Weekly Torah Readings, May 2, 2015


In Israel this week: Emor (Leviticus 21-24): “An Ox and its Offspring in a Single Day”


There is a curious law in this week’s reading. Lev 22:27-28 commands: “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, but starting from the eighth day onward, it will be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord. But you shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep along with its son on the same day.


There are some translation difficulties here: In the italicized sentence, I used the word “ox” because that’s what the verse says (shor). But certainly translators and commentators are right in saying that “ox” here really means either an ox or a cow—that is, you can’t slaughter the parent (either the mother or the father) of the animal and its offspring in the same day. (Indeed, many commentators say that this verse applies only to slaughtering the mother and her offspring in the same day.) Perhaps the Torah says “an ox or a sheep” because those words were used in the previous verse, and there as well, they are apparently used as general categories, since the text could have said more age-specifically “when a calf or a lamb or a kid is born…”


But leaving all this aside, the whole idea of this verse is strange. What is its purpose? Many commentators suggest that this commandment is intended to impart basic notions of morality: killing the mother and the offspring in a single day would be intolerably cruel. Oh yeah? That’s cruel, but according to the previous verse it’s okay to take an eight-day-old calf (presumably still a suckling) away from its mother and slaughter it, perhaps even within earshot of its mother? This can’t be the reason.


What’s more, what are the circumstances, now that the newborn is past the age of eight days, that would lead someone to slaughter it and its mother in the same day—why would anyone want to do that? A month has passed, let’s say, or a year or two, and now the owner of the cow and the calf decides it would be a good idea to slaughter both of them on the same day. What for? Some kind of sadistic ceremony, or perhaps just a big barbecue requiring a lot of meat? Is that what the Torah has in mind? And on the other hand, if indeed two or five years have passed, does the cow even remember that this big bull was once her baby? (Farmers, excuse my ignorance: I’m just asking.)


One of the texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests an entirely different interpretation. Having forbidden in the previous verse the killing of a newborn animal during the first week of its life, the Torah then adds that it is also forbidden to slaughter a pregnant animal, since doing so would result in killing the mother and its offspring in the same day. To do this would be, in a certain sense, even worse than taking the newborn animal away from its mother during the first week, since here, the slaughter results in killing mother and offspring simultaneously.


Such an interpretation seems altogether better—so why wasn’t it adopted in rabbinic halakhah? Perhaps the problem had to do with an issue discussed earlier (see on Parshat Mishpatim), the status of a fetus in its mother’s womb. On this subject there was a long-running dispute (in a sense, it is still going on in today’s political argument about abortion).


Our rabbis held that, until the fetus left its mother’s womb, it was legally merely a part of the mother’s body. This had important consequences. If it was just a “limb of the mother,” then the fetus could, in an emergency, legally be killed in order to save the life of the mother. This, alas, was not an uncommon circumstance in ancient times, when even after protracted labor, babies sometimes could not be extricated from their struggling mothers’ wombs.


But if the unborn fetus was deemed simply part of the mother’s body, then killing a pregnant animal did not mean that two separate lives were being taken in a single day—so, from a rabbinic standpoint, Lev 22:28 ought not apply to killing a pregnant animal.


However, for the Dead Sea Scrolls community (and others), the fully-formed fetus was deemed a separate being even before it came out of the womb. That is why, for them, slaughtering a pregnant animal did (or could, toward the end of the pregnancy) indeed mean taking two separate lives at once, that of the mother and her baby. This, they said, was the real meaning of “you shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep along with its son on the same day.” On this somewhat grisly note,


Shabbat shalom!


Outside Israel this week: Aharei-Mot and Kedoshim


This week we read two combined portions, “Aharei Mot” and “Kedoshim.” Perhaps the most famous verse among all those to be read is Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor like yourself.” Rabbi Akiva declared that this verse was nothing less than the “great general principle of the Torah” (Sifra Kedoshim 4), and even before him, Jewish scholars spoke of the two verses beginning with the words “And you shall love” as embodying the whole of the Torah: this verse and the one in the Shema that begins, “And you shall love the Lord your God…”


But what exactly is this verse asking us to do? Does loving your neighbor mean that if, for example, you win the lottery, you have to pick someone else, your “neighbor” or your “fellow,” and split the money 50-50? And who is your neighbor? Any fellow human being? Any fellow Jew? The Jews of the Dead Sea Scrolls community were told to hate everyone other than the members of their own community, in fact, they looked forward to the great “day of retribution,” when God would strike all other Jews down. But how could they reconcile this with our verse? Apparently, they interpreted it as meaning “You shall love your neighbor-who-is-like-yourself,” that is, anyone who was a member of their community was to be loved. Everyone else deserved eternal hatred.


If that’s not the right interpretation, then what is? The traditional rabbinic interpretation holds that this verse is intended in a rather limited sense: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” So you don’t have to split the money you won 50-50, but you can’t do anything to your neighbor that you wouldn’t want done to you. This sounds a bit less lofty than actually loving your neighbor—but the rabbis had a good exegetical reason for interpreting in this sense.


I should mention that the words quoted from Lev 19:18 are only are only part of the verse. The whole verse reads, “You shall not take revenge or hold a grudge against your countrymen, and you shall love your neighbor like yourself: I am the Lord.” The rabbis apparently interpreted the latter part of the verse in light of the former. How so?


Taking revenge or holding a grudge sounds pretty serious, like the blood feuds that still go on in the modern Middle East, sometimes lasting for generations. But the rabbis of Mishnaic times interpreted “revenge” here in a very down-to-earth way. What is taking revenge according to their understanding?


Suppose, they said, you ask to borrow your neighbor’s scythe, but he says, “No, it’s a very delicate instrument, I’m afraid I can’t lend it out.” Then, sometime later he asks to borrow your shovel, and you say, “You didn’t lend me your scythe, I’m not going to lend you my shovel”—that’s taking revenge. No blood feud, just a little nasty pettiness. But if that’s revenge, then what’s “holding a grudge”? It sounds like it’s the same thing, but the rabbis said: Not quite. Suppose he refuses to lend you his scythe, and later he asks to borrow your shovel. If you say, “Sure, take it! I’m not a cheapskate like you!”—you may not be taking revenge, but you’re still guilty of holding a grudge.


In light of these two examples, what do the words that follow them, “And you shall love your neighbor like yourself,” seem to imply? There is indeed a great general principle in human relations, but it doesn’t require you to do the impossible. Instead, what is demanded is that you take the high road and not do anything to your neighbor that you wouldn’t want done to you—even if your neighbor has already done it.


Shabbat shalom!


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