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Fox Tales: Parashat Shemini–P is for Poet

I shall resist the temptation to dive into the notorious story of God zapping Aharon’s sons for bringing inappropriate incense in the Dwelling (Tabernacle). The reasons for their strange action have been speculated on for centuries. Instead, I would like to make a brief observation about the rhetorical aspect of the supposedly dry book of Leviticus. Chapter 11, found in this week’s reading, presents a version of the biblical dietary laws, a subject which is the last place we would expect to find poetic language. And indeed, these matters are treated prosaically elsewhere, in Deuteronomy 14:7-8, where there is a brief prohibition about eating certain land animals:

However, these you are not to eat among those bringing up the cud, among those having a hoof that is cleft: / the camel, the hare and the daman, / for they bring up the cud, but a hoof they do not have— / they are tamei for you! / And the pig, for it has a hoof but does not [bring up] cud— / it is tamei for you; / from their flesh you are not to eat, / their carcasses you are not to touch!

This clearly makes a negative statement about those mammals that have one but not both of the characteristics needed to make them permissible for food. The passage repeats the technical term tamei—“ritually polluted.” But in contrast, in Lev. 11, a much fuller version of the prohibitions occurs, whose language is worth examining by reading it aloud:

However, these you are not to eat / from those bringing up the cud, or from those having a hoof: / the camel, for it brings up the cud, but a hoof it does not have— / it is tamei for you; / the hyrax, for it brings up the cud, but a hoof it does not have— / it is tamei for you; / the hare, for it brings up the cud, but a hoof it does not have— / it is tamei for you; / the pig, for it has a hoof and cleaves a cleft in the hoof, but [as for] it, the cud it does not chew up— / it is tamei for you. / From their flesh you are not to eat, their carcasses you are not to touch— / they are tamei for you!

As the opening passage presenting dietary laws in the Bible (if we exclude the brief prohibitions of ingesting blood in Genesis and Exodus), this excerpt establishes their importance, by means of rhetoric and rhythm. It immediately puts the audience on notice that, despite the dramatic and tragic story they have just finished, they are to pay attention to what follows in chapter 11. And the rest of the chapter, in addition to repeating “it is tamei for you” several times, includes some other recurring phrases as well: “it is a detestable thing for you,” “they shall be/ remain tamei until sunset,” and “it shall be tamei.”

These phrases demonstrate that in the Bible, storytelling is not the only genre that partakes of oral rhythms. If the Torah is truly a “teaching” (its literal meaning), then speaking to the ears, minds and hearts of its audience must include making use of the tools of language. When Jewish tradition says that “The Torah speaks in human language” (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 31b and elsewhere), the use of rhetorical flourishes is very much a part of that characterization. And we will find it at work in subsequent portions of Leviticus as well.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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