Sometimes seen as inaccessible, Leviticus nevertheless contains important material about holiness.


Excerpted with the permission of the Rabbinical Assembly from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (© 2001 by The Rabbinical Assembly, published by the Jewish Publication Society).

What the Book of Leviticus is About

Popularly called by the Hebrew name Vayikra, “He called,” which is its first word, Leviticus is known formally as Torat Kohanim, “instructions for the priests” (Mishnah Megillot 1:5). This title defines Leviticus as a prescription for the proper worship of the God of Israel.

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Image by Barbara Freedman, BarbaraFreedmanGallery.com.

The Hebrew Bible reflects the central concerns of the ancient Israelites: Perhaps the most vital of these was to know how they were to express their loyalty to the Lord. This very question is posed by the prophet Micah (6:6), who answers it by emphasizing the primacy of justice and love, ultimately desired by God more than sacrifice. Leviticus 19:2 gives a more specifically priestly answer to Micah’s question: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” How Israel was to live as a holy nation is the burden of Leviticus.

The Practice of Holiness

The contents of Leviticus are diverse, but unified by the theme of holiness. The first seven chapters delineate the major types of sacrifices undertaken by Israelites individually and as a community. Chapters 8 to 10 record the emergence of sacred worship in ancient Israel by describing the initiation of the Aaronide priesthood and its first performance on the sanctuary altar. As a stern admonition, chapter 10 records an instance of improper officiating by two of Aaron’s sons, who met their death at the hands of the Lord.

Leviticus 11 is one of two major sources in Torah for kashrut, or the dietary laws (see also Deuteronomy 14). The subject of purity informs chapters 12 to 15, which specify procedures for expiating impurity and susceptibility to danger.  Continuing this theme, chapter 16 prescribes rites of Yom Kippur aimed at the periodic cleansing of the sanctuary and the Israelite people.

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Baruch A. Levine is Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.  He is the author of many books on biblical topics, including The Anchor Bible Commentary: Numbers 1-20.

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