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Parashat Shemini 5780 — 04/18/2020

Parashat Shemini 5780 — 04/18/2020

Vayikra 9:1-11:47

Moshe inquired insistently about the he-goat of the chatat [sin] offering, and behold, it had been burned! And he was wrathful with Elazar and Itamar, Aharon’s remaining sons, saying: Why did you not eat the chatat offering in the place of holiness, for it is most holy; and He gave it to you to gain forgiveness for the sin of the assembly and to atone for them before Hashem? Behold, its blood was not brought into the Sanctuary within; you should have eaten it in the Holy, as I had commanded! Aharon spoke to Moshe: Behold, it was today that they offered their chatat offering and their olah [burnt] offering before Hashem, and that such things have befallen me – were I to eat this day’s chatat offering, would Hashem approve? Moshe heard and he approved. (10:16-20)

Before going on to Or haChaim’s commentary on this enigmatic passage, I would like to point out an interesting fact. The words translated (by Artscroll) as “inquired insistently” are darosh darash, and both are spelled the same way in Hebrew (which is written without vowels). The Masoretic note to this verse points out that this is “half the Torah in words, darosh on one side and darash on the other.” Many commentators have noted this point and remarked that this is the way of Torah – it must be studied and parsed this way and that, to get at all the layers of meaning contained in it. I might add that Torah has two main levels – in essence it is structured in the Transcendent, and it is also projected into the material world of boundaries in which we live. In order to gain total knowledge, we must alternate between experiencing Torah in its transcendental state, and understanding Torah intellectually through rigorous study.

To return to the matter at hand, it appears that Moshe got angry. Why did Moshe get angry, and what were the consequences of that anger? The commentators frame the entire, somewhat terse and cryptic discussion, as a halachic dispute. First, we note that there were actually three chatat offerings made that day:

  1. The chatat offering of the inauguration of the Mishkan and the Kohanim – this was a one-off chatat, only offered during the seven days of inauguration
  2. The chatat offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first of the tribal princes (from Yehudah), as part of the set of offerings made by each tribal prince. This too was a one-off; each one of the 12 tribes’ princes made the same set of offerings, one a day, for 12 days beginning on 1 Nisan, the day in question here.
  3. The regular chatat offering of Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon celebration), as this was the first day of Nisan. This offering is made on every Rosh Chodesh that the Mishkan or Temple is in existence.

The question of eating the chatat offerings arose because Aharon and his two sons had just lost an immediate relative (Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, brothers of Elazar and Itamar) and were in a state of aninut / intense mourning, during which time it is forbidden for the Kohanim to eat offerings. Specific exceptions to that rule are one-off offerings, but those that are offered regularly, throughout the generations, must be burnt. The discussion between Moshe and Aharon concerned chatat #3; Moshe questioned why it was burnt, Aharon replied that they were oneinim and the Rosh Chodesh chatat was not a one-off, temporary situation, and therefore they couldn’t eat it. Moshe hears and agrees. (I have presented this is a very cut-and-dried issue; obviously it wasn’t so cut-and-dried in the moment.)

Now Or haChaim’s question comes into clearer focus: Did Moshe forget the halachah and think Aharon and his sons acted incorrectly, and therefore became angry, or the reverse – did Moshe become angry for some other reason and therefore forget the halachah, or lose (temporarily) the ability to think the matter through clearly and apply the halachah to the current situation?

There are problems with either approach. If Moshe’s anger preceded and precipitated his forgetting of the halachah, what was it that made him angry? And if his forgetting of the halachah preceded and precipitated his getting angry, what was it that made him forget the halachah?

At this point Or haChaim cites a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni §535) in which this very issue is disputed. He points out that both disputants (R. Chananiah ben Yehudah and R. Yehudah) are trying to interpret the Biblical passage in a way that reflected most positively on Moshe Rabbeinu. R. Chananiah ben Yehudah held that anger is to be avoided because it caused Moshe to err in halachah. Apparently an “unforced error” is worse than one that is brought about by getting angry.

There were at least two other times where Moshe’s anger got him into trouble. He got angry with the people when they were clamoring for water, and hit the rock (the second incident) instead of speaking to it. For this he was barred from leading the people into the Land. He also got angry with the soldiers returning from the war on Midian (after the incident with Bil’am) and forgot the laws of koshering utensils, which were given over by Elazar instead.

Perhaps the lesson for us is that we must learn to control our anger. Ramban in his famous letter describes anger as “the worst character trait, which causes one to sin,” and quotes the Sages saying that one who gets angry, is ruled over by Gehinnom.

Rav Yehudah, on the other hand apparently held that forgetting a halachah is worse, at least for Moshe Rabbeinu, who was “the most trusted one of His household.” I imagine that one could reason that if Moshe could forget one halachah, how many others had he forgotten? Is the Torah incomplete? Is it comprehensible? If Moshe could not remember what he had gotten directly from Gd, what are we supposed to do who got it from Moshe, and at many generations removed at that. In other words, Moshe’s forgetting a halachah could put Gd’s entire project of creating a Torah-based people and society into doubt. We have discussed the process of loss of knowledge through the generations on multiple occasions, and we see it happening in our own day. It would seem that to have any chance of survival, absolute purity at the source would be necessary. In that case, perhaps it doesn’t matter which came first, anger or forgetting. We can only hope that the ultimate Redeemer, Mashiach, will be neither angry nor forgetful.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shemini

Shemini means “eighth.” In this parshah, we learn that Aaron completed his seven days after being initiated by Gd through Moses as High Priest of Israel; on the eighth, he performed his first service as High Priest:

“…And the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people.” Leviticus 9:23 (

Aaron made his own offerings (“korbanot”, drawing near) and also those of the people in the correct way and the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people.

This is the world we want today and always, a world in which all leaders and all people – all included, none left out – are properly prepared to draw near and to experience the glory of Gd and as they experience the experience becomes available to all the people.

Leviticus, 9:24.
“And fire went forth from before the Lrd and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces” (translation,

The symbolism of “eight”, as presents it, appeals to me: eight symbolizes Gd beyond the seven days of creation [if we include the seventh day of “rest”] and, therefore, knowable only by Gd , beyond comprehension by the creation.

On the eighth day, we would have Gd as Kaddish says about Gd: above and beyond any praise or blessing we can utter in the world. On this day, Aaron is fulfilled and he and all the Children of Israel see the Glory of the Lrd; also on this day, two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the same Fire of Gd that consumed the offerings of Aaron and the people. Both events occur on the same day, indicating the unknowableness of Gd. Torah says this was because they offered “strange fire” which Gd had not commanded; some rabbis say it was because they were drunk; other rabbis say it was because they were great and Gd sanctified the Tabernacle through them. We have diverse views, consistent with the symbolism of eight as Gd being beyond description or human understanding.

Consistent with this interpretation of Gd beyond understanding is the description in this parashah of dietary laws, particularly what animals, birds, fish, insects are clean and which are not to be eaten.

Discussions I have seen on this indicates that the reasons for the categorizing are not understandable simply from a human zoological view but they are known only to Gd and we must have faith in them and thus to be holy as Gd is Holy.

So it is up to us to live pure lives, to serve as High Priests within the Temple that is our own body and personality, and to offer our lives to Gd, Totality beyond words to describe or understand, and to enjoy the unfoldment of Gd’s glory within us and around us, everywhere. Everywhere. For everyone.

Baruch HaShem