Author Archives: Baruch A. Levine

Baruch A. Levine

About Baruch A. Levine

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.


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.

jewish text
Image by Barbara Freedman,

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.

Biblical Concepts of Holiness

From The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Holiness is difficult to define or to describe; it is a mysterious quality. Of what does holiness consist? In the simplest terms, the “holy” is different from the profane or the ordinary. It is “other,” as the phenomenologists define it. The “holy” is also powerful or numinous. The presence of holiness may inspire awe, or strike fear, evoke amazement. The holy may be perceived as dangerous, yet it is urgently desired because it affords blessing, power, and protection. sun and clouds

Holiness & Otherness

The Sifra, a rabbinic midrash, conveys the concept of “otherness” in its comment to Leviticus 19:2: “‘You shall be holy’–You shall be distinct (perushim tiheyu),”meaningthat the people of Israel, in becoming a holy nation, must preserve its distinctiveness from other peoples. It must pursue a way of life different from that practiced by other peoples. This objective is epitomized in the statement of Exodus 19:6: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (goy kadosh).” (A better rendering might be: “You shall be My Kingdom of priests and My holy nation.”) This statement also conveys the idea, basic to biblical religion, that holiness cannot be achieved by individuals alone, no matter how elevated, pure, or righteous. It can be realized only through the life of the community, acting together.

The words of Leviticus 19:2 pose a serious theological problem, especially the second part of the statement: “For I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Does this mean that holiness is part of the nature of God? Does it mean that holiness originates from Him? In the Jewish tradition, the predominant view has been that this statement was not intended to describe God’s essential nature, but, rather, His manifest, or “active,” attributes. To say that God is “holy” is similar to saying that He is great, powerful, merciful, just, wise, and so forth. These attributes are associated with God on the basis of His observable actions: the ways in which He relates to man and to the universe. The statement that God is holy means, in effect, that He acts in holy ways: He is just and righteous. Although this interpretation derives from later Jewish tradition, it seems to approximate both the priestly and the prophetic biblical conceptions of holiness.