CJL: Exploring Leviticus

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Commentaries on the Bible are rarely page turners. Even the most interesting are more likely to make people nod their head in agreement than encourage them to eagerly continue reading. This is especially true for works on the biblical book of Leviticus, which, with its listing of sacrifices, is of little interest to some contemporary readers. An exception to this is Rabbi David Fohrman’s “Leviticus: A Parsha Companion” (AlephBeta Press/Meggid). A few chapters were so interesting that I couldn’t stop reading until I finished them. Even those chapters whose arguments were less convincing are still worthy of study for the brilliant ways that Fohrman ties his ideas together. Readers do not have to agree with his thoughts to enjoy his work. 

Fohrman notes that many readers have difficulty understanding why Leviticus is part of the Bible because it is so different from the first two biblical books. He writes, “Let’s face it: Genesis and Exodus had a really good story going: God develops a relationship with a family of humans, but they eventually become enslaved in Egypt, until the Lord frees them from bondage with signs and wonders. Hollywood has made quite a bundle out of telling the story from The Ten Commandments to The Prince of Egypt. But then along comes Leviticus, and rudely interrupts the narrative flow of the Torah.” The question Fohrman explores is whether Leviticus can be best understood by noting its relationship to the stories found in Genesis and Exodus. He sees the repetition of words and phrases in the three books as connecting them in order to create what he calls “a rich tapestry of meaning.”

An example of this can be found in the chapter “Vayikra 1: A Peek into the World of Offerings.” Fohrman believes that each sacrifice listed relates to sacrifices offered by characters in Genesis and Exodus. It’s impossible to completely explain the connections in detail in this short review, but the author sees the chatat (sin) offering as connected to the first time humans sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The shelamim (peace) offering is similar to the covenant offering made between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban. The author discusses how Noah and Abraham made the olah (burnt) offering. Noah’s occurred after his exit from the ark, while Abraham’s was done as part of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Fohrman sees these offerings as representing three different aspects of our relationship to God: the chatat represents respect, the shelamim sharing and the olah awe. He believes that, while we no longer make animal sacrifices to God, they still offer ways to understand our connection to God. 

In “Emor: A Solar System in Time,” Fohrman explores the idea of Shabbat. He opens with a fascinating idea focusing on the first mention of Shabbat in Genesis: the “first of all Sabbaths was God’s very own. Notice that this celebration of the Sabbath by God didn’t involve any humans, nor do humans, at the time, even know about it. We, the readers of the text, many years after Creation, know about it. But at the time, God didn’t command Adam and Eve to observe the Sabbath or even tell them that He was resting. For all we know, Adam and Eve were completely unaware of the Sabbath’s existence. That first Sabbath was God’s, and God’s alone. He was the Being to rest on it.” Fohrman sees this Sabbath as a prototype to the Sabbaths that humans will later celebrate. He explores how the Sabbath is not just for humans, but for all living things, animals and plants. A break from creating is needed because all creation includes some form of destruction: for example, he notes how making bread includes the killing of plants/seeds. For Fohrman, this act of destruction and creation means “every time we make a loaf of bread, it is like we are playing God. We foster life and then snuff it out, wielding the mysterious forces of life and death as tools to serve our creation needs.” Just as God took a break from performing these acts, so, too, do we need to do the same.

In the interesting, but not completely convincing, chapter on parashat Behar, Fohrman talks about “The Yovel and Children of Cain.” He notes yet another way the laws in Leviticus are related to specific stories found in the books of Genesis and Exodus: “A law may come to rectify a historical wrong. Or, on the other side of the ledger, a law may seek to reenact a high point in our history, ensuring that its legacy continues to influence the life of a nation even after the passage of centuries. Sometimes, it may be a little of both. A law may pick up on a hopeful potentiality in a story that was, tragically, never actualized.” In this case, the Sabbatical year is tied to the story of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother, Abel. Since the chapter is 40 pages long, it’s difficult to summarize the discussion, but it focuses on how the descendants of Cain are connected to what is not done during the Sabbatical year and how this ties to the lesson that we are all our brothers’ keepers. Even readers who are not convinced will be intrigued by the discussion. 

Other chapters offer excellent looks on their particular parashot, including the one on Kedoshim, which offers 30 pages of discussion on one verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (19:18) Fohrman writes easy-to-read prose and offers explanations that novice readers of the Bible should be able to understand. Those who have more background will find even more to appreciate. Readers will find themselves looking forward to his commentaries on “Numbers” and “Deuteronomy.”

Reviews of Fohrman’s earlier parashot companions can be found at Off the Shelf: Biblical commentary by Rabbi Rachel Esserman and Off the Shelf: Parasha and prophet by Rabbi Rachel Esserman.