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03.04.2017 15:27    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  tzav  

Honey and Leaven

The rules of the meal offering are set forth in this week’s reading and the previous, Parashat Va-Yikra.  The meal offering consists of choice flour and is made in two stages.  First the priest takes a handful of flour and offers it on the altar, and then the remaining flour is baked into unleavened cakes which are eaten by Aaron and his sons in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting:

And this is the ritual of the meal offering:…and this token portion shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord.  What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes in the sacred precinct; they shall eat it in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. (Lev. 6:7-9)

Aside from this week’s reading prohibiting leavened cakes being baked of the flour, Parashat VaYikra also prohibits honey being offered along with the leavened cakes:  “No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Lev. 2:11).  In this connection the Sages learned from the phrase, “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deut. 8:8), that honey does not refer to the substance made by bees, rather to a syrup extracted from dates and or from fruits in general.

An exception to both of these rules occurs on the Feast of Weeks, when both honey and leaven may be offered.  The first exception allowed a leavened offering:  “You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening, as first fruits to the Lord” (Lev. 23:17).  Although permission to offer honey is not explicitly stated, as is leavening, nevertheless it is entailed in bringing first fruits from the produce of the land on the Feast of Weeks:

When you enter the land…you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your G‑d is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your G‑d will choose” (Deut. 26:1-2).

Rashi explains these two exceptions on the Feast of Weeks:  “The two loaves of bread of Atzeret [= the Feast of Weeks], which are made of leavened dough, as it is written, ‘baked after leavening’ (Lev. 23:17), and first fruits of honey [= syrup extracted from dates] as the first fruits of figs and dates.”[1]

The question arises why the Torah forbade offering leavened bread and honey throughout the year, save on the Feast of Weeks.  Moreover, Abarbanel asks why the Torah puts such emphasis on the prohibition against offering leaven or honey.  After all, it does not emphasize the prohibition against sacrificing those animals that are forbidden as offerings!

Maimonides ascribes the prohibition against leaven and honey to the desire of the Torah to distance the Israelites from pagan worship, since it was a pagan practice to have leavened dough in all their meal offerings and to mix honey into all their sacrifices, whereas salt is never mentioned in their sacrifices.  The Torah, in its typical way, distances Israel from any form of pagan worship and comes out in this instance, as in others, against any ritual that might resemble what was accepted in pagan practice.  Hence it forbade leavened dough and honey and required salt on all sacrifices.  Another example of this educational approach is the prohibition against the practice, common among the patriarchs, of setting up a stone pillar—a practice later forbidden since it was something that idolaters would do, as it is written:  “for such the Lord your G‑d detests” (Deut. 16:22).[2]

When Nahmanides addresses this question in this week’s reading, he accepts the explanations given by Maimonides and adds the idea of leaven symbolizing pride and, as such, having no place along with sacrifices, which symbolize humble submission.  In the passage on the festivals, however, Nahmanides gives a different and detailed explanation of the prohibition against leaven, according to which the prohibition is related to leaven having symbolism which alludes to the attribute of justice.  This attribute stands in apposition to mercy, which is symbolized by the sacrifices.  The word hametz, leaven, describes something that has been deprived of its flavor or has been changed from its natural essence, in the way that wine vinegar (hometz yayin) has lost its natural taste as wine and has turned into vinegar.  The verse, “My G‑d, rescue me from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and the lawless (Heb. hometz)” (Ps. 71:4), as well as, “My mind was stripped of its reason (Heb. yit’hametz levavi), I was pierced through in my kidneys” (Ps. 73:21) signify that a person, when he becomes angry, also loses his essence.

Sacrifices are supposed to be brought only from nature, not from a natural product whose flavor has been altered.  The exception on the Feast of Weeks stems from the essential nature of the offerings given on this festival, for they are offerings of thanksgiving:

Now on the Feast of Weeks, which is the day the Torah was given, the offering that is brought is one of thanksgiving, for it is the day of Atzeret, and the wise shall understand.  This is the hidden significance of what our Rabbis said, that all the sacrifices will be abrogated, except for the offering of thanksgiving, which will never ever be abrogated, for it contains unleavened and leavened bread, like the World to Come.[3]

Nahmanides based his explanation on the remarks of the Sages that in time to come all the sacrifices will be abrogated, save for the sacrifice of thanksgiving which is never abrogated (Leviticus Rabbah 9.7), and the reason lies in the combination of leavened and unleavened cakes in the offering of thanksgiving, symbolizing the World to Come, just as the giving of the Torah, which is the essence of the Feast of Weeks, resembles the World to Come.

Abarbanel holds that the prohibition against offerings of leavened bread stems from the desire of the Torah to distance a person from lust and lawlessness, because leaven or sourdough symbolizes the evil inclination, and honey alludes to the pleasure of the world that beguile most human beings.  Therefore it says that whoever eats leaven, that soul shall be cut off, because the evil inclination destroys the soul, felling the person down from their natural stature.[4]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch relates to this issue explicitly.  The leavened bread and honey are called Korban Reshit, a “first offering”—the two loaves of bread that are brought to the Temple on the Feast of Weeks, along with first fruits from the produce of the land.  The two loaves of bread are made from the fresh harvest of wheat, and only after they are brought may one make offerings and eat of the new harvest.[5] The first fruits are brought from the seven varieties with which the land of Israel is blessed and include date honey and fruits.  Honey as such is forbidden to be offered on the altar as a burnt offering of pleasing odor; it is elevated, along with the freshly harvested grain.  Only afterwards are the first fruits (the honey) distributed among the priests (Menahot 61a).

In S. R. Hirsch’s opinion, the connection between honey and leaven lies in the symbolism of these substances.  Matzah, which is bread that has not been leavened, symbolizes not only the evil inclination but also the absence of political independence.  In Egypt the Israelites were not masters of their own time; they could not even set aside the time necessary for bread to rise.  Unleavened bread symbolizes slavery, because the Israelites were not masters of their own time, and eating matzah on Passover serves as a reminder of the era when the Jewish people did not control their own time because they were slaves and had no political independence.  In recalling the period of bondage we raise the standard of freedom, of the Jewish people living in their own land, with political independence and control over their time.  We rejoice on the festival of Passover because the Jews gained freedom and independence thanks to the Lord’s grace towards His people.  Therefore, the sacrifices offered in the Temple must be matzah, unleavened, because bondage must be given as an offering.  Our servitude to other human beings was replaced by serving the Lord, and by virtue of this we obtained liberation from bondage.  On the Feast of Weeks, the festival celebrating receiving the Torah, we come to the Temple with two loaves of bread and first fruits, i.e., with honey and leavened bread, in order to express the freedom and political independence that we achieved by virtue of the commandments of the Torah.  In addition, on the day the Torah was given, all Israel gather to celebrate with leavened bread and honey, and there is nothing to be feared regarding the symbolism of these substances, since the Torah that was given on this day is the guarantor of keeping away from the evil inclination and the pleasures of life.  On this day, leavened bread is the food of independence, and honey is the fruit that ripened on the tree of the Torah, a Tree of Life.  Honey extracted from fruits symbolizes ownership of the land, and leavened bread symbolizes independence—both having been given to the people of Israel by virtue of their following the Torah.

Kli Yakar points out that the complexity of human life requires using these two substances and what they represent.  Without the evil impulse (leaven) the world would not exist, for without pursuit of the pleasures of life man would not marry woman and bring children into the world.  Progress and development in the world are moved forward by the dictates of the evil inclination:

For if he does not answer his essential needs, which are motivated by honey, he will die, not live, and his limbs will not be strong or even healthy, so as to take trouble to fulfill the Lord’s commandments.  Were it not for the evil inclination man would not marry and build a home, and thus the world would end up in ruins.  These two things come before concerning oneself with the Torah and the commandments, for if a person does not first have flour to eat, there can be no Torah.[6]

Alongside, the commandment to offer honey and leaven is an initial offering, not an offering that is burnt to be a pleasing odor like other sacrifices.  The fact that these two substances are used for a preliminary offering and not an offering proper lies in the nature of their sacrificial essence:  they are sacrifices in the full sense of the word, but only a preliminary offering because they do not have the perfection in their own right such as would give them the status of a sacrifice.  Their power and status stems from being the beginning that leads to the perfection of the human soul.  Amassing wealth, developing society, and bringing children into the world are stages in human development, but not the essence in and of itself.  The Torah is not interested in a person who has not tasted life—a man who has not married, nor worked, nor experienced the rest of human needs.  Types that shut themselves off from the world and live an ascetic life are not the devout types that can fulfill the objectives of the Torah.[7] Without the evil inclination there would be no need for commands against it and there would be no justification for rewarding a person; therefore, offering honey and leaven is permitted on the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah, because the Torah is the spice of the evil inclination.  This tension lies at the very foundation of human existence, but the Torah aspires to help man navigate the stormy waters of this world.  Rabbi Alexandri on concluding his prayer added the following:  “Lord of the Universe, it is well known to You that it is our will to perform Your will, and what prevents us?  The leaven in the dough, and subjection to foreign powers.  May it be Your will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to the statutes of Your will with a perfect heart” (Berakhot 17a).

In conclusion, yeast and honey symbolize the evil inclination that underlies our existence, and the Torah provides the means for picking our way through and coping with the tension.  These substances are not exalted in the daily prayers and petitions for forgiveness, but on the day that the Torah was given there is no need to fear their influence, for countering them we have the potent that heals, the Torah.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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