Parashat Emor (Say, tell) deals with sanctity of the Cohanim and the High Priest in particular, the sacrifices and the sanctity of time.
The fundamental concept that defines sanctity is the separation of one particular element from the rest of similar elements. The sanctity of something, be it a place, an item, a person, or time ties together benefits and restrictions, privileges and responsibilities. Here are a few examples:
Sanctifying a place
King Shlomo is inaugurating the Temple he built – the first permanent House of HaShem. Till then, the Tabernacle was a mobile, temporary, place of warship. Shlomo quotes his father, King David, about the location of the Temple (II Chronicles 6:6): “[For He said…] …I chose Jerusalem for My Name to abide there, and I chose David to rule My People, Israel.” HaShem chose Jerusalem, separating it from all other places to be where His name is. Indeed, today Jerusalem is a sacred city for all major three monotheistic religions; a privilege that combines complex responsibilities.
We all remember this verse (Exodus 3:5): ‘And [God] said, “Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!”’ That was the place that HaShem chose to convene Moshe and assign him to lead the yet-to-be People of Israel.
Similarly, Eretz Yisrael is also sanctified by separating it from all other places on earth. There are many Mitzvot in Torah that apply only to the residents in Eretz Yisrael. Many of them relate to agriculture: what and how to plant, how to reap and harvest, when you can eat fruits, setting aside the first crops, and Shmitah – the rest of the land every seventh year.
Sanctifying the Living Creatures and Persons
Entering into a covenant with a spouse is also a process of separation. The couple decides and commits to separate one’s spouse from all other people. The commitment to this mutual covenant is unique, between two persons, and those two particular persons only. The expression the Jewish couple uses to announce this covenant is a declaration of sanctity: “With this ring, you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moshe and Israel”. The ceremony itself is called Kiddushin – meaning sanctification.
All the sacrificial animals are chosen with particular attention to the details. These details include the type of the animal, its age, gender and condition: it cannot have any blemishes whatsoever. Our Parasha repeats it, again (Leviticus 22:20): ‘You shall not offer any that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor.’ One, though, can donate the defective animal for charity (ibid, ibid, 23): ‘You may, however, present as a freewill offering an ox or a sheep with a limb extended or contracted; but it will not be accepted for a vow.’
Parashat Emor elaborates to the smallest detail what sanctifies the Cohen and makes him eligible to Service HaShem. The Cohen cannot attend to the dead (only first in kin), nor shave. There are restrictions regarding whom they can sanctify to be their spouses and many more. A Cohen that is not perfectly healthy, that has any blemish, that becomes impure for any reason, cannot serve HaShem. Yet, one can sustain oneself with the meal offerings. The reason to all that is clear (Leviticus 21:6): ‘They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the fire-offerings of Adonai and the food of their God, and so they must be holy.’
And here we can experience again the concept of duality in Judaism, were the seemingly two opposites meet. Midrash Vayikra Rabba explains, using quotes from Tanakh:
‘Rabbi Aba son of Yodan Said: “All that the Holy one blessed be he ruled out in the beast, he qualified in man. Disqualified in the beast “one that is blind, of broken, or with a split eyelid or a wart ore a dry skin” (Lev. 22:22 in our Parasha) – He qualified in man: broken heart, depressed”.
Rabbi Alexandre added: “The layman is reprimanded for using broken tools, but the Holy One Blessed Be He, the tools that serve Him are broken, as it is said (Psalms 34:19): ‘Adonai is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers.’ And (Psalms 147:3): ‘He heals their broken hearts, and binds up their wounds.’ Or in Psalms 51:19 we read: “True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.”
Emor also deals with the various holidays that we celebrate throughout the year. The list of these holidays carries yet another, mystical, message that manifests itself in the presence of the number 7. Every 7th day is a holy day – the Shabbat. There are six holy festivals: Pesaḥ first and last days, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret (the last day of Sukkot). And then, there is the seventh holiday – the holy of holies – Shabbat Shabbaton – Yom Kippur.
The commandment to count the Omer in our Parashah represents a squared mystical meaning. The Omer is a sheaf, a bundle of grain that we are requested to bring to the Temple, in service of HaShem. We count each day – 7 days every week – for 7 weeks, starting from the day after Pesaḥ to the day before Shavu-ot.
Let us start with the verse that introduces the sacred times: (Leviticus 23:2):
דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם מוֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אתָם מִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ אֵלֶּה הֵם מוֹעֲדָי׃
A translation is: ‘Speak to the People of Israel and say to them: These are My times, the fixed times of the Adonai, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.’
The Hebrew is really important to hear and read, so as to better understand the multilayered meaning of these sacred times. There are two words in this verse, each appears twice, that somehow are lost in the translation.
The first word I’d refer to is the conjugation of the verb Karah. The translation above uses the word “proclaim” to refer to one of them and actually ignores the second appearance. Correcting this omission, I would translate this to read: ‘… these are the times of Adonai that you will call them out as “Sacred Callings…’
The second, more important, word is the conjugation of Mo-ed. Indeed, Mo-ed is time, time of an event, occasion. And there are more meanings that stem from this root. The Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, is called in Hebrew Ohel (Tent) Mo-ed (convening, meeting). Ya‑ad, one of these derivatives, means a goal, a target. Yi-ud is the more transcendental meaning of the same: a destiny, a vocation. Another word that is derived from that root is Va-ad, which means committee, and also gathering, meeting. Mo-adon is a club: be it a members’ club or a location for a specified purpose, like a rowing boats’ house. You probably can hear the similar sounds of Mo-ed and Mo‑adon.
Putting all these additional subtext meanings to the translation, the instruction is that these specific times are called out in pubic as sacred occasions for gathering as a group (club) in a specific designated location (the Club) to conduct and participate in the sacred service of HaShem.
This deeper understanding of the introduction helps to solve a seemingly conflict about the first “Mo-ed” that is called out – the Shabbat (ibid, ibid, 3): ‘…on the seventh day a Shabbat Shabbaton [a complete rest] a Sacred Calling…’. After all, Shabbat is not dependent on the People to call it out. HaShem designated the Shabbat as a sacred time to mark the end of the work week and the completion of the creation. In contrast, the People of Israel are responsible to decide when is the accurate timing of occurrence of all other Sacred Callings.
In my humble opinion, adding the Shabbat to this list of Sacred Callings instructs us all to make the Shabbat also time of convening as a club, community, in our “club”, the sanctuary and restfully celebrate together the end of the work week.