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Introduction To Toras Kohanim


The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40 plus year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.

This column is in honor of the marriage of Judah and Rebecca (Eckstein) Orlinsky.

Among all the books of the Torah, Sefer Vayikra has historically been the least understood. The opening portions of Vayikra deal with the laws of sacrifices. Many Jews understood these parshiot to mean that bringing a sacrifice alone atoned for an immoral and unethical life style. Various prophets castigated the people for their lack of adherence to mitzvot and a misplaced reliance on sacrifices for religious affirmation.

Jeremiah in particular preached about this perversion to the people prior to the destruction of the Holy Temple. He said that sacrifices are not the focal point of how man is to rendezvous with Hashem. The mission of the Jew is to live a moral and ethical life that focuses on respect, charity, appropriate relationships, distinguishing between the holy and the mundane and the profane. A Jew who first exemplifies an ethical and religious life should bring korbanot to complete the connection between man and Hashem.

We must view Sefer Vayikra in its entirety, as a single unit. The latter part of Vayikra discusses moral and ethical concepts like forbidden foods and relationships. It contains lofty ethical and philosophical principles like “The world belongs to Me, for you are sojourners and temporary dwellers with Me” (25:23). Unfortunately the latter half of the book was ignored or never understood properly as bnei Yisrael only paid attention to the first two parshiot.

Besides the lack of appreciation and understanding on the part of knesset Yisrael, Sefer Vayikra has been derided and held in contempt by the nations of the world and other religions. From the time of the Hasmoneans and the Greek Hellenizers, Sefer Vayikra has been attacked mercilessly for the institution of korbanos. The Gemara (Sukkah 56b) tells the story of Miriam bas Bilga who converted and married a Greek officer who entered the Temple and removed her shoe and banged it on the altar exclaiming, “Wolf, wolf, how long will you consume the material wealth of the Jewish People while you do not protect them in their time of need.”

The early Christians sought to attack the institution of the Temple and took aim at the kohanim and the Temple service. Anyone familiar with the history of the period knows how deep their hatred ran towards Toras Kohanim, a hatred that intensified during the middle ages and rise of Christianity. It has continued through the reform period that started in the 18th century and in to modern times. These attempts consistently sought to deride and belittle the institution of korbanos, and one of the earliest reforms enacted by Reform Judaism was the excision of korbanos from the seder teffilah.

Throughout the years the form of derision has changed but the intent remains the same. Modern bible criticism is a veiled atheistic and agnostic attempt to continue the Christian attack against Toras Kohanim. The use of the term “Priest Code” is a thinly veiled attempt to discredit Sefer Vayikra. These groups attempted to brand it as a subsequent addition to the canon, written by a group of kohanim after the return from the Babylonian exile to Zion to force a priestly aristocracy on the people.

Knesset Yisrael remained faithful and true to our mesorah. We have stood strongly in defense of Toras Kohanim, we have risen to defend against each attempt to discredit it. We displayed more devotion and commitment to its study with each attempt at derision. Indeed, because of this derision, knesset Yisrael has shown more devotion and greater creativity to Sefer Vayikra than the other books of the Torah as expressed by all the books and commentary that have been written on Sefer Vayikra.

About the Author: Rabbi Joshua Rapps attended the Rav's shiur at RIETS from 1977 through 1981 and is a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He and his wife Tzipporah live in Edison, N.J. Rabbi Rapps can be contacted at ravtorah1@gmail.com.

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