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Aharei Mot - Kedushim

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30 and 19:1 – 20:27

A History Lesson – The Framework for the Parshiot:

The teachings contained in Parsha Acharei Mot and in Parsha Kedoshim , which

are read together this week, embody practices and principles that reflect the

major divide that came to Judea in the days of the Second Temple.

The Second Temple Period was a time of great tumult: the tiny lands of Judea became

entangled in the governance of the various successors and pretenders to the

empire of Alexander the Great. From the west, Rome was beginning to show an interest in the area.

Judean society appeared to have developed a political awareness and its economic profile benefited from the technologies imported by successive overlords and its location on major east-west trade routes. Besides a monarchy, Judea had a dependable justice system with a Sanhedrin, and a priestly hierarchy which exerted control over the ever-growing Temple and the ritual order. Judea also suffered from

sectarian or denominational divide.

There were two dominant groups in Judea. The Sadducees were aligned with the Priestly class and the mercantile aristocracy. They promoted the centrality of the sacrificial rite, which could only be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed in a very conservative interpretation of the laws that were found only in the Torah, and, perhaps most critically, rejecting the very existence of an oral law, denying that any such teachings were imparted to Moses by God at Mt. Sinai.

The Pharisees believed in the centrality of the Torah’s teachings to everyday life and promoted an ideology based on the acceptance of the legitimacy and supremacy of the written and oral law. They adopted a liberal interpretation in matters of the law and they developed a tradition of worship through prayer and study, and not only by ritual sacrifice.

The struggle between the Sadducees and the Pharisees came to an end with the fall of

Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. The Sadducees, with their source of power in ruins, disappeared from daily life. The Sadducee traditions were not

preserved; our knowledge of them is based on the writings of the Pharisees and another sect, the Essenes, who were both ideological foes of the vanquished Sadducees. The sacrificial ritual so painstakingly detailed in the Torah was preserved in the Mishnah and the Talmud, but with the inference being that law, and more importantly the keepers of the law would henceforth prevail over the servants of ritual.

Acharei Mot focuses on the high point of the sacrificial calendar, and the most unique and important of the Orders of Service; the Avodah service performed by the High Priest on Yom Hakkipurim. The High Priest would seek atonement on behalf of himself, his family and the entire nation. The High Priest would personally perform most of this highly structured rite, when he would for the only time in the year, enter the Mishkan’s inner sanctum, “hakadosh”. There, presumably in God’s presence, he would confess for himself, his family and finally for the people of Israel; “And he shall make atonement for the most holy place, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar; and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly”.

The description of this elaborate rite in Parsha Acharei Mot is followed by Parsha

Kedoshim. This parsha introduces a complete change in the focus of the Torah’s

teachings. Rather than discussing holy places, holy times, holy things, and holy practices, Kedoshim teaches an ethos of “deeds of loving-kindness”.

More importantly, the parsha strongly suggests that living in the image of God, would replace the sacrificial rite: “You shall be holy; for I your God am holy.”

The cornerstone of the Pharisaic and the following Rabbinic ideologies, was founded on a simple verse found in the parsha; “thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself’. Love of man was considered by Hillel, the most prominent of the early rabbis, to be the essence of the Torah, as he succinctly expressed: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.”

While purely a function of the calendar, the twinning of the two parshiot gives us

occasion to consider the completeness of the Torah, that allowed the generations that

followed the escape from the Egyptian exile and the nation that was forced into the

Roman exile to find eternal meaning in its teachings.

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses about the Yom Kippur rituals, during which the high priest was to cleanse and purify the sanctuary from the sins of the Israelites. Only on this day was Aaron permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary. He was to dress in special linen garments and to bring a purification offering on behalf of himself and his household. He would then cast lots over two goats, designating one for God as a purification offering on behalf of the people and one for Azazel.

Azazel is the mysterious name of a character in Hebrew mythology found in both the Hebrew scriptures and Apocrypha (Christian sources). The word's first appearance is in Leviticus 16, where a goat is designated "for Azazel" and outcast in the desert as part of Yom Kippur.

After Satan, for whom he was in some degree a prototype, Azazel enjoys the distinction of being the most mysterious extra-human character in Jewish sacred literature.

This is the scapegoat to be sent off into the wilderness bearing Israel’s sins. The people were to observe Yom Kippur each year as a day of fasting and abstinence from work so that their sins might be forgiven.

An Indepth Look at Azazel (teaching by Dr. Michael Avioz, Department of Bible, Bar Ilan University)

A more detailed description of the strange rite performed with these he-goats (the two goats designed for the drawing of lots) appears in Tractate Yoma, in the Mishnah and the gemara. Reading these descriptions, one is tempted to ask, Why is this peculiar rite necessary to atone for the sins of Israel? Cannot confession and prayer suffice? The wonderment evoked by this rite has caused some rabbis to include this commandment in the category of a hoq, those commandments that are simply to be obeyed, without explanation.

Below are several theories explaining this commandment, all of them based on investigation of the meaning of the word “Azazel”.

1. According to one interpretation Azazel is a composite of two words, ‘ez and azal, meaning “a goat goes”. The root a-z-l is actually Aramaic, but also appears in Biblical Hebrew (Prov. 20:14 ; Job 14:11 ). Accordingly, the Mishnah (Yoma 4.2 and elsewhere) refers to it as “the goat that had to be sent away.” The same interpretation can be seen in the Septuagint “the goat that is sent free” and the Vulgate. Ibn Ezra interpreted the word similarly. Thus, “the goat that goes off” is sent to the wilderness.

This interpretation has a certain difficulty: how can the same phrase denote both the goat that is sent off and the place to which it is sent?

2. Another interpretation takes Azazel to be a place name, designating the place where the goat is sent off. Azazel is understood as “an inaccessible region,” a place of cliffs and canyons, and ‘ az is understood as meaning “hard.” Thus, it is in Yoma 67b; Sifra, Aharei Mot 2.8 (“to a hard place in the mountains”); in Targum Jonathan (“a strong and hard place”);21[3] and in Rashi. Some people suggest that ‘azazel is derived from the Arabic ‘azaz, meaning hard soil. Accordingly, Azazel refers to the name of the mountain to which the goat was taken. This interpretation attempts to reconcile the word Azazel with the practice in the Second Temple period of taking the goat to a cliff and pushing it over into the abyss.] However, another difficulty arises with this interpretation: the parallel structure of “one marked for the Lord” and “the other marked for Azazel” (verse 8) would seem to indicate that the word does not refer to a place, rather to the name of an entity.

3. A third interpretation reads Azazel as Azaz-El, i.e., “the deity (not referring to the Lord) has power.” According to this hypothesis, the original version of the text read AZaZ EL (the Hebrew letters ayin, zayin, zayin, aleph, lamed) but was changed in the Masoretic Text to AZAZeL (ayin, zayin, aleph, zayin, lamed) switching the order of the letters alef and zayin in order to obscure the pagan character of this entity, since the Bible does not recognize the existence of other deities and certainly would not call them El, G-d. In support of their thesis, the proponents of this approach cite the Samaritan Pentateuch, where the spelling AZaZEL appears, as well as texts from Qumran.

4. We find the interpretation most in line with the plain sense of the text to be the one that takes Azazel to be the name of a demon. According to Leviticus 16:8, Aaron casts lots, “one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” Likewise, Leviticus 17:7 says, “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons (se’irim) after whom they stray.” The wilderness as the residence of demons appears in the Book of Isaiah, as well. This explanation has the advantage of enabling us to understand why the goat is sent off to the wilderness.

A demon by the name of Azazel or Azael occurs in post-Biblical literature. Enoch and other works of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha tell of a minister of the angels called Azael, who was among those who were attracted by the daughters of men (see Gen. 6:2,4). Azael was the angel who reigned, among other things, over magic, war, and harlotry; the angel Raphael had been ordered to cast him into the wilderness, to live there, imprisoned under rocks and boulders, until the Day of Judgment. Traces of this tradition can be found in the literature of the Sages (Babylonian Talmud): “It is taught by Rabbi Ishmael: Azazel, since it atones for the deeds of Uzza and Azael,” the sinful angels who were cast out of Heaven. In other works of Midrash, Azazel is mentioned as the seducer of women and as the one who taught them to adorn themselves with makeup and jewelry

The idea that the sins of the children of Israel were loaded onto the goat finds expression in Mishnah Yoma (6.4):71[8] “And they made a causeway for him because of the Babylonians, for they used to pull his hair and say to him, ‘Bear [away our sins] and go forth! Bear [away our sins] and go forth!”

Nahmanides was of like opinion:

For they used to worship other gods, namely the angels, and would offer them sacrifices... But the Torah utterly forbade accepting them as deities and worshipping them in any manner; however, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that on the Day of Atonement we send a he-goat into the wilderness to the Minister ruling in the places of desolation, ... but the intention regarding the goat that is sent off is not that he be an offering from us to him, Heaven forefend, but that our intention be simply to do the bidding of our Creator who thus commanded us.81[9]

Ibn Ezra’s commentary on verse 8 hints at the possibility that there once was a demon by the name of Azazel,91[10] but in our weekly reading of the Torah all that remains is the name, since demons remain in our consciousness only as a metaphor and expression of speech, long after we have ceased to believe in them.

It should be noted that the Torah does not relate to the Azazel-goat as a sacrifice. Were this the case, we would have expected the goat to be slaughtered and its blood to be sprinkled around, and that all the usual rights of purification pertain to it. Thus it seems that the purpose of the rite of the Azazel-goat was psychological, not mythical. The object is to persuade the children of Israel that their sins will indeed be wiped away, and to remove from them any alien ideas, so that they direct their hearts solely to improving themselves and that they make themselves subservient to their Father in Heaven.

Parsha Aharei-Mot Story Line, Continued

Moses tells the people that whether they were intended for food or as sacrifices, animals were to be slaughtered only at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. It is strictly forbidden to eat blood.

God instructs Moses to tell the people that they are not to copy the practices of the Egyptians or the Canaanites. Specifics about forbidden sexual relationships are given.

Summary of Kedoshim:

The second part of this double parasha, Kedoshim, contains the bulk of the Holiness Code, which is characterized by the commandment, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. The many mitzvot found here call for striving for holiness in all areas of life – ritual (You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, 19:30), civil (You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity, 19:35), and ethical (You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old, 19:32). Its best known commandment is Love your fellow as yourself. Israel is told to observe all of God’s laws and rules.

God tells Moses to warn the people against child sacrifice and witchcraft and divination (fortune telling). The laws of forbidden sexual relationships are repeated. Similarly, God warns Israel not to follow the practices of the Canaanite nations and to remember that God has set them apart to be a holy people.

The jewel of the portion, and arguably of the whole Torah, is the verse from the Holiness Code: “Love your neighbour as yourself I am the Eternal One.”

Kedoshim introduces us to the Holiness Code. In many ways it parallels the Ten Commandments. The reverence due parents is listed. The veneration of the Sabbath is presented. The prohibition of idolatry is stated.

The laws of agriculture foster a sense of moral responsibility to the poor. The corners of the field are not to be reaped. The gleanings are to be left for the needy.

The prohibition upon theft and blaspheming is presented. Basic civility in conduct is taught. Justice is a religious imperative.

The prohibition upon mixtures is listed. This is the origin of the law of shaatnez, the law prohibiting mixing linen and wool in a garment.

The fruit of the tree is prohibited during the first three years. The produce of the fourth year is consecrated to G-d. The source of the peyot, the side curls on the face, derives from a prohibition against imitating pagan rites. Tattoos are also prohibited in Judaism for a similar reason.

Respect for the elderly is a cardinal principle. Love of the stranger is shared "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".

Cursing one's parents is forbidden. Adultery is a capital crime. Sexuality is considered to be holy. The reward for holiness is the inheritance of the Land of Israel.

"You shall be holy for I the L-rd am holy." This statement summarizes the essence of the Book of Leviticus.


A. Achieving a High Spiritual Level. The Children of Israel were told to be “kedoshim” (of an elevated holy nature). To help them achieve this goal, a number of laws are discussed. They include laws designed to achieve holiness, including:

  • respecting one’s parents

  • observing the Shabbat

  • not engaging in idol worship, witchcraft and human sacrifice

  • not mutilating or tattooing one’s body

  • not causing irregular mixtures, such as interbreeding of animals, and interweaving of wool and linen (“sha’atnes”)

  • not eating the fruits of a tree for the first 3 years after planting

B. Laws to encourage compassion towards others (particularly the stranger and the poor), including:

  • leaving a corner of the field and stray gleanings for the poor

  • dealing honesty with others (e.g., not stealing, lying, etc.)

  • a shopkeeper ensuring the accuracy of his weights/scales

  • a judge being impartial

  • judging others favorably

  • not taking another’s possession without his/her permission

  • not withholding a worker’s wages

  • not giving harmful advice

  • not defaming others

  • not misleading a blind or naive person

  • saving the life of another who is in danger

  • admonishing an erring fellow man

  • not embarrassing another

  • not taking revenge or holding a grudge

  • “loving one’s fellow man as one loves oneself”

C. Laws respecting impermissible relationships (e.g., adultery, incest and bestiality)

A detailed description of whom one cannot have sexual relations is listed.

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