Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Acharei Mot

Is Yom HaKippurim Really About Repentance?

In the time of the Beit HaMikdash, one of the eagerly anticipated rites of Yom HaKippurim was the dispatching to Azazel of a goat, laden with the nation's sins.  Who or what is Azazel, and why send it a goat?  See Why is the Goat Sent to Azazel.

  • The verses juxtapose the name Azazel with that of Hashem, suggesting that the word is a proper noun, referring to a specific supernatural being.1  If so, though, why offer it a goat; is it not prohibited to offer sacrifices to anyone other than Hashem?  Moreover, does the Torah believe in the existence of demonic powers?
  • If Azazel is, instead, the name of a location,2 what about this offering uniquely allows it to be brought outside the confines of the Mikdash? 
  • Either way, what is the purpose of the entire ceremony?  How does it relate to the other offerings of the day?  What role does it play in achieving atonement for sins, and how does it relate to the presumed need for the people to actually repent for their misdeeds?

The Deaths of Nadav and Avihu

Parashat Acharei Mot opens by referencing the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by heavenly fire after offering incense to Hashem.  What about their deed was so terrible to warrant such a severe punishment?  See Why Were Nadav and Avihu Killed.

  • Many3 suggest that even if the brothers had positive intentions, they were punished for violating proper protocol.  R. S"R HirschVayikra 10:1About R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, thus, writes that though Nadav and Avihu desired to get close to Hashem, "in the sacrificial service there is no room for subjectivity... [closeness] will not be achieved except via listening to God".  What are the dangers of subjective worship?  Why might R. Hirsch, specifically, have been concerned about this?
  • According to RashbamVayikra 10:1-2About R. Shemuel b. Meir's reading of the story,4 it is possible that the deaths were not a punishment, but rather a "work accident".  According to this, Nadav and Avihu were in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffered the natural consequences. Are there "chance accidents", or must everything that occurs in the world be directly attributed to God and viewed in terms of reward and punishment?
  • Mention of the brothers' deaths is used to introduce the rite of the purification of the Mishkan and the Yom HaKippurim Service. But what is the connection? Did this ritual serve to atone for the misdeed of Nadav and Avihu? Alternatively, was its purpose to prevent the recurrence of such an incident?  If so, how? See Purpose of the Service of Vayikra 16 and Why is the Goat Sent to Azazel.

Centralization of Worship

Vayikra 17 warns against bringing offerings outside of the Mishkan. 

  • Why does Hashem find worship on private altars problematic? 
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of centralized worship?  How might one's service of Hashem differ if one needs to travel to the Mikdash to bring sacrifices, rather than offering them in one's backyard?
  • During which periods in Israelite history were sacrifices prohibited outside of the Mikdash?  Devarim 12 suggests two conditions for the prohibition, inheritance of the land of Israel and security from enemies. What is the relationship between the two? What light does this shed on the possible understandings of the commandment?  See When Were Private Altars Prohibited.

Is Intermarriage Biblically Prohibited?

In Vayikra 18:21 and 20:2-5, the Torah commands not to give of one's seed to the Molekh.  What does the violation of this prohibition entail?  Some commentators assume that the verse refers to an idolatrous rite, such as child immolation or consecration, while others connect it to sexual offenses, such as relations or marriage to a non-Jew.

  • What textual support might be brought for each position?  See Giving One's Seed to Molekh.
  • Though the Torah prohibits intermarriage with the seven Canaanite nations, it nowhere explicitly legislates against marriage to other outsiders.  How might this omission be understood, and how might it affect exegetes' reading of this passage?


For more, see: Parashat Acharei Mot Topics.