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Haftarah Parashat Shemini

Haftarah Parashat Shemini
Shabbat Mahar Hodesh
Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh

April 14, 2018 | 29 Nisan 5778
1 Samuel 20:18-42

The rabbinic sages paid very close attention to how the characters in the Tanakh (Bible) expressed themselves, looking for potential lessons to be learned.

In our Haftarah, when King Saul notices that David is absent from the special festive meal celebrating Rosh Hodesh (the new month), he explains/justifies it to himself, thinking “It is a mischance. He is not pure (bilti tahor), surely, he is not pure (lo tahor).” (20:26) This reason would have made sense because the Rosh Hodesh celebration included a sacrificial feast which would have required ritual purity to be eaten.

However, as the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Pesachim 3a describes, this is not the point which captured Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov’s attention. Instead, he was taken by the way Saul’s thoughts on this subject were expressed. It would have been much clearer and more efficient if the Tanakh had just said “tamei” (impure) instead of the expressions “bilti tahor” and “lo tahor,” both meaning “not pure”. After all, this is just a recording of what Saul was thinking. But even so, the Tanakh goes out of its way to replace the more vulgar “tamei.”.

But Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov took this further, suggesting it as the basis for a statement by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi that “One should never express oneself vulgarly.” By Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov’s logic, If the Tanakh goes out of its way to use nicer/cleaner language, it should be obvious that we should as well.

In our day when people are testing the limits of the use of what previously might have been considered foul language in common parlance and in public expression, this should be a valuable lesson. The sages wisely discerned that we are judged by how we express ourselves, and that how we express ourselves is a choice. And using this piece of our Haftarah, they found a way, both cute and profound, to teach us this message.

For Discussion: What changes have you seen in how both private individuals and public figures express themselves? How important is the “way” we say something? What does it say about us? What does it say to the person/people we are addressing?

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. Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp. Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .  Sponsors - The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary:
  • Underwriters:  Rabbi Michael and Erica Schwab.
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