Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Emor
To dedicate this lesson
Hirsch At Your Table

Distancing from Death

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ויאמר ד’ אל משה אמור אל הכהנים בני אהרן ואמרת אליהם לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו. כי אם לשארו הקרוב אליו לאמו ולאביו ולבתו ולאחיו: (Lv 21:1-2)
After instructing the Jewish nation generally how to infuse their lives with holiness, the Torah turns specifically to the כהנים, who serve as the people’s representatives in the משכן. This role requires them to live a life of heightened holiness and purity. This verse commands the כהנים to distance themselves from attending to the dead, except in the case of close family members, such as a wife, parents, children and siblings.

Surprisingly, variations of the root א-מ-ר/say, appear three times in the first verse, while the word דבר/speak, which is typically used to introduce God’s commands, does not appear at all.

The word אמור is from the root א-מ-ר which means "to organize speech in order to be understood." Its cognate ע-מ-ר means "to collect." The word דבר is from the root ד-ב-ר "to combine separate items into one." This type of speech is to appeal to the intellect. Its cognate ת-פ-ר means "to sew pieces together."

What is the difference between דיבור and אמירה? דיבור is a concise message, a form of declaration, that does not address a particular audience. In contrast, אמירה is a statement that is strategically worded to touch the minds and hearts of the listeners. The Ten Commandments are known as עשרת הדיברות, because they are clear and concise instructions. The אמוראים (from the root א-מ-ר), Jewish sages who lived after the destruction of the Temple, were interpreters, who explained the laws so that the people would better understand and observe them. The act of Divine creation takes the form of אמירה (ויאמר ד’ יהי...), while the teaching of Torah is performed through דיבור (וידבר ד').

The repeated use of the word אמור emphasizes to the כהנים that they must understand and transmit this message to future generations. The כהונה is not a position that one can obtain or aspire to, nor can one be elected to serve as a כהן. It is a position that one assumes at birth by virtue of being a descendant of Aharon. Living the life of a כהן requires diligent training from the earliest age to understand and embody the role and lifestyle of a servant of God.

The word כהונה is from the root כ-ה-ן "to serve as a leader." This root is a derivative of the root כ-ו-ן, "to prepare."

This idea is reinforced in the words הכהנים בני אהרן. This is the only instance in the Torah where this wording is used, instead of the phrase בני אהרן הכהנים. This uncommon ordering of the words stresses the importance of Kohanic lineage. As explained, the כהונה is a vocation imposed at birth that encompasses all aspects of the life of the כהן and must be transmitted to future generations.

In this context, the Torah establishes the cardinal rule of the כהן: Purity is paramount. Stay clear of any טומאה/impurity. Even the important מצווה of attending to the dead is not imposed on a כהן, because it may cause him to become טמא.

The word טומאה is from the root ט-מ-א which means "to contaminate." The word נפש is from the root נ-פ-ש "to rest in spiritual repose." The noun refers to the soul. The word עמיו is from the root ע-מ-ם "to develop" in a social relationship.

The only dead person that a Kohen is permitted to attend to is his wife, שארו, his parents, אמו ואביו, his children, בנו ובתו, and his siblings, אחיו.

The word שארו is from the root ש-א-ר which means "to complete." . The word אביו is from the root א-ב-ה "to submit." The word אמו is from the root א-מ-ם "to be dependent." The words בנו, בתו are from the root ב-נ-ה "to build." The word אחיו is from the root א-ח-ה "to unify."

The wife is the only family member mentioned who is not a blood relative. Yet she is mentioned first. The reason lies in the use of the word שארו. A wife completes a man’s life, both spiritually and morally. She makes her husband a complete person, and therefore even a כהן must attend to his wife in death.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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