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Michael Carasik

Behar-Behukkotai: An Appendix in the Middle

This week we are reading another double parashah, finishing the book of Leviticus in our runup to the holiday of Shavuot that I discussed in my previous column. It’s going to be happening in about two weeks.

What I thought I would look at today is a fabulous Wiederaufnahme — a “repetitive resumption.” Sometimes this kind of thing can tell us something about the text that the words themselves don’t.

Repetitive resumption works like this. In our ordinary speech, we sometimes mention something that’s a side issue or find that we have followed a trail that leaves us a little bit off track. What do you do? You go backwards to the point where you want to resume what you were saying and repeat a little bit of what you said there. Writers do the same thing, and the biblical writers did it as well.

For an example, let’s go to Exodus 6. In v. 13 there, YHWH commands Moses and Aaron to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Then the story is interrupted to tell us who Moses and Aaron were, by including a genealogy of the Israelites. Roman numerals I and II briefly include the sons of Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn) and Simeon (Jacob’s second-born) before expanding number III, the sons of Levi, into ten verses of detail. Then, in Exod 6:26, we read:

That is the Aaron and Moses to whom YHWH said: Bring the Israelites out of Egypt by their troops.

That is, “bring the Israelites out of Egypt” is repeated to pick up the thread that was interrupted in v. 13 and then the story continues from that earlier point, before the interruption. You can read more about this technique in my Bible Guy column, where I discuss how Genesis 2 uses it to include information about the four rivers that flow out of Eden before continuing with the story.

It’s quite natural to pick up the thread of the original narrative after an interruption, and that’s true whether one writer goes on a digression and then wants to resume the earlier thread or whether a second writer inserts something into a text written by someone else.

We have exactly such a repetitive resumption here in Lev 26:46:

These are the laws, the rulings, and the instructions [הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֮ וְהַתּוֹרֹת֒ haḥuqqim v’ha-mishpatim v’ha-torot] that YHWH put between Himself and the Israelites at Mount Sinai through the agency of Moses.

And at the end of Leviticus, in 27:34, the last verse of the book we read this:

These are the commandments [הַמִּצְוֹ֗ת ha-mitzvot] that YHWH commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

Both of these verses …

  • begin with the word אלה éleh
  • both involve the rules the Israelites must follow
  • both occur at Mount Sinai
  • both say the rules were conveyed through Moses

(I’ll speak about the difference between what the rules are called in each verse at the end of this column.)

This suggests that Lev 26:46 was the original ending of Leviticus. Then Leviticus 27 was added, ending with a repetitive resumption that repeats but doesn’t resume. Its only function is to point out that this chapter is an appendix to the book of Leviticus.

When you read Leviticus 27, you see that it is full of technical details. It begins, as so many of the chapters in Leviticus do, “YHWH spoke to Moses as follows.” What follows are the rules and regulations about someone who decides to make a vow to make a donation to YHWH, and plenty of other regulations as well. It’s exactly the kind of thing that you would put in an appendix at the end of a book, added where it doesn’t interrupt the logical flow.

The interesting thing is that this chapter 27 is at the end of the book of Leviticus but it is not at the end of the Torah. We would expect to find an appendix of this kind — something to be consulted by the professionals rather than read by the public — at the end of an entire book and not at the end of one part of the book. What does it mean that the book of Leviticus ends and has an appendix afterwards?

In a real sense the “book” of Leviticus is somehow an actual book, not Part 3 of 5, and in some sense the Torah does end with Leviticus. Perhaps I should say that in two senses, not just one. Many Jewish biblical scholars today, and some non-Jewish ones too, think that the Torah itself was put together from its earlier components by the writer who composed Leviticus 17-26.

Since this incorporates Parashat Kedoshim, where YHWH commands, “Be holy, for I, your God YHWH, am holy” (Lev 19:2), we call this the Holiness Code. If that section represents the latest voice in the Torah and the one that put the whole thing together, this is indeed the “end,” historically, of the Torah.

From a different, holistic perspective, you can also say that at this point in the story, the commandments have been given. It’s true that Moses is going to repeat most of them in the book of Deuteronomy, with some differences, and there are a few in Numbers as well, but the story of the Israelites being taken out of Egyptian slavery so that they could be given the Torah is now over because they have been given the Torah.

The different words for law in the original verse and the resumption point in this same direction. First, in 26:46, “laws and rulings” (Deuteronomy words) and “instructions” (a Priestly word) — then, in 27:34, simply “commandments” (mitzvot) to sum them all up as one unified whole.

If you like, you can say that this is part of the “choose your own adventure” scheme we discussed when we read Parashat Vayikra. Next week, those who chose to proceed directly from Exodus to Numbers will rejoin the rest of us to read Parashat Bemidbar. In the meantime, we have not one but two reasons to say, as we always do at the end of a book of Torah, “Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen ourselves!”

חקז חזק ונתחזק

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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