Leviticus 1 – 5
Matzah and Marinades: Leviticus in Light of Passover
Our parsha and this new book of the Torah begins with and is also summarized by the words of its first verse:
“And [He] called to Moses
and Hashem spoke to him
out of the Tent of Meeting, saying…”
| Viyikra el-Moshe
| vayadaber Hashem elav
| meohel moed lemor
This books reveals a discussion that is initiated by G-d, the people had previously out of fear asked that Moses address G-d for them. (see Exodus 20:14-17) Rashi says that though the voice of G-d was spoken and able to be heard by all, to most of the people it was perceived as a small voice. But in a private audience G-d spoke with Moses, who heard his message loudly and clearly in order for it to be articulated to the people. This is because G-d spoke to him in from one set place, the Ohel Moed – the Tent of Meeting.
Now we must ask ourselves what the Ohel Moed actually is.
At times we see that G-d spoke with Moses near this place, as we see earlier in the Exodus journey where Moses pitches his own tent in order to meet with G-d outside of the camp. When Moses arrived the presence of G-d would descend as a cloud outside of the entrance of the tent and speak with Moses. Moses would sit in there and commune with G-d, and his assistant Yehosuah ben Nun – Joshua, the future judge and his successor – would stand there as a constant attendant to these discourses. This is a moed, a meeting place but it’s not yet the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary. However Rashi sees this as a precursor to the Mishkan. (see Exodus 33:7)
And of course we have the Mishakan also spoken of as an Ohel Moed not far off in the same book of Exodus. There we see that G-d does not speak to Moses as he sat inside that moed, but instead G-d spoke from inside of it. This is very different, at this point the Tabernacle is stationed in the very middle of the camp as a dedicated sanctuary to G-d. The presence of G-d fills the tent and speaks from inside, to Moses who stood outside of it as the presence of G-d was too overwhelming for him to enter. (see Exodus chapter 40)
Our Torah speaks of the Ohel Moed in different fashions even over the small span of a few chapters, but by that we see that the Ohel Moed is a concept instead of a rigid and specific proper noun. Its like the American presidential Jet, which ever plane the President of the United States occupies becomes designated Airforce One. A moed is a designated place out of time and space. It refers to any temporary place that was occupied by the presence of G-d before the establishment of a permanent Temple site.
It is the second of these meanings that is going to drive this book of Leviticus. Not only is G-d going to speak to Moses from this place, but he is also going to speak to him very specifically about the manner of conduct for this site and the rituals concerning it. He is to relay these commandments to the people.
G-d begins to speak to Moses, and to the people through him, the words, “Ki-yak’riv mikem kar’ban / when any man brings….” G-d speaks to Moses very definitely in this statement, not if the people want to bring an offering they should do this and that, but when the do they do. Our sages contend this place of meetings was created out of their need. Moses spoke with G-d at his tent because the people needed someone to represent them at their request, then later G-d provided them a tent of worship because they immensely needed that form of expression as graphically acted out in their repeated experimentation with foreign religion. As we go into this book we need to dispel from our minds that G-d needed anything from these rituals and institutions, but realize at a fundamental level the people needed a form of spiritual expression and representation. These institutions were created for human necessity to connect spiritually.
This might be hard for us to understand because for the most part in our culture in the west we have been conditioned into thinking that the primary purpose of the Temple rituals was as a remedy for sin. We will see that at the end of our parsha there is going to be the laws laid out for sacrifices relating to sin – the chatat offering for foolish sins and minor infractions, as seen in chapter four and the first half of chapter five. Then there is the guilt offerings - the asham – for unintentional sins and for misuse of sacred property, for which a person first must pay restitution before drawing near in sacrificial worship again; this is seen in the latter part of chapter five. I must note in review, it is interesting that we see no remedy for intentional sin mentioned at all provided in the Temple offerings.
However the bulk of our parsha here is going to concern itself with laying out the other more normative forms of offerings that were given in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.
In chapter one it is mostly going to deal with detailing the laws pertaining to Olah – to burnt offering, specifically of animals. It will define that when one wants to bring such an offering they were able to bring from the cattle or herd of their flocks. This was a special offering entirely for worship, therefore no part of it was eaten by anyone. There were options ranging from bulls to small birds, allowing people of all classes to offer as they could afford. But it clearly only allows animals as meat offerings, only the savory meat of animals proper for consumption would be permissible. Olah means to go up, specifically for the smoke of these meats to rise up as a “ruach nichoach l’Hashem / savory fragrance to Hashem,” or a sweet smell. It would go up entirely in smoke, often mixed with other forms of sacrifice as well. It is easily regarded as a true sacrifice because of the forfeiture of its alah, the cost associate with it.
Of course not all offerings were complete sacrifices, and indeed not all of them were for sin. We also have the Zibach Shlamim – the Peace Offering, or Well-Being Sacrifice. We need to understand that this name does not mean it was offered up completely (shalem) in smoke, but that it was zibach (animal sacrifice) as an act of completion (shalam). This was an offering brought by a person who had something to celebrate. At the end of any endeavor or in celebration of any event a person could bring an offering that would be added to the altar of the daily offerings, the fatty parts offered in fire while the celebrants and the priests would feast upon a portion of the meat. This was a sort of thanksgiving offering, which is discussed at length through Leviticus chapter three; a meal shared between the celebrant, the priests and G-d.
But the heart of the sacrificial system we have the Mincha offering – the grain or meal offering discussed in chapter two. This really was the most common form of Temple offering. It also held special restrictions like the animal offerings of the Olah, making it on par with the meat offering as a “kaddosh kadoshim / a most holy thing.” (see Leviticus 2:3) In a way it helpful for us to start by thinking of chapter two as being the grain and fruits leg of the Temple offerings; the first chapter was meats, now the second chapter is all about fruits.
However the Mincha offerings was more than just an organic alternative, it was the most common of the offerings, so much so that it was offered up everyday in the afternoon. The commonality seems to stem from a few factors, among them being the fact that grain offerings were inexpensive and accessible for all to contribute. Secondly in this agrarian society first-fruits were in a constant cycle of ripening and needing to be offered in gratitude to G-d. Though this Mincha offering is almost a mixture in between the Shlamim and the Olah, because whereas it is sacred and not consumed by the ordinary Israelites, it may be consumed by the priests. A handful portion of grain from it would be offered on the open-air altar, and then the priests would eat the rest of any grain in the form of unleavened loaves of bread. Essentially all the daily Mincha offerings were Kosher l’Pesach – Acceptable for Passover.
But for just a second, I want us to hold up and look at the Mincha offerings. Grasping the rules for it are not actually all that complex, the grain offerings lacked the fat and some of the fragrance of the fatty meats offered on the altar. That is essentially why the hides were not burnt, but the fatty meats were offered up for the savory smoke that would raise up from it as it burned. In order that the grain offering rise up in simular fashion it was mixed with oil and frankincense, fats to help it burn and incense to provide the ruach nichoach – the fragrant scent. The grain offering was thus dressed so that it would also produce a sweet smoke that would fill the camp and rise to the heavens. It was further seasoned with salt, just like the flesh of the animal sacrifices, to further show that its grain was on the same level of holiness as that of the flesh of animals. In fact we are warned to not forget this salting for any offering. (see Leviticus 2:13)
However for the grain offering there are two select restrictions that accompany it in this parsha. Though theoretically they also apply to the other offerings as well, they are concerns that only primarily rise when considering grain offerings:
which you shall offer to Hashem
shall be made without chametz,
for any leavening and honey
you shall not offer as an offering to Hashem.”
| asher takrivu l’Hashem
| lo te’aseh chametz
| ki chol-se’or vechol-dvash
| lo-taktiru mimenu isheh l’Hashem.
As we look at this commandment I hardly need to translate the word chametz – we understand this to mean leavening. But as we can see there are clearly two different words offered for leavening here in this parsha; the first is chametz, the second is se’or. During this Passover season we are careful to clear out the chametz from our homes. We do not just look for yeast in our house, we look for any form of fermentable or fermentation product in our homes. Any untempered grain product that is left wet will begin to decay and turn chametz given enough time to rest and undergo this chemical process. This is often helped by sugar and heat as catalysts to this process, which is why bakers and brewers carefully monitor these factors.
If any product that is grain can become chametz under the right conditions then we must ask ourself what se’or is and what distinguished it from satisfactorily being covered by the term chametz. Se’or is a type of chametz, and we also look for any of these types of chametz also during this season, but it is not just a latent form of chametz. Like the honey the se’or is an additive, like a yeast-cake. However, fundamentally it is the same, in that yeast additives were created by leaving a piece of dough aside to grow as a starter batch, this sour-dough starter that would be added to a new lump of dough with the sweetener in order to quickly aid the rising of the bread. The word se’or comes from root word se’ar which means a remainder, it is the rest of a mixture or the other part that is left behind; this is because a sour-dough process is merely utilizing a left over piece of chametz from a previous lump of dough.
In light of this during this season it is common for all Jews to review every item in our homes, to remove all forms of chametz. We take this very seriously because chametz represents sin and pride, things that we should remove from our lives during this time of relection and liberation. We don’t merely remove the intentionally and obvious like the se’or, but we also actively and primarily engage in seeking out the latent and less obvious manifestations of chametz – of sin and pride in our lives. Here at the start of our spring harvest season, and indeed our spiritual and celestial New Year, we deal with chametz and sin before their ripened fruits sour upon us.
Ordinarily we reckon our tables as symbolic altars already, doing our sacred mitzvot upon it, things like kiddush, motzie, havdalah and learning. Religious Jews are careful to eat kasher - that which is acceptable and appropriate – the food that we place upon it is as carefully considered as if it were given as an offering, never placing improper mixtures upon it just like we would never allow on the altar of the Temple. But during this Pesach holiday we get to further raise our tables to sacred status by also not placing any form of chametz on it in the same manner that chametz wasn’t allowed in the sacrifical offerings. During Pesach our table is given one more profound way of modeling sacredness in our homes and lives as we abstain from chametz.
We can see an understanding for why we shouldn’t add chametz to our offerings, but by itself we see no clear reason to prohibit the offering of honey. What could be so wrong with sweetening the offerings? Adding a bit of honey to the meat would marinate the animal offerings beautifully and if added liberally to wheat it would make a sweet cake out of the plain flour.
Our great rabbis also provide us several reasons why should not offer chametz or honey, the Rambam tells us that the idolaters were of the custom to only offer leavened bread and sweet foods with meats smeared with honey; we are not to follow after like manner, therefore the scriptures do not allow honey or leavening upon the altar at all. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46) This would make sense, a lot of the machmir restrictions we apply to foods is because of the association with idolatry.
However our tradition still has much room to weigh in with symbolic reasons. The Sefer haChinuch likens theses two prohibited substances to two type characteristics that we need to overcome if we are to really repent and offer a truly atoning sacrifice. First off we must not be lazy, chemtz is created when a lump of dough is left resting and isn’t worked. (see Soft Matzah: Bread of affliction or fluffy goodness) Its culture begins to spreads through it and inflates the lump as it rests, but will not do so while it remains worked. In constrast, repentance is an active process that we must engage in before G-d and in making restitution to the people we have wronged. While honey likewise represents the yetzer hara (the evil impulse) in another fashion, its sweetness represents lust and unbridled desire. A prohibition against honey is a stand against that sweet-tooth that we need to keep in check as a repentant person.
The Rebbe Maharash – Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the son of the Tzemach Tzedek – also teaches us that there are two symbolic and mystical reasons why we are not allowed to offer up chametz or honey. He warns us that we should learn to not be people of extremes, even things as seemingly simple as leavening and honey are harmful if generously applied.
He teaches us that chametz represents the type of person that is constantly bitter and angry at the world. In fact all chametz (leavening) is rooted in chamutz – in bitterness, which is its shoresh (root-word). This is representation of a bitter soul, of the type of person that is constantly mad at the world. This is representative of the man with a chip on his shoulder, constantly ready to argue with anyone. The person who is ever critical and unable to see anything good in the world.
And then in contrast there is the other type of extremity as represented by honey, of the person that is overly sweet and cordial. They are constantly cheerful and nothing ever phases them. They have a hard time seeing the bitterness and evil caused by sinful people in this world. A saccharin sweetness that seems almost unnatural because it covers up the true bitterness present in anything, for which we are warned leads to judging both the wicked and righteous of the world by the same relativistic standard.
The Rebbe Maharash thus teaches us that we must learn to not be people of extremes, we must neither be too bitter nor too sweet. This quality control of the sacrifices, by neither allowing chametz or honey, hints to the type of control we must master over our emotions.
I think these are all great ideas to keep in mind as we put aside our sweet and fluffy challah and bring out our matzot during this passover season.