Parashat Shemini 5779

Rabbi Danny Rich – 29 March 2019

Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:41) is made up of two distinct parts. The second is perhaps ironically better known to Liberal Jews since its single long chapter (11:1-41) is one of two major collections of the dietary laws in the Torah (the other is in Deuteronomy 14).

The legislation is set out in the context of appropriate foods and vessels for a people – the Jewish people – who wish to be identified by standards of moral and ritual behaviour which set them apart – that is make them ‘holy’ – for a specific purpose: to serve the One God.

The authors of Leviticus were neither zoologists nor public health professionals but they divided the natural world into quadrapeds, water–dwelling creatures, birds, insects, and ‘swarming things’, a catagory that appear to include rodents and reptiles.

In order for a four-legged species to be considered for the Israelite dining table it was required to both chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, thereby excluding the pig which has a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud and the camel which does chew the cud but its foot has a joining’ pad to enable it to walk on sand. Creatures of the water must have fins and scales, and, whilst there is no general definition of suitable birds, the list given seems to exclude birds of prey and carrion and the bat (which is, of course, a flying mammal!). For the purposes of completion some types of locust were edible.

The first section of Parashat Shemini is wholly different in character, dealing with the initiation of formal worship in the Mishkan and what is expected of the hereditary priesthood. The portion opens with a series of collective sacrifices including a purification one and a burnt offering before the editors of Leviticus turn their attention to the question of the avoidance of ritual impurity. In the drama of the opening verses of chapter 10 Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are consumed by a Divine fire for a reason which is shrouded in mystery and followed by Aaron’s well-known silence (10:3).

The text then moves on to the more prosaic matters of how Moses will monitor the behaviour of the priests and a particular requirement in 10:9-11 that the priests: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Eternal One has imparted to them through Moses.

I should declare an interest that I do not drink alcohol and, to the surprise of my own children, have never been drunk! I wrote this piece just after Purim during which there are four major observances, of which three (sending gifts to the poor, giving food parcels to friends and having a festive meal) are drawn from details in the Book of Esther.

The fourth – the consumption of alcohol – arises from a comment by Rava, in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 7b) where he declares: It is the duty of person to mellow oneself with wine on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Modechai’.

The Talmud in typical humour goes on to report: Rava and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rava arose and cut Rabbi Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed and revived him. Next year Rava said ‘Will you honour me, come, and we will have the Purim feast together’. Rabbi Zera declined ‘A miracle does not take place on every occasion!’

There is no further comment on Rava’s original assertion but Jewish tradition has debated its exact meaning. Some suggest it implies that on Purim one should drink ‘more than usual’ and another proposes that one drinks ‘until one falls asleep’.

The humorous anecdote in which Rabbi Zera declines a second opportunity perhaps returns us to Parashat Shemini in which it is clear that alcohol may affect our senses and abilities in ways which can be dangerous or at least negligent. It serves a warning that, whereas life is to be enjoyed, it has risks of which one ought to be aware.

The management of risk has become a science in itself and is surely for another day not for Purim or Shabbat!

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