VaYikra (Leviticus)The Book of Leviticus, or Levites, is concerned with the ritual laws and the sacrificial cult. It describes the details of offering sacrifices. The book's emphasis is on purity and holiness. Even though the sacrificial system was abandoned with the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, Leviticus continued to be an important influence on Jewish life: nearly half of the 613 commandments are found in it and much of the Talmud is based on it. In Europe, it was traditional for children beginning their Jewish learning to start with the book of Va-Yikra. There are twenty-seven chapters, divided into ten parashiyot. The parashiyot of Va-Yikra are: VaYikra, Tzav, Shemini, Tazria, Metzora, Achare Mot, Kedoshim, Emor, Behar, and Bechukotai.


Shemini: Religion can only have worth when it values human life.

In the last parasha, Aaron and his sons were dedicated as priests and now, in Shemini, the ceremonies for the consecration of the altar have begun. The service begins with Aaron, the High Priest, bringing some forty offerings. After completing the offerings, Aaron blesses the people (according to Rashi with Birkat Cohanim (the Priestly Blessing) see Naso). Then the next set of offerings are to be brought, but something tragic occurs. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's two oldest sons, prepare their offering, but, the text tells us, they approach the altar bringing a 'strange fire'. They are immediately 'consumed' right then and there by a fire exploding out from God. Aaron remains silent as his sons' bodies are removed by their cousins, and Moses warns Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Itamar, not to mourn. God later speaks directly to Aaron, warning him not consume liquor or other intoxicants. The dedication continues. Further rules are given about the korbanot (sacrifices), and then the parasha lists which animals, birds, fish and insects are permitted or forbidden as food, giving the framework for the laws of Kashrut.

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These summaries and introductions are used with permission of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Kolel is a dynamic, pluralistic, egalitarian institution where men and women engage in Jewish learning which values both traditional and liberal interpretations. Kolel is a gateway into a richer expression of Judaism for each individual, wherever their journey of Jewish discovery may take them.

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