For the week ending 2 May 2009 / 7 Iyyar 5769

Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Acharei Mot

G-d instructs the kohanim to exercise extreme care when they enter the Mishkan. On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol is to approach the holiest part of the Mishkan after special preparations and wearing special clothing. He brings offerings unique to Yom Kippur, including two identical goats that are designated by lottery. One is "for G-d" and is offered in the Temple, while the other is "for Azazel" in the desert. The Torah states the individual's obligations on Yom Kippur: On the 10th day of the seventh month, one must afflict oneself. We abstain from eating and drinking, anointing, wearing leather footwear, washing, and marital relations.

Consumption of blood is prohibited. The blood of slaughtered birds and undomesticated beasts must be covered. The people are warned against engaging in the wicked practices that were common in Egypt. Incest is defined and prohibited. Marital relations are forbidden during a woman's monthly cycle. Homosexuality, bestiality and child sacrifice are prohibited.


The nation is enjoined to be holy. Many prohibitions and positive commandments are taught:

Prohibitions: Idolatry; eating offerings after their time-limit; theft and robbery; denial of theft; false oaths; retention of someone's property; delaying payment to an employee; hating or cursing a fellow Jew (especially one's parents); gossip; placing physical and spiritual stumbling blocks; perversion of justice; inaction when others are in danger; embarrassing; revenge; bearing a grudge; cross-breeding; wearing a garment of wool and linen; harvesting a tree during its first three years; gluttony and intoxication; witchcraft; shaving the beard and sideburns; tattooing.

Positive: Awe for parents and respect for the elderly; leaving part of the harvest for the poor; loving others (especially a convert); eating in Jerusalem the fruits from a tree's 4th year; awe for the Temple; respect for Torah scholars, the blind and the deaf.


Inside Out

“And he (Aaron) will place the incense on the fire in front of G-d”. (16:13)

Maimonides’ masterwork, the Mishneh Torah, details every detail of Jewish Life with great precision.

As a work of halacha one would think that a story would be out of place. However, in the section that deals with the Yom Kippur service in the Beit Hamikdash, Maimonides seems to depart from the eternal exactness of halacha to describe a most moving scene.

Before the Kohen Gadol went out to do the Yom Kippur service, the elders of the Sanhedrin would make him swear to do the service exactly as instructed. Specifically, they would make him swear to burn the incense only inside the Holy of Holies as the Oral Torah mandates. The Tzadukim (Sadducees), who denied the authority of the Oral Torah, claimed that the incense should first be placed on a burning fire-pan outside the Holy of Holies, and only then the Kohen Gadol should carry it inside. The elders made the Kohen Gadol swear not to perform the service in the manner of the Sadducees.

And then both the Kohen Gadol and the elders would turn aside from each other and weep.

The Kohen Gadol would weep because they suspected him of being a Sadducee. The elders would weep because there was reason to suspect him.

But why did Maimonides choose to enshrine this tragically touching moment in a halachic work designed as a practical manual of halacha?

Let us understand how this ceremony came into being.

It happened that one year the Sadducees proposed a compromise. They suggested that for the sake of peace and unity the Kohen Gadol should light the incense outside and inside the Holy of Holies. What could be better than this? Everyone would be happy! You observe Judaism the way you want, and I’ll do it my way.

However the truth of the matter was far from this seemingly guileless suggestion. The Rabbis were in a no-win situation. To accept the offer would add a mitzvah to the Torah, which is expressly forbidden. To refuse would make them seem callously indifferent to Jewish unity.

In the event, the Rabbis had no option but to demur. But at what great cost, and with what heavy hearts, for they knew that they would seem inflexible and uncaring.

There are times when those who guard the Torah must make decisions which are a PR person’s nightmare; decisions which must seem like one’s worst nightmare come true. But the guardians of the Torah have no choice. They are protecting a priceless treasure. But with what heavy hearts and what a cost these decisions are made!

There are times when the guardians of the Torah have to stand up and say no, but they do it with tears in their eyes.

Maimonides included the ceremony of the Kohen Gadol and the elders weeping as a halacha for all time. In every generation the Jewish People will have their ‘Sadducees’. But in every generation the defenders of the Torah must weep at having to say no.

  • Sources: Rabbi Aharon Soleveichik; Rabbi Yonason Rosenblum

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