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Parashat Emor 5776 and what do women and priests (cohanim) have in common?

Is there any relationship between roles regarded traditionally as feminine and some of the tasks of the cohanim in the Sanctuary? Sounds like a strange question. According to the Israeli Reform Rabbi Dalia Marx, it is a good one and she has an answer based on our Parashah. The cohanim were bakers for starters. We read in the Torah: “You are to take fine flour and use it to bake twelve loaves, one gallon per loaf. Arrange them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure table before Hashem (…) Regularly, every Shabbat, he is to arrange them before Hashem; they are from the people of Israel, as a covenant forever. They will belong to Aaron and his sons; and they are to eat them in a holy place (…) This is a permanent law.” Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, one of the greatest kabbalist in history, wrote a poem called Azamer Beshbachim,“I will sing in praises”, where he painted the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, as decorated on two sides with these breads, call showbreads in the Torah. They symbolize the 12 tribes surrounding the holiness of God, in Earth symbolized by the Temple. The historian Flavius Josephus described the building of the Temple as a model of the Universe and the showbreads symbolize the 12 symbols of the zodiac and the months of the year. Taking these two interpretations together, the showbreads acquire both a national and a cosmic meaning, beyond their function in the Temple. The table where the showbread was presented was a wonderful and beautiful object according to the description in the Torah, covered completely in gold. According to the Talmud, was a very central object especially in the Second Temple, when there was no Ark of the Covenant anymore. The cohanim would take the table out to the yard during festivals so the people can see it, being a concrete way for our ancestors to experience the sacred. For the cohanim it was a symbol of the love of God for Israel. So who baked the showbread? The maid? The wives of the cohanim? No! They had to be baked by the cohanim themselves! The Temple was a house, the House, our House. Habait. The cohanim worked in this house, took care of it, prepared, cooked and were responsible of its cleaning. Traditional housewives. Every family of cohanim was part of a shift of one week twice a year. When they were not in the Temple they lived normal lives, maybe returned to the traditionally “manly” tasks, but in the Temple they would perform many duties considered feminine for their society. Besides the sacrifices, the cooking of the offerings and the baking of the showbread, we also learn in our Parashah that the High Priest was in charge of lighting the candles of the Menorah. We read in the Torah: “Outside the curtain of the testimony in the tent of meeting, Aaron is to arrange for the light to be kept burning always from evening until morning before Hashem; this is to be a permanent regulation through all your generations. He is always to keep in order the lamps on the pure menorah before Hashem”. The mitzvah of lighting candles in Shabbat and Festivals, which traditionally was given mostly to women, it is related in the Jewish sources to the mitzvah of lighting the candles in the Temple. Both baking showbread, challah, and lighting the candles are two out of three positive mitzvot bounded by times that women must do, Nidah being the third. This is clear in a very not-nice and threatening Mishnah that is read in many Shuls on Friday night. It is from the Tractate of Shabbat, chapter 2: “For three transgressions women died in childbirth: because they weren’t careful with the Nidah laws, with the Challah and with lighting the candles”. In Parashat Emor we have a parallel to each one of the mitzvot in the Mishnah but for the cohanim of the Temple: To be especially careful with their own purity and holiness, baking the showbread and lighting the menorah. Meaning, the cohanim were required to keep in the Temple the mitzvot that women are required to keep at home. Maybe the severity of the Mishnah is related to its closeness to the service in the Holy Temple. How do we understand this parallel in a World where we strive for equality at home? A woman in Amsterdam in 1648 wrote a prayer for lighting the candles: “Master of the Universe, I finished all my work in six days and now I will rest as you commanded and I will light two candles, as it is written in your Holy Torah and as it was interpreted by our Sages, I do this in your honour and in honour of the Holy Shabbat. May these lights be in your eyes as the lights that the cohen lit in the Temple and don’t let our light disappear and may your light always guide us”. These tasks that connect us to the experience of the Temple are not limited today to women, we men also bake (I am the main baker at home), we often light candles and we should be partners in keeping the laws of Niddah and Mikvah. Without a Temple, our homes turned into small Sanctuaries, as points of holiness and spirituality for everyone living in them. May our houses be always full of this sanctity and both our women and men know how to develop it, make it grow and share it with the whole World.

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