Parshat HaShavua

Vayikra: Religious Ritual and Social Ethics

As my class works through each section of Leviticus, I am going to likewise share a few thoughts about something in the parashah. Before I begin talking about Vayikra, the first section, let me clarify what “parashah” is.  The parashah is the weekly portion (which is how I remember it, parashah = portion) read in synagogue on Shabbat. When the word is followed by the name of the parashah, Hebrew grammar requires it change to “parshat”, as in Parshat Vayikra (read: the portion of Vayikra).

The last offering mentioned in Parshat Vayikra is the reparation offering, “asham”. The meaning of the word is literally “guilt”. Why is  it called reparation? Because of how it functions in Leviticus, which is to repair damages caused by transgression, it is a better translation than guilt offering. The final verses address injustices between person and person.

Lev. 5:20-26

  1. God said to Moses:
  2. When a person sins and commits a trespass against God – by dealing deceitfully with another in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding another,
  3. or by finding something lost and lying about it; if one swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that someone may do and sin thereby –
  4. when one has thus sinned and, realizing guilt, would restore either that which was gotten through robbery or fraud, or the entrusted deposit, or the lost thing that was found,
  5. or anything else about which one swore falsely, that person shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. One shall pay it to its owner upon realizing guilt.
  6. Then that person shall bring to the priest, as a penalty to God, a ram without blemish from the flock, or the equivalent, as a reparation offering.
  7. The priest shall make expiation before God on behalf of that person, who shall be forgiven for whatever was done to draw blame thereby.

In summary, verses 20-23 describe a person wronging another person, and by extension God. Verses 24-26 indicate that for wrongs committed between people (as opposed to strictly between a person and God), you must first make amends with whoever you hurt, and only then atone via sacrifice.

Jacob Milgrom reflects on the ethical nature of these verses:

“Here we see the Priestly legists in action, bending the sacrificial rules in order to foster the growth of individual conscience. They permit sacrificial expiation for a deliberate crime against God (knowingly taking a false oath) provided the person repents before he is apprehended. Thus they ordain that repentance converts an intentional sin into an unintentional sin, thereby making it eligible for sacrificial expiation.”

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