Parshat Emor: The difference between “אמר” and “לאמר”

The use of “emor” vs “leimor”

The very word “emor ( (אמר for which this parsha is named, and which appears twice in the parsha, is unusual. The opening verse says:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃

And Ado-nai said to Moshe, speak to the kohanim the sons of Aharon and tell them, none should become impure of the dead among his people (Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1).

Later on verse 22:3 reads:

אֱמֹ֣ר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם לְדֹרֹ֨תֵיכֶ֜ם כל־אִ֣ישׁ  אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרַ֣ב מִכל־זַרְעֲכֶ֗ם אֶל־הַקֳּדָשִׁים֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַקְדִּ֤ישׁוּ בְנֵֽיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וְטֻמְאָת֖וֹ עָלָ֑יו

וְנִכְרְתָ֞ה הַנֶּ֧פֶשׁ הַהִ֛וא מִלְּפָנַ֖י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃

Tell them [the kohanim] for all your generations, every man [kohen] from all your progeny who, while impurity is upon him, sacrifices of the holy things that have been sanctified by the Children of Israel unto Ado-nai, that soul shall be cut off from my presence, I am Ado-nai.

In both these verses G-d is asking Moshe to communicate a message to kohanim. And in both instances the phrasing is very different from the way G-d normally makes such requests. Indeed, the usual phrasing is as follows: וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר etc. And Ado-nai spoke to Moshe to say thus; speak to … etc. G-d uses very precise language and expects Moshe to quote Him verbatim. Furthermore the language G-d uses is second person singular or second person plural, which is how Moshe then faithfully addresses the intended audience.

Our parsha is no exception. Indeed it is replete with examples of G-d asking Moshe to address the Israelites, and the verbal pattern is the typical one of וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר  etc.

However the two אמר verses are exceptional. Here G-d is not asking Moshe to quote Him verbatim. He is merely asking Moshe to communicate certain information to the kohanim, using third person language; e.g. וְלַאֲחֹת֤וֹ הַבְּתוּלָה֙ הַקְּרוֹבָ֣ה אֵלָ֔יו (21:3) – to his virgin sister who is near to him. The normal form would be “to your virgin sister who is close to you”.

Likewise with the second appearance of the word אמר; e.g. אִ֣ישׁ אִ֞ישׁ מִזֶּ֣רַע אַהֲרֹ֗ן וְה֤וּא צָר֙וּעַ֙ א֣וֹ זָ֔ב בַּקֳּדָשִׁים֙ לֹ֣א יֹאכַ֔ל עַ֖ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִטְהָ֑ר (22:4) Any man from the seed of Aharon who is stricken with tzaraat, or has a running issue, he shall not eat of the holy things until he is purified. The message is addressed to the abstract “he” not to the concrete “you”.

Both uses of the word אמר and the unusual, third person way of transmitting the laws in question, address issues of ritual impurity (טומאה) in cases where the kohen himself is the one who is ritually impure.

Cleary G-d is distancing Himself from the object of such impurity to the degree that the manner of addressing the issue is oblique while the ramifications are extreme. In so doing, G-d is telling Moshe to pass on the information using third person reference rather than pointing to his audience of kohanim, lest any of them assume the words are intended ad hominem.

 But the question is why? What is it about the impurity of a kohen that is so  fraught one dares not mention it except in a roundabout way? After all, in this very same parasha, when G-d disqualifies physically imperfect kohanim from performing the temple rituals He reverts to His usual speech pattern and second person singular; ו

ַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו

 And Ado-nai spoke to Moses to say thus; Speak to Aaron to say thus; Any man of your seed for their generations who has any blemish shall not approach to sacrifice the bread of his G-d (21:16-17).

Why is it that it is okay, indeed mandatory, to quote G-d verbatim, and to speak directly concerning priestly disqualification on the basis of physical imperfection – a disqualification that can have lifetime implications – while it is not acceptable when the topic is ritual impurity which is typically a temporary disqualifier?

In our times, ritual impurity, טומאה, is an abstraction. Yes, we know we are ritually impure after attending a funeral, and we do a ritual hand washing after leaving the funeral home or cemetery. But in fact we don’t really feel impure or different in any way for our supposed impurity.

We can only assume that a state of טומאה was a vastly more profound and powerful one back in the times of Moshe, the Mishkan and the Beit Mikdash. Back then it was a visceral state that one actually felt. Indeed the נגע צרעת, the skin disease that is associated with gossip, although often translated as leprosy, was in fact the physical manifestation of a state of spiritual impurity. We, today, are unfamiliar with this disease and the power it had on both the inflicted individual and the entire community.

From Parshat Emor we can infer that טומאה was something far different from today’s abstraction which requires merely a ritual hand washing or immersion in a mikveh. In ancient Israel, the idea of טומאה was terrifying. And the individual who was טמא was perceived as being responsible for having brought himself into such a pariah state.

Hence, when that individual was a כהן, a priest, and he allowed himself to be ritually defiled this was a direct affront to G-d Himself.

We can now understand why when G-d must transmit the laws regarding priestly טומאה, the manner in which He does so indicates the enormous distance that such a state creates between the defiled kohen and the A-mighty who the kohen is commanded to serve. Likewise, when Moshe passes on this information to the kohanim he does so in a more elliptical manner so that none may take offense, and none should look at his fellow kohen and assume that perhaps Moshe was referring to him specifically. Such was the dread and the social blemish that were associated with such a status.

By contrast, a kohen stricken with a physical blemish or disfigurement, while ineligible for priestly service in the Temple, was nevertheless not in a state of ritual impurity. Such a kohen’s shortcoming was not his fault, and it in no way diminished from his social status as a kohen. Indeed; לֶ֣חֶם אֱלֹהָ֔יו מִקדְשֵׁ֖י הַקֳּדָשִׁ֑ים וּמִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁ֖ים יֹאכֵֽל׃ He shall eat the bread of his G-d both of the most holy and of the holy (21:22)

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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