Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
This week we have a double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Parashat Acharei Mot is familiar to us since it is the designated reading for Yom Kippur. The parashah begins with a detailed description of the Yom Kippur ritual conducted by the High Priest. The sanctuary is purified and the High Priest conducts rituals of expiation for himself, his family, and the whole people. We read about the central ritual of the day, the ritual of the scapegoat. This portion also describes the prohibition against the consumption of blood and carrion and the centralization of the sacrificial cult, and the punishment for violating them. Acharei Mot ends with a list of forbidden sexual practices. Parashat Kedoshim opens with the global commandment that gives the Torah portion its name: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am Holy.” Kedoshim revisits many of the commandments given in the Asseret HaDibrot, popularly known as The Ten Commandments. The portion also brings laws about some sacrifices and the obligation to leave gleanings and areas of the fields for the poor. There are many laws in this portion, many of them protecting the poor and the more vulnerable segments of society.
In Parashat Kedoshim, we have a very peculiar commandment. We read in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 19:
You shall observe My laws. you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seeds; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of source materials.
There are no explanations for these laws. They are Hukim, laws that are to be followed but have no explicit reasoning. Torah commentators throughout the ages have many ideas that spark from these laws. Here are a few of them:
1. You shall not cause your cattle mate with a different kind;
a. Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, 13th century, Spain
With regard to the forbidden mixing of species, the Eternal created all species in the world, both plant and animal, and gave them the power to reproduce so that they would each continue to exist as long as God wishes the world to exist. (…) But one who interbreeds two different species changes, and thereby challenges, God’s work of creation. It is as if the person would think that the Holy One did not completely finish the work of creation, and wishes to help out by adding additional creatures to the world.
b. Bekhor Shor (Yosseph ben Yitzchak, 12th century, France)
You shall not cause your cattle mate with a different kind – Thereby arrogating to yourself the position of Creator.
What are the issues that motivate these commentators? What is the problem they see with mating animals of different species?
2. you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of source materials.
a. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century, France)
Since Deuteronomy 22:11 says, “you shall not wear a combination of wool and linen”, why is the statement here also necessary? That verse might be understood to mean that one could not even wear wool shearings and flax at the same time. Our verse, therefore, explains that the rule apply only when they are combined in a single piece of cloth. We learn this from the word shaatnez, which is translated as “mixture”, and is an acronym for shua tavuy va-nuz, “carded, spun, and woven”.
Rashi compares two Biblical commandments and learn from one about the other. How does his interpretation limit the prohibition? Why would this be important for the ancient Israelite, and for the modern Jew?
The wool and linen specifically prohibited in Deuteronomy 22:11 are simply the most common combination from which cloth is in fact made. Maimonides says in the Guide for the Perplexed 3:37 that the prohibition was due to the fact that in those days it was widely known that priests of witchcraft performed their rituals using this specific kind of cloth. Since this was such an important thing for them and their idolatrous rituals, the Torah wished to keep people far from it. For the Torah comes to nullify their deeds and wipe out all remembrance of them.
Nahmanides thinks that every mixture created by people and not found in nature is a challenge to God, as we saw in his previous comment. What troubles him by this specific mixture? What are the consequences of his reasoning in understanding this ruling as a modern Jew?
Rabbi Lia Bass