Acharei Mot as the Pivot of Sefer Vayikra

  • Rav Avraham Walfish

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Rabbi Avraham Walfish


At first glance it would seem difficult to understand the location and role of Parashat Acharei Mot in the structure of the book of Vayikra. Vayikra, as has been noted in previous shiurim, opens with a section devoted to sacrifices and the dedication ceremony of the Sanctuary (Section I: Chapters 1-10) and continues with a section devoted to the laws of purity (II: Chapters 11-15). Chapter 19 (III) opens a new section of the book of Vayikra, often referred to as the Holiness section, because it opens with the admonition: "Be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy." The first two sections treat sanctity as a ritual category, teaching Israel how the divine Presence dwelling in the Sanctuary within their midst may be safeguarded and approached. The Holiness section expands and spiritualizes the notion of sanctity, teaching Israel how to sanctify their everyday lives and activities.

Parashat Acharei Mot does not seem to fit neatly into this pattern. The three chapters of our parasha treat three major topics, none of which seems at first glance to fit either into the preceding section (II) or the following section (III): the Yom Kippur service (Chapter 16), laws concerning consumption of animals (Chapter 17), and the laws of forbidden sexual relations (Chapter 18). Chapters 16 and 17 may be seen as a kind of supplement to the laws of sacrifices in Section I, but then their placement after II is puzzling. In fact, the opening of Chapter 16 seems to acknowledge that this parasha is out of place: "Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon when they drew near before Hashem and died". This opening leads Ramban to depart from his usual understanding, that the Torah is written in chronological order (see Study Question 1). Ramban understands this opening pasuk as indicating that Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon regarding the Yom Kippur service immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu, but the Torah chose, for literary reasons (see Study Question 2), to bring Section II prior to Chapter 16, despite Chapter 16's chronological priority. If Chapter 16 is indeed a supplement to the laws of sacrifices, this would explain why its opening associates it with the death of Nadav and Avihu, which concludes Section I, but would exacerbate the question why this supplement is deferred to the end of Section II.

I suggest that parashat Acharei Mot does not really fit into any of the sections of Vayikra, but rather marks a point of transition between Sections I-II and Section III. Moreover I will argue that Acharei Mot is a pivotal point, not only within the structure of the book of Vayikra, but in the broader context of the historical narrative regarding the redemption of the people of Israel, as well.

Insofar as the structure of Vayikra is concerned, we may note the 'transitional' character of the topics dealt with in Acharei Mot:

(1) Chapter 16 - this chapter serves, not only as a supplement to the sacrificial section, but also to Section II: "He shall purge (kipper) the Holy of the DEFILEMENTS of Israel, and of their transgressions, including all their sins, and thus shall he do for the Tent of Meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their defilement" (16:16); "For on this day he shall atone (yekhapper) for you TO PURIFY YOU; from all your sins before Hashem you shall become pure" (16:30). Further on we will elaborate on this point.

(2) Chapter 17 - this chapter, like Section I, deals with sacrifices, but the focus is different from that in I. In Section I, the Torah deals with the question of how Hashem is to be worshipped through sacrificial offerings. Chapter 17 opens with the opposite vantage point: "A man, a man from the house of Israel, who shall slaughter an ox or a sheep or a goat in the encampment, or who shall slaughter outside the encampment, without having brought it to the opening of the Tent of Meeting to offer it as a sacrifice to Hashem before the Sanctuary of Hashem - it shall be regarded as blood for this man, blood he has spilt, and this man shall be cut off from the midst of his people." (17:3-4) According to the simple meaning of these pesukim (see Study Question 3), here we are dealing with a person slaughtering for his own benefit, rather than with one whose aim in slaughtering the animal is to worship Hashem. The Torah tells us that, at least as long as Israel encamps in the wilderness, in close proximity to the Sanctuary (contrast Devarim 12:20-28), they may eat meat only when it is slaughtered as a sacrifice. This sets the tone for most of the laws in this chapter, which extend the sanctity of the Sanctuary into the individual kitchen, as opposed to instructing the individual how he may draw near to the Sanctuary. This chapter thus uses the topics and categories of Section I in order to introduce us to the perspective on sanctity characteristic of Section III.

(3) Chapter 18 - the topics dealt with in this chapter, mostly related to the most serious forms of sexual offenses (arayot), are clearly related to Section III. This may be demonstrated in the clearest fashion by noting that the list of forbidden activities of this chapter is repeated in very similar form in the list of punishments of Chapter 20. Moreover, many modern commentators have noted that our chapter is marked by language normally associated with Section III, such as the frequent repetition of "I am Hashem" or "I am Hashem your God" at the end of pesukim. Yet Chapter 18, despite its clear relationship with Section III, is clearly related to Section II, as noted already by the Ramban, in his introduction to the book of Vayikra: "and after [Section II] the Torah commanded regarding the arayot, because... its iniquity is called 'impurity' and it causes the departure of the divine Presence, as well as exile." The Ramban is clearly alluding to pesukim 24-30, in which Hashem repeatedly admonishes Israel not to defile themselves and the land with the iniquities which will cause the land to spew them forth as it is about to do to the Canaanites.

Chapter 18 is transitional, not only in the sense that it combines elements both of Section II and Section III, but in the use of the Section II category of tum'a in a metaphoric, spiritualized sense, appropriate to Section III. Thus, introductory to Section III's broadening of the concept of kedusha, Chapter 18 broadens and spiritualizes the concept of tum'a.

Clearly parashat Acharei Mot stands at a major junction of the book of Vayikra: between Sections I-II, which teach Israel from the perspective of the Sanctuary which acts and observances represent the divine Presence and symbolize the meaning of drawing near to that Presence and worshipping it, and Section III, which teaches Israel how to be holy and God-like in their everyday lives. Acharei Mot's role in the book is to serve as a kind of summary of the first two sections (Chapter 16) and to show how the topics and categories of these sections (Chapter 17 - Section I, Chapter 18 - Section II) may be broadened and spiritualized, serving as the basis for expressing holiness and divinity in everyday life.

Earlier I advanced the claim that parashat Acharei Mot also stands at a major crossroads of Israelite redemptive history. This may be seen most clearly in the opening of its last section (18:3): "Do not do like the doings of the land of Egypt where you dwelt and do not do like the doings of the land of Canaan where I am bringing you and do not walk in their statutes." With one exception for each (see Study Question 4), neither the land of Israel nor the land of Canaan is mentioned in Sections I and II, whereas both play important roles in Section III. Here both of them are mentioned together, and not by accident. The Torah is commanding Israel here to distance themselves from the norms and customs of other nations, and makes specific reference to these two na, Egypt and Canaan. While a case may be built for saying, as Rashi does, that these two nations symbolized the depths of moral degradation, especially in the realm of corrupt sexual mores, the language of the pasuk suggests a different reason for singling out these two nations. These are the nations which represent the past and the future of Israel respectively. Israel has dwelt in the past in the land of the Egyptians and is soon to enter the land of the Canaanites (remember that the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness was not yet part of the divine plan). Accordingly these are the two nations that can potentially exert the greatest influence upon the character and moral fiber of the Israelite people.

Hashem is, in effect, admonishing Israel: make a clean and complete break with the people amongst whom you have dwelt until recently, and do not adopt the customs of the people into whose land you are about to enter. Israel, located in the wilderness, is suspended between two civilizations, and Hashem exhorts them to remain suspended, aloof, in order to achieve and practice their own unique form of divine morality. The command to avoid Egyptian practices may be seen as the conclusion of the Exodus, while the command to avoid Canaanite practices may be seen as the opening of preparations for entering the land. More generally, we may suggest that Sections I and II of Vayikra serve as a kind of halakhic conclusion to the Exodus from Egypt, while Section III prepares the people to enter the land of Canaan.

We may explain this understanding as follows: the redemption from Egypt is concluded, not when the people depart Egypt and achieve political and social freedom, but when they achieve spiritual freedom by entering into the service of Hashem at Sinai. As Ramban has noted, in his introduction to Shemot, while Israel begins the entry into divine service with the receiving of the Torah (the Ten Commandments), this stage of redemption is completed only at the end of the book of Shemot, when the divine Presence descends upon the Sanctuary, in the midst of the Israelite encampment. Sections I and II of Vayikra are devoted to ritual practices which maintain and express this indwelling divine Presence, providing concrete symbolic expression of the role of the Sanctuary in the life of the people of Israel.

Section III of Vayikra is addressed to a people already redeemed, already designated as singular, as servants of Hashem. Section III commands this people to realize the singular destiny of the seed of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, to become a holy people, worthy of residing in the sacred land promised to the patriarchs. The holiness of the people is bound up in Section III with the holiness of the land. It is thus not surprising that Chapter 18, marking the transition from Section II to Section III, makes reference both to the singularity of the people of Israel and to the lands of Egypt and Canaan. Adherence by the people to the laws of arayot both concludes their spiritual redemption from the norms of Egypt and commences their sanctification, so that they may be worthy of displacing the Canaanites in the holy land. (See Study Question 5.)

I argued earlier that the Yom Kippur sacrificial service, which opens our parasha, serves as a conclusion to Sections I and II together. We need to explain why this is so, and why this particular topic was selected for this purpose. In order to understand this point, let us turn our attention to the dramatic opening of this week's parasha, referring back to the death of Nadav and Avihu, and try to determine why this opening is appropriate for the discussion of the Yom Kippur service. Rashi suggests a reason, based on a parable cited by R. Elazar ben Azaryah in the Sifra: "[This may be compared] to a sick person who is visited by a doctor, who says to him: Do not drink cold and do not lie in a cold and damp place. Another came and said to him: Do not drink cold and do not lie in a cold and damp place, so that you don't die the way that so-and-so did. This [second] one urged him more [effectively] than the he first one."

Rashi's explanation is based on the assumption that Nadav and Avihu's sin had to do with approaching Hashem improperly ("when they drew near to Hashem and died" - 16:1), hence Aharon is admonished (16:2) "Do not come at any time he chooses into the Holy of Holies...". However this assumption is questionable, for Nadav and Avihu's sin is described in 10:1 as "offering a strange fire before Hashem, which He had not commanded them" (See Study Question 6.) J. Milgrom (Anchor Bible, p. 1011) suggests a different connection between the Yom Kippur service and the death of Nadav and Avihu: "Nadab and Abihu had polluted the sanctuary doubly, in life by their sin and in death by their corpses... Yet chap. 10 has said nothing about the procedure for purging the sanctuary, which in such a case of severe pollution - the sin and subsequent death of Nadab and Abihu occurred in the sacred precincts - the entire sanctuary, including the Holy of Holies would need to be purged. This procedure is detailed in chap. 16."

Milgrom's explanation is also based on an assumption, and in this case the assumption deals with the meaning of the procedure outlined in Chapter 16. Milgrom assumes that the basic aim of the procedure is the purification of the Sanctuary, and unquestionably this is a central feature of the procedure, as evidenced by 16:16 (cited above). However the opening pesukim of our parasha suggest a different understanding: "Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near to Hashem and died. Hashem said to Moshe: Speak to Aharon your brother, that he shall not come any time [he wants] into the Holy [of Holies], inside the veil, in front of the kapporet that is upon the Ark, so that he shall not die... This is how Aharon shall enter the Holy [of Holies]... " (16:1-2). The issue here is not how to purify the Sanctuary, but how and when Aharon may draw near to the Presence of Hashem.

Is the elaborate service described in our chapter designed to enable a man to enter into the awesome Presence of Hashem in the place where this Presence is most palpable and most powerful or is it rather designed to purge the holiest place on earth from defilement and iniquity? (For a third possibility, see Study Question 7.) Both possibilities are rooted in the text, and indeed we may suggest that the different understandings suggested by the commentators stem from tension located within the pesukim. Aharon is told that he may not enter "any time" into the Holy of Holies, but the Torah continues by elaborating, not upon the time he may enter, but rather the procedure by means of which he may enter. Only at the end of a lengthy ritual passage does the Torah return to discuss when he may enter: "And this shall be for you an eternal statute - in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month you shall afflict your souls... For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you..." (16:29-30). But this identification of a special time of year for this procedure is mentioned only in the context of the 'eternal statute' - does it apply to Aharon as well? The Vilna Gaon (cited at the end of Chokhmat Adam, pp. 276-277, by his disciple R. Avraham Danzig) suggested a resolution of these tensions, as well as other difficulties in our parasha, based on a passage in Vayikra Rabba 21:7 (see Study Question 8): Aharon is indeed permitted to enter the Holy of Holies at all times, subject only to the limitation that he must perform the procedure outlined here (pasuk 3: "This is how Aharon may enter..."); subsequent high priests (pesukim 29-34) may enter the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur. I believe that the difference between Aharon and subsequent high priests is not only in the frequency of the procedure, but in its very nature. The yearly procedure, performed throughout the generations on Yom Kippur, is designed to purify and renew the Sanctuary annually. That Aharon may enter whenever he chooses would seem to me (see Study Question 9) to indicate that, in his case, the procedure is designed primto fulfill his religious needs and aspirations, to enable him to crown his priesthood with its ultimate achievement of experiencing the Presence of Hashem in the most immediate way.

The creation by the Torah of one procedure to fulfill two different functions suggests that there is a profound interrelationship between these two goals. The purification of the Sanctuary and the entry of man into the immediate Presence of Hashem always accompany one another. Each requires and implies the presence of the other. The entry into the Presence of Hashem is a purifying and cathartic experience, just as it demands of the one entering that he prepare himself by achieving an optimal degree of purity. For Aharon, brother of the greatest of prophets, who lived in a generation that had repeatedly witnessed the living Presence of Hashem, the ability to experience that Presence in the Holy of Holies was an integral part of his role of priesthood. The Torah taught him that, while he was not to be deprived of the opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies, he may not do so as an individual focused on his personal religious fulfillment alone, but must merge his religious aspirations with the spiritual level and needs of the community. The Sanctuary into which he aspires to enter must be cleansed of impurities created by the community's unatoned defilements and sins, before he may enter as individual, in order to stand in Hashem's Presence. Thus he enters the Holy of Holies several times with sacrifices of atonement and purification (see 16:16, 20) and atones for all the sins of Israel (16:21-22), before he is allowed to enter one last time, with no sacrifice and no particular function designated (16:23 - see Study Question 10).

Subsequent kohanim gedolim were taught by the Torah that the cleansing of the Sanctuary and of the community requires them to enter into the Presence of Hashem. Before they may enter the Holy of Holies, in order to atone and purify, they must cleanse and purify themselves (16:4, 6, 11), they must bring a special ketoret offering to protect them from the terrible danger involved in entering the Presence of Hashem, and only then may they sprinkle the blood of the he-goat, the sa'ir la-Shem, which purifies the Sanctuary, and send the scapegoat to cleanse the people of their sins. After having purified the community, they must enter once again before the Presence of Hashem (16:23) - to take leave, to acknowledge that Hashem is not just a Force that dispenses atonement and purification, to give expression to their relationship with Hashem as individuals.

Just as Aharon may not subordinate the Sanctuary of the community to his individual aspirations, so the Kohanim Gedolim may not completely submerge their individual personalities in the need for communal purification. The Yom Kippur service merges the religious fulfillment of the individual with the need for purification on the part of the community. This service thus serves as an appropriate conclusion to Sections I-II of Vayikra. Section I concluded with the sanctification of the Sanctuary. Section II concludes with a procedure which simultaneously rededicates the Sanctuary by purifying it and expresses the meaning and purpose of all the rituals of Sections I and II: the experience of the living Presence of Hashem. Having achieved both purification and the experience of the Shekhina in the passage dealing with Yom Kippur, the Israelites have completed their spiritual journey away from Egypt and may now commence preparations for their journey into full nationhood in the holy land promised to the Patriarchs.



1. In several places the Ramban takes issue with commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who make what he regards as excessive use of the principle of 'ein mukdam um'uchar ba-Torah' (roughly translated: the Torah does not adhere to chronological sequence). In one of these places, Bemidbar 16:1, Ramban writes: "In my opinion, the entire Torah is written in order, except for places where Scripture makes explicit the departure from chronology, and where there is also for the sake of some purpose and for a good reason."

a. What are the two conditions that must be met, in the Ramban's view, before you may explain Scripture in accordance with the principle of 'ein mukdam um'uchar ba-Torah'?

b. Why is each of these conditions necessary?

c. The first condition is illustrated by Bemidbar 9:1, where Ramban comments: "From here the Sages learned that 'ein mukdam um'uchar ba-Torah'." Explain how and why.

d. How does Bemidbar 9:1 fulfill the Ramban's second condition? See Ramban and other commentators there.

2. In accordance with Ramban's theory regarding 'ein mukdam um'uchar ba-Torah', Ramban suggests a reason why the Torah chooses to write Chapter 16 after Section II of Vayikra, at variance with the chronological sequence: "first wrote the commandments that Israel was commanded, in order that 'they not die because of their impurity, when they defile my Sanctuary in their midst' (15:31), and afterwards wrote the commandment regarding the individual."

a. What is the basic principle underlying the Torah's choice to bring Chapter 16 after Section II?

b. Why does Ramban cite 15:31? What does this pasuk add to Ramban's argument?

c. What do 'the commandments that Israel was commanded' and 'the commandment regarding the individual' have in common?

d. Ramban also relates to the commandment(s) of 10:8-11, which follows immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu - how would this commandment fit into the pattern perceived by the Ramban?

e. In your view, would it make more sense - following the Ramban's logic - to bring Chapter 16 after Section II or after 10:8-11? Why?

3. The Talmud, Chulin 16b-17a, records two views of the relationship of Devarim 12:20 ff. and Vayikra 17:1-7:

"R. Yishmael said: The Torah's sole purpose here was to permit to them 'meat of desire' (namely: meat which may be consumed when and how they desire, not in the context of a shelamim offering), which was initially forbidden to them and was permitted to them when they entered the land."

"R. Akiva said: The Torah's sole purpose was to forbid to them 'meat of stabbing' (i.e. not ritually slaughtered), which was initially permitted to them and was forbidden to them when they entered the land."

a. How does each of these two Tannaim understand each of the two Torah passages? (It is advisable to refer to commentators, such as Rashi and Ramban to Vayikra 17:2 and Da'at Mikra to Vayikra 17, pp. 29-30.)

b. Which of these two views seems to you closer to the p'shat of the Torah? Why?

c. Rambam, Shechita 4:17, writes: "When Israel was in the wilderness, they were not commanded regarding the ritual slaughtering of unconsecrated animals (chulin), but would stab or slaughter and eat, just as other nations do. In the wilderness they were commanded that whoever wanted to slaughter could only slaughter shelamim offerings... but whoever wanted to stab and eat could do so... but when they came into the land the stabbing was forbidden and chulin were permitted to be eaten only through slaughtering. And they were allowed to slaughter any place outside the Temple courtyard...".

Does Rambam agree with one of the two positions suggested above, or is his interpretation a third understanding?

4. a. Where is the land of Canaan mentioned in Chapters 1-15? Why is it mentioned there?

b. Where is the land of Egypt mentioned in Chapters 1-15? Why there?

5. Can you suggest reasons why the laws of arayot are selected to serve as transitional point between Sections II and III of Vayikra? Refer to Da'at Mikra to our parasha, pp. 51 ff.

6. In our shiur we referred to the understanding of Nadav and Avihu's sin which seems to emerge from Rashi to the beginning of our parasha. How may this understanding be supported by the language of 16:1?

a. What understanding of their sin would be indicated by the description in Chapter 10, and how does it differ from the understanding suggested above?

b. Find other places in the Torah where the sin of Nadav and Avihu is alluded to in the Torah. What understanding of the sin isindicated in each of these place?

c. Can you think of a way in which we may interpret all the above passages in accordance with one common understanding of the sin?

7. In our shiur we suggested two understandings of the primary focus and purpose of the service described in Chapter 16. Can you suggest a third understanding, closer to the common understanding of the meaning and purpose of Yom Kippur?

a. One might associate each of these three understandings of this service as focusing on one of Yom Kippur's three central sacrifices - How?

8. M. Margaliot, in his edition of Vayikra Rabba (p. 484, line 2), suggests that the passage on which the Vilna Gaon bases his interpretation of Chapter 16, should be understood differently. Basing himself on the continuation of the discussion in Vayikra Rabba, which discusses the number of the bells and pomegranates worn by the Kohen Gadol when he enters, he argues: "the intention [of the permission given Aharon to enter the 'kodesh' at any time] is in regard to the Holy... but to the Holy of Holies he was allowed to enter only once a year, on Yom Hakkippurim, as it says 'and Aharon shall atone... once a year' (Shemot 30:10)."

a. Why does the discussion of bells and pomegranates prove that Vayikra Rabba is dealing with entry into the Holy, rather than into the Holy of Holies?

b. Milgrom (p. 1013) responds to Margaliot, by pointing out that the continuation of Vayikra Rabba may be referring to a different part of the Yom Kippur service than the part referred to when discussing Aharon's permission to enter the Holy of Holies. Which part? Explain.

c. Why does Margaliot cite Shemot 30:10? In your view, does this pasuk indeed prove Margaliot's point?

d. Da'at Mikra, appendix to Vayikra, pp. 116-117, rejects the Vilna Gaon's interpretation, arguing that the Gaon's major questions can be answered by reading our passage in accordance with the midrashic-exegetical principle of 'davar halamed mesofo' (a matter whose interpretation is derived from its conclusion). How would this principle solve the difficulties?

e. Which approach do you find more convincing, and why?

9. Milgrom (p. 1013) suggests a different understanding regarding the permission given to Aharon to enter the Holy of Holies whenever he chooses: "Initially the purgation rite for the sanctuary was an emergency measure, a thesis that fits the theory that originally this chapter followed upon the deaths of Nadab and Abihu."

a. How does his understanding differ from the one adopted in the shiur?

b. How does the theory regarding the original positioning of our chapter support Milgrom's thesis?

c. How might we defend the understanding suggested in the shiur from this argument by Milgrom?

10. Commentators have always been puzzled by the purpose of Aharon's re-entry into the Holy of Holies in 16:23. Rashi follows Chazal in suggesting: "in order to remove the censer and firepan".

a. What does this mean and why is it necessary?

b. R. Hoffman, in his commentary (p. 315) explains differently: "As long as the people had not been atoned for, it was forbidden for Aharon, as their representative, to see the face of the Shekhina. But after the iniquities of the people had been atoned for... the Holy of Holies was no longer a place where it was forbidden to approach, but was a part of the entire Tent of Meeting, and it was permitted for him to enter as a kind of visit of honor, as it were, with the Shekhina."

In what way does this explanation differ from that of Rashi?

c. Which explanation do you find preferable, and why?

d. Which explanation is closer to that suggested in the shiur? Is it closer to the model of the procedure practiced by Aharon or that practiced by subsequent Kohanim Gedolim?

e. A similar problem arises with regard to 9:23 - see Rashi's two solutions. Can you suggest an additional solution?




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