Not Signing Off on Sacrifices
The Holiness Collection’s Decalogue
It is hard to miss the connection between the opening verses of Kedoshim (Lev. 19:1-18) and the Decalogue. An initial call to holiness (19:2) is followed by a call to revere mother and father, to observe the Sabbath, and to avoid idolatry and serving other gods (19:3-4).
ג אִ֣ישׁ אִמּ֤וֹ וְאָבִיו֙ תִּירָ֔אוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
3 You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I, Yhwh your God.
ד אַל תִּפְנוּ֙ אֶל הָ֣אֱלִילִ֔ם וֵֽאלֹהֵי֙ מַסֵּכָ֔ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
4 Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I, Yhwh your God.
This is a chiastic review of four of the first five commandments (except for the third—Do not mention the name Yhwh for falsehood—which appears in v. 12).
The Third Commandment
Verses 11-16 primarily expand upon three of the short interpersonal commandments, “Do not murder” and “Do not steal” and “Do not bear false witness.” The one exception is v. 12:
יב וְלֹֽא תִשָּׁבְע֥וּ בִשְׁמִ֖י לַשָּׁ֑קֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ֛ אֶת שֵׁ֥ם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
12 You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I, Yhwh.
As mentioned above, this verse paraphrases the third commandment, substituting for the unclear phrase לא תשא the much clearer לא תשבעו, and substituting for the threat of “no forgiveness (כי לא ינקה)” in the original Decalogue with the reason for the prohibition “and thus desecrate the name of your God.”
It seems likely that the reason it was moved to this section was to connect it with the law against theft. Rashi suggests this in his gloss on v. 11: “If you steal you will end up denying… and end up swearing falsely.” The law follows directly on v. 11, which is about theft, and together vv. 11-12 form a unit.
Expanding and Reworking the Commandments
The other interpersonal commandments are reworked. Sometimes the commandment is mentioned and then elaborated on (as is the case with “Do not steal” in vv. 11-13), while other times, the commandment is not actually mentioned and instead we find only the elaboration or expansion.
Thus, instead of “Do not murder” we find “Do not stand on your brother’s blood” (v. 16), which sets a new standard for the care for human life. Similarly, in lieu of “Do not testify falsely” we find a complementary commandment, the prohibition on the judge to show favoritism (v. 15), expanding the principle of judicial integrity. We already notice symmetry: four commandments in the first section (vv. 1-4) are paralleled by four in the last (vv. 11-16), for a total of eight.
A “Loving” Literary Envelope
These verses (vv. 11-16) are preceded by two verses on leaving produce for the poor (vv. 9-10) and followed by two verses on loving each other and associated themes (vv. 17-18). From a literary standpoint, these four verses bracket this section, serving as an envelope. Doing what is honest and just, a central part of serving God (vv. 11-16), is part of a wider set of interpersonal values that includes charity and love.
These 18 verses seem to be the Holiness Collection’s counterpart to the Decalogue: referencing four of the Commandments, elaborating on four others, and adding concepts of charity and love.
Identifying the Ending of the Pericope
The pericope ends at v. 18, on the high moral note of ‘love your neighbor.’ This may be the highest moral note in the Torah, since it is the only place the commandment to love each other appears.
Besides the fact that this high note is a natural ending (what can be a real follow up to ‘love your neighbor’?), there are textual indications that v. 19 opens a new section.
- The section begins with the phrase: “Observe my laws (חקתי).” Although this phrase can also function as an ending to a section (see Lev 18:4), the fact that it introduces new laws implies that it is an opening, not a closing, phrase.
- The text begins to list laws with no obvious connection to what came previously. The text no longer expands on the Decalogue, and is no longer written in the same tight literary style as vv. 1-18.
And thus, although part of the overall Holiness Collection, verses 1-18 appear to be a distinct pericope, separate from what follows, and functions as an “opening Decalogue,” parallel to what we have in the Covenant and Deuteronomic Collections.
A Puzzling Interruption
Off-Topic and Un-Decalogue-Like
In the midst of this pericope, however, are four verses (vv. 5-8) about piggul, a detail of sacrificial law that limits how long the meat of a sacrifice may be eaten. The verses attach a penalty of karet to one who transgresses this limitation.
The transition from vv. 1-4 to vv. 5-8 is jarring; the latter seem completely out of context. From concepts that are familiar to us from the Decalogue, and that are shared across the Hebrew Scriptures, we abruptly find ourselves in a discussion of the uniquely Priestly concepts of piggul and karet. In terms of both context and language, this would seem to belong earlier in Leviticus where the details of sacrifices are discussed.
The Missing Signature
In addition to the question of context, another anomaly calls our attention. A striking feature of this eighteen-verse pericope is the repetition of H’s (standard) refrains: ‘I, Yhwh your God’ and ‘I, Yhwh.’
The refrains are a kind of ‘signature.’ Much like when we moderns sign a contract and are told to sign each page, or each paragraph, or each significant clause, so too God is ‘signing’ at the end of certain sections.
What is particularly striking in this pericope is the symmetrical usage of the refrains: ‘I, Yhwh your God’ (at the end of vv. 2, 3, 4, and 10) appears four times consecutively followed by ‘I, Yhwh’ (at the end of vv. 12, 14, 16, and 18) four times consecutively—for a total of eight times. These eight “signatures” appear in a symmetrical manner—with a major exception: vv. 5-8, the piggul verses.
|אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם||A. Be holy (v. 2)|
|אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם||B. Revere parents and keep Shabbat (v. 3)|
|אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם||C. No idols (v. 4)|
|— ? —||— Don’t leave sacrifices uneaten (piggul) for days (vv. 5-8)|
|אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם||D. Leave produce for the poor (vv. 9-10)|
|אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה||E. Don’t steal; don’t swear falsely (vv. 11-12)|
|אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה||F. Don’t defraud, rob, pay late, insult deaf or trip blind (vv. 13-14)|
|אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה||G. Don’t judge unfairly or stand over the blood of your fellow (vv. 15-16)|
|אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה||H. Don’t bear grudge or hate, love your fellow (vv. 17-18)|
In the opening section of the pericope, (vv. 1-4), the signature was consistently the long-form, ‘I, Yhwh your God.’ The final section, dedicated to interpersonal laws (vv. 11-18) consistently received the short-form version, ‘I, Yhwh.’
The variation in the refrain between the first and last sections is probably meant to differentiate between two distinct themes in the pericope. The opening section is about worship-related matters while the closing section is about interpersonal matters. In other words, in this eighteen-verse pericope, ‘I Yhwh your God’ is the “worship signature,” and ‘I Yhwh’ is the “interpersonal signature.”
But this is what makes the signature at the end of vv. 9-10 so anomalous. These verses instruct about charity, an interpersonal commandment. We would expect the interpersonal signature of ‘I Yhwh’, but instead, we find the worship signature of ‘I Yhwh your God’.
This creates symmetry–four worship signatures and four interpersonal signatures in the eighteen-verse pericope. But how did charity become an act of worship rather than an interpersonal mitzvah?
In sum, the middle part of this pericope contains three problems:
- The discussion of a detail of sacrificial law seems entirely out of place in a pericope that is a reiteration and elaboration on the Decalogue.
- The verses on sacrifices lack God’s signature.
- The following verses on charity have the worship signature rather than the interpersonal signature.
How are we to explain all this?
Tension about the Significance of Sacrifices
A good question is half the answer. Perhaps there is no divine signature to the sacrifice verses simply because God is not particularly desirous of them. When the time came for God to ‘sign off’ on sacrifices, so to speak, God would not sign.
A person offering an animal as shelamim (v. 5) is clearly willing to spend quite a bit of money as an act of devotion to God. I believe that by placing the verses on charity right after the ones on sacrifice, and including the signature refrain only on the charity verses and not those on sacrifice, the text conveys the message that if you wish to spend money for God, God prefers that you spend it on charity.  Leave more produce in the fields for the poor.
This is why the section on sacrifices leads directly into the two-verse section on charity, and at the conclusion of that we find the divine, long-form, worship signature. Charity/leaving produce for the poor is worship that God desires. God will do fine without the burnt fats; for the needy, however, every bit counts.
The charity verses are doing double duty. First, they are part of the bracket around justice, creating the sequence of tzedakah, justice, and chesed. Simultaneously, they are contrasted to sacrifices and marked as the preferred manner of worship. This is reflected by utilizing the worship signature even though the verses are placed immediately before the interpersonal section.
Sneaking in a Controversial Point
The idea that charity is preferable to sacrifices is made in Proverbs 21:3: “Doing tzedakah and justice is preferable to God than sacrifices.” But that kind of explicit message cannot be delivered to every audience. Some people were (and are) very attached to the idea of sacrifices. When speaking to this kind of audience, it is only possible to hint at the form of worship that God truly desires. So the Holiness Collection delivers this teaching “under the radar,” much as one would have to only hint at certain things when speaking today to certain kinds of religious audiences.
Contrasting Charity with Sacrifices
The idea that one of the functions of the charity verses is to contrast charity with sacrifices finds support in Lev. 23, the Priestly calendar that is entirely about sacrifices. In the precise center of the chapter (verse 22 out of 44), we find an unexpected verse:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I, Yhwh, your God.” (Lev. 23:22)
This verse sounds familiar to us, and indeed it is. It is a condensation of the charity verses we have been discussing (19:9-10), combining 9a and 10b into one verse and preserving the worship signature of “I, Yhwh your God.”
But what is this verse doing in the middle of a discussion of sacrifices brought on the festivals? The repetition of this verse adds nothing to what we already know from Lev. 19.
The verse is so out of place that it caught the attention of the rabbis. And how significant is what they said about it! Rashi quotes the Midrash:
R. Avdimi b. R. Joseph said: “Why did the text put [charity] in the center of the festivals? To teach you that whoever gives [charity] to the poor properly is considered as if he built the Temple and offered his sacrifices in it.”
So the same teaching appears twice in the Holiness Collection, and each time it carries the same subversive message.
Regardless of all the attention given to sacrifices in the Torah, the better form of worship is charity. How we treat each other is far more important than how many animals we sacrifice. It is indeed as an earlier priest, Jeremiah, said, in describing true knowledge of God:
To know and understand Me, for I Yhwh do chesed, justice and tzedakah in the world, for it is these I desire (9:23).
The rabbis were well aware of all this. A millennium after the Holiness Collection, they taught:
“Moses was given 613 commandments at Sinai…. Micah (6:8) came and stood them on three: To do what is just, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (b.Makkot, 23b-24a).
This challenges us moderns–our communities and our schools. What do we consider most important in serving God? Where do we place our focus? How do we define what it means to be an observant Jew?
יט:א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: יט:ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל כָּל עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם:
19:1 Yhwh spoke to Moses, saying: 19:2 Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
You shall be holy, for holy am I, Yhwh your God.
יט:ג אִ֣ישׁ אִמּ֤וֹ וְאָבִיו֙ תִּירָ֔אוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
19:3 You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I, Yhwh your God.
יט:ד אַל תִּפְנוּ֙ אֶל הָ֣אֱלִילִ֔ם וֵֽאלֹהֵי֙ מַסֵּכָ֔ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
19:4 Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I, Yhwh your God.
יט:ה וְכִ֧י תִזְבְּח֛וּ זֶ֥בַח שְׁלָמִ֖ים לַי-הֹוָ֑ה לִֽרְצֹנְכֶ֖ם תִּזְבָּחֻֽהוּ: יט:ובְּי֧וֹם זִבְחֲכֶ֛ם יֵאָכֵ֖ל וּמִֽמָּחֳרָ֑ת וְהַנּוֹתָר֙ עַד י֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י בָּאֵ֖שׁ יִשָּׂרֵֽף: יט:ז וְאִ֛ם הֵאָכֹ֥ל יֵאָכֵ֖ל בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י פִּגּ֥וּל ה֖וּא לֹ֥א יֵרָצֶֽה: יט:ח וְאֹֽכְלָיו֙ עֲוֹנ֣וֹ יִשָּׂ֔א כִּֽי אֶת קֹ֥דֶשׁ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה חִלֵּ֑ל וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מֵעַמֶּֽיהָ:
19:5 When you sacrifice an offering of wellbeing to Yhwh, sacrifice it so that it may be accepted on your behalf. 19:6 It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire. 19:7 If it should be eaten on the third day, it is an offensive thing, it will not be acceptable. 19:8 And he who eats of it shall bear his guilt, for he has profaned what is sacred to Yhwh; that person shall be cut off from his kin.
יט:ט וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט: יט:י וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 19:10 You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I, Yhwh your God.
יט:יא לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹ֑בוּ וְלֹא תְכַחֲשׁ֥וּ וְלֹֽא תְשַׁקְּר֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ בַּעֲמִיתֽוֹ: יט:יבוְלֹֽא תִשָּׁבְע֥וּ בִשְׁמִ֖י לַשָּׁ֑קֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ֛ אֶת שֵׁ֥ם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
19:11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. 19:12 You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I, Yhwh.
יט:יג לֹֽא תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד בֹּֽקֶר:יט:יד לֹא תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
19:13 You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. 19:14 You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I, Yhwh.
יט:טו לֹא תַעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֙וֶל֙ בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹא תִשָּׂ֣א פְנֵי דָ֔ל וְלֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר פְּנֵ֣י גָד֑וֹל בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ: יט:טז לֹא תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
19:15 You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. 19:16 Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand over the blood of your fellow: I, Yhwh.
יט:יז לֹֽא תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא: יט:יח לֹֽא תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא תִטֹּר֙ אֶת בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
19:17 You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman butc incur no guilt because of him. 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I, Yhwh.
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April 15, 2015
March 11, 2020
Rabbi Uzi Weingarten is the designer of the Communicating with Compassion course. He received Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University’s RIETS and an M.A. in Jewish Education also from Yeshiva University.
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