Sedra of the week: Shemini

Sedra of the week: Shemini

by rabbi Alex ChapperSedra-of-the-week-300x208

Of the various themes in this sedra, one whole chapter is dedicated to the issue of holiness.

In this instance, it manifests itself in a most practical way, collectively known as the dietary laws, by which the Torah sets out what species are permitted and forbidden to be eaten, as well as the rules governing spiritual impurity.

R’Aharon of Barcelona, in his monumental work, the Sefer HaChinuch, set out to explain the rationale of each of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah and when he reached this section, he made a remarkable statement. No human being possesses perfect wisdom, not even Moses or Solomon.

At the same time, we can be in no doubt that God, in His goodness, would ordain anything for His creatures other than for their own benefit and good, and in order to remove all harm from them. When we gain an insight into the mitzvot, that is a source of joy for us – but when we cannot, it is for us to realise that God, in His far greater wisdom, knew the benefit we will have from that precept and that is why He commanded it.

In other words, the Sefer HaChinuch is saying there are certain things that are beyond our comprehension – and the laws of holiness are a case in point. Our response is to know that God, like a loving father to his child, only seeks the best for His creations and everything He does is for the good.

What is so significant here is the context of these laws. First, they are found at the very core of the Torah – Shemini contains not only the middle word of the Five Books of Moses, but also the middle letter. Clearly this indicates that to grasp this concept is central to the understanding of the entire Torah.

Recognising that God’s wisdom is infinite and far exceeds our own is fundamental to what precedes and follows this section. Second, this message is conveyed in a body of law that governs what we eat, a most basic human necessity for survival. It is as if this lesson is so important that it must be with us constantly, because it sustains and nourishes us like food itself. It is worth one final note that the middle letter of the Torah referred to above is an enlarged ‘vav’ in the word ‘gachon’, which means ‘a belly’. The letter ‘vav’ not only has the appearance of a central pillar, but is also associated with connection.

This suggests that internalising the realisation that our knowledge is inequitable to God’s somehow leads to a closer affinity with Him by building a bridge between His concealment and revelation. Holiness is at the heart of Judaism, it is manifested at the cusp of human understanding and the awesomeness of the Divine.

• Alex Chapper is minister of Ilford Federation Synagogue and the Children’s Rabbi. Visit for more information

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