Leviticus

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

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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.

The Holiness Code

Leviticus 17 to 26 coheres as a literary unit, referred to as "the Holiness Code," because of the frequent use of the term kadosh, "holy." This section begins by ordaining the place and form of proper worship of the God of Israel. It then defines the Israelite family and details improper sexual behavior, including incest (Lev. 18).

Perhaps the best-known part of Leviticus is chapter 19, which resonates with the Decalogue, combining ritual and ethical teachings. It is here that we read, "Love your fellow as yourself." Chapters 20 to 22 contain more on the Israelite family and ordain specifically priestly duties and prerogatives. In chapter 23, the festivals and other holy days of the year are scheduled in a calendar of sacred time.

The rest of the Holiness Code (chapters 24‑26) and its appendix (chapter 27) add instructions to the priests about administration of the sanctuary and laws governing ownership of land and indebtedness. Here the source for the inscription on the Liberty Bell proclaims the inalienable right of the Israelite people to its land: "You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants" (25:10). In an epilogue (26:3‑26), the Israelites are admonished to obey God and are forewarned of the consequences of disobedience, the most dire being exile from the land.

The Primary Message

Two concepts embody the primary message of Leviticus. First, the Israelites are one community (edah), united by a common destiny and by a holy way of life as commanded by the Lord Himself. They are forbidden to worship any other deity or follow the impure ways of other nations (19:4, 20:1‑3,6), Second, the Israelites were granted the Promised Land as an eternal estate (ahuzzah) on condition that they follow the laws of God and remain faithful to His covenant. In Leviticus, the priests of Israel are instructed in the ways of holiness, and the Israelites are told what the Lord requires of them

Leviticus and the Modern World:  The Importance of Ritual

Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter--animal offerings and ritual impurity--seems remote from contemporary concerns. Yet almost half of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are found in this book, the text with which young children traditionally began their Jewish education.

Our concern in reading Leviticus should be more than historical ("this is what our ancestors used to believe and practice"). It should be an effort to understand the religious needs that were met by these practices in ancient times, needs that we still confront today, and the religious ideas that were taught in the process.

The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression. Yet something in the human soul responds to ritual, whether it be the formality of a traditional wedding or the rituals of a sporting event or a public meeting. There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable. There is something deeply moving about performing a rite that is older than we are, one that goes back beyond the time of our parents and grandparents.

At crucial times, it is important for us to know that we are "doing it right." There is power in the knowledge that we are doing what generations of people before us have done in similar situations, something that other people in other places are doing at the same time and in the same way.

And rituals, including prescribed prayers, tell us what to do and say at times where we cannot rely on our own powers of inspiration to know what to do or say. "Ritual is way of giving voice to ultimate values. Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives" (Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary). For the Israelites of biblical times, it must have been gratifying to know what to do when they wanted to approach God at crucial moments of their lives, in need or in gratitude.

Animal Sacrifice and Modern Sensibilities 

Discomfort with sacrificing animals as way of worshiping God is hardly a modern phenomenon. The biblical prophets criticized the sacrificial system for its tendency to deteriorate into form without feeling. The Midrash envisions God saying "Better that they bring their offerings to My table than that they bring them before idols" (Leviticus Rabbah 22:8). All religions of biblical time were based on sacrificial worship, and the Israelites could not conceive of religion without it.

…It may well be that animal offerings were an instinctive gesture on the part of human beings to express gratitude, reverence, or regret. The Bible pictures Cain, Abel, and Noah offering sacrifices without being commanded to do so. People must have felt that their prayers of gratitude or petition would seem more sincerely offered if they gave up something of their own in the process.

Presumably, this is why game and fish were unacceptable as offerings. "I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24). The offerings of first fruit, the firstborn of the flocks, and the symbolic redemption of the firstborn son may have been ways of recognizing that these gifts ultimately came from God, ways of conveying the faith that more blessings would be forthcoming so that these could be given up.

A Child's Education Began with Leviticus

Why did young children begin their Jewish studies with Leviticus? "Children are pure; therefore let them study laws of purity" (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3). It also has been suggested that Jewish learning began here to teach from the outset that life involves sacrifice. One contemporary writer suggests, "In sacrifice, we could for a fleeting moment imagine our own death and yet go on living... No other form of worship can so effectively liberate a person from the fear of living in the shadow of death."

Democratization of the Esoteric

Some scholars believe that Leviticus was originally a set of instructions for kohanim, priests officiating at the altar and presiding over rituals of purification, detailing how they were to perform their duties properly. This professional guide became one of the five books of the Torah as part of the process of democratizing the Israelite faith, making all Israel "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). There would be no secret lore accessible only to the clergy.

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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.