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Parashat Sh’mini: Consecration of the Priests, First Laws of Kashrut, Purity and Impurity, and Support for Ukraine

Parashat Sh’mini is the third Torah portion in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. We learn ideas, concepts, and practices that remain meaningful and relevant to Jews today throughout the world. The portion opens with the completion of the eight-day ceremony for the consecration of the Priests/Kohanim charged with conducting the sacrificial rituals in the moveable Tabernacle being transported through the wilderness. The portion opens with a description of the eighth day of the ordination ritual. “Vay’hi Bayom Hash’mini/On the eighth day…, Moses called Aaron, his sons, and the elders of Israel.”(9:1). Aaron, older brother of Moses and his two older sons, Nadab and Abihu, begin their service as priests in the Tabernacle. But then a very tragic event takes place: Nadab and Abihu present strange and unwelcome material for the sacrifice and the burning fire, and they are instantly consumed by the blazing fuel and the burning animals! The tragedy is so overwhelming and sudden, that Aaron cannot utter a word or even articulate a sound: “Vayidom Aharon/And Aaron was silent.”(10:4)

Aaron tells his remaining two sons, Eliezer and Ithamar, to continue the work of preparing the sacrifices, even though Moses was angry with his nephews because of their major error in the ritual. They had not eaten a portion of the offering in the consecrated area within the Tabernacle in order that the community’s sins be fully expiated.

In chapter 11, we are instructed about what animals we are permitted to eat, and what animals we are forbidden to eat. This is the first statement of the Kashrut laws. The word Kosher means “fit” for consumption. Many of these laws are still in force today. Certainly the long list of forbidden and exotic animals are not consumed by us. The requirement that quadrupeds, animals with four legs, have a cloven hoof and “chew their cud” is still in force to the present day. Pigs are prohibited because they have a cloven hoof but do not chew their cud. Kosher fish must have both fins and scales.

Next comes a discussion of two categories of ritual cleanliness: Tameh and Tahor/Impure and Pure. We become impure by touching a dead carcass, either animal or human. There are stated procedures described to remove the impure status by bathing in a mikveh/ritual bath.

The rabbis of the Talmud greatly expanded the laws of Kashrut. Contemporary Reform Jews do not generally observe most Kashrut laws in their homes. I was pleasantly surprised to find an excellent and thorough summary of the traditional Kashrut laws in our Reform Plaut Torah, a Modern Commentary, on page 721 and following. At KI congregational events, our caterers are instructed not to serve forbidden foods such as pork products and shell fish in honor of Jewish tradition.

Ellen and I have always maintained a strictly kosher home since our wedding, and our three children observe strictly these traditions as a way of bringing sanctity to the process of eating according to G-d’s revealed laws.

All day long, and certainly during the national evening TV news, we are constantly bombarded with scenes of the evil being inflicted on Ukraine by the barbarous Russian army and their leader, Vladimir Putin. Certainly not since the Viet Nam war have we seen daily such human carnage.

Ukraine was home to a rich and vibrant Jewish community that was almost eliminated by the Nazis during WWII. Ukraine was the birthplace of many talented Cantors from the golden age of Hazzanut during the end of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries. For centuries, the Jews of Ukraine sang Yiddish songs and played Klezmer music in hundreds of Shtetlach/small Jewish towns.

My professional organization, the Cantors Assembly, has put together a program entitled Ruach Ukraine/The Spirit of Ukraine. The program contains Ukraine based Jewish music and performances by Cantors who were born in Ukraine singing songs of the Ukrainian Jewish community. The program has been viewed by thousands across the world. You can find this video, Ruach Ukraine, on YouTube, or on the Cantors Assembly website,

We must not take Aaron’s silent behavior at the loss of his sons as a standard for us! We must react aggressively to the bloodshed we are witnessing!

There are many places for us to contribute our own resources to support the Ukrainian refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Just today, I read in Kveller, the on-line Jewish magazine, about the fund raising efforts of the movie star couple Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, his Jewish wife, who have raised thirty million dollars for Ukraine relief! Mila received a phone call from President Zelensky thanking the couple for their heroic efforts.

If you are seeking a place to donate to the victims of this evil struggle, click here for a link of places you can make your dollar donations. In our neighborhood, you can contact the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center, 700 North Cedar Road, Jenkintown, 215-663-1166. They are accepting only medical supplies. It is crucial that all of us contribute now! In doing so, we acquire for ourselves the status of Tahor from the Torah portion. We are pure of body, mind, and spirit!

Ellen and our children, Avrum, Rabbi Howard and Naomi, Alana, and our grandchildren, Micah and Sophie, join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach.