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The Sacrifices of Yom Kippur and the Holiness Code

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Parshot Aharei Mot - Kedoshim

The Sacrifices of Yom Kippur and the Holiness Code

By Rabbi Pam Frydman

This week we read two Torah portions: Aharei Mot and Kedoshim.  Aharei Mot teaches us about the rituals performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Kedoshim teaches us about holiness.

In Parshat Aharei Mot, Aaron, the High Priest, the brother of Moses is receiving instructions about what to do on Yom Kipput. Aaron is told to wear special clothing and to offer special sacrifices. Aaron was also supposed to enter into the Kodesh Kedohsim, the Holy of Holies, which was a very special room in the innermost part of the sanctuary where the Holy Ark was kept.

  During the time that the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the priests offered sacrifices every day and they added special additional sacrifices on Shabbat and High Holy Days and Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. and on Rosh Chodesh when we celebrate the arrival of a new month. Today, we no longer have a High Priest and we no longer have a central Holy Temple. Instead, we have synagogues in Jewish communities all over the world and we offer prayers in place of the ancient sacrifices. We also recite prayers in our homes and when we are out and about. We might say a prayer over the food we eat no matter where we are eating.

When I go on vacation, I bring Shabbat candles and I find grape juice or wine. Anyone can do this and perhaps you already do this when you travel. The sky is the limit. Judaism is ours to practice wherever we are, in the synagogue, in our home, when we are away, wherever we are and whenever it feels safe and right.

Our Siddur, our prayer book, refers to the main part of the morning service as Shacharit because Shacharit was the name of the morning sacrifice. We call our afternoon service Mincha because that was the name of the sacrifice that was offered late in the day. We also have an additional service after the Torah reading on Shabbat and festivals and Rosh Chodesh. This additional service is called Musaf and Musaf is a replacement for the additional sacrifices that the priests offered in the Holy Temple on those special days. The ancient sages of our people used the names of the sacrifices as names for our worship services in order to retain the link with our history. The holiness of the ancient sacrifices translates into the holiness of our prayers today. The special holiness of the prayers of Yom Kippur are derived from many sources of the centuries and one of those sources is this week’s Torah portion where the sacrifices of Yom Kippur are described in great detail.

This week’s Torah portion Aharei Mot concerns the holiness of sacrifices and many other interesting subjects that we will save for another time. Our second Torah portion Kedoshim concerns the holiness of our actions toward one another and the world in which we live.

The name of our second Torah portion, Kedoshim, actually means holiness, and the first chapter of Parshat Kedoshim is sometimes referred to as a Holiness Code. The Holiness Code begins by saying that G-o-d spoke to Moses and told Moses to tell these teachings to the entire Jewish community. Then it says:

קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם

Be holy because I, your G-o-d, am holy.

Then the Torah goes on to say do not make idols, do not pray to idols, do not steal, do not lie, do not be deceitful, do no not commit fraud, do not insult the deaf and do not place a stumbling block before the blind. When an old person walks into the room, stand up and show respect. Love your neighbor as yourself and love the stranger as yourself.

These laws of the Holiness Code provide an infrastructure for creating and sustaining a wholelistic society. The laws about not making idols and not praying to idols might be considered relevant just for people who are Jewish, but the rest of the laws like do not steal, do not lie, and respect your elders -- these are laws that seem to apply to everyone. The Holiness Code invites us, as Jews, to be trend setters in matters of human decency.

It says in the Holiness Code that,

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, אֲנִי ה״

Love your neighbor as yourself. I am G-o-d.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? One thing it means is that we need to love ourself. Loving ourself, taking care of ourself, doing the right thing for ourself is part of being Jewish. It is a mitzvah to brush our teeth because brushing our teeth helps us to keep our teeth healthy.

Some people keep Shabbat because G-o-d tells us in the Torah to keep Shabbat and that is certainly a good reason to keep Shabbat. On another level, it is also a mitzvah to keep Shabbat because when we take a break from our ordinary routine, it helps us to relax and replenish our energy for the coming week. So keeping Shabbat might be seen as a form of loving ourself and so might brushing our teeth.

As we know, the Torah is full of stories and it also full of mitzvot, commandments: 613 to be exact. There is a famous story about Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai lived two thousand years ago in the Jewish state of Judea which included Jerusalem. The first Holy Temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed and the Second Temple was already built on the same site where the first Temple used to be, so in a certain way, things were going very well for the Jewish people. But the Romans had conquered Judea and they were being very very mean to the Jewish people. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai were trying to figure out how to preserve Judaism during this very difficult time and they had a fundamental disagreement about how best to accomplish their goal.

Rabbi Shammai thought that the best way to keep Judaism strong was to be strict. Rabbi Hillel thought that the best way to keep Judaism strong was to be kind. According to the sages, Hillel and Shammai were both right. Sometimes we need to be strict and sometimes we need to be kind, but when push came to shove, the sages generally chose to follow the teachings of Rabbi Hillel because they felt that, on balance, being kind is more important than being strict.

There is a story about a man who was very interested in Judaism and he seemed to want to understand the essence of Judaism, but without getting into the details. Perhaps the man was thinking about converting. We do not really know. But what we do know is that the man visited the School of Rabbi Shammai and then he visited the School of Rabbi Hillel and when he visited, he asked a question that was a good question, but he did not ask it in a nice way. He asked it in way that sounded as though he was challenging the very foundation of Judaism, which is based on learning. The man’s question was, “can you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot?”

When the man visited the School of Rabbi Shammai, and he asked Rabbi Shammai, “can you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot?” Rabbi Shammai thought the man was trying to make fun of him and that he was also making fun of Judaism, so Rabbi Shammai lost his patience and pushed the man out of the school and slammed the door.

The man brushed himself off, walked to the School of Rabbi Hillel and asked Rabbi Hillel the very same question, “Can you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Rabbi Hillel said, “sure.” The man stood on one foot and Rabbi Hillel said, “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The man was completely surprised. “That’s it?” he asked. “Yes,” said Rabbi Hillel, “that is the entire essence of the Torah. The rest is commentary: Now go and study.”

Most people think that life is more interesting when things are complicated. We like intrigue. We like learning about things that we do not understand, but sometimes the simple truth is right in front of us and that is what Rabbi Hillel was trying to tell man while he stood on one foot.

When I was a teenager, my family belonged to Temple Beth Emet, a Conservative congregation in Anaheim, California. One of my teachers at Temple Beth Emet was Cantor Philip Model, of blessed memory. Cantor Moddel taught us to never recite the Torah blessings by heart when we were called up for an Aliyah, and to instead, chant the blessings over the Torah using the large print version that was on the bimah right next to the Torah scroll.

We used to ask him why because we knew the Torah blessings very well and we could recite them by heart when we were celebrating our bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. Cantor Moddel would say to us, “no, never do that, because if you do that, someone else might come up for an Aliyah and they will be ashamed that they do not know the words and they have to look at the words when you don’t have to look at the words. When you are leading a prayer, it is ok to look at the words and it is even good to look at the words because it helps other people feel that it is ok for them to look at the words, because not everyone knows the prayers and blessings by heart.

On Shabbat, we cover the challah while we light candles and while we make Kiddush. Candles and Kiddush are replacements for the sacrifices in the Holy Temple. We bless the candles and we make Kiddush as ways of connecting with G-o-d on Shabbat just like our ancestors used to connect with

G-o-d through the bringing of animals and grain and other donations for the priests to offer as sacrifices.

Challah reminds us of the manna that the Israelites ate during their years of wandering in the wilderness. Challah is very special, but on our Shabbat table, the challah has to wait until after the blessing of the candles and until after Kiddush. We cover the challah in order not to shame her because she has to wait for last, like a kid being chosen last for a sports team or an honor at school or like a grown up being overlooked for a promotion or another opportunity for advancement.

If we cover our challah in order not to shame her on Shabbat, when she is just a loaf of bread, how much more so must we be careful to not shame our friends or our teachers or our parents or our children.

Keeping Shabbat with candles, Kiddush and challah on Friday night and with Kiddush and challah on Shabbat morning, helps us feel connected with G-o-d and with Judaism. Keeping the Holiness Code by paying attention to how we treat others also helps us to stay connected to G-o-d and to Judaism. Engaging in the actions and prohibitions of the Holiness Code by loving our neighbor, loving the stranger and loving ourselves also helps us to make the world a better place and a safer place for everyone.

Shabbat Shalom.


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