Thibble Thursday: Holiday Cheer (Leviticus 21:1–24:23)

Fell a little bit behind yesterday. We continue with, lamentably, some more tedious rules which really only apply to priests, but then we move into the observances of festivals, here in פָּרָשַׁת אמר (“Speak” portion). Oh, and this week I’m using the ultraliteral Fox translation and the WRJ commentary, which promises to be an interesting departure.

The quick snarky summary: priests are supposed to be pure and above things of the world, so they can’t mourn and have to marry particularly “pure” women. Sacrifices have to be perfect too. Really, God can’t stand having anything except absolute purity in his house. Also, just in case non-priests had stopped reading and thought this section didn’t apply to them, wake up, because there are a bunch of agricultural festivals everyone has to observe.


We kick off with some more of the priest-specific law code. We don’t actually see the specific prohibitions until much later (late in the book of Numbers), but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that touching the dead causes ritual impurity. And since priests must be as pure as possible, and essentially never take upon themselves any sort of voluntary defilement, they’re strictly enjoined against contact with the dead, except for their nearest relatives (by blood only: even for his wife he wasn’t allowed to perform any sort of funerary duties). This actually seems a bit at odds with what I think of as priestly service in most cultures: in almost all religions before and since, the preparation and/or burial of the dead is regarded as a holy service. But in Judaism I guess the priest is supposed to keep his distance, which is a bit offputting from a modern “religion is for the comfort and enlightment of the people” view instead of the more traditional “religion is entirely for the glory of God” stance. Modern Orthodox descendants of priestly lines apparently still won’t enter cemeteries. They also aren’t allowed to perform some specific mourning practices: the cutting of hair and of flesh. These actually echo practices not described as connected with mourning, but nonetheless deplored, back in 19:27–28. The supposition there was that these were native mourning practices which the Israelites were meant not to emulate: exactly why the repetition here confines the prohibition to the priesthood isn’t clear.

Now, while we were on the subject of what priests might do for their families, we also get prohibitions on marrying any “tainted” women. What taints women, you may ask? Sex, of course! So divorcees are forbidden, and prostitutes are very forbidden. Widows aren’t, oddly enough. And the daughters of priests are also held to a standard of purity, namely not to become prostitutes. Now, 19:24 already kind of forbade this, by way of forbidding parents from leading their daughters into prostitution, but here the daughter is blamed for her own professional choices, and sentenced to death. Again, the severity of the treatment of prostitutes makes a lot more sense (particularly in priestly families), in the context of wanting to distance the worship of the Israelite god from the sacred prostitution of other Mesopotamian religions.

All the restrictions provided on priests are made even more stringent for the high priest: he isn’t allowed to do funerary duty for anyone, even his own family, and he’s not allowed to marry widows.

Continuing with proper behavior for priests, we have a number of rules pertaining to fitness for the priestly service. A nice long list of physical defects (notably including “crushed testicles”) is listed as permenently invalidating one from involvement in the sacrificial service (presumably either such folks had to get ordinary jobs, or they became temple servitors in capacities other than offering sacrifices). They explicitly are allowed a share in the priestly portion of sacrificial meat, so in some ways they’re fortunate, getting the spoils of the sacrificial duty without actually having to perform them.

Additionally, the usual list of temporary impurities also invalidates people *temporarily) from priestly service, and also from consumption of priestly portions of sacrifices. These conditions, to recap, include leprosy, genital discharges of any sort, and touching forbidden creatures or corpses. Overall, the rules as to who is actually allowed to eat priestly portions of sacrifices are complicated in specifics and fairly straightforward in generalities. The rule appears to be that a priest and his entire household can eat it, but the boundaries of that household are explicitly defined: a servant isn’t in it, but a bought slave is, and a daughter with a family of her own isn’t, but a daughter who is for some reason without her own household is. Violation of these rules was forgivable by the offering of an אשם sacrifice, which, if you recall from way back in Chapter 5, atones for misappropriation of sacred things.

Already the rules seem pretty complicated, and even the supplicant presenting a sacrifice has a lot of laws to satisfy with regard to the offering: for certain types of sacrifice the sacrificial animal also has to be free of defects or blemishes, and no matter what the type of sacrifice is the sacrificial animal needs to belong ot an Israelite, be at least one week old, and not sacrificed on the same day as its mother. ANd, damn, I know when I set off on this journey I said the Levitical laws weren’t as dull as people make them out to be, but by this point the sheer number of words devoted to the proper sacrificial and priestly procedure’s starting to wear me down.

Fortunately, next we return to festivals, which I can kind of sink my teeth into. The problem with all this sacrificial and priestly code is that it really seems very irrelevant today, while the major festivals remain observed, even in reform Judaism. We start with a simple one: refraining from work on the Sabbath. This spawns an extraordinary amount of rabbinic commentary on exactly what one can and can’t do, but here, all that’s said is that one should refrain from work.

Next up is Passover. We got a version of this one back in Exodus, but there’s a brief discussion of this one here, since we’re getting a feel for the entire calendar at once. We’re here told the date (first month, from twilight on the fourteenth day for seven days), the purpose (pilgrimage-festival), and the basic rules (no heavy labor on the first or last day, sacrifices daily, and eating matzah). Interestingly, here the only rule is positive (one should eat matzah) instead of negative (don’t eat other things), but here I think we’re getting only summary versions of festivals explained elsewhere.

Next after Pesach is the festival of first harvest. No fixed point in the year appears to be established for this, although the day of the week is apparently supposed to be right after Shabbat (i.e., on a Sunday). The offering of grain to the priest needs to be accompanied (surprise!) by a blood sacrifice, and a wine libation. Incidentally, I think this is the first place we’ve seen wine libations, a pretty common sacrificial practice in many early cultures, mentioned as pleasing to the Israelite God.

Fifty days after this grain offering is Shavuot. Or at least we think it’s Shavuot. The name “שבועות” doesn’t actually appear here, but it shows up in Exodus 34:22 in connection with the wheat harvest. Unfortunately, nobody has the slightest damn clue how to celebrate Shavuot: unlike Shabbat or Yom Kippur or Sukkot or Pesach, there’s no specific purpose connected with the observance: it’s a day of rest, and of sacrifice, but we don’t even do the latter any more.

Here we digress to repeat an exhortation from way back in 19:9 not to completely harvest a field, but to leave the gleanings for the poor. This seems like a non sequitur here, since it has nothing to do with festive observances, but I guess they need to slip that one in every time they talk about harvests.

Next up we get the High Holy Days. We actually saw the basic Yom Kippur priestly service a while back in Leviticus 16, but here we’re told specifics of what these days mean to the people: on Rosh Hashanah, as on all holidays, they abstain from work and sacrifice, and in addition we’re told they blow the trumpet, but that’s actually all that’s said about Rosh Hashanah, and it’s not granted extraordinary significance. By way of contrast, Yom Kippur is a day of “self-denial” and of “atonement”, which brings it much closer to a recognizable version of the modern observance.

We’re almost done with the festivals: having had two spring festivals (Pesach and Shavuot), we get two autumn festivals for balance: the High Holy Days, and Sukkot. Like Pesach, Sukkot is a seven-day festival, and like Pesach, the first and last days are sacred. Oddly, here it’s Sukkot that’s really explained in detail, where the other festivals really are not: the people are to live in booths and decorate with four symbolic species: the citron, the palm, the lyrtle, and the willow. Sukkot’s become a very personal observance for many (particularly in Israel, I understand), since unlike the other festivals it’s entirely unconnected with temple service, but is rather a matter of personal observance, so post-Mosaic tradition has embellished on it considerably: one takes in guests to share one’s outdoor dwelling, and one takes pride in a particularly fine citron. Also, a very good citron is supposed to aid fertility (er, assuming you want fertility), and lots of people preserve their citron in some way or another (citron jam, or better yet, etrogcello) to be consumed on the Tu B’Shevat festival next year.

We’re nearly done, with two small sections left in this parsha. The first is really a duplication, providing the laws to maintain the candelabrum and the table in the Tabernacle with fresh oil and bread respectively. I’m pretty sure this was all covered back in Exodus 25, but at this point God’s probably figured out how slow-witted his subjects are, and if he doesn’t make it all explicit, they’ll miss it. I’m not sure what this particular passage is doing here, though. We’re pretty far afield at this point from general temple service.

And lastly, we get one of the tiny shreds of actual narrative that Leviticus provides. Like most narrative bits in Leviticus, this one involves someone getting killed to show that God means business. Here two guys get into a fight, and one of them — the Torah makes it very clear he’s a half-Egyptian, so, y’know, he’s not good, like the Israelites are — pronounces the divine name blasphemously (so I figure he said, “God damn you!”) and he was imprisoned. awaiting punishment. God says to stone him to death, so the people do.

The Torah and future commentaries make a big fuss about this, like it was the first case of human participation in meting out God’s judgment (also known as “mob justice”), but really, I figure God showed he meant business way back in Exodus 32:28, when the community committed a much larger-scale massacre.

Fun fact, from the WRJ commentary: Shelomit, the mother of the blasphemer, is the only woman mentioned by name in the entire book of Leviticus.

Well, we’re nearly out of the deep woods of Leviticus, and next week we get a parsha whose rules have recently been kicked around a fair bit in American discourse, so that might be fun.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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