Tag Archives: Acharei Mot

Commentary for Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

12 May

Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s two parshahs, is closely associated with Yom Kippur. The first of its three chapters introduces us to the holiday and describes the Yom Kippur sacrifice and is thus read in synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, while its third chapter is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Leviticus 16:31 introduces us to the well-known phrase “a sabbath of sabbaths” that is often used to describe the holiday, and it is from this phrase that we learn that activities that are forbidden on Shabbat are also forbidden on Yom Kippur, even if they are permitted on any other holiday (for example, cooking). Due to this phrase Yom Kippur is seen as taking precedence over Shabbat and its laws always win out if there is a conflict. This perception of Yom Kippur as therefore being more “extreme” than Shabbat allows for an interesting Jewish brainteaser that asks, “name one activity that is forbidden on Shabbat but permitted on Yom Kippur?”

The answer, fasting, is often difficult to come by because it is something that is not merely permitted on Yom Kippur but fully required (as we learn for the first time in this week’s parshah in Lev. 16:29) and because fasting on Shabbat is not explicitly forbidden via the standard “thou shalt not” but is rather forbidden because fasting- i.e. not eating and drinking, conflicts with the mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat, of which eating one’s fill of food is considered an important part. While these might seem like minor distinctions that have little practical effect other than happening to make a brainteaser more difficult, understanding them actually helps us learn an important lesson about Shabbat.

While many people assume that the reason we are allowed to fast on Yom Kippur even when it falls on Shabbat is due to Yom Kippur being the “sabbath of sabbaths” and therefore taking precedence, the real reason is because unlike all of the other fasts (aside from the Tenth of Tevet, which only ever overlaps with Shabbat by an hour), on Yom Kippur we are fasting to help pray for a better future rather than to commemorate a past event. The future is inherently a spiritual thing. It has not happened yet and therefore cannot physically affect us. The present can obviously affect us physically, and even the past can do so in some cases (if you fell and cut yourself you might have a scar), but the future exists only in our minds. Shabbat is often seen as a day where we focus on the spiritual over the physical, but in reality it is a day when we focus on both the spiritual and the physical while doing our best to ignore materialistic wants. On Shabbat we are not only encouraged to pray and study, but also required to eat our fill at three different meals and encouraged to engage in marital relations, both things that fall into the category of physical wants more than spiritual ones. Rather, it is on Yom Kippur when we are intended to push aside both the material and the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, spending all day in synagogue praying and abstaining from eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, engaging in marital relations, and using outside substances such as make-up or cologne to make ourselves look and smell nice.

Shabbat contrasts with Yom Kippur and with the first six days of the week by helping us to focus on what we have. On the first six days of the week, when we are allowed to focus on the materialistic as well as the physical and spiritual, we are often distracted by the things we want. On Yom Kippur, when we push aside not just the materialistic but also the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, we struggle to not be distracted by the thoughts of things we already own but can’t use (such as food). On Shabbat we restrict our focus from the materialistic and a portion of the physical, and as a result instead of focusing on the things we want but can’t have or the things we have but can’t use, allowing us to enjoy the things we have that we either use regularly but do not always give ourselves the chance to appreciate- such as food, or might not otherwise think we have time for, such time for taking care of our spiritual needs.

Commentary for Acharei Mot

6 May

Every parshah in the Torah are labeled by its incipit, a word or two from the first verse or two of the parshah that serves as a header for at least the first section of the parshah (if not the entire parshah), to make it easy to identify which section we are talking about, with each parshah being given a unique incipit to avoid confusion. This week’s parshah is named “Acharei Mot,” meaning “after the death [of Aaron’s two sons].”

Contrary to what one would expect with a title like this, the subject of Aaron’s sons is never brought up again in this parshah. After this phrase in Lev. 16:2, the second verse of the parshah, the Torah launches into a detailed explanation of the Yom Kippur sacrifice and its ceremony. The title “Acharei Mot,” also doesn’t seem to hold up as chronological transition, as Aaron’s sons died three parshahs ago, and their death has not been mentioned since the end of that section.

While neither the subject matter of the parshah nor its chronological position seem to have any relevance to the parshah’s title to the average reader at first glance, the reason for that is simple: We are not Aaron. Since the deaths of Aaron’s sons, all of the laws given have been given to both Moses and Aaron to disseminate to the people, or laws given to Moses himself to disseminate. Any time a priest has been required, it has been specified that the job can be done by any of the priests. Now it is time for the Yom Kippur sacrifice and ceremony, a job that can only be done by the High Priest: Aaron himself. The words “acharei mot” are a wake-up call to Aaron. He has suffered a terrible, painful loss, and he has grieved, but he cannot grieve forever. He has responsibilities to his community that he must attend to. While it is impossible to ignore that his life will never be the same as it was before his sons died, he must accept the new status quo and move on into this new normal for the sake of those who are counting on him who are still living.

Commentary For Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

4 May

In the first half of this week’s double parshah, we learn about the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. As part of this service, the High Priest was commanded to take two handfuls of incense with him into the Holy of Holies and put them on a fire so that they created a cloud of smoke that would obscure the area immediately above the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev. 16:12-13). This is one of just two places in the Torah where someone is specifically commanded to take “handfuls” of something. The other place is in chapter nine of Exodus, where Moses and Aaron are commanded to each take handfuls of soot and for Moses to throw them into the air, where upon the soot starts to spread out all over the land of Egypt, initiating the plague of boils.

Fortunately, in the case of the Yom Kippur service, the handfuls are meant to help atone for our sins rather than to punish us for them. We learn this from the story of Korach (Numbers 16) who fomented a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. After God punishes the rebels by having the ground open up and swallow them and all of their belongings, the rest of the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the deaths, saying, “you two have brought death upon The Lord’s people (Num. 17:6).” This angers God because it shows an inability to understand not just the sin of Korach and his followers, but to understand that the power to cause supernatural events- as well as the right to judge sinners- lies not with Moses or Aaron, but with God. This same mistake is what caused Pharaoh’s downfall, and just like with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God now sends a plague upon the Israelites.

To make expiation on the Israelites’ behalf, Aaron takes some of the incense used in the Tabernacle, puts it on himself, and stands among the people. Those who realized the error of their ways and repented survived the plague, while those who did not do so died, still believing that an external force- Moses and Aaron- was the cause of deaths, and failing to realize that they had brought their suffering upon themselves. They suffered the same fate as the Egyptians who even after five plagues still failed to realize their own culpability in their suffering. If the plagues would stop once the Israelites were freed and Pharaoh was not willing to free the Israelites, then the Egyptians should have taken steps to release the Israelites from servitude on their own.

All too often when things go wrong in our lives, we immediately thrust all of the blame onto external factors and refuse to consider that any part of the fault might lie with us ourselves. This assumption is almost always wrong. It is interesting to note that the first half of this week’s double parshah, Acharei Mot, which contains not only service of the High Priest for Yom Kippur, but also the Torah readings for both Yom Kippur morning and afternoon, is read not around the time of Yom Kippur, but rather when Yom Kippur is half a year away. While Yom Kippur only comes once a year, the message of the day- that we must examine our deeds and determine how we can better ourselves- is something we should keep in mind all year round.

Commentary for Acharei Mot

11 Apr

Most of this week’s parshah is also read on Yom Kippur, with chapter sixteen being read in the morning and chapter eighteen read in the afternoon. While chapter sixteen describes the service of the High Priest, chapter eighteen focuses on various prohibited behaviors. After a quick preface, the section is started with the commandment that “you shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you (Lev. 18:3).” The Torah then proceeds to spend the rest of the chapter running down a list of who can’t sleep with or sacrifice things to. If the Torah was going to spell out all of these prohibitions, why was the original statement necessary?

This week is also Shabbat Hagadol: the Shabbat directly preceding Passover. We can derive from the Gemarah (Shabbat 87b) that the first Shabbat Hagadol took place on the tenth of Nissan. This would have been the same day that the Israelites were instructed to choose a lamb for the paschal sacrifice. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent, causing a brief civil war in Egypt of father against son.

This week’s special haftarah, a prophecy of coming redemption and judgment of the wicked and imploring the people to turn back to God, ends with a strange but striking promise and warning: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearsome day. And he will reconcile parents with children and children with parents so that when I come I do not strike the land with utter destruction (Mal. 3:23-24).” Pharaoh and his courtiers so badly wanted to keep the Israelites in slavery that they were willing to sacrifice their own children to do so. The Canaanites were well known for sacrificing their children to the idol Molech (which is explicitly prohibited in Lev. 18:21). It was not just the specific practices listed in Lev. 18 that the Israelites were commanded not to imitate, but the entire concept of doing something so wholly unnatural within a family that parents ad children would hard or even kill each other, as the Egyptians and Canaanites did, that is so abhorrent to God that God would be willing to lay down such utter destruction because of it.


In memory of Seymour Sobel (Shmuel Betzalel ben Mordechai David v’Sarah Tovah) z”l- A man who fully embodied both ends of the idea of Torah u’madah, and who set an example that things are worth fighting for.  May his memory be a blessing.