Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26)

This week, we start reading the book of Leviticus (Vayikra).  I realize that there is probably something somewhere in Leviticus to annoy and/or offend pretty much everyone who is reading this.  And there’s very little in the way of narrative.  But amidst the sacrificial details, skin diseases, genital disorders, and prescriptions of appropriate sexual partners, there is actually a lot of good stuff concerning ethical behavior.  In this week’s portion, however, there’s a little ethics, but it’s mostly sacrifices.

The first few chapters of Leviticus constitute a training manual for the priests concerning offerings: what is to be sacrificed, when, why, by whom, how, what could be substituted, and who gets to eat what [yes, only after many years of skimming such readings did I look more closely and realize that not everything was totally burned up and that the sacrificial system provided a lot of good meat for the priests and Levites (mmm, barbecue)].  The ArtScroll’s Stone edition of the Torah readings has a several-page, tabulated crib sheet of all the details.

Here are the 5 basic types of offerings we learn about this week:

  • The burnt offering (olah) (Lev. 1:1-17), totally burned, was intended to bring the giver closer to the Lord.
  • The meal offering (minchah) (Lev. 2:1-16), made of flour and oil (unleavened), cooked or uncooked, was often given by those who couldn’t afford an animal for an olah. 
  • The offering of well-being, or peace offering (sh’lamim) (Lev. 3:1-17), was given in gratitude and was partly eaten by priests, donor, and guests as a festive meal (like sponsoring a kiddush lunch at synagogue today).
  • The sin offering (chatat) (Lev. 4:1-35; 5:1-13) was to atone for an unintentional sin, individual or communal.
  • The guilt offering (asham), (Lev. 5:14-26), a ram, was usually offered by someone who had stolen property. The thief also had to make restitution and pay a fine.

If you want modern parallels, think of how we give money or other gifts in honor of something or in memory of someone or because we feel guilty (flowers and candy) or because we are grateful for something or in honor of a holiday.

Two questions:  Why is there a sacrificial system at all?  And why do the Israelites have to hear all its details, most of which are intended for priestly practice? 

There have been, naturally, many positions taken concerning the sacrifice of animals as a means of worshiping God.  Maimonides (1138-1204) saw this system as a useful means of gradually leading them from idolatry to prayer, i.e., sacrifices to idols -> sacrifices to the Lord -> serving the Lord without sacrifices.  Nachmanides (1194-1270), on the other hand, felt that was nonsense, that sacrifices were not inherently linked to idolatry since they predated idolatry in the Torah.  Instead, he held that the details of the sacrificial system had intrinsic value; in fact, the sacrifice was symbolically offered in place of the person himself.  A modern sociological/historical analysis by Hillel Gruenberg of JTS (The Rituals that Make a Nation) identifies the sacrifices and rituals in Leviticus as reflecting the Israelites’ “communal needs …giving form and substance to an emergent sense of “groupness” that transcended the tribal and familial divisions that then characterized their society of wanderers.”

Why do the Israelites (and congregants) have to hear all the details? Robert Tornberg nicely sums it up in Looking through the Smoke: A Transparent Message:  “The Torah ensures that Judaism is not a secret religion run by priests who know more ‘truth’ than anyone else. It is, instead, open and accessible.” 

Finally, I mentioned we do indeed get some ethics in this portion. I was thinking specifically about the sin offering (chatat).  Remember, those are for unintentional sins.  An individual could offer a chatat in private.  But if the High Priest sinned, leading the people astray, he had to offer a chatat in public.  A community that unintentionally sinned also offered a chatat in public, as did a leader who unintentionally sinned.  Nowadays, we have general communal confession on Yom Kippur.  However, it seems to have become much rarer for some of our designated leaders to admit confess to a misdeed, even an unintentional one, let alone atone for it.

Shabbat shalom,


Speaking the Same Language

 As director of communications I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company’s training programs and materials. In the body of the memo one of the sentences mentioned the “pedagogical approach” used by one of the training manuals.

The day after I routed the memo to the executive committee, I was called into the HR director’s office, and told that the executive vice president wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn’t stand for “perverts” (pedophilia?) working in her company.

Finally, he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired, and the word pedagogical circled in red. The HR manager was fairly reasonable, and once he looked the word up in his dictionary, and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it. Two days later a memo to the entire staff came out – directing us that no words which could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos.

A month later, I resigned. In accordance with company policy, I created my resignation memo by pasting words together from the Sunday paper. (Taco Bell Corporation)


Preacher Coming for Dinner?

A husband came home from work one evening and walked into the kitchen where his wife was cooking dinner. He looked into the pots on the stove and smelled their content. 

“Is the Preacher coming for dinner,” he asked. 

“No, he isn’t,” his wife replied. “Why do you ask?” 

“Well, you’ve prepared a burnt offering. I just assumed something religious was going on.” 


tph cured meats


Barbecue: a story and some words of wisdom

As the coals from our barbecue burned down, our hosts passed out marshmallows and long roasting forks.
Just then, two fire trucks roared by, sirens blaring, lights flashing. They stopped at a house right down the block.
All twelve of us raced out of the back yard, down the street, where we found the owners of the blazing house standing by helplessly.
They glared at us with looks of disgust.
Suddenly, we realized why………we were all still holding our roasting forks with marshmallows on them…

The key to good barbecuing is having a sauce that can cover up your mistakes.

They say the great BBQ chefs put a lot of feeling into their cooking. I put a lot of Tabasco in mine.


Guilt One-liners

In Scotland we have a verdict ‘not proven;’ that means ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again.’

Andrew Brodie

When we played softball, I’d steal second base, feel guilty and go back.

Woody Allen

My mother could make anybody feel guilty – she used to get letters of apology from people she didn’t even know.

Joan Rivers

If you’re gonna see a play about slavery, it’s important that you watch it with your white friends because you know they’re gonna pick up dinner that night.

Dwayne Perkins

Scooter Libby was found guilty of perjury, obstruction, and making false statements… or, as the White House calls it, a press conference.

Bill Maher



The new priest is nervous about hearing confessions, so he asks an older priest to sit in on his sessions. The new priest hears a couple confessions, then the old priest asks him to step out of the confessional for a few suggestions.
The old priest suggests, “Cross your arms over your chest, and rub your chin with one hand.”
The new priest tries this.
The old priest suggests, “Try saying things like, ‘I see, yes, go on, and I understand. How did you feel about that?'” The new priest says those things.
The old priest says, “Now, don’t you think that’s a little better than slapping your knee and saying ‘No kiddin’?!? What happened next?'”


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