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Shemini describes the consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its altar, during which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die as a result of offering ‘strange fire’. The Torah then describes the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of purity.

Another voice

Shemini by Denise Handlarski :: 5775

Denise Handlarski works as a rabbi at the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto, Canada. She is ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Shemini means “eighth.” In this parashah it refers to the eighth day of the Tabernacle. There were seven days of training in which the tabernacle was erected and taken down each night. On the eighth day the practice was to end and the temple to stand. Thus, in many ways, the eighth day was really the first day.

In Shemini, Aaron is told that the job of the Priests is to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane." We have a weekly way of distinguishing between these if we mark Shabbat. Shabbat is a special, sacred time when we remember to rest, to breathe. At the close of Shabbat, we celebrate Havdallah, meaning separation. It is time to mark the transition between the sacred time of Shabbat and the ordinary time of the week. Some see Havdallah as more of a joining than a separation—we bring the sacredness into the rest of the week by beginning the week with the lovely rituals of lighting interwoven candles, singing songs, and smelling spices. This week, maybe seven won't be our lucky number. Instead let’s focus on eight. This day after the cycle of the week, we can reflect on what is extraordinary about our ordinary weeks and lives. Let's think of the eighth day as a first day; a new beginning.

This parashah is concerned with purity laws. The rules for Kashrut (dietary laws) are laid out, and so is the commandment to go to the mikveh (ritual bath). The parashah asks us to consider what we put into our bodies and how we take care of our bodies. For many of us, our thinking about these issues has moved from purity to process, from commandment to consciousness. We need not follow all of the laws of the Torah to take the invitation to consider the ethics of our eating, for example. Many think the rules for mikveh use are inherently sexist, but many women have reclaimed the mikveh as a sacred women-only time and space for reflection and relaxation.

There must be a division between the sacred and the everyday for us to be able to distinguish between them. But there is also room to bring a little more of what is sacred to us, and what is highest in our consciousness and heart, into our daily practices.

Shemini asks us to contemplate both the separation and the joining.


More by Denise Handlarski

Another voice by Peter Sevitt

Peter Sevitt is a UK expatriate living in Toronto for the last 42 years. He has attended conference for the last 16 years and was a pioneer in bringing Limmud to North America. By day he is a practising accountant but loves learning.

Boundaries and Differences

This week’s Torah portion shifts away from sacrifices to general food prohibition—Kashrut (the set of Jewish religious dietary laws). The laws of keeping kosher are among the most distinctive of Jewish practices and have been followed by generations of Jews going back at least 3000 years.

Does it give us an opportunity to bring holiness into our lives several times a day through the simple act of eating? Does it connect us with Jews all over the world? Is not holiness more than eating “special “foods?

In the Merchant of Venice Shylock responds to Bassanio and Antonio when invited to dinner thus:
“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you
but I will not eat with you, drink with you or pray with you”

Shylock's words meant that Jews had to separate themselves from the ordinary fellowship of gentiles. Was this just a response to the ghetto position Jews were in at that time or does Kashrut set separations?

We all draw boundaries in our lives. By making separations we acknowledge and recognise differences and continually wrestle with them.


More by Peter Sevitt

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5768 (Gideon Rabinowitz)
  • 5769 (Adina Judy Bernstein)
  • 5769 (Tuvit Shlomi)
  • 5770 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5770 (Hannah Kaye)
  • 5771 (Yuval Keren)
  • 5771 (Taste of Chavruta Team)
  • 5773 (Deborah Blausten)
  • 5773 (Sarah Snyder)
  • 5774 (Tanya Zion-Waldoks)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)