For the week ending 21 May 2016 / 13 Iyyar 5776

Parshat Emor

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Disqualifying Blemishes for Kohanim

“G-d spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon, saying: Any man of your offspring throughout their generations in whom there shall be a blemish shall not come near to offer the food of his G-d. For any man in whom there is a blemish shall not approach…” (Leviticus 21:16-18)

“The food of his G-d… he may eat. But he shall not come to the Curtain, and he shall not approach the Altar; for he has a blemish; and he shall not desecrate My sacred offerings, for I am G-d Who sanctifies them. Moshe spoke to Aharon and his sons, and to all the Children of Israel.” (Leviticus 1:22-24)

All of the commandments that specifically concern the kohanim are designed to uphold the honor of G-d. The Torah had previously listed the regulations regarding forbidden marriages and restrictions in terms of coming into contact with the deceased. Now the Torah focuses on insuring that only the most suitable kohanim be permitted to perform the sacrificial services.

The Torah first deals with an array of physical defects that disqualify the kohen from performing the services, whether or not he was born with them, and whether or not they are permanent. Furthermore, the most serious of these defects are those that are found on the face. The Torah emphasizes that even though the kohanim, the offspring of Aharon, have a unique, elevated status in the nation, they shouldn’t think that physical blemishes are irrelevant, since allowing a kohen with these blemishes to serve is a desecration of the honor of the Divine Presence in the Sanctuary. The Torah here takes into account the unfortunate reality of human nature. Those who gaze upon a “blemished” kohen while he is performing a service could be so taken aback by his appearance that they might come to detest the very idea of performing the service. If these blemishes are patently offensive to people, all the more so to G-d. As the prophet Malachi says (1:8): “Would you present a blind animal for sacrifice, is nothing wrong? ... Present it, if you please, to your governor: Would he be pleased with you of show you favor?” Malachi is saying that if a human official would not accept such an offering, then surely G-d would scorn it as well.

A number of blemishes are listed, and the commentators are not in agreement as to the exact nature of some of them. Many of them refer to blemishes on the face, such as blindness, two types of abnormal growths on the eyes, a deformed nose and connected eyebrows. Others include broken, missing or deformed limbs, moist or dry skin eruptions, a concave chest, humpback, and swollen testicles. Abarbanel also makes it clear that the blemishes listed are often general categories; many others are subsumed under them. The Rambam (Maimonides) (Perek 8, Halacha 1, Laws of the Sanctuary) counts ninety different disqualifying blemishes. It is clear that the Torah’s listing is not an all-inclusive list since deaf-mutes and epileptics are not mentioned. They would obviously be disqualified as well. The general principle that is invoked here is that the performance of the Divine service by such an individual denigrates the honor of G-d. The general populace can only look up to, admire and respect the kohanim when they possess both inner and outer beauty. They need to be superior to the rest of the populace, both in terms of their physical characteristics and their moral and ethical behavior.

Finally, the last verse quoted above states that Moshe spoke not only to the sons of Aharon but to the entire nation as well. This was to insure that the rest of the people would reprimand the kohanim if they did not fulfill their special requirements and obligations.

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