Parshat Hashavua EMOR
Contributed by: Rabbi Nissim Mordechai Makor
Parshat Hashavua Emor in a nutshell: The Torah section of Emor begins with the special laws pertaining to the kohanim (“priests”), the kohen gadol (“high priest”), and the Temple service:
(The Priests, in Ezekiel’s vision of the future Temple) ‘…will instruct My people regarding the differences between holy and profane. They will inform them concerning the differences between spiritually unclean and clean. They will act as judges in disputes. They will judge the case according to My laws. They must keep My statutes and My teachings on My holy days, and they must sanctify My Sabbaths.’ (Ezekiel 44:23-4)
‘The Priests shall not eat any carcass or torn animal, of any bird or animal.’ (ibid. 44:31)
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The prophet Ezekiel himself was a kohen – a priest who spent his earlier life in the Holy Land. His period of recorded prophecy, however, took place after his enforced exile to Babylon – during the period before and after the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. His Divine communications were addressed to both those Jews already exiled in Babylonia, and to the people of Jerusalem.
The Book of Ezekiel begins in drama, and climaxes to crescendo. It is a long message with powerful, vivid, and ultra-brilliant images. It starts with the excitement of storms, lightening and fire – the heavens open, and Ezekiel dramatically experiences G-d’s words and power. The Almighty calls on him to be a prophet to carry His message to the people through communications emanating from the celestial mobile angelic composition of His throne. The prophecy continues to warn the Jews in the darkest terms of His judgment on them, as a consequence of their having abandoned Torah teachings and basic morality, preferring false prophets, and an idolatrous and grossly self-indulgent lifestyle. It then leaves the Israelites, removing its focus to the doom of the various nations that misled them. By the time the prophecies of Ezekiel return to the Jews, they become warmer and more kindly. Words of threat are replaced with words of comfort and hope: promising a brighter future for the Israelites and their revival and unification within the Holy Land, with, after the defeat of the nation of Gog, a fully restored Temple and nation.
Indeed, the Haftara itself continues Ezekiel’s vision of the future Temple. The immediate preceding chapters describe its construction with striking precision, detailing the offerings that the Talmud (Menachot 45a) understands refer to the actual consecration of that Temple itself. The succeeding verses leading up to, and also forming, the content of the Haftara itself – a passage in many ways paralleling the opening sections of the Parasha – specify that many priests would be ineligible for any, but the most basic roles in Divine Temple service. That is because they had ‘previously distanced themselves from Me when Israel strayed… after their idols’. (44:1) By contrast, the Zakok line of priests (Samuel II 8:17 – listed in Chronicles I 5:30-41), who had been loyal to the Almighty would carry out the actual Temple service in the exemplary fashion detailed by the Haftara – emphasizing due dignity, modesty, and consistent adherence to its procedures. These involve its written laws in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus, and its oral traditions put in writing by Ezekiel (Talmud: Sanhedrin 22b, 83b; Taanit 17b). The latter include four rules, two of which are recorded in the Haftara. They are: a monument must be set up near an unburied corpse so that the priests should not actually defile themselves with contact with the dead (39:15), a priest who is uncircumcised – even where Halachically permitted, through health considerations – profanes the Temple service (44:9), the material used for making the future white priestly garments must be linen (44:18), and the priests themselves must have haircuts at regular intervals (44:20).
However, the whole text describing a future, G-d-centered society, clearly conveys the message that the worship of G-d must go together with common decency. That is exemplified by verses succeeding the Haftara. They state that the Prince is entitled to give part of his estate to his own sons as an inheritance, but he himself is subject to property laws like any other citizen. ‘The prince must not seize (land) from the common people’s portion, or rob their holdings. He may give his sons an inheritance only from his own holding, in order that My people will not be dispossessed of their holdings.’ (46:18)
To which Temple does the passage refer to? It cannot refer to the First Temple that was consecrated some four centuries before Ezekiel’s lifetime. It cannot refer to the Second Temple, because its consecration sin offering involved the male goat (Ezra 6:17), not the bull stated here (43:19). Thus R. Samson Raphael Hirsch expounds the view that the Haftara details the permanent Third Temple, which will be built in future Messianic times.
Hirsch, in his commentary on Emor’s sister Haftara, read on Parashat Hachodesh, explains why Ezekiel describes the construction and working of the Third Temple in such great detail. He states that it is ‘to ban even the slightest doubt as to the reality of that future (of redemption), and to make our confidence as firm as a rock in the absolute certainty that the Almighty Director of the history of the world will ultimately bring about the attainment. Thus every year on the Sabbath before Nissan, (we read) the word of the prophet Ezekiel, and (it) gives us Divine instruction of the service of the consecration of the Temple on that day. Even if there is much in those words that is beyond our present understanding and, according to the Sages, must wait for the arrival of Elijah, what is most important is that these words are given. The thought of it revives our courage and gives us fresh strength to make our efforts even more energetic to bring that distant day nearer.’
May that day approach soon, and in our times.
Ezekiel lived in the generation before Ezra, the leader who started the era of the Men of the Great Assembly. This period formed a six-hundred year bridge between the Prophets and the Rabbis of the Talmud. The Great Assembly developed the growth of the Halacha by constructing ‘fences to Torah Law’ (Talmud: Avot 1:1), and it appears that that the Prophet Ezekiel, with his intense focus on Halacha including the stringencies stated in the Haftara, actually prepared the ground for their work.
However the Talmud (Shabbat 13b) records that there was an attempt to refuse to admit the Book of Ezekiel within the ranks of Biblical holy writ, because it appeared to contain contradictions to Torah law. For example, in the Haftara (44:22), ordinary priests may not marry widows, but the Torah limits this prohibition to the high priest only (Lev. 21:14). In addition, a priest may not defile himself by being in contact with a corpse unless it is that of a close blood relative – parent, child, brother, or unmarried sister (44:25). The Parasha makes the same point, but also allows him to contact a dead body under the category of ‘relatives closest to him’ – which would also include his deceased wife, a non-blood relative. Yet another example seems to bring an unnecessary prohibition. ‘The priests shall not eat any carcass or torn animal, of any bird or animal.’ (44:31) Why does Ezekiel prohibit the priests things already forbidden to the whole population? And yet, according to the Talmud (Menachot 45a), it not merely a repetition. For by Torah law, priests were allowed to consume the offerings of doves whose heads had been killed by melika – nipping and therefore actually tearing the throat (Lev. 5:8), and here Ezekiel specifically prohibited that, as he refers to both birds and animals. So again Ezekiel is laying down a law stricter that that of the Torah. Why is that so?
The Talmud (Shabbat 13b) states that the above, and similar issues, gave great concern to the early Rabbis. To this end it says:
‘Remember that man, Hanania ben Hizkia, for good. Had it not been for him, the Book of Ezekiel would have not been included in the Bible, for its words seemed to contradict the Torah. What did he do? Three hundred barrels of wine were brought up to him, and he sat in an attic and reconciled the contradictions.’
It does not, however, describe how the above, and similar issues were resolved. We do not have any details of Hanania’s solutions. However, we may ask the following. How would the spiritual state of the Israelite nation advance when this part of Ezekiel’s prophecy becomes reality? Within that context, where do the ‘changes’ fit into Torah practice?
In tackling the above issues, the Haftara brings a powerful statement about the role of the future priesthood. They will ‘… instruct My people regarding the differences between holy and profane. They will inform them concerning the differences between spiritually unclean and clean. They will act as judges in disputes. They will judge the case according to My laws. They must keep My statutes and My teachings on My holy days, and they must sanctify My Sabbaths.’ (44:23-4)
The Gaon of Vilna expounds that the above verses hint at the six orders of the Mishna. ‘Holy and profane’ refers to the Order of Holy Things; ‘unclean and clean’ to the Order of Purities; ‘Judges in Disputes’ to Damages, ‘My Teachings’ to the Order of Women; ‘My Statutes’ to the Order of Seeds; and ‘My Holy Days’ to the Order of Appointed Times.
Simplified, the Gaon’s statement means that the Priests will serve as spiritual leaders and teachers to the Israelite nation. They will present the Law of Moses and its traditions with the necessary appeal and dynamism that will make a deep impression on the Israelites of the time. The text implies that they would not stay all the time in the cloisters of the Temple worship, but also mix with the population.
That might even involve instituting new practices that would come under the general heading of Gezeirot – precautionary Halachic legislation. Indeed, much of Talmudic law is precisely that. Each case of Ezekiel’s vision of future Temple practice that differs from the Law of Moses imposes additional stringency. Nowhere is he actually more lenient.
Ezekiel’s vision gave an important dimension to the priesthood and Temple worship. The rebuilt Temple was not to be a mausoleum and a site of mere ritual, but a spiritual powerhouse from where the Torah would enter the hearts of those who attended. A person who visited the Temple would go away with the feeling that he had learnt something new that he sincerely resolves to put into daily practice. He would obtain a new perspective on life’s values, and personally connect with those who served G-d at the place where the Divine Presence was most intense. And the very fact that these priests were to meet the public in non-Temple contexts on all that the Torah is something to be lived at all times, and not for special occasions only. So the spiritually elevated Temple experience would permeate all walks of life among the Israelite nation.
That vision requires ideal standards of conduct from the priests at all times. Their very approach-ability means that their personal conduct must be all the more exemplary. Their deeds, and as a result, what they stand for, will be on constant, critical view from the public. A past history of less-than-holy activities would disqualify a priest. Their appearance, deportment and personal lifestyle must enhance their calling in the eyes of the public – and that would extend even to choice of marriage partner, and what food they may eat. Ezekiel’s vision gave a window into the future on what practices would promote the enhancement of Torah at the time the Temple would finally be rebuilt. To be effective in their roles, it was essential that the priests had to be most scrupulous in regard to their dress, their marriage partners, their contact with the dead, and indeed their diet. Only then would their leadership be a success and convey the appropriate messages to the people.
Acknowledgements to: Reb Jacob Solomon