Gathering Sources: Shemini

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, “Shemini,” Leviticus 9:1-11:47. (Sometimes spelled “Sh’mini” or “Shmini.”) This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Shemini is next read beginning at minchah on Shabbat 3/23/19 (Shabbat Tzav).

A path to follow — mourning and hair

Great Souces-1 — a father’s silence

Great Sources -2 — strange crossings

Something to Notice — hairy goat, Torah’s center

Language and Translation — son who remained

See also “In Praise of Silence

More Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 13)

Shabbat approaches, and this week’s Torah portion is Shemini (“Eighth [day],” Lev: 9:1 – 11:47; see also “In Praise of Silence” ). It’s one in which women are simply not present — not even, as in the next double portion of Tazria and Metzora, as a source of potential impurity — unless by extrapolation: The portion is largely about kashrut; women have traditionally borne responsibility for keeping a kitchen kosher; therefore, women’s presence is implied. Earlier in Exodus, we learn the name of Aaron’s wife. When Nadav and Abihu die after offering “strange fire,” however we are told that “Aaron was silent,” but Elisheva is not even mentioned. (Lev. 10:1-3)

It is worth noting, I think, that this woman-less portion closes out the week of Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries”] in our omer journey away from oppression. Jews, and Jewish feminists in particular, have been grappling for a long time with the ways the Torah defines women, when it isn’t ignoring them entirely. And this seems a good time to focus our attention on the ways in which Black women have been defined by others when the narrative isn’t ignoring them entirely.
Continue reading More Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 13)

In Praise of Silence (Beyond 8)

We’re coming to the end of the eighth day out, the first full day of this omer journey in which we are not celebrating Passover and/or Shabbat [written on April 12, 2015]. The Torah portion for this week is also called “Eighth [Shemini]” and speaks of the eighth day of ritual in the wilderness, one which turns tragic, as two priests offer “strange fire” and are lost:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before [YHVH] alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from [YHVH] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of [YHVH]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what [YHVH] mean by saying:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent.
— Leviticus 10:1-3 (translation in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

The Deepest Response…

In her commentary on this portion, Blu Greenberg links Aaron’s loss in the Torah portion with her own loss in 2002, when her 36-year-old son JJ was killed in a bicycle accident:

What could have happened? We struggle to understand? Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire?

…Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.

…[Some visitors after JJ died] tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. “He was so good that God needed Him by His side” was one such attempt…I responded, “But we on Earth need him more!” Most people understood at the deepest level that there is nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. We ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.

Jewish laws of bereavement…stipulate that the shiva [mourning] visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah [law] enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.
— Blu Greenberg, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
(NY: 2008, Women of Reform Judaism), p. 632-633

…Is Silence

Throughout the centuries, commentators reading about Nadav and Abihu have rushed — as Greenberg notes above — to either assign guilt, thus justifying their deaths, or exonerate them and so vilify God. Similarly, our nation reacts to the seemingly unending litany of black deaths at the hands of police and others:

  • she was armed;
  • he shouldn’t have run;
  • he was a “good” kid;
  • she was going to college;
  • the officer felt threatened;
  • the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that each individual whose death becomes part of this on-going discussion about racism, policing and state violence was first a person.

And, somewhere in the midst of all that is to be said, we must make space and time, too, for silence.

We counted 8 on the evening of April 11. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading In Praise of Silence (Beyond 8)

Shemini: A Path to Follow

“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u] and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that [YHVH] has wrought.” — Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 (TWC translation*)

Commentary from Onkelos:* The entire house of Israel, may mourn. This teaches that when Torah scholars have difficulties, their problems are a burden for the entire community, who are expected to grieve over their distress (Rashi based on the Babylon Talmud, Moed Katan 25a)

from Stone Chumash:* The entire house of Israel. The Sages derive from this verse that the suffering of a talmid chacham [a Torah scholar, in this case, the grieving Aaron and his sons] should be shared by all Israel (Rashi).</p?

True, a Jew should try to accept God’s justice with faith that it is for the best — as Aaron did and as his sons were commanded to do — but other people should mourn and grieve over the misfortunes of a fellow Jew (R’ Shlomo Kluger)

All Are (Like) Kin?

I have not studied the Talmud* section cited above, but I see that it includes a discussion of whether “all are kin” or “all are like kin” to Torah scholars. This, I think, is one fascinating path raised by this week’s text:

What is our kinship to Torah scholars?

How does that apply in a community of egalitarian learning/teaching?

For the rabbis of the Talmud, was “Torah scholar” code for “one of us”?

And, if so, what is the implication for other communities, whatever the level of “scholarship” of each individual in the community?

What is the nature of communal grieving?

Do we ever grieve instead of our scholars or leaders, i.e., while they cannot grieve, perhaps for reasons to do with their leadership roles? How?

Are there other ways in which “their problems are a burden for the entire community”?

Bitter Water and Loosened Hair

A bit further in the discussion (25b) appears what strikes me as an unusually poetic quote attributed to Raba:

When more than ‘a third” wadeth in water deep
Remember the covenant and mercy keep
We strayed from thee as a wayward wife
Leave us not: as at Marah, save our life.

Footnotes reference Numbers/Bamidbar 5:22 (“the Sotah”), wherein the suspected wife is given bitter water to drink. This I find fascinating in part because the sotah’s hair is unloosed, using the same verb which is so awkwardly, and variously, translated into English:

“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (JPS)

“…’Do not let your hair grow long [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Onkelos)

“…’Your heads, do not bare [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Fox)

“…’Your heads, you shall not dishevel [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Alter)

What is the relationship between loose hair and mourning?

What is the relationship between loose hair, mourning and bitter water?

We at least think we know what “arm” or “hand” mean, metaphorically, when they appear in the Torah as God-parts. But what does “hair” mean in this context?

Is hair simply a vehicle for describing age? See, for example, p.247 in The Many Faces of God: A modern reader of theologies. Or does hair represent something else or something more?

I don’t know — haven’t been far enough down this path — but it looks worth exploring.

*Please see Source Materials for full citations, on-line source links and additional information.


The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Shemini: Great Source(s)-2

This may not seem immediately related to the portion, Shemini, in anyone else’s head. But Louis Armstrong — both voice and trumpet — has always sounded to me like a man who has experienced strange crossings with their share of harrowing times and losses…not unlike what the families of Aaron/Elisheva and Moses/Zipporah — and the Israelites, more generally — have been experiencing. For me, this is most evident on Moon River:

Shemini: Something to Notice

“Now about the hairy-goat of hattat,* Moses inquired, yes, **
inquired [darosh ** darash]…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:16).

*Fox leaves this untranslated; usually rendered “sin offering.”

** According to those who count such things — the Masoretes, for example — the word “darosh” appears in the first half of the Torah, word-wise, and “darash” appears in the second half. I.e., the words “darosh darash” are at the center of the Torah.

Other translations use “investigated carefully” (Onkelos), “inquired about” (JPS), and “insistently sought” (Alter) for this phrase. Only Fox preserves the repetitious nature of the emphatic Hebrew construction.***

Why is Moses inquiring about the goat? What is this particular verse/phrase doing at the center of the Torah? Why mark half and not, e.g., thirds? Those questions are beyond “Something to Notice” (which is not, please notice, “Something Fully Explained.”)

Other Centers

Verse 11:42 “Anything going about on its belly [al-gachon]…” contains the middle letter, by the way, and the vav is written larger for this reason: gimmel-chet-VAV-nun.

There is some disagreement about where the middle verse is to be found: “then he should shave around the bald spot…” (13:33) is listed as the middle verse in Babylonia Talmud Kiddushin 30a.*** The Masoretes list “He placed the breastpiece on him…” (8:8) as the middle verse.
Continue reading Shemini: Something to Notice

Shemini: Language and Translation

“Moses spoke to Aaron and to Elazar and Ithamar, his remaining sons [banav ha-notarim], ‘Take the meal-offering that is left [ha-noteret] from the fire-offerings of HASHEM, and eat it unleavened near the Altar; for it is the most holy.'” Continue reading Shemini: Language and Translation