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Devarim 5768

Parshat Devarim/Shabbat Hazon
(Isaiah 1:1-1:27)
August 9, 2008
8 Av 5768

This week\’s haftarah is the third of the special haftarot which precede Tisha B\’Av (T\’lata d\’Puranuta – the three haftarot of admonition). In it, Isaiah lambasts the people of Judea for abandoning God. Equally though, he condemns their immoral behavior in dealing with each other. Their unbridled conduct reflects the broken relationship that they have with God since they act as if their behavior will go unchallenged. God, however, thinks otherwise. The people assume that they can conduct themselves sinfully but carry on their \”religious\” life as usual. This hypocrisy does not go uncontested, not by Isaiah and most certainly not by God: \”And when you lift up your hands [in prayer], I [God] will turn away My eyes from you; though you prayer at length, I will not listen. Your hands are filled with blood.\” (Verse 15)

Because \”lifting up one\’s hands\” in prayer is associated with the priestly blessing (birkat kohanim) performed daily in synagogues in Israel and on holidays in many synagogues in the diaspora, the Talmud uses this verse as a platform for taking up the question of whether a kohen (a member of a priestly family) who is responsible for the death of another human being can stand before the congregation and bless them: \”Said Rabbi Yochanan: A priest who has killed another may not lift up his hands [to bless the congregation], as it says: \’And when you lift up your hand, I will turn away My eyes etc. for your hands are filled with blood\’\” (Berachot 32b) This unequivocal ruling is affirmed by Maimonides (Mishnah Torah Laws of Prayer 15:3) and by Rabbi Joseph Karo (Shulhan Aruh Orah Hayim 128:35). For these sages, who are the major voices of the Sephardic tradition, no distinction is made between the person who shed the blood criminally or accidentally. One who sheds the blood of another person should not raise his hands to bless the people. This blemish creates a permanent taint and cannot be erased.

The Talmud of Eretz Yisrael (the Yerushami) presents what seems to be an alternative position on this question: \”One should not say: \’This kohen is sexually immoral or has shed blood, and he will bless me? For the Holy One Blessed Be He asks [rhetorically]: \’Is he the one who blesses you? I am the One who blesses…\’\” (Yerushalmi Gittin 5:9) Medieval Ashkenzic authorities derive from this opinion that if said kohen was inadvertently involved in the death of another person and repented his actions, he could again regain his ability to bless the congregation. (See Or Zarua 2 Siman 412; Hagahot Maimoniot Laws of Prayer 15:1; Rabbi Moshe Isserles on Shulchan Aruch, noted above.) The Ashkenazi position, based on the Yerushami, sees room even for a person who has taken a life to change and again become worthy of the role of blessing the congregation.

In fact, the distinction maintained by these two traditions is maintained to this day. (See R. Ovadiah Yosef, Yehaveh Daat 5:16)

On the level of ideas, it is important for us to take very seriously, the Sephardic tradition\’s concern for how precious the life of each individual is. It should influence the way we drive our cars and the way we care for those whose lives are in our hands. We also want to take into account, the Ashkenazi tradition\’s concern that even those who have done something wrong need the ability to seek some sort of renewal and restoration for their own sakes and for the sake of those around them. Both of these ideas will help us restore what needs to be repaired in this season when we so sorely need repair.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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