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Emor – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

This week begins with the specific restrictions concerning the Cohanim followed by an enumeration of what are described as special “holy” times. The lighting of a menorah and placing the “showbread” in the Temple is described until finally the Sedra ends with an episode of blasphemy and its consequences.

We recall the special place of the Cohanim in our practices today. A Cohen is asked to accept the first Aliyah; Cohanim are asked (at least in our community), to “duchan” (recite the priestly blessing) and, during a burial, any Cohen is traditionally outside the hall where the service takes place.

However, what was appropriate at the time the Temple was still standing causes concern and argument in the present day. We read

כִּ֥י כָל־אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרָ֑ב
For any man who has a defect should not approach

Tradition has its place but it raises the question of why should we discriminate. If we are all created in God’s image then we are all of equal value. Is it a physical defect or a moral one that we should inspect?

Of all the Holy times described in this Parasha it is Shabbat that stands out. Shabbat was sanctified by God; other festivals are set to a calendar measured by man. On Shabbat we praise God by reciting who “sanctifies Shabbat”. On the festivals we praise God and recite “who sanctifies Israel and the holy times”. God sanctifies Israel but Israel sanctifies the holy times.

The Sedra also contains the words

וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.

These words are the foundation of the custom to require a minyan, a minimum of ten people, to recite key parts of the services and at other significant times. It does not specify only men. That custom derives from an oral tradition.

Traditions evolve, customs change, attitudes develop but some things are fundamental. At the beginning of the Sedra God speaks to the “sons of Aaron” instructing them on maintaining purity. At the end God speaks via Moses to the entire people saying

Any man who blasphemes his God shall bear his sin
And one who blasphemously pronounces the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death

That balance of trying to hold on to our faith, to be “pure” and to seek a path that does not dishonour our traditions is not easy. What we do have are our “holy times”, especially Shabbat. Lighting candles, blessing our children and coming together in Shul, (including Friday night), is a way of sanctifying our own lives and also the lives of our families and community.

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