Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week, we will read Emor. Among the commandments dealing with the priesthood and the Temple, we find some related to festivals in the Jewish yearly cycle. These commandments focus on sacrifices in the Temple during these holy days. In the yearly cycle, which begins in the spring, we begin with Passover when we sacrifice a measure of the first harvest, allowing for the new produce to be eaten. Then comes the time we are in now in the Jewish calendar year – the counting of seven weeks of harvest, called “Sfirat Ha’Omer.” After seven weeks of counting, we get to Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, on which the sacrifice was “minchat bikurim” composed of two breads. These two breads were unique in that they rose because they were leavened. This sacrifice seemingly contradicted the prohibition, mentioned at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, of sacrificing chametz (leavened bread) on the altar:
No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made [out of anything] leavened. For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any leavening or any honey, [as] a fire offering to the Lord; [However,] you shall bring them as a first [fruit] offering to the Lord; nevertheless, they shall not go up on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.
(Leviticus 2, 11-12)
The Torah issues a sweeping prohibition on any offering made out of anything leavened while making an exception regarding the “first (fruit) offering,” which is the one mentioned in our parasha. Why does the Torah prohibit an offering that was a product of leavening? And why does it make an exception for the first fruit offering?
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (East Europe, 19th century) was one of the most brilliant commentators of the Torah and the Talmud of his generation. He introduced research learning techniques in religious study and his commentary is unique in that its sources are based on the entire Bible and Talmudic literature. The reason he gives for the prohibition of offering leavened products in the Temple is such: leavening agents are made by man to add to that which was created by G-d. When a person comes before G-d to offer a sacrifice, he should minimize the artificial additions to creation and sacrifice an offering which is as natural as possible. And why is the first fruit offering an exception? We will come back to this shortly.
It is hard to ignore the comparison between sacrificing a leavened product on the altar with the prohibition of eating chametz, leavened products, on Passover. Passover, also called the Festival of Spring, demands that we renew ourselves, peel off the layers we added to ourselves during the long winter and return to nature and to the primal point in our soul. In the spring, we clear our homes of leavened remains and eat matzahs, a simple bread with no additions. This cleaning allows us to go back in time to the Exodus from Egypt, to reexperience that naïve faith in G-d which we felt then as a nation. The harvest is also at its beginning, and we sacrifice the first fruit, a modest and simple offering.
Along with the advancement of spring, we count seven weeks; weeks in which nature slowly reawakens, the fruit of the tree slowly ripens and the harvest nears completion. With the awakening of nature, our soul also becomes gradually ready to be filled with the joy of life and creativity. At the end of the counting, we celebrate Shavuot and again sacrifice a new offering, fundamentally different from the first. This offering expresses the completion of the seven-week journey. A journey that began with the beginning of spring, a time of renewal and return to nature, and ended at a time when we are willing to fill our lives with joy and creativity. On Shavuot we celebrate the Divine blessing connected with human creativity, and there is no offering that expresses this better than one made of leavened bread. This is the reason for this exceptional offering – one of chametz, of leavened bread.