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Home » Judaism » Parsha »

Introduction To Toras Kohanim


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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.

The Talmud Bavli for Seder Zeraim includes only Masechet Berachos, as the other tractates related to agriculture applied only in Eretz Yisrael and were therefore more fully covered in the Jerusalem Talmud. Similarly, Masechet Nidah is the only volume in Bavli Seder Taharos, with the rest limited to mishnayos.

When it comes to Seder Kodshim, however, Talmud Bavli contains a full set of tractates matching the Talmud Yerushalmi. Our devotion even in exile is also evident by the fact that of all the Midrash books written on the Torah, only The Sifra D’vei Rav, referred to as Toras Kohanim, was written in Babylonia. Rashi and Tosfos, the classical commentaries on Talmud Bavli, are not available for mishanyos Taharos and Zeraim. However Rashi and Tosfos commented on the tractates in Kodshim as extensively as they did on Seder Moed or Nashim. To reinforce Kodshim in our daily lives, the passage “Ei’zehu m’koman” – mishnayos from Masechet Zevachim – are included in our daily siddur. We include the opening section of Toras Kohanim, the be’raysa of Rabbi Yishmael and the thirteen attributes through which the Torah is explicated, in our korbanos recitation to reinforce the inherent connection between Torah she’bichtav and Torah she’be’al peh regarding korbanos.

According to one opinion in the Gemara (Berachos 26b), our daily teffilot are directly connected to the daily sacrifices offered at the same time of the day. According to Tosfos, our Mussaf is a form of “neshalmah parim sifaseinu” (Hosea 14:3), where our teffilot are substitutes for the specific sacrifices offered. On Yom Kippur, the Avodah, the recitation of the order of the korbanos offered during the day, is the central motif of the day. According to Rabbeinu Hai Gaon, there was a tradition to recite the Avodah in Shacharis, Mussaf and Mincha on Yom Kippur because it was so beloved. The Midrash Rabbah quotes an ancient accepted tradition where the education of young children commenced with the study of Sefer Vayikra. Hashem said, Let those who are pure and holy study the Torah portion devoted to purity and sanctity.

With this basis, perhaps we can better understand the Gemara (Berachos 18a) regarding Benayahu Ben Yehoyada. The Talmud quotes (Samuel 2, 23:20) that he performed mighty deeds, he smote the two mighty men of Moab; he went down and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in the time of snow. What was special about Benayahu? The Gemara interprets the latter part of the statement to mean that he studied Toras Kohanim on a cold winter day. He was willing to study Toras Kohanim and to defend it against the mighty nations like Moab that heaped scorn on our tradition and our adherence to the laws of Toras Kohanim. He recognized that we must defend Toras Kohanim no matter how dark and cold the exile environment we find ourselves in, without regard to how absurd it seems to all those around us and how we may be scorned for our devotion to it.

Our Chazal exhibited similar devotion to Toras Kohanim. After the destruction of the second Temple, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai enacted many takanot to keep the Temple and the Avodah alive in our communal memory. He and others were able to see a future of avodas Beis HaMikdash at a time when few would listen to them, despite the seeming absurdity of hoping for such a future. Bnayahu and Rabban Yochanan were willing to look forward because they had the courage to learn and teach Toras Kohanim in such a dark and foreboding time.

The complete understanding of Toras Kohanim requires adherence and acceptance to both parts of the sefer. For that, the people needed to be educated as to proper ethical and moral conduct. That was the responsibility of the kohanim. Be’ezras Hashem we will discuss that in a future d’var Torah.

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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