges or complexities.  For the Rosh Yeshiva zt”l, a challenge is something to be overcome, not avoided or circumvented.  When circumstances make a certain undertaking difficult, we should pursue it anyway.  If high level Torah study requires compromising certain comforts and conveniences, then this is what must be done.  If hard work or sacrifice is required to fulfill a mitzva at the highest level, we should not hesitate.  “Min ha-mikdash lo yeitzei.”  The Rosh Yeshiva taught that no matter which profession we pursue and which stage of life we are in, our place is in the “Mikdash,” in the service of God, living as He wants us to live even in the face of hardships and challenges.


            Yesterday, we noted the Torah’s command in Parashat Emor, “u-min ha-mikdash lo yeitzei,” requiring that the kohen gadol remain ministering in the Mikdash (21:12).  This command is generally understood as referring to a kohen gadol who had just lost a family member, but is nevertheless required to continue performing his duties in the Temple, despite his state of mourning.  As the verse proceeds to explain, “because the crown of his God’s anointing oil is upon him.” The charge to the kohen gadol, symbolized by the anointing oil placed on his head, remains in place at all times, even in the face of personal tragedy.

            The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 2:1) explains this verse differently, as referring not to a kohen gadol who experienced personal tragedy, but rather to a kohen gadol who experienced personal failure: “A kohen gadol who sinned – he receives lashes but is not deposed from his position of stature.”  Although a kohen gadol who sinned is punished like any other sinner, he may remain serving as kohen gadol.  The Yerushalmi infers this rule from the phrase, “the crown of his God’s anointing oil is upon him.”  Since God’s stature of sanctity is everlasting, the Yerushalmi comments, and He confers His sanctity upon the kohen gadol, the kohen gadol’s stature is likewise permanent, and cannot be removed even through wrongdoing.

           The Yerushalmi here conveys the vital lesson that mistakes of the past do not absolve us of our responsibilities of the present and future.  God’s anointing oil, the mission charged to the kohen gadol, remains upon him even after a moral or religious failure.  The kohen gadol is liable to malkot – he must undergo the process of repentance and atonement like any other sinner – but he retains his status of kedusha and his special mission.  We, too, remain bound to our responsibilities to God despite our inevitable mistakes and failings.  We remain God’s servants even after making mistakes.  He does not “fire” us after we slip, because He “hired” us knowing full well that we are limited by the inherent constraints of human frailties.  Certainly, we must subject ourselves to “malkot,” to the difficult process of teshuva and the sincere drive to grow and improve.  But we are by no means banned from the “Mikdash.”  There we must forever remain despite our failings, continuing, like the kohen gadol, to devote ourselves to the Almighty’s service to the very best of our limited ability, resolute to learn from our mistakes and not despairing because of them.


            The final section of Parashat Emor tells of the megadef, the man who publicly blasphemed God, on account of which he was put to death.  The Torah (24:11) identifies the megadef as the son of a woman named Shelomit, and Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that this name, which is related to the word “shalom,” is a derogatory reference to her chattiness and flirtatious nature: “She would chatter, ‘Peace unto you,’ ‘Peace unto you’… chattering with words and inquiring into the wellbeing of everybody.”  This woman was called “Shelomit” because she greeted (‘shalom”) and inquired about the wellbeing of all people.  Chazal disapproved of Shelomit’s overly outgoing and friendly quality, which, they say, drew the attention of a certain Egyptian taskmaster, and this illicit union produced the megadef.

            The question arises as to why Chazal found fault in this quality.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:14) specifically instructs us to greet all people (“Hevei makdim be-shalom kol adam”), and we are told (Berakhot 17) that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai proudly attested to always extending a greeting to people before they greeted him.  Why, then, did Chazal frown upon Shelomit’s practice of greeting all people?

            The answer, it would seem, lies in a clear distinction between two kinds of she’eilat shalom – social greetings.  The kind of greeting which Chazal urge us to extend is a genuine expression of care and concern.  We are to be socially proactive by approaching other people and initiating friendly conversation so we are attuned and sensitive to their needs and wishes.  Shelomit, however, seems to have been guilty of a different kind of she’eilat shalom – prying and meddling, extracting personal information for curiosity or to “be in the know.”  Chazal describe Shelomit as “mepatpetet bi-dvarim” – chattering.  She greeted people not to show genuine concern, to lend assistance or to offer a sympathetic ear, but simply for the joy of chatter and gossip.  Chazal condemn such she’eilat shalom, and tell us that it resulted in arousing the interest of an Egyptian taskmaster and in the emergence of a megadef.

            The Midrash’s comments should alert us to the fine distinction between appropriate and inappropriate socialization, between valuable friendly interaction and gossip.  We are urged to be sociable and friendly, but only to the extent to which we are genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of others, and not interested merely in satisfying our curiosities or boosting our social standing by disclosing other people’s personal information.

(Based on an article by Rav Ally Ehrman)


            The Torah in Parashat Emor reiterates the commands of pei’a – leaving a corner of one’s field for the poor – and leket – allowing the poor to collect stalks that fall during harvesting (23:22).  The mention of these mitzvot here in Parashat Emor is surprising not only because of the repetition, but also because of the context.  These commands appear in the midst of the section known as parashat ha-moadim, which presents the laws relevant to the festivals on the Jewish calendar.  Specifically, they appear at the conclusion of the Torah’s discussion of the special korban shetei ha-lechem sacrifice offered on Shavuot.  The question naturally arises as to why the Torah found it necessary to repeat these commands in the context of the moadim.

            The likely answer, as noted by several commentators, is that the Torah here presents the laws relevant to the onset of the harvest season.  In this particular segment of the parashat ha-moadim, the Torah commands that the first portion of harvested barley must be placed on the altar as an offering on the 16th of Nissan, and then, seven weeks later, on Shavuot, the first portion of harvested wheat should be baked into bread and offered as a sacrifice.  Thus, as the Torah speaks here of the laws relevant to the new harvest season, it added a “reminder” about the obligation to leave certain portions of the harvest for the poor.

            Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l developed this explanation further.  He noted that the context in which the obligations of pei’a and leket are presented here in Parashat Emor differs drastically from the context in which they appear earlier, in Parashat Kedoshim (19:9).  The command in Parashat Kedoshim is preceded by a series of prohibitions relating to interpersonal offenses, such as theft, false denial of charges, withholding owed wages, abusing the deaf and blind, judicial misconduct, and revenge.  In this context, the Torah seems to address those who seek to profit through unscrupulous and devious means, corrupt individuals who are not concerned with the basic rights of others, and are thus prepared to deny the needy members of society their rightful share.  Here in Parashat Emor, by contrast, the Torah addresses those who are involved in ketzirat ha-omer, who are harvesting grain to bring to the Temple and offer as a sacrifice.  Here, the concern is not that a person would deny the poor their share out of greed and selfishness, but rather that one may overlook the responsibility to care for the poor as a result of his preoccupation with lofty religious pursuits.  And for this reason, the command is repeated in this context.  Whereas earlier the Torah included pei’a and leket amid its admonition against selfishness and corruption, here the Torah mentions pei’a and leket as a reminder that our involvement in the sacred endeavor of ketzirat ha-omer does not absolve us of our obligations to the needy.

            Pursuing lofty spiritual goals must never distract us from our more basic responsibilities.  Ketzirat ha-omer must not come at the expense of pei’a and leket.  We are to be ambitious and driven, and set for ourselves high and demanding religious standards, while ensuring to never forget the fundamental values and principles upon which a Torah lifestyle is to be built.


            Parashat Emor begins by presenting several laws relevant to the kohanim, and the Torah commands in this context, “Kedoshim yiheu l-Elokeihem ve-lo yechalelu Shem Elokeihem” – “They shall be sacred to their God, and shall not desecrate the Name of their God” (21:6).

            The Netziv, in his Ha’ameik Davar, explains the word “kedoshim” in this context to mean separate and distinct.  In his view, the Torah here commands the kohanim to be “kedoshim” – to conduct themselves as men of special stature – “to their God,” meaning, sincerely for the sake of bringing honor to the Almighty.  The Netziv writes, “They shall stand out through their fine character traits, humility and the like, as opposed to being separate from people in a manner that does not bring glory to God, and is rather arrogance and condescension.”  The critical word in this command, according to the Netziv, is “l-Elokeihem,” which requires the kohanim to approach their stature of distinction with sincerity, viewing it as a means of glorifying the Name of God as opposed to glorifying themselves.  The verse therefore continues, “they shall not desecrate the Name of their God.”  If the kohanim act different for the purpose of self-aggrandizement and prestige, then they defame God, rather than honor Him.

            There are times when people are called upon to be “kedoshim,” to have the courage to stand out, to do something unpopular, to voice an unpopular position, or to act differently than the rest.  The Netziv here cautions that this must be done with sincere and genuine motives.  Too often, people act controversially so they could stand out, make a name for themselves, attract a following, and achieve fame and notoriety.  When people pursue an outwardly idealistic, religious cause for self-serving purposes, it causes a chilul Hashem and defames our faith.

            The command “kedoshim yiheyu l-Elokeihem” is a call for authenticity and sincerity in the pursuit of “kedusha.”  We are all given opportunities to distinguish ourselves and make our unique contribution to the Jewish nation and to the world.  We must ensure that this is done “to their God,” out of a sincere desire to bring honor and glory to the Almighty, and not to ourselves.


            The Torah in Parashat Emor (21:16-24) issues the prohibition forbidding a ba’al mum – a kohen with a physical deformity – from performing the service in the Mikdash, and it presents a list of the particular deformities which disqualify a kohen from serving.

            The Zohar, commenting on this section, asserts that the disqualification of a ba’al mum applies also to the post-Temple equivalent of the rituals in the Mikdash – prayer.  According to the Zohar, a person with a physical deformity may not serve as a chazan just as a kohen with a physical deformity cannot serve in the Temple.

            However, several halakhic authorities explicitly ruled otherwise.  The Maharshal, in Yam Shel Shelomo (Chulin, chapter 1), cited by the Magen Avraham (53:8), writes explicitly that a person without arms may serve as a sheliach tzibur, explaining, “for the Almighty’s way is to use ‘broken utensils,’ as mentioned in the Midrash.”  The implication of this remark is that a person with a deformity is not only eligible to serve as chazan, but is actually preferred, as God has special affinity for “broken utensils,” meaning, people who suffer affliction.  This point was made explicitly by the Maharam Mei-Rutenberg, as cited by the Shela, who wrote, “A person who is plagued, a person with a deformity or one who is afflicted is eligible to be a sheliach tzibur, and in fact he is especially suitable, and is included under [the rule], ‘God will not look disdainfully upon a broken, depressed heart’.”

            Rav Tzvi Hersh Volk, in his Keter Kehuna commentary to the Sifrei (Parashat Behaalotekha), notes that support for this position may be drawn from a comment of the Pesikta Rabati (39), as cited by the Rokei’ach (Hilkhot Rosh Hashanah, 203).  The Pesikta cites Rabbi Akiva as ruling that a ba’al mum is eligible to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah “so that the Almighty will judge them compassionately.”  It appears that the sounding of the shofar by a person afflicted by physical suffering is not only acceptable, but preferred, as this has the effect of arousing God’s compassion on His nation.

            This issue is discussed at length in a heartrending responsum by Rav Efrayim Oshri in his remarkable work, Mi-ma’amakim (3:10).  He relates that before the Yamim Nora’im in 1943, the Nazis issued an edict forbidding the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto from assembling for prayer.  Rav Oshri describes how the ban had the effect of strengthening the Jews’ resolve to pray and beseech God for mercy.  The director of the ghetto’s hospital, an assimilated Jew, arranged for a minyan in the hospital.  The chazan appointed to lead the services in the hospital minyan had been castrated by the Nazis, and Rav Oshri was asked whether this man was eligible to serve in this capacity. 

            After presenting numerous sources relevant to the topic, Rav Oshri ruled that the man may, in fact, lead the prayers, noting the ruling of the Maharshal that a ba’al mum may serve as chazan.  Rav Oshri notes, however, that the Maharshal himself – as cited later by the Magen Avraham (53:11) – ruled that a eunuch may not serve as chazan, as this would be disrespectful to the congregation.  Nevertheless, Rav Oshri permits this man to lead the services, for two reasons.  First, it is likely that the Maharshal referred only to a eunuch who is outwardly identifiable as such, whereas the injury inflicted in the patient in the Kovno hospital was not discernible.  Hence, it would not be disrespectful to the congregation for him to lead the service.  Secondly, Rav Oshri asserts that if the disqualification is due purely to the concern for kevod ha-tzibur (the dignity of the congregation), this obstacle can be overcome by the congregation’s consent to have such a man lead them.  Therefore, assuming no one in the hospital minyan objected to this patient’s leading the services, he was eligible to serve in this capacity.


            Yesterday, we noted the question as to whether the Torah prohibition which forbids a ba’al mum – person with a physical deformity – from performing the avoda (service) in the Temple applies as well to the role of sheliach tzibur.  The Zohar in Parashat Emor asserts that a person with a physical deformity may not serve as a sheliach tzibur, whereas the Maharshal, in Yam Shel Shelomo (Chulin, chapter 1), as well as the Maharam Mi-Rutenberg, maintained that a ba’al mum may serve in this role.  The letter two authorities note that a person suffering from physical suffering is even a preferred candidate for the role of sheliach tzibur, as “the Almighty’s way is to use ‘broken utensils’.”  God has special affinity for people in distress, and will thus look especially favorably upon the supplications of a person with a physical ailment.

            The question arises, however, as to how these poskim would explain the Torah’s disqualification of ba’alei mum for the Temple service.  If, indeed, the prayers of a “broken utensil” arouse special mercy and compassion, then why does God specifically exclude ba’alei mum from the Temple service?

            The answer, perhaps, lies in a deeper understanding of the role and status of the kohanim in the Beit Ha-mikdash.  The Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah, combines the laws of the kohanim and the laws of Temple furnishings into a single section, which he entitles, “Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash Ve’ha’ovdim Bo” – “Laws of the Temple Furnishings and Those Who Serve In It.”  This title perhaps reflects that the kohanim are viewed as “keilim” – part of the “furniture” of the Mikdash.  They represent, in the extreme, the ideal of complete subservience to the divine will, whereby the individual is nothing more than an object at God’s disposal.  Outside the Mikdash, of course, our subservience to God is manifest differently, but the Temple sets an extreme model that we are to follow in more moderate fashion.  And thus the kohanim are anointed with the special anointing oil just like the furnishings and utensils in the Mikdash, and they are to be dressed in a specifically-prescribed manner just as each article in the Mikdash must be made in a particular way.  The kohanim function as kelei ha-Mikdash – articles placed at God’s disposal, negating their own interests and desires and subjecting themselves exclusively to the Almighty’s will.

            For this reason, perhaps, a ba’al mum is disqualified for this role.  The Temple must be a place of pristine perfection, and just as a broken altar or shulchan is disqualified for use, a “broken” kohen is likewise unfit for “use” in God’s earthly abode, as it were.

            Prayer, however, is the precise opposite experience.  When we come before God to pray, we are specifically to approach Him in a state of “brokenness.”  We are to come before Him keenly aware of our helplessness, our limitations, our needs and wants, and our absolute dependence on His grace.  In prayer, we must all see ourselves as “broken utensils,” as God, in His infinite compassion, feel special closeness to the despondent and brokenhearted.  If the Temple is a place of perfection, the setting of prayer is one in which we specifically focus on our countless imperfections.  And thus somebody who suffers particular torment and hardship is especially suited to lead the congregation.  He, more than anybody else, senses his urgent, desperate dependence on God, and thus he is the most worthy to represent his fellow Jews before the Almighty.

(Based on a lecture by Rabbi Daniel Yolkut)


We will return to a daily presentation of SALT shortly. Kol tuv.  

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