A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: EMOR (LEVITICUS 21:1-24:3)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah, Congregant


This week’s Torah parsha, Emor, begins with God saying to Moses: “Speak to the Kohanim, and say that none of them can become defiled, impure, or ceremonially unclean by touching a dead person, unless the one who died is a wife or a blood relative”(1). The requisite for purity of the Kohanim extends to the exclusion of women to be considered for marriage (i.e. prostitutes, harlots, divorced – or desecrated in any other way).

The next five lines of parsha Emor itemize physical defects which would disqualify a Kohen from performing a service(2). This segment of the parsha is extremely disconcerting: Maimonides counts ninety discrete physical attributes which would prohibit a member of the elite Kohanim from approaching the sacred altar(3). These defects included: blindness, mis-matching limbs, broken leg or arm, displeasing facial features, diseases of the eye, skin disorders and numerous other abnormal physical manifestations.

Disconcerted, our sages offered various rationales for this commandment: “The general populace can only admire and respect the Kohanim, when they possess both inner and outer beauty”(4). Rabban Yohan ben Zakkai is famous for telling his students: “God says, I have issued a decree and you have no permission to transgress it”(5). Maimonides concluded that the physical attributes which disqualified the Kohanim were the same as those which afflicted the animals, which were rejected as peace or sin sacrifices (6). 

More modern rabbis recognize that the disqualification of these ‘disfigured’ Kohanim presumably pertained to the essence of human nature: “Any distraction from the spiritual aspect of the holy service would be considered profane”(7).

At this point in the parsha, there is an abrupt shift in the narrative from the dictates for purity in the Kohanim, to a list of holy days and festivals – which is the calendar mechanism that takes us from matzoh to cheesecake.

On the second day of Passover, the Israelites were commanded to bring an offering of barley (i.e. ‘Omer’) to the Temple, and further instructed to count forty-nine days from the offering which leads into the day before Shavuot…coinciding with the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is often referred to as the ‘Festival of the Fruits’, as the grain has ripened during this seven week period(8).

Included in these passages, pertaining to holy days and festivals are instructions for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Integral to the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot is the mitzvah to: “Rejoice on your festivals”(9).

This is followed by the utterly unbridled glee of Simchat Torah (i.e. the annual finale of the reading of the Torah).

In ancient times, the primary objective of these holy days and festivals was to assure the Israelites that God was truly in their ‘midst’. The tradition of observing these times has continued for thousands of years. It is during these special times, spaced throughout the year, when we most profoundly encounter the presence of God.


(1) LEVITICUS (21:1-2)

(2) LEVITICUS (21: 17-21)

(3) www.Torah.org

(4) ‘The Arbanel’, Isaac ben Judah (1437-1508) Lisbon, Portugal

(5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (mid first century) Arav, Galliee

(6) Maimonides “Guide for the Perplexed”

(7) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

(8) www.MyJewishLearning.com

(9) DEUTERONOMY (16:14)