Gathering Sources: Vayikra

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, “Vayikra,” Lev 1:1-6:7, which also begins the new book, Vayikra/Leviticus. Posting a little early for anyone who wants to get (re-)oriented as we leave the Book of Exodus and enter The Book of Leviticus. (Less variation in transliteration for this portion, but sometimes appears at “Va-Yikra” with a hyphen, older sources sometimes use “W” rather than “V” for that initial vav, so wayikra.)

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.”

Great Sources — some general background sources on the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra

Something to Notice — that tiny aleph at the start of Vayikra

Language and Translation — when a “Soul Unintentionally Fails”

A Path to Follow — calling out and Derekh Eretz

Also “Women, Vayikra, and Progress
And He Called“/Stop Street Harassment.

And He Called: Stop Street Harrassment

(And) he called [va-yikira]… (Lev. 1:1)

“I don’t care how she’s dressed, it’s not OK!”
“I don’t care how she’s walking, it’s not OK!”
“It’s not a compliment…It’s street harassment”

Vayikra” is a singular masculine verb (all action in Hebrew is gendered). These are the first words, and the Hebrew name, of the Bible book known in English as Leviticus. We know from context that the implicit “he” is God and that God is calling, from within the newly constructed Tabernacle, to Moses. But this year [2012], our reading of Vayikra — (Lev. 1:1-5:26) in the annual Torah cycle — coincides with “Stop Street Harassment Week,” and I’m hearing those words a little differently.

Vayikra is the first portion in a long series of instructions for the sacrificial system, designed to restore balance in the universe when a wrong has been committed, intentionally, unintentionally or even unknowingly. YouTube is not exactly the Tabernacle, and videos are not sacrifices, but I do believe that StopStreetHarrassment.org has managed to make powerful use of tools at hand.

As I watched “Shit Men Say to Men Who Say Shit to Women” (below) I realized I was crying. Gradually, I came to understand that I heard these guys speaking across the decades and the miles to all the men who yelled shit at me in my youth, to all the men who intruded on me, who made the streets feel less safe for me, for other women and for gay and transgendered folk. (for more resources, please visit Stop Street Harassment)

And as I heard these young guys tell others — including those men, now gray as I am or gone, who once hassled me — “it’s not OK,” I felt a balance restored to the universe. These guys cannot atone for mistakes of others. But they did, powerfully, repair something for me.

And he called….

“Are you serious?”
“You’re embarrassing me, man.”
“Stop it.”
“It’s street harrassment.”

Amen. And thank you!

Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

Leviticus/Vayikra chapter 4 opens with a “soul” involved in an “unintentional” “failure.” Vayikra: Language and Translation offers five translations, with their associated notes and commentaries. For anyone seeking a drash [investigation] point, this could be a good spot to begin: What might it mean for a soul to fail unintentionally? And what, if anything, can be done about it now that we have no sacrificial system?

In his “Seven Approaches,” Richard Israel warns beginners:

Unless you are basing yourself on a traditional commentator, stay away from forms like Microscope or Puzzle [language- and detail-oriented dvar Torah models] until you know enough Hebrew to be able to distinguish between a real nuance in the text and a mere idiosyncrasy of translation.

This is useful advise. But I’ll pass along one short-cut that I’ve found in discovering spots where commentators have for centuries discussed alternative meanings.
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Vayikra: Language and Translation

What does it mean that “a soul unintentionally fails [Nefesh ki-techeta bi-sh’gagah]…”? — Leviticus/Vayikra 4:1-2

Is this an ethical or ritual error? Was the “soul,” in contemporary understanding, alone involved? Here are five translations with associated notes, suggesting (no surprise) no agreement:

YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying:
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying:
(Any) person [nefesh]– when one sins [ki-techeta] in error [bi-sh’gagah]
regarding any of YHWH’s commandments that should not be done,
by doing any one of them:

sins: Heb. teheta‘; more properly, it means “fails” (B-R*) or “misses” (as with an arrow). The word connotes giving offense to or wrongdoing God (or another person).
— Fox**

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘Should a person offend errantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done and he do one of these,…

offend errantly. The Hebrew adverb bishegagah has the sense of “unintentionally,” “by mistake.” The concern throughout this section is to preserve the purity of the place of the cult. The inadvertent “offense” does not at all imply an ethical transgression but rather the unwitting violation of a prohibition…generating physical pollution that must be cleansed.
— Alter**

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

Person. Hebrew nefesh, often rendered “soul.” Some commentators remark that the soul is involved in every transgression, but Bachya notes that nefesh sometimes means the combination of soul and body, sometimes body alone (e.g., Lev. 21:1).

Incurs guilt. These words render a form of the verb chata, “to sin.”
— JPS/Plaut**

[YHVH] spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in the regard to any of [YHVH’s] commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

person. Heb. nefesh, which indicates that the law applies equally to women and men.

unwittingly incurs guilt. The concern is with inadvertent moral or physical violations.
— JPS/TWC**

HASHEM spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a person will sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of HASHEM that may not be done, and he commits one of them.

[nefesh]A person [lit., soul]. Because thoughts originate in the soul, the sins that necessitate this offering — sins born of careless inadvertence — are attributed to the soul, and it is the soul that is cleansed by means of the offering (Rambam [Maimonides])
— Stone**

The Stone chumash elaborates on this verse:

1) “No offering is sufficient to remove the stain of [intentional] sinfulness; that can be done only through repentance and a change of attitudes…”

2) “…if the sin was committed accidentally and without intent, no offering is needed.”

This leaves “deeds that were committed [bi-shegagah], inadvertently, as the result of carelessness.” Ramban [Nachmanides] teaches, the text continues, that “such deeds blemish the soul…for if the sinner had sincerely regarded them with the proper gravity, the violations would not have occurred.” One who cares about honoring the Sabbath, “would not have ‘forgotten’ what day of the week it was,” for example.

Another view:

The person who brings forth a sacrifice in the Torah is called a nefesh — in Rabbinic Hebrew, literally, a “soul.” When we give our sacrifices, we should give from the heart, or even more deeply, from the soul….We reach out from our soul to connect with the souls of others.
— Joseph B. Meszler, “Sacrifice Play”
IN The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary (Jewish Lights; full citation in Source Materials**)

*“B-R” is the Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig translation of the Bible into German, on which Fox based his translation. (I just figured out, finally, how to do text jumps in these posts! [return to text])

** Full citations and more details about each translation available at Source Materials. (return to text)

See also, Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

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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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Sacrifice and Womb: Pursuing Connections

One of the reasons I started the “Opening the Book” blog series was my belief that the plethora of dvrei torah (plural of dvar [word] of Torah]) on the internet, as well as in print, doesn’t necessarily help anyone who is trying to prepare a dvar torah of their own, at least at the outset.

The mere quantity can seem daunting: With search engines returning over 19,000 hits on “Vayikra dvar torah,” it might seem there is simply nothing more to say (“Vayikra” alone draws over 100,000 hits). Those 19,000 hits, in turn, point to a raft of sources, which can seem overwhelming instead of encouraging.

There are terrific resources — text, hypertext, audio and video — on the web (see, e.g., On-Line Learning). But a strategy more contained than Googling or Binging the Torah portion can be helpful.
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Derekh Eretz: Pursuing Connections

Vayikra: A Path to Follow quotes a Talmud passage linking this week’s Torah portion to rules of etiquette and ethics. Specifically, the first verse is linked to “Don’t speak until you’ve first called to the person with which you’re trying to communicate” and to “Don’t repeat what anyone says without express permission.”

Either or both of these rules are fine fodder for study and discussion and/or for a congregational dvar torah [“word” of Torah]. For those interested in becoming more comfortable with finding such connections to share with others, here, for what it’s worth, is how I found the quote shared in the previous post.
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Vayikra: A Path to Follow

And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him [Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1], why does Scripture mention the call before the speech? — The Torah teaches us good manners: a man should not address his neighbour without having first called him. This supports the view of R. Hanina, for R. Hanina said: No man shall speak to his neighbour unless he calls him first to speak to him. Rabbah said: Whence do we know that if a man had said something to his neighbor the latter must not spread the news without the informant’s telling him ‘Go and say it’? From the scriptural text: The Lord spoke to him out of the tent of meeting, lemor [saying*].
— Yoma 4b**

In his book, A Guide to Derech Eretz, Rabbi Saul Wagschal (Southfield, MI: Targum Press/Feldheim, 1993) adds:

This rule [about calling out] appears explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:12): A Rabbi should not be asked questions upon his entering the beis midrash; one may only approach him after he has settled down.
— Wagshal, p.66

There is a more general note on the concept of derekh eretz at My Jewish Learning. There is a great deal of information about the concept of “guarding the tongue” [shmirat ha-lashon] on the internet and in print. I have not found cites to particularly recommend, despite extensive looking; if anyone has good ones to recommend, please suggest them.

The 19th Century author Chofetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan) and the contemporary Joseph Telushkin famously focus on this topic. There was an article written some years back about gender considerations — does the prohibition of “evil speech” [lashon hara] effectively prohibit topics important to inter-personal and communal relationship, i.e., what was understood for centuries as “women’s speech”? — but I can’t locate the citation.


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*Footnote: “Lemor here is taken to mean ‘to say it (to others)’…
**Soncino translation of Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma [“the day”], from Seder Mo’ed [appointed seasons]; see Source Materials for citations and more details.

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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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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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