J.J Gross

Parshat Emor: Unusual name for an unusual usage

The use of “אֱמֹר” vs “לֵּאמֹר

The very word “emor” for which this parsha is named, and which appears twice in the parsha, is unusual.

The opening verse says:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו:
And Adonai said to Moshe, speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, 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 כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ | אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרַ֣ב מִכָּל־זַרְעֲכֶ֗ם אֶל־הַקֳּדָשִׁים֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַקְדִּ֤ישׁוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ 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 Adonai, that soul shall be cut off from my presence, I am Adonai.


In both these verses God is asking Moshe to communicate a message to kohanim. And in both instances the phrasing is very different from the way God normally makes such requests. Indeed, the usual phrasing is as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר : דַּבֵּ֨ר   אֶל

And Adonai spoke to Moshe to say thus; speak to etc.

God uses very precise language and expects Moshe to quote Him exactly. Furthermore, the language God 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 God asking Moshe to address the Israelites, and the verbal pattern is the typical one of Vayedaber Adonai el etc.

However the two ‘emor’ verses are very exceptional. Here God is not asking Moshe to quote Him verbatim. Instead, he is asking Moshe to communicate certain information to the kohanim, using third person language; e.g. וְלַֽאֲחֹת֤וֹ 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 ‘emor’; e.g.

אִ֣ישׁ אִ֞ישׁ מִזֶּ֣רַע אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וְה֤וּא צָר֨וּעַ֙ א֣וֹ זָ֔ב בַּקֳּדָשִׁים֙ לֹ֣א יֹאכַ֔ל עַ֖ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִטְהָ֑ר

Any man from the seed of Aaron 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”. (22:4)

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

Cleary God is distancing Himself from the object of such impurity. The manner of addressing the issue is relatively oblique even though the ramifications are extreme. In so doing, God is telling Moshe to pass along 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 tumah of a kohen that is so fraught one dares not mention it except in a roundabout way? After all, in this very same parsha, when God disqualifies physically imperfect kohanim from performing the temple rituals He reverts to His usual speech pattern and second person singular;

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽרדַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹֽרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו:

And Adonai spoke to Moshe to say thus; Speak to Aharon 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 (21:17).

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

In our times, ritual impurity, tumah, 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 tumah 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 nega tzaraat, 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 tumah 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 tumah was terrifying. And the individual who was tumah was perceived as being responsible for having brought himself into such a pariah state. And when that individual was a kohen, a priest, and he allowed himself to be ritually defiled, this was a direct affront to God Himself.

Hence we can now understand why when God must transmit the laws regarding priestly tumah, the manner in which He does so indicates the enormous distance that such a state creates between the defiled kohen and the Almighty 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 priest and assume that perhaps Moshe was referring to him specifically. Such was the dread and the social stigma that were associated with such a status.

By contrast, a priest stricken with a physical blemish or disfigurement, while ineligible for priestly service in the Temple, was nevertheless not in a state of ritual impurity. As well, unlike tumah, such a priest’s shortcoming was visibly obvious. It was not his fault, and it in no way diminished from his social status as a kohen. Indeed;

לֶ֣חֶם אֱלֹהָ֔יו מִקָּדְשֵׁ֖י הַקֳּדָשִׁ֑ים וּמִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁ֖ים יֹאכֵֽל

He shall eat the bread of his God 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.
Related Topics
Related Posts