Archive for Emor

Emor 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.


Emor begins with laws directed at the kohanim, the priests. They must observe certain restrictions concerning contact with the dead; they are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with “regular” Israelites. Just as the priests must be physically unblemished, so too the animals must be physical perfect. The major holidays are described in order. The parasha ends with laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, restitution of injuries, and punishment for cursing God’s name.


“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field in your reaping, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest- for the poor and the stranger you shall leave them- I am Adonai Your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)


When Israel becomes settled in the Land, those who are blessed with produce of the land must remember the poor and the homeless by leaving something left over after the harvest. This is the produce of the edges (“corners”) of the fields and also that which has fallen down and been left on the ground. This mitzvah reinforces the idea that wealth is given to a person to share with others; it also helps to preserve the dignity of the poor by allowing them to participate in their own sustenance. The last part of our verse reminds us that the land ultimately belongs to God and we are but tenants on it; this theological idea will be revisited in the next parasha.

In our day, some farmers here in North America try to keep the spirit of this commandment by allowing church groups or volunteers to take a certain part of the produce of the field and bring the food to homeless shelters or soup kitchens, or by allowing those in need to come along to pick up what’s left after the farming machines have harvested most of the crop.


The verse commanding the Israelites to leave some of their harvest for the poor and the stranger is a wonderful verse and yet seemingly out of place. All of chapter 23, with the exception of this verse, is concerned with the holidays: Passover, the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Laws are given for the special observances of each holiday, as well as for the holiday priestly offerings.

So what’s this verse about the ethics of agriculture doing here, stuck between Shavuot and Rosh Hashana? As usual, explanations range from the simple and straightforward to the highly creative.

On the simple and straightforward side, Ibn Ezra explains that since Shavuot is the holiday when the first grain is brought, this verse reminds us what else we must do in that season. Other commentators, such as Hizkuni and the Jewish Publication Society, basically agree that this verse is here because the Torah is dealing with agricultural matters as they pertain to the first harvest of the season.

Rashi, on the other hand, takes a more homiletical approach. He quotes a teaching from an ancient rabbi, R. Avidimi, who proposes that the mitzvah of leaving the gleanings is stuck into the middle of the festivals in order to teach that anyone who leaves food for the poor in this manner is considered as if they had come up to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered sacrifices there. In Biblical times, the three “walking” holidays were Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when Israelites were expected to ascend to Jerusalem and personally make offerings in the Temple. R. Avidimi equates the holiness of this central ritual – pilgrimage to the Temple- with the holy act of leaving the corners of your field for the needy.

Ramban has an even more interesting interpretation, in my view. He connects the “reaping” of our verse with the “reaping” of 23:10, which tells us about the Omer offering that the priests make in the spring. Verse 10 says that an offering from the new grain must be brought by the priests before the harvest may be eaten by the general public. This is usually understood as an acknowledgment of thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest, done before partaking of the new crop.

The connection between the “reaping” of the Omer and the “reaping” of our verse , according to Ramban, is that even this positive commandment to bring the offering of the Omer doesn’t overrule the commandment to leave the gleanings for the poor. In other words, don’t let your enthusiasm for the ritual commandments cause you to forget your moral obligations. We might even intpret futher; since the Omer offering is one of thanks, we might say that Raman is reminding us that thanks to God for our good fortune must be expressed by sharing that good fortune with those around us.

Notice that neither Rashi nor Ramban says that the ethical commandment in our verse is better or more important than the ritual holiday commandments on either side of it, nor vice versa. It seems to me that the challenge of balancing the ritual and ethical practices of Judaism is just that- trying to find a balance, upholding both a personal spirituality (symbolized by the pilgrimage aspect of the holy days) and an outer-directed effort to heal the world (symbolized by the commandment to leave the gleanings of the field.) As R. Avdimi teaches, both are holy, and as Ramban reminds us, both are necessary.

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