A Child’s Education Began with Leviticus
Imagine sending your little darling Rachel to a traditional boys Yeshiva. Transitionally the first place for study is the sacrifice of animals in Leviticus
Why did young children begin their Jewish studies with Leviticus? The traditional answer is “Children are pure; therefore let them study laws of purity” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3).
It also has been suggested that Jewish learning began here to teach from the outset that life involves sacrifice. One contemporary writer suggests, “In sacrifice, we could for a fleeting moment imagine our own death and yet go on living… No other form of worship can so effectively liberate a person from the fear of living in the shadow of death.”
This Midrash reflects the importance ascribed by the Sages to studying sacrificial rites in the era after the destruction of the Temple. By continuing to delve into this topic, they hoped to allay the sorrow caused by destruction of the Temple and alleviate the sense of spiritual helplessness that ensued from the disappearance of the rituals that had bound Jews to their Father in Heaven.
Making the subject of sacrifice the first topic in the curriculum of young children was intended to impress upon them the importance of sacrificial worship and to channel hopes for rebuilding the Temple into constructive activity.
Nevertheless, study of laws of the Temple and sacrificial worship did not fare well over the years. Quite the contrary, by the beginning of the Middle Ages the world of Jewish learning showed a clear trend towards what one might call “pragmatism.” This was the beginning of the current Conservative Judaism practices of taking out entire parts of the Holy Torah.
The subjects of study shrunk to those commandments in current practice. Entire orders of Mishnah–Zeraim, Kodashim, and Toharot –were neglected. This is reflected in the Halakhot of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103), whose summary of Talmudic law skips over all subjects that were thought to be “Halakhot for the times of the Messiah.” Alfasi’s book (known as Talmud Katan) to a large extent determined the direction that study would take in subsequent generations (at least in the Jewish communities of Spain and Provence).
Things reached such an extreme that Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri (southern France, early 14th century) complained bitterly that “the three latter [orders of Mishnah] have become totally neglected.”
Not everyone viewed this development as negative. Many Jewish rabbis in the Middle Ages (again, primarily in Spain) feared that if too much attention were given to theoretical subjects, including the three above-mentioned sedarim, it would adversely affect a person’s spiritual strength.
For example, Rabbenu Bahya ibn Pakuda had the following to say on this matter:
One of the hakhamim was asked an esoteric question in the realm of divorce law, to which he responded: You, Sir, are asking about something that would in no way harm us if we did not know the answer; but do you know all that you should regarding the commandments that you are not entitled to ignore, and concerning which it is unbefitting for you to sin, that you turn to other questions that will bring you no improvement in your knowledge of Torah and faith, and will in no way amend that which is crooked in your soul?
The response by Rabbi Bahya, a Dayan from Saragossa, is extremely significant. Note especially that he was critical not only of studying commandments that were not in current practice, but also of being overly speculative in the study of subjects that were indeed relevant to the times (such as Jewish divorce law).
In other words, this Dayan from Saragossa came out against the very sort of Jewish “study for its own sake” that in the 19th and 20th centuries would take over the entire world of the Yeshivot. His main argument was that study of the Halakhah that does not go hand in hand with spiritual development is not of enduring value. Therefore, even though it is obligatory to study those sections of the Talmud that pertain to commandments in current practice, one is not to exert intellectual and spiritual energy delving into the above-mentioned kind of questions.
Rather one should put time and energy into commandments of faith, which are the “duties of the heart” (and the name of Bahya’s book). This appeal by Rabbenu Bahya fell on willing and supportive ears especially among philosophers and kabbalists, who sought a balance between halakhic and Talmudic studies on the one hand and spiritual matters on the other.
There were, however, those who thought otherwise and not only advocated theoretical Talmudic studies, but actually emphasized study of those parts of the Halakhah that are not current. The leading spokesman on this subject, as on almost all other subjects, was Maimonides, who strenuously objected to making an artificial distinction between commandments that were practiced when the Temple stood and those current in his day. Therefore, in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, he included all the commandments found in the Torah.]His particular attitude to the commandments in Seder Kodashim is voiced in his commentary on the Mishnah.
The Sages who deal with the halakhot of sacrificial worship are considered as if the Temple were built in their day; therefore it behooves a person to delve into the details of sacrifice, and let it not be said that these are unnecessary matters in our time, as most people say.
The Primary Message
Two concepts embody the primary message of Leviticus. First, the Israelite’s are one community (edah), united by a common destiny and by a holy way of life as commanded by the Lord Himself. They are forbidden to worship any other deity or follow the impure ways of other nations (19:4, 20:13,6), Second, the Israelites were granted the Promised Land as an eternal estate (ahuzzah) on condition that they follow the laws of God and remain faithful to His covenant. In Leviticus, the priests of Israel are instructed in the ways of holiness, and the Israelites are told what the Lord requires of them
Leviticus and the Modern World: The Importance of Ritual
Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter–animal offerings and ritual impurity–seems remote from contemporary concerns. Yet almost half of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are found in this book, the text with which young children traditionally began their Jewish education.
Our concern in reading Leviticus should be more than historical (“this is what our ancestors used to believe and practice”). It should be an effort to understand the religious needs that were met by these practices in ancient times, needs that we still confront today, and the religious ideas that were taught in the process.
The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression. Yet something in the human soul responds to ritual, whether it be the formality of a traditional wedding or the rituals of a sporting event or a public meeting. There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable. There is something deeply moving about performing a rite that is older than we are, one that goes back beyond the time of our parents and grandparents.
At crucial times, it is important for us to know that we are “doing it right.” There is power in the knowledge that we are doing what generations of people before us have done in similar situations, something that other people in other places are doing at the same time and in the same way.
And rituals, including prescribed prayers, tell us what to do and say at times where we cannot rely on our own powers of inspiration to know what to do or say. “Ritual is way of giving voice to ultimate values. Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives”. For the Israelites of biblical times, it must have been gratifying to know what to do when they wanted to approach God at crucial moments of their lives, in need or in gratitude.
So obviously there are differences of opinion, like in this story:
A Difference of Opinion
A congregant asks his rabbi, “Rabbi, you’re a man of God. So why is it that you are always talking about business, when I, a businessman, am always talking about spiritual matters?”
“You have discovered one of the principles of human nature,” the rabbi replies.
“And what’s that Rabbi?”
“People like to discuss things they know nothing about.”