Oz Torah: Insights on Sh’mini.


The eighth day of the consecration ceremonies of the sanctuary was dedicated to the induction of the kohanim.

Logic tells us that the number eight was chosen for this purpose because the previous seven formed the first week in the history of the tabernacle.

Yet the eighth day was not the mere mathematical continuation of the seven that preceded it. In a sense the seven belonged to the earth and the eighth to the Almighty.

It took seven days for the earthly worship focus to become a reality, but that could not be the end of the story. Merely having a building for worship was not an end in itself. Once there was a physical sanctuary, the spiritual era could begin.

Where do the kohanim fit in? Surely they are physical and not ethereal beings!

Their role is not merely to perform the rituals of the tabernacle but to train the people to yearn for God and little by little to reach up to Him.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe quotes in his commentary on this sidra what the K’li Yakar points out, that whilst the harp in the sanctuary orchestra had seven strings, the harp of messianic times will have eight strings (Kohelet Rabba 11:8).

The number eight denotes the commencement of a new era. That’s why when a community erects a synagogue there are two stages – physical, the creation of the edifice of bricks and mortar, and the spiritual, the utilisation of the building for the spiritual ascent of the worshippers who use it.

If a congregation think their task is done once they have a fine synagogue, the sidra warns them that that’s only the first stage.


Several times the sidra commands us to make a distinction between the permitted and the forbidden.

One understands how this applies to food; some food is kosher and some is t’refah, and the essence of kashrut is to know the difference.

The same distinction ought to apply in the moral sphere too.

The greatest compliment one can pay a person in Jewish terms is to say someone is “a kosher mensch”. This does not just mean the food they eat. It denotes their character. If all their deeds and dealings are kosher, they are indeed admirable. On the other hand, all the kosher food in the world cannot whitewash a person whose business and general morality are murky.

Psalm 15 defines a good person as one who “swears to his own hurt and changes not” – even if the result is that he suffers, he lives by the truth and does not change his tack to accord with the way the wind of personal advantage may be blowing.


King David’s wife Michal was a woman of cold dignity.

Her royal pride was affronted to see her husband leading a dancing procession to bring the Ark to Jerusalem:

“Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart” (II Sam. 6:16 – this week’s Haftarah).

It was not only that kings did not act in this way. Religious ecstasy offended her sense of propriety.

She would have liked Pepys’ comment when he said that a Simchat Torah service was “religion absurdly performed”.

She would also have applauded a member of a decorous London synagogue the first Simchat Torah that dancing was allowed there. He marched up to the bimah, announced, “My grandfather would turn in his grave!”, and walked out.

But despite Michal, Pepys and the decorous grandson, “leaping and dancing before the Lord” seems to be here to stay. Not only on Simchat Torah, but in some places on other days – especially Friday night.

In some synagogues in Israel the dance around the reading desk after L’chah Dodi takes 25 minutes, with rabbi and disciples singing Shabbos Koidesh, Shabbos Koidesh! over and over again.

This is not for every congregation, but hardly a community these days does not prefer services to be warm in atmosphere, lively in pace and user-friendly. Few now favour the sort of service that, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, suffers from a severe cold.

But it would be a pity if less structured services abandoned all semblance of dignity and decorum. A service, however lively, that ends up as a mess lacks awe and sanctity.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com



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