Haftarah Parshat Emor
May 3, 2014 / 3 Iyar 5774
Ezekiel’s discussion of the rules and regulations governing the priestly order often differ from those found in the Torah. These differences have been taken up in any number of discussions in rabbinic literature and provide fodder for debate even today. The last verse in this week’s haftarah is curious, however, for its seeming redundancy. It states: “Priests shall not eat anything, whether bird or animal, that died (nevelah) or was torn by beasts (terefah).” (44:31) This law is already made explicit in the this week’s parashah: “He (a priest) shall not eat anything that died or was torn by beasts, thereby becoming unclean, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 22:8)
[Before we continue a word of explanation is in order. Modern Jews are familiar with the word “treif” since it has become the reference word for anything that is not kosher (i.e. not edible according to Jewish dietary laws.) Actually, the word “terefah” refers to an animal killed or torn apart by another animal. Today it refers to an animal with a physical or organic flaw which renders it not kosher. The word “nevelah” refers to an animal which died or was slaughter by a means other than proper kosher slaughtering (shehita). Technically, then, today most non-kosher meat is really nevelah and not treif.]
This repetition raises two issues: 1.Why would Ezekiel repeat what the Torah has already taught; 2. How do we explain this explicit command to the priests when we presume that this same rule applies to all Jews and not just to priests?
The sages attempted to answer this question in the following Talmudic debate: “The priests shall not eat of anything, whether fowl or beast, that dies of itself [nevelah], or is torn [terefah]. Is it only the priests who may not eat such but the Israelites may? Rabbi Yohanan said: This passage will be interpreted by Elijah in the future. Ravina said: It was necessary [to repeat this prohibition] for the priests, for I might have thought that since they are permitted [to eat] a bird-offering of which the head had been nipped off at the neck [which was permitted as part of the Temple rites but would not normally be considered kosher], they are also permitted to eat nevelah and terefah; we are therefore told [explicitly that it is not so].” (Menahot 45a)
Rabbi Yohanan had no ready answer to these questions and as a consequence expected Elijah the prophet to provide an answer. Ravina’s response was more pragmatic. He noted that Temple rites required a special way of killing bird offerings which, outside of the Temple, would have rendered them nevelah. Since these birds were kosher for the priest to eat inside the Temple, the priests needed to be reminded that under other circumstances they also needed to abide by normative standards of what was kosher. This lesson should teach us that special circumstances should not be used to supersede carefully established norms lest they undermine the society we live in. We have too often experienced the grave cost of ignoring this warning.