I. All About the Priests
A reader of Leviticus may emerge with the notion that Judaism is all about priests. Sacrifices, purity, skin diseases,… everything revolves around the priests. The lesson of pagan mourning practices teaches us that Leviticus reflects a much different perspective on Judaism.
R. Shalom Carmy (Mitokh Ha-Ohel, Emor) points out that this tension can be found in Abarbanel’s conflicting accounts. In his introduction to the entire book, Abarbanel states explicitly that Leviticus teaches about the priestly role. They are the center of this book and presumably the center of the religion. However, in his introduction to chapter 21, he seems to reverse himself. He states that Leviticus is about the holiness of the entire Jewish people.
Which is it? Are the priests God’s chosen ones and the rest of the people acquire some of that holiness by proximity? Or is the entire nation holy and the priests merely selected for specific functions? Is Judaism a clergy-centric or laity-centric religion? R. Carmy explains that Abarbanel’s different explanations reflect where he wrote them–at the beginning of the book or working through it, passage by passage. But that does not answer the big question.
II. Forbidden Mourning
Priests are forbidden to pull out their hair, shave the corners of their heads and lacerate their flesh (Lev. 21:5). Commentators point out that this is already forbidden to all Jews earlier (Lev. 19:27-28) and in Deuteronomy (14:1). Classicaal commentators of two approaches to explain this redundancy. Ibn Ezra (Lev. 21:5) suggests that this had to be mentioned to priests because if they violate the prohibition, they are not only liable but are also disqualified from Temple service. Seforno (Lev. 21:5) points out that the Torah sets aside the prohibition of a priest becoming impure for close relatives. Therefore, it needed to reiterate the other mourning prohibitions to state that they are not set aside.
Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur (actually R. Naftali Wessely, who wrote the Leviticus commentary) quotes the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodas Kokhavim ch. 12) who said that these acts are prohibited because pagan priests did these things. While the Rambam did not quite say all that, with a little extension you can imagine him saying it. If so, we can understand why this prohibition–that applies to everyone–is repeated in regard to priests. They must be extra careful to avoid it.
Later commentators followed this general approach. He-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah quotes the Bi’ur explicitly. R. Carmy quotes other commentators, like R. Hirsch and R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, who also follow this general approach.[1. I saw the Bi’ur and Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah before reading R. Carmy’s essay. I have not looked up R. Hirsch or R. Hoffmann. If anyone knows where I can acquire R. Hoffmann’s commentary on Leviticus (in Hebrew, not German), please let me know.]
III. Kellal and then Perat
R. Carmy finds additional significance in the order. The command to the people, indeed the entire portion of Kedoshim directed at the nation, precedes the priestly portion of Emore. The national holiness is primary and the priestly role only secondary. R. Carmy also notes that the language in Emor seems to address the nation in its entirety and not just the priests. The priests are consistently referred to in the third person. The second person is used when telling the people to sanctify the priests (Lev. 21:8). Even the priestly passage is directed to the entire nation.
I add that we discussed a few weeks ago the progression of the first ten chapters of Leviticus (link), including the tension between the first five chapters and the next two. The first five chapters of Leviticus are addressed to the nation as a whole. The sixth and seventh speak to the priests. We found significance in the tension but we can also see meaning in the order. Like Kedoshim-Emor, Vayikra speaks to the entire nation and only afterward Emor addresses the priests.
The same message can be seen at the very beginning of Leviticus. In Judaism, the entire people is holy even if specific people are appointed to unique roles. The priests are functionaries and representatives of a nation of priests.