EMOR (Leviticus, 21:1-24:23) — “Beauty and the Priest”

[DISCLAIMER:  I often ask challenging questions and then present answers from the Talmud or various Torah commentaries.  In this week’s message, I am offering my own personal opinion as to what MAY be the answer to the question.  I may be wrong.  As always, I welcome the insights of others.  If you have a better answer than the one I present here, I’d love to hear from you.]

With responsibility comes privilege.  The Kohain-Priest, the man who officiated in theTemple, was a man to be treated with respect.  The Priests brought offerings on the Altar, kindled the lights of the Menorah, and conducted all the various Services in theTemple.  Consequently, they enjoyed an elevated status:

“Sanctify him, for he offers the food of your G-d; he will be holy to you because I, the G-d who sanctifies you, am holy.” (Leviticus, 21:8)

The Kohain is to be honored in all matters of holiness.  The first person to be called to the Torah reading is the Kohain.  When people are reciting the Grace after Meals together, the Kohain is supposed to be called upon to lead the prayers.   It is not appropriate to have a Kohain serve you, unless it is his salaried job, or unless he volunteers to.  (There are people who would not ask a Kohain who is dining with them to please pass the salt!)

Several different types of tithes and offerings were given to the Kohain.  As a “civil servant”, the Kohain was supported by the community.   In all, there were 24 gifts to which he was entitled.  (For a list of those 24 gifts, click here.)

And with privilege comes responsibility.  As the major religious functionary, the Kohain was given additional restrictions as to where he is permitted to go, and to whom he may marry.  (While most of the 24 gifts were only applicable in the time of theTemple, the additional restrictions apply nowadays as well.)

The Kohain was required to carry himself with dignity.  As a Temple functionary, he was often the center of attention, and needed to command respect.  And therein lays the difficulty:

G-d spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell Aaron: ‘Any man of your offspring … in whom there is a blemish shall not come near to offer the food of his G-d…’”  (Ibid, verse 16)

The Torah goes on to give a list of “blemishes” that disqualify the Kohain from officiating in the Temple Service.  (Mr. Cohen, I hope your lawyer is taking notes!):

“‘… a man who is blind or lame or whose nose has no bridge, or who has one limb longer than the other… who has a broken leg or broken arm… abnormally long eyebrows, a membrane on his eye or a blemish in his eye… any man from the offspring of Aaron who has a blemish shall not approach to offer the fire-offerings of G-d…’” (Ibid, verses 18-22)

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There you have it – discrimination against people with disabilities!

What’s going on here?  Shouldn’t there be a “Kohain with Disabilities Act”?!!  Why is the Torah discriminating against a Kohain just because he looks a little different?  Is this a beauty contest?!!

This is not a concept that is easy to explain.  I called a colleague of mine and told him, “Give me a clear, Politically Correct, Jewish-outreach-to-the-uninitiated explanation to these rules.  How do I explain the Torah’s apparent prejudice against Kohanim with disabilities?”

My colleague’s response:  “Good luck!”

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The Torah tells us why a Kohain who is physically deficient may not officiate:

“’…he shall not come to the Curtain, and he shall not approach the Altar, for he has a blemish, and he may not desecrate my sacred offerings because I am G-d Who sanctifies them.’”  (verse 23)

The Temple is a place of G-d’s Divine Presence.  G-d, of course, is flawless and perfect.  The abode of G-d’s perfect presence should be a place that is as close to flawlessness as possible.  Even a slaughtering knife that was nicked had to be immediately replaced.  (Replaced, NOT repaired!)  A Priest who demonstrates an obvious physical imperfection does not properly convey this message of perfection.

The question is obvious.  Is this fair?  Should we really be viewing a person with a physical handicap as lacking in perfection in a spiritual place?  Isn’t that petty?  Should we blame the Kohain who was born a little different than the rest of us?  Should we not, rather, celebrate the Kohain’s efforts to overcome his handicap and live a normal life?  Why are we condemning him and labeling him as being less of a Kohain than his brothers?

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I think I may have come up with a partial answer to this question.  I believe that there are a few important messages here.

The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, incorporates some of these Temple-era laws in a practical, up-to-date, sense.  Among the duties of the Kohain is the Mitzvah to bless the people ofIsrael.  This was a daily practice in theTemple, and in many places inIsraelit is still performed daily.  In most places outside ofIsrael, it is required to be done thirteen times a year, on the major Jewish holidays.  A Kohain who has misshapen limbs, certain skin ailments, blindness in one eye, or various other abnormalities is not permitted to stand before the Congregation to bless the people.  However, if he is a local resident who is well-known to the community, or, if the local custom is for the Kohain to be covered with a Tallis during the Blessing Ceremony, the Kohain is permitted to carry out his duties normally.

The reason given is that people stare at people who look different, and are, therefore, distracted from their prayers.  No, it’s not right, but that’s the way people are.  When the Priests stand before the congregation and bestow G-d’s blessings upon them, the people should be concentrating on thoughts of holiness.  Anything that distracts them, including the unusual appearance of the Kohain, should be avoided.  This is accomplished by A) only using Kohanim who don’t look obviously different than the norm; B) using Kohanim who are familiar to the community, thus avoiding the distraction caused by a rarely-seen-before “imperfection”; C) covering the “offending” blemish.

It would be wonderful if people accepted other people for who they are rather than what they look like.  However, that is not the way people are.  We do notice.  We may try to look away, but we can’t ignore an obvious difference.

And I’m not even sure that we should.  There is a blessing to be recited when we see a person with obvious physical differences.  When seeing someone who is unusually tall (8 feet?) or unusually short (3 feet?), one acknowledges that G-d is the “…Meshaneh Habrios –- He Who makes different types of creations.”  I don’t know the parameters of when this blessing is necessary, but we see from here that we are supposed to recognize G-d’s wisdom in all of the diversity he has placed into His world.

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The Kohain who is disqualified for performing theTempleServiceis not discarded as a pariah.  He is given other honorable duties to perform in theTemple.  He is still entitled to eat the tithes and other sacred foods that are off-limits to a non-Kohain.

Perhaps the message of this law is that we need to learn to accept the roles assigned to us.  G-d has made certain decisions for us; we need to recognize that.  Men and women have different roles in Jewish life.  Every morning a Jewish woman says a blessing, thanking G-d, “…Who has made me according to His will.”  No, that is not, G-d forbid, an acceptance of a secondary role.  It is a recognition that we all have our own assignments, and we excel when we fulfill those assignments.

When I was in my early forties, I looked into the possibility of becoming a chaplain in the military.  The problem was that chaplains were only being accepted until age 40.  Oh, well…  I just learned a few days ago that due to a shortage of rabbis in the military, Jewish chaplains are now being accepted till age 50.  Great!  I’ll be 51 next month!  Maybe “Uncle Sam Wants You,” but he obviously has no interest in me!  Should I write a letter to my congressman?  Should I file suit against the armed forces for age discrimination, or should I be an adult about it and accept my limitations?

The U.S. Army tells us to “Be all you can be.”   It’s an important message.  We should not limit ourselves and accept anything less than meeting our full potential.  But there’s another point as well.  We should not fool ourselves by trying to be what we CANNOT be.

And we should always pray for the wisdom to know the difference.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

“Kaddish and Other Overrated Mitzvahs” (2010)

… What is the magic of Kaddish that it draws even the most non-observant Jew into the synagogue? What does it mean? What is its significance? …

Read more.

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“Beauty and the Priest” (2007)

… The Torah goes on to give a list of “blemishes” that disqualify the Kohain from officiating in theTempleService.  (Mr. Cohen, I hope your lawyer is taking notes!):

“’… a man who is blind or lame or whose nose has no bridge, or who has one limb longer than the other… who has a broken leg or broken arm… abnormally long eyebrows, a membrane on his eye or a blemish in his eye… any man from the offspring of Aaron who has a blemish shall not approach to offer the fire-offerings of G-d…’” (Ibid, verses 18-22)

There you have it — discrimination against people with disabilities!

What’s going on here?  Shouldn’t there be a “Kohain with Disabilities Act”?!!  Why is the Torah discriminating against a Kohain just because he looks a little different?  Is this a beauty contest?!!

This is not a concept that is easy to explain.  I called a colleague of mine and told him, “Give me a clear, Politically Correct, Jewish-outreach-to-the-uninitiated explanation to these rules.  How do I explain the Torah’s apparent prejudice against Kohanim with disabilities?”

My colleague’s response:  “Good luck!”…

Read more.

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“The Passion of the Pharisees” (2004) 

… The world is abuzz about “The Passion.”  …

I recently heard a fellow on the radio defending the movie from charges of being anti-Semitic.  “The Jews are NOT being blamed.  The people at fault were a small number of Jews who controlled theTemple.  The common folk had nothing to do with this murder.  It was the fault of the corrupt priests and the Pharisees!”

…I do want to clear up one thing.  My father-in-law was a Priest, and I am a Pharisee.  And neither of us was portrayed fairly in the movie…

Read more.

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“When In Rome…?” (2002)

… In Judaism, one does not enter the priesthood by choice …  Among other things, he has limitations on whom he may marry and where he may go.

The Kohain Gadol, or High Priest, has additional rules that go beyond those of a regular priest…there is an authority in the Talmud who maintains that he should have TWO WIVES…

 … After spending two years studying the laws and serving as an apprentice, I appeared before a Rabbinic Tribunal in B’nei Brak to be tested and certified as a “Sofer STA”M,” a Scribe for Torahs, Tefillin, and Mezuzahs…  The rabbis huddled together in a whispered conference. Would I receive my certification? Finally, the Chief Rabbi of the court rendered his decision…

Read more.

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“Is There a Middle of the Road?” (2001)

 … How about acting in a way that creates neither good P.R. nor bad?  What if we live our lives quietly and anonymously, without calling attention to ourselves in any way?  Can’t we just do what we have to do without desecrating G-d’s name but not grabbing positive headlines for Him either? …

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2010 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on May 2, 2007 at 10:52 am  Comments (1)  

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. It is a very opaque set of Mitzvos. The one moom that really stood out, to me, was being left-handed. A left-handed Kohein may not do the Avodah.


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