Bechukotai: Great Source(s)

“…if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…”–Leviticus/Vayikra 26:15-16

“…You shall not prolong Your anger with Your sorrowing people to all generations…,” an anonymous author — dated somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries CE — replies, presenting God with 22 commandments, from aleph to tav:

You shall not withhold [t’acher (aleph)] Your answer from him who cries to You with all his heart. You shall not despise [t’vzeh (bet)] the afflicted wretch when he implores You for mercy. You shall not berate [tig’ar (gimmel)] the poor and downtrodden, when he appears before You. You shall not turn Your creature away from Your door empty-handed. You shall not grieve him or shame him for his sin and guilt. You shal not rebuke him in Your anger once he forsakes his ways. You shall not remember against him his early sins, buried in his bosom. You shall not take his pledge in pawn for having defiled himself with crime. You shall not banish him who strays afar, but shall draw him near when he returns…You shall not prolong Your anger with Your sorrowing people to all generations….You shall not hide Yourself [titaleim (tav)] when I beseech You: let my sighs come before You!
–translated by T. Carmi. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse*

Anonymous 9th-11th Century CE poem

* Please see Source Materials for full citation 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.

Emor: Great Source(s)

One great bunch of reflections on the omer…

And you shall count from the morrow of the sabbath, from the day you bring the elevation sheaf [omer], seven whole weeks shall they be. Until the morrow of the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days, and you shall bring forward a new grain offering to the LORD. — Leviticus/Vayikra 23:15-16…

is “Fablog: The Omer,” which serves as gateway to thoughts from many sources: statistical, kabbalistical, logistical; contemporary, ancient and in-between. Daily posts have so far included a number of local voices, plus words of Sonia Sanchez, Joseph Soloveitchik, Toni Morrison, Hoyt Axton, Simon Jacobson, Yehuda Amichai, the Velveteen Rabbi, Hillel and others.
Continue Reading

Kedoshim: Great Source(s)

“Be holy, etc.!” Vayikra Rabbah 24,9, considering the words: [ki kadosh ani], “For I am holy,” asks whether it is possible that the Torah demands that we, the Jewish people, are to be as holy as He is? the Midrash’s answer is that, on the contrary the words [ki kadosh ani], indicate that true sanctity is something reserved for the Creator alone….

Recognition of the greatness of G’d inevitably leads to an awareness of the puniness of man when compared to Him. It is the awareness of our own limitations that gradually brings us closer to understanding and emulating the virtue of the [ein sof], ultimate form of humility. The school of Hillel, disciples of Hillel who was world renowned for his personal modesty and humility, followed their mentor when they formulated the concept that a spark of holiness feeds upon itself and makes ripples like a pebble thrown on the surface of the water.

This idea is also reflected in the opening words of our portion [kedoshim tihyu ], “commence the process to become holy, as it is continuous and feeds on itself.” An additional factor helping you to progress along this route is [ki kadosh ani], “for I am holy,” i.e., when you contemplate My holiness this will inspire you to emulate My holiness to the extent that it is humanly possible. In fact, G’d says that His own holiness will increase proportionate to the amount of holiness to be found amongst His people on earth.
–R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev Kedushat Levi,* pp.578-579

Ripple in still water
when there is no pebble tossed
nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand
if your cup be empty
If your cup is full
may it be again
Let it be known
there is a fountain
that was not made
by the hands of men
–from “Ripple,” by Robert Hunter
(music by Jerry Garcia)

* Please see Source Materials for full citation and additional information.

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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.

Tazria: Great Source(s)

We can also consider a connection between menstruation and covenant. The prophet Zechariah speaks to “daughter Jerusalem” and “daughter Zion” about “your covenant of blood” as that which releases prisoners from the dry pit (9:9-11).* It does not say “the covenant of blood,” as most translations render it, but rather emphasizes that blood is the focus of the covenant. The address to the feminine persona suggests that all “daughters of Zion” have that covenant of blood. It is through menstruation — from puberty when we accept our responsibilities as Jews, through the elder years when bleeding stops and deep wisdom starts — that the entire world is saved from the dry pit of death, in which there is no water, no womb, no regeneration, no rebirth.

See menstrual blood, then, as women’s covenantal blood — just as blood of b’rit milah (ritual circumcision) is men’s….
–Elyse Goldstein in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary** (p.675)

* gam-at [also you (fem. sing.) b’dam [in blood] b’riteich [of your (fem. sing. possessive) covenant]

** Please see Source Materials for full citation 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.

Metzora: Great Source

Leviticus 15 is a tightly constructed essay on genital pollution, arranged chiastically but not along gender lines. In what may be an added verse to the otherwise tightly constructed chapter (v.31) all Israelites, men and women, are warned to be on guard against uncleanness. In case we have any doubt above the overall structure of the essay, we find the apt conclusion in vv. 32-33:

Such is the ritual concerning one who has a discharge, and him who has an emission of semen and becomes unclean thereby, and concerning her who is in her menstrual infirmity: anyone, that is, male or female, who has a discharge, and also the man who lies with an unclean woman.

“Anyone…male or female” — that is the key to Leviticus, which establishes impurity rules, but does not discriminate between men and women. Both are agents of impurity insofar as either emits an bodily substance through the sexual organs. The remarkable thing is how the Rabbis interpret the same rules with an entirely different criterion in mind…

…the key to body-fluid pollution should be sought in the issue of control….At issue is a deeper perception that the Rabbis have of men on the one hand and women on the other….this underlying perception takes us back once again to blood as the Rabbis’ primary means of symbolizing gender issues. The binary opposition obtains between men who are in control of their blood, so of themselves, and therefore of society; and women, who lacking control of blood and therefore of self, are thus denied control of society as well. Continue Reading

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:


Tzav: Great Source(s)

“People of the book”? — “People of the table,” too.

With the repeated destruction of local and central sanctuaries, the power of the sacrificial system necessarily diminished. The decline of sacrifice did not end Jewish concern with food, but channeled it in a different direction. Meat-eating became separated for sacrifice, and non-sacrificial forms of worship flourished.

Rabbinic Judaism, the new form of Judaism established after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, elevated non-priestly and non-sacrificial values and institutions to central importance. The primary avenues to God became Torah study, prayer, deeds of lovingkindness, and fulfillment of the countless ritual observances established by the Rabbis. These activities had not been part of the hereditary priestly system and therefore were not prohibited for women or non-priestly men. This change gave a greater religious role to those who had stood on the periphery of the religious order.

The Rabbis transformed the sacrificial rites of the Temple into domestic table rituals….Passover sacrifices became a family feast of highly symbolic foods….The Rabbis composed dozens of berakhot (blessings) to be said over food and after eating. The holiness that was previously contained within the sacred precinct of the Temple extended into homes and community. Sanctified food, which once referred to the food designated for sacrifice, now meant the food prepared for every Jewish family’s use….

Popular tradition teaches that Jews have been “the people of the book,” prizing Torah study above all. This is only partly true. Rabbinic Judaism made us “the people of the table” as well. The table was at the center of every Jewish dwelling. Laden with food, with books stacked up in the empty spaces, it substituted for the altar.
— Jody Elizabeth Myers, from “The Altared Table: Women’s Piety and Food in Judaism,” IN Lifecycles Volume II*

* Please see Source Materials for full citations 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.

Vayikra: Great Source(s)

By allowing laypersons to make their own sacrifices, under the auspices of the priests, the sacrificial laws gave people a degree of control over their spiritual lives. Inviting people into the sanctuary for the sacrifice, people felt themselves personally invited into God’s earthly home.

In essence, the system of sacrifice provided a metaphor, a method, for the Israelites to reach God, responding to the deep psychological, emotional, and religious needs of the people. Indeed, this is the meaning of the Hebrew word for “sacrifice”; it comes from a verb meaning “to bring near.”

…[Regarding contemporary animal rights concerns:] First, according to the Bible, the life of the animal was its blood (Gen 9:4). Out of respect for that life force, all biblical sources agree that it was forbidden to imbibe blood. …[one] had to return the blood to God, its divine creator, by offering the blood of sacrificial animals on the altar….

In what may seem like an ironic twist, then, these and other dietary rules are founded on the sanctity and inviolability of life. In this way, the sacrificial laws exemplify one of the most exciting characteristics of the book of Leviticus: behind the seeming arcane rituals lies a system of meaning that we can draw into our own, modern lives.
–Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, pp17-18

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.

Milgrom’s book and those below provide historical and anthropological perspectives on the book of Leviticus. While academic and detailed, they can help provide some orientation for what can seem a very foreign territory: the sacrificial system.

For a different sort of orientation see “The Rationale of the Sacrifices,” from Nehama Leibovitz.

Academic Works on Leviticus

Purity and Danger. Douglas, Mary. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966. In this classic of anthropology, we learn: “Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in a systematic ordering of ideas.” Much of the frequently referenced chapter, “The Abominations of Leviticus,” is available at Google Books. Douglas has also written other works on Leviticus and the sacrificial system.

Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Mary Douglas. Sawyer, John F.A., ed. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Includes one response from another scholar, following each main paper, and subsequent discussion.

Golden Bells and Pomegranates. Visotzky, Burton L. Tuebingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003. A study of the 5th Century CE commentary, Leviticus Rabbah.

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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.
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Pekudei: Great Source(s)

As Exodus comes to a close, this poem seems appropriate:

“Exodus” by Charles Reznikoff

…But there came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph
and set us building treasuries and cities,
set us making brick for him and building cities:
we who had been masters of our days and daylight,
free to wander, free to stay.
King and servants, priests and laymen;
soldiers and overseers, and slaves:
this was Egypt’s peace and order,
and in this order we were slaves:
Israel like a bird that a creeping weasel has wounded in the head
or a man knocked against a wall;
the cattle have trampled it — but still it flutters.

But there came a shepherd from the desert,
speaking in the ancient tongue
all but our eldest had forgotten;
and we saw an old man — withered hands and haunches;
and he said to us, stuttering as he spoke:
I bring a message from the God of your fathers
and, in place of these burdens,
I bring you — the yoke of His law.
How pleasant it is, distinguished from the beasts,
to feed upon His law
tasting each syllable
the radiance of our Lord!
If there is bone enough to make the tooth of a key
and ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet —
then fear not the rush of tramping shoes nor the sound of the shouting

and hurry out of this land!
— found in Chapters into Verse

Reznikoff includes notes indicating that the italicized lines at the end of these two stanzas (of a four-stanza poem) “are from the Mishnah (Hullin 3:3 and other places, Danby’s translation).” The ink and bone references can be found in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 78b.

You can read the entire poem at Google Books. See Source Materials for Chapters into Verse details. The poem is also found in The Poems of Charles Reznikoff

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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.
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