By Israel Drazin
Samson Raphael Hirsh, Abraham ibn Ezra, Arnold Ehrlich, and Maimonides have what some people might consider unusual even surprising interpretations of the biblical portion Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47, such as the following.
Abraham ibn Ezra, Samson Raphael Hirsh, and many others noted that the Torah uses the numbers seven and three frequently. The two suggest that seven represents a complete cycle and three a half cycle. See my Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, chapter 39, for the use of seven in over a hundred instances in Judaism and dozens in other cultures. Hirsch comments on 9:1 that the inauguration ceremony for the tabernacle began on the eighth day because the number eight suggests a new beginning. He writes elsewhere that this is why Judaism requires male children be circumcised on the eight day because with the circumcision the child enters the Jewish community.
On 9:2, Hirsh writes that Aaron was required to sacrifice a calf as a wholly burned offering to God at the outset of the inauguration ceremony of the tabernacle to impress upon the people that he and they had acted improperly by worshipping the golden calf; the Israelites must dedicate themselves entirely to God, as this sacrifice is dedicated.
Ehrlich notes in his commentary on 9:13 that the smell of the sacrifice must have been horrendous and asks, should people offer a foul odor to God? He is convinced that the ancients, including the Israelites, believed their deities enjoyed appalling odors. He cites Midrash Genesis Rabbah 47:7 as a proof. When Abraham circumcised his male retainers, he piled the foreskins, “the sun shone on them, they putrefied, and their odor rose up to the Lord like sweet incense. God said: ‘When my children engage in sinful behavior, I will remember that odor in their favor and have compassion for them.’”
It seems that Ehrlich erred. God didn’t like the odor; he was pleased that Abraham did what he told him to do. Furthermore, as Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, God does not need or want sacrifices; “God allowed these services to continue.” True, the smell is ghastly, but the slaughter of animals for sacrifices is more so.
Ehrlich asks on 10:3 why the tabernacle did not become ritually unclean (tamei, also translated impure) when Aaron’s two sons died in it. He suggests that the biblical rule of a dead body producing ritual uncleanliness does not apply when God causes the death. This suggestion is also questionable. Aren’t all deaths ultimately caused by God who created the laws of nature?
A better answer may be: Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:47 that there is no physical change in a person when the person becomes ritually unclean. The Torah instituted these laws to restrict entry into the tabernacle and later temples by over-zealous people who might want to visit these cites too often. The “object of the sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence…But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened… [therefore the Torah created rules to restrict entry] that we should not enter the temple whenever we liked.” We could imagine that Maimonides would answer Ehrlich’s question by saying that God did not want to stop the inauguration ceremony that had just started, so God didn’t proclaim that the tabernacle impure. This may also be why God told Aaron and his sons to continue with the ceremony despite the death of Aaron’s two sons and not mourn for them.