Parshat Emor: The Kohen is Restricted in Caring for the Departed

And Hashem said to Moshe: Declare to the Kohanim, the children of Ahron, and say to them, “Let him not become defiled through contact with the dead from among his nation.” (VaYikra 21:1)

1. The Kohen is prohibited from becoming defiled

The Kohen may not become defiled through contact with a dead body. This prohibition restricts the Kohen’s role and responsibilities in caring for the departed. Only should he lose a close relative, may the Kohen personally care for the body of the departed.

Superficially, the reason for this prohibition is that the ritually unclean Kohen is unfit to serve in the Temple. The Kohen may not render himself unfit for service. This restricts his contact with a dead body. However, this interpretation of the command presents difficulties. There are other conditions that disqualify the Kohen from service. A Kohen who is intoxicated is unfit. If he is unkempt, he may not serve. Nonetheless, when not serving in the Mikdash – the Temple – it is not prohibited for a Kohen to drink wine or become intoxicated. He is not required to be constantly diligent in his personal appearance. He must only restrict himself when serving in the Temple. Why is ritual defilement treated more severely and prohibited at all times?

2. The Kohen’s status as a prince

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the Kohen is a prince among the people. This status is not merely a privilege; it is the duty of the Kohen to protect this status. In other words, his status as a prince is derived from his office – from his role as Kohen. He must conduct himself in a manner consistent with his status. Proper conduct reinforces the office and status assigned to him. Improper conduct diminishes the office and role.

The Kohen’s elevated status is expressed through the commandments in this parasha. How does the prohibition against defilement elevate the status of the Kohen? Sforno explains that there are two premises underlying this prohibition. First, the princely status of the Kohen is expressed through his separation from ritual defilement. In other words, because he has priestly status, he may not defile himself. Second, the requirement to care for the body of the departed is an act of respect for the departed. If a Kohen engages in caring for the departed, he becomes defiled. Thereby, he prioritizes his concern for and commitment to the departed above his priestly sanctify of the Kohen. This is inappropriate for a prince.[1]

3. The difference between the prohibition against defilement and the prohibition against intoxication

In contrast, intoxication is not prohibited by the Torah as an expression of the Kohen’s princely status. Similarly, he is not required to maintain immaculate personal appearance because he is a prince. These behaviors result from the sanctity of the service. When performing service in the Mikdash, the sanctity of the service demands an appropriate appearance and state of mind. Therefore, when the Kohen is not in the process of performing the service, he is not restricted in these behaviors.

The Sacrifices of Shavuot are Central to its Sanctity

Until the day following the seventh week, you should count fifty days. And you should present an offering of new grain to Hashem. (VaYikra 23:16)

1. The purpose of the listing of Festivals

The parasha reviews the various days on which melachah – work – cannot be performed and upon which special sacrifices are offered in the Mikdash. The Chumash begins this list with Shabbat. The Chumash continues and identifies each of the Festivals. In almost every case, the Torah explains that melachah is prohibited on the occasion and sacrifices are offered. The Chumash also mentions special mitzvot related to the Chag – the Festival. For example, we are commanded to eat matzah on Pesach. On Yom Kippur, the Torah requires us to fast.

The specific sacrifices that are required for each Chag are generally not enumerated or described. This seems slightly odd. After all, much of Sefer VaYikra is devoted to discussing sacrifices. The commentators offer a number of explanations. Nachmanides suggests that the Festival sacrifices were not offered in the wilderness but only once the nation entered the Land of Israel. Therefore, a description of the specific sacrifices was postponed until the people were poised to enter the Land. This detailed description of the sacrifices is included in Sefer BeMidbar.[2] Of course, this raises the question: What is the purpose of this list? Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno responds that this list identifies the occasions upon which melachah is prohibited.[3] The requirement to offer sacrifices is mentioned without elaboration as the main purpose of the list is to identify occasions restricted in melachah. This explains an odd deviation within the list. The list begins with Shabbat. In listing Shabbat, the Torah describes it as an occasion restricted in melachah. However, no mention is made of the additional sacrifices offered on Shabbat. Only much later in the chapter is any reference made to the Shabbat sacrifices (Sefer VaYikra 23:38). However, Sforno’s comments explain this deviation. The list begins with Shabbat in order to identify the list’s purpose and nature. Shabbat is the most fundamental and primary occasion of restriction from melachah. Any list of occasion restricted in melachah must begin with Shabbat. Because this list is an enumeration of such occasions, it first identifies Shabbat and then proceeds to the Festivals.

There are exceptions in the listing to the manner in which sacrifices are treated. The Omer sacrifice, offered on the second day of Pesach, is described. The special offerings of Shavuot are also outlined. The Torah describes the two loaves – the Shetai HaLechem and the accompanying offerings brought on this Chag. Why is a discussion of these sacrifices included in this section?

2. The definition of sanctity and the sanctity of the Land of Israel

Our section is introduced by an important pasuk. Hashem tells Moshe, “Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them, ‘These are the special times of Hashem. You should declare them as sacred occasions. The following are my special times.’”[4] In other words, this section provides a list of sacred occasions. As explained above, the Torah then provides a list of occasions on which melachah is restricted. What does this reveal regarding the concept of sanctity – kedushah?

The term kedushah or sanctity has a specific meaning in halachah. Kedushah means that the object or entity is differentiated through halachah. Let us consider an example. The Land of Israel has kedushah. From the perspective of halachah, this means that the Land is different from all other lands. This distinction is created by the special mitzvot that apply only to the Land of Israel. In other words, the special mitzvot of the Land of Israel are not a result of its kedushah. They are the source and basis of its kedushah. It is these mitzvot that differentiate the Land from other lands, make it special, and endow it with sanctity.

3. The source of the sanctity of Shabbat and the festivals

Now, let us return to our section. The Torah is providing a list of days that have kedushah. These days are different from the other days of the year. What is the fundamental element that creates this kedushah? The characteristic that is the focus of the list is the prohibition against melachah. This restriction is this unique mitzvah that defines these days as sacred occasions.

However, the list also notes that special sacrifices are associated with each Chag. This suggests an interesting question. The sacrifices also distinguish these days from all others. Our section implies that these offerings do not, by themselves, create the sanctity of the day. However, do the offerings add an additional aspect of kedushah?

4. The role of the Shabbat and festival sacrifices

The answer seems to be provided by the liturgy accompanying these occasions. On each, a Musaf Amidah is recited. The Musaf Amidah makes reference to the special offerings of the occasion. The Amidah is a series of blessings. It is notable that the reference to the sacrifices is not formulated as a separate blessing. The reference is included in the blessing that discusses the kedushah of the occasion. The message of this formulation is clear. Although, the sacrifices do not create the kedushah of these days, they do add to this sanctity. In other words, the essential element differentiating these occasions from other days is the prohibition of melachah. The sacrifices create a secondary kedushah or distinction.

5. The unique sanctity of Shavuot

This analysis suggests that Shavuot is different from other holidays. As explained above, in discussing Shavuot, the Torah does delineate the special offerings for the Chag. However, there is another deviation in the manner in which the Torah discusses Shavuot. In enumerating the other Festivals, the Torah first states that melachah is restricted on the occasion and then notes the requirement to offer special sacrifices. In its description of Shavuot, only after describing the sacrifices is the prohibition of melachah mentioned. The implication is that the relationship between the sacrifices and the prohibition of melachah is reversed. These offerings are not a mere secondary source of kedushah. On Shavuot, these sacrifices create the kedushah of the Chag.

In summary, the section demonstrates that the fundamental element that endows Shabbat and Festivals with sanctity is the restriction from performing melachah. Sacrifices further contribute to the occasion’s sanctity but are not an independent source of kedushah. In other words, the characteristic that distinguishes Succot from the days that precede it and follow it – that endow it with sanctity – is the restriction of melachah. Succot has many special sacrifices – more than any other Festival. However, these sacrifices are not the distinction that is most fundamental to the occasion’s kedushah. The sacrifices only enhance and contribute to the sanctity. This role of the melachah restriction is the same for most other Festivals. It is the fundamental source of their sanctity. However, Shavuot is an exception. The sacrifices of Shavuot are its fundamental distinguishing characteristic. It is these sacrifices that give the occasion its identity and sanctity. In this instance, it is the melachah prohibition that is secondary. Rather than endowing the occasion with sanctity, the melachah restriction is a response to and enhances the Festival’s sanctity.

[1] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 21:4.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:2.

[4] Sefer VaYikra 23:2.