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Being a priest in ancient times was a dangerous occupation. For proof, recall what happened to Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons. Humanity has long pursued a relationship with the Deity, and in all cultures it is clear that people were aware that contact with holiness was itself dangerous; the closer the relationship the greater the danger. Thus those whose profession brought them into daily contact with holiness must exercise the highest degree of caution. This is the background of the priestly requirements in this sidra. The instructions to the priests contained in this week’s sidra pertain to the conduct of their lives and range from contact with the dead to personal grooming, from whom they can marry to whether they have any physical defects. We’ll explore several of these requirements to see how, by following them, the priests will minimize the danger of ministering to the Deity. But first it might be interesting to look at the customs of contemporary cultures.
In Egypt, priestly functions were highly ritualized, and even matters of personal hygiene were important. Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote in ca. 431–425 bce the following about the Egyptian priests:
The priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods. (Second Book: Euterpe; Sec. 37)
Priests of the contemporary Hittite empire also had a highly codified set of cultic regulations. The following extract is from a priestly regulations document found in the ancient capital city, Hattusas.
Furthermore, let those who prepare the daily loaves be clean. Let them be bathed [and] groomed, let their [body] hair and nails be removed. Let them be clothed in clean dresses. [While unclean], let them not prepare [the loaves]; let those who are [agreeable] to the gods’ soul and person prepare them… Are the minds of men and of the gods generally different?. If a slave causes his master’s anger, they will either kill him or they will injure him… or [they will seize] him, his wife, his children, his brother, his sister, his in-laws, his kin whether it be a male slave or a slave-girl. They may [either] impose the extreme penalty, [or] they may do to him nothing at all. If ever he is to die, he will not die alone; his kin will accompany him. If then, on the other hand, anyone arouses the anger of a god, does the god take revenge on him alone? Does he not take revenge on his wife, his children, his descendants, his kin, his slaves, and slave-girls, his cattle [and] sheep together with his crop and will utterly destroy him? Be very reverent indeed to the word of a god! (A. Goetze, ANET, 207ff.)
It seems quite certain that a cultic priesthood formed very early in ancient Israel, likely modeled after the Canaanite priesthood. Many of the cultic sites that played an important role in the Bible existed before the formation of the Israelite people. Among these sites are Dan, Gilgal, Beersheba, Hebron, Shiloh, Bethel, and Jerusalem. The early historical books (most notably Samuel), written some 75–100 years before the Priestly Code found in Leviticus, contain references to Levites performing priestly functions, sometimes improperly. Eli’s sons were said to ignore their duties, take bribes, and act otherwise immorally (1 Sam. 2:12–17, 22).
It is interesting that the Priestly Code, as presented in these chapters of Leviticus, are organized in a hierarchy unknown in ancient times.
First, the rules for the simple sacrificial priest are presented, then those for the chief priest, though the title customary later, “high priest,” is not yet used precisely… The chief priest alone was allowed to enter the innermost chamber of the sanctuary once a year (cf. Lev. 16:32). He alone was to be authorized and obligated to withstand the concentrated presence of God in the holy of holies and to perform atonement rites there for the entire people. The intensified purification regulations in vv. 11–15 derive from this special proximity to God, though they differ so little from the general requirements of the priests that this must represent an early stage of the administration of the high priestly office. (E. Gerstenberger, Leviticus, 308)
This gives a brief historical framework for the necessity of a set of highly structured rules concerning the conduct of individual priests. After all, ignoring or omitting necessary rituals, or even their sloppy performance, or being in a state of ritual impurity when performing official functions, could have dire consequences for the entire community.
How do the particular rules mentioned in this sidra ensure that the priests do not transgress any particular prohibition? Let’s look at some examples. The first rule concerns contact with the dead. Death was considered a mystical phenomenon (and still is, even though we know much more now), and in dealing with death one must deal with the fact that the body has lost its animating essence. The body remains but the spirit is gone. In virtually all ancient cultures, dealing with death was a serious problem, and gave rise to many rituals designed as preventative measures to ensure that the spirit would receive a proper “after-life,” be prevented from returning to bother the living, to propitiate the deity to prevent further related deaths, and other measures depending on the beliefs of the culture.
In most cultures, coming into contact with the dead is seen to confer some kind of impurity or defilement. Numbers 19:10–22 contains a description of the purification rites necessary for an Israelite who comes into contact with a corpse. If contact with the dead creates a defilement for an ordinary person, then how much more so would be the defilement for the priest, who lives in constant daily contact with the Deity? The danger is not only for the priest but for the entire community. Belief in the supernatural was common, and it was well known that communing with the dead was possible, indeed, practiced (seen in parashot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, as well as in 1 Sam. 28:4–25). But doing so was out of the realm of the worship of Yahweh, this was the provenance of the spirits and demons. Thus a priest is normally forbidden to expose himself to the possibility of contact with the demon world, thus angering God and exposing him and the community to danger. Even though an exception was made for a priest to bury his own very close relatives, no exception was made for the “chief priest,” since this official had the closest contact with the Deity’s presence.
Another topic of interest is the relationship between priests and women: the marital rules. There must have been some spiritual meaning concerning marriage with a virgin, but we can only infer that not doing so would make the priest somehow less fit for office.
A final regulation to consider is topic of physical defects. Here, physical perfection is required as a sign of purity, just as it is for sacrifices. A sacrificial animal must be free from all deformities and blemishes not because of its enhanced value; it is because its lack of deformities renders it ritually pure. So must priests be, and a priest who has a deformity may not participate in the public cultic rites.
By creating a detailed prescription for the lives of the priests, this portion of Leviticus attempts to ensure that the priests will remain ritually pure and fit for their office. The rest of the parashah continues in a similar vein, with rules designed to ensure purity and holiness in sacrifices.
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