By Israel Drazin


Abraham ibn Ezra. Joseph Bechor Shor, and Arnold Ehrlich have what some people would consider unusual interpretations of the biblical portion Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26. The following are few of them.


Ehrlich: Many didactic sermons have been delivered to explain why the Hebrew text of Vayikra begins in 1:1 with the final letter aleph of this word being smaller than the other letters in the verse. The small letters in the Torah are the result of scribal errors. Here, the scribe probably omitted the aleph because he focused on the next word that begins with an aleph. When he realized his mistake and wanted to insert the missing aleph, he saw he did not have enough space to place a full-sized letter, so he inserted a small one. Later scribes who copied his text did not know why he placed the small letter, so they piously copied it.


Ehrlich: The fact that the listing of offerings in the first chapter gives humans the choice whether to offer cattle, sheep, goats, fowl, or meal shows that God neither needs nor desires sacrifices (as Maimonides says in his Guide, God “allows” it). Humans can bring sacrifices they want to bring, but only within specified limits, so that they do not go over-board as pagans do.


Bechor Shor: Verse 1:2’s “if a man offers a sacrifice” and its use of the word adam for man, the same word used for the creation of the first human in Genesis 1, served as proof for the sages that non-Jews were allowed to offer sacrifices in the ancient temples. (What does this say about Jews and non-Jews worshipping together?)


Ibn Ezra: The offerings are named after what humans think. Thus the Olla offering in 1:3 (the Hebrew word olla means “going up”), called in English “the burnt offering,” is not, as commonly supposed, called Olla because it was totally consumed up on the altar. The name derives from the thought that the sacrificer had: his concern that he brought up evil thoughts.


Ehrlich: The Torah mandates that salt be added to meal offering in 2:13 and calls it the “covenant of your God.” This phrase highlights a lesson about the laws of nature (the covenant) created by God. Salt has a bitter taste, yet when added to food it enhances taste. Nature is like this. People may consider natural forces such as hurricanes and floods as evils, just as salt is bitter, but if people would think of the benefits that natural forces bring to the world, such as cleansing it, they would realize that all of God’s creations have a good purpose. (Jews sprinkle salt on their bread when they make a blessing over the bread at the beginning of meals to recall this sacrificial practice. They consider the table upon which they eat to be like an altar before God and add salt to their “meal offering” as their ancestors did.)