The contents of Leviticus are diverse but unified by the theme of holiness. The first seven chapters delineate the major types of sacrifices undertaken by Israelites individually and as a community. Chapters 8 to 10 record the emergence of sacred worship in ancient Israel by describing the initiation of the Priesthood and its first performance on the sanctuary altar. As a stern admonition, chapter 10 records an instance of improper officiating by two of Aaron’s sons, who met their death at the hands of the Lord.
Chapter 11 is one of two major sources in the Torah for Kashrut or the dietary laws. The subject of purity informs chapters 12 to 15, which specify procedures for expiating impurity and susceptibility to danger. Continuing this theme, chapter 16 prescribes rites of Yom Kippur aimed at the periodic cleansing of the sanctuary and the Israelite people.
The Holiness Code
Leviticus 17 to 26 coheres as a literary unit, referred to as “the Holiness Code,” because of the frequent use of the term Kadosh, “holy.” This section begins by ordaining the place and form of proper worship of the God of Israel. It then defines the Israelite family and details improper sexual behavior, including incest Leviticus 18.
Perhaps the best-known part of Leviticus is chapter 19, which resonates with the Decalogue, combining ritual and ethical teachings. It is here that we read, “Love your fellow as yourself.” Chapters 20 to 22 contain more on the Israelite family and ordain specifically priestly duties and prerogatives. In chapter 23, the festivals and other holy days of the year are scheduled in a calendar of sacred time.
The rest of the Holiness Code (chapters 2426) and its appendix (chapter 27) add instructions to the priests about the administration of the sanctuary and laws governing ownership of land and indebtedness. Here the source for the inscription on the Liberty Bell proclaims the inalienable right of the Israelite people to its land: “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (25:10). In an epilogue (26:326), the Israelites are admonished to obey God and are forewarned of the consequences of disobedience, the most dire being exile from the land.
Animal Sacrifice and Modern Sensibilities
Discomfort with sacrificing animals as a way of worshiping God is hardly a modern phenomenon. The biblical prophets criticized the sacrificial system for its tendency to deteriorate into form without feeling. The Midrash envisions God saying “Better that they bring their offerings to My table than that they bring them before idols” Leviticus Rabbah 22:8). All religions of biblical time were based on sacrificial worship, and the Israelites could not conceive of religion without it.
…It may well be that animal offerings were an instinctive gesture on the part of human beings to express gratitude, reverence, or regret. The Bible pictures Cain, Abel, and Noah offering sacrifices without being commanded to do so. People must have felt that their prayers of gratitude or petition would seem more sincerely offered if they gave up something of their own in the process.
Presumably, this is why wild animals and fish were unacceptable as offerings. “I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing” The offerings of first fruit, the firstborn of the flocks, and the symbolic redemption of the firstborn son may have been ways of recognizing that these gifts ultimately came from God, ways of conveying the faith that more blessings would be forthcoming so that these could be given up.
Speaking of holiness, here is a holy funeral
A Deal with the Rabbi
Issy and Howard were brothers disliked by the entire community. They ran a crooked business, they lied, and they cheated the poor. But they were also very, very wealthy.
When Issy died, Howard went to Rabbi Bloom and said, “I will donate one million dollars to the synagogue if at the funeral you say that my brother Issy was a mensch.”
The Rabbi thought long and hard but eventually agreed.
When it came time for the funeral, the Rabbi recounted Issy’s wrong doings during his eulogy at length. He then closed with the sentence “But, compared to his brother, he was a mensch!”