The first few sections of the Sidra contain the various laws which apply specifically to the Kohanim. The Kohanim have to observe a higher degree of sanctity than ordinary Israelites but they also enjoy certain privileges. Kohanim are only allowed to defile themselves, and are indeed duty-bound to come into contact with the dead body of their closest relatives, i.e. wife, parents, children and siblings. They are barred from marrying a divorcee or a convert to Judaism. The High Priest had to observe the highest level of sanctity. He was not allowed to defile himself for any of his relatives and he was also forbidden from marrying a widow. Some commentators explain that the high priest enjoyed such a uniquely high status in society that it was as if every Jew was his relative. Therefore, there were no exceptions for him.
Additionally, the Kohanim enjoyed certain privileges. Those privileges were connected with special gifts of food, known in Hebrew as MATNOT KEHUNAH. These privileges are no longer applicable because all the Kohanim are considered to be impure. Nevertheless, these priestly gifts are still separated nowadays without being eaten. Perhaps the most well-known of those gifts is the Challah, which is separated from the dough and burnt. However, some other privileges still apply. Chapter 21 verse 8 begins with the word VEKIDASHTO which means ‘you shall sanctify him’. Our rabbis interpreted this verb as a positive commandment to be aware of the Kohen’s special status in every gathering and thus accord him the honour of being first. They cite three situations in particular. 1. To invite him to have the first Aliyah to the Torah. 2. To invite him to lead the Zimmun, the invitation, before the Grace after Meals, when three or more men are present and 3. To offer him the first and nicest portion when serving a meal.
The rule that a Kohen is called up first to the reading of the Torah is adhered to very strictly. There were times in the past when it was not so strictly observed. However, nowadays, even the greatest rabbi cannot be granted the first Aliyah in the presence of a Kohen. There are circumstances in which it has become customary, in certain synagogues, to ask the Kohen to leave. If he goes out there is no longer an obligation to call him up and the honour can be given to others. The problem with this practice is that it is most disrespectful and contradicts the Torah. It should, therefore, be avoided.
The title of the Sidra, Emor, is a striking one. It means: ‘Say’. It is very rare for the Torah to introduce a law with this verb. Usually the commandments are introduced by the verb ‘Daber’. Our rabbis have a long-standing tradition, which is that the difference between these two Hebrew verbs is as follows: ‘Amar’ denotes a soft approach whereas ‘Daber’ expresses harshness and severity. Rav Moshe Feinstein in his commentary Darash Moshe offers an explanation for introducing the commandment to the Kohanim in a soft tone. He connects it with the fact that the entire tribe of Levi provided teachers and scribes for the nation. It is for this reason that the Levites were not given a specific territory and instead were scattered throughout the territories of Israel. However, the Kohanim were the main teachers. The Torah uses the verb AMAR to signify that the Kohanim were expected to love their work as teachers. Moses addressed them gently in order to encourage them to be kindly and sympathetic and to accept their challenging responsibilities with joy and enthusiasm. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein adds that nowadays it is also very important for Torah teachers to be dedicated to their profession and to approach their students with patience and love.
The middle section of the Sidra is devoted to the holy days of the year and is read on every festival.
The last section of the Sidra contains several laws which do not seem to have an obvious connection with the festivals or with one another. The first two laws refer to the mitzvah of the ‘Ner Tamid’, the everlasting light of the Menorah and also to the laws relating to the ‘show bread’ which was placed on the Table throughout the week. The 19th century scholar, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman suggests that these two laws are linked with the laws of the festivals because they were given to Moses at the same time as the festivals, immediately after his descent from Mount Sinai on the first Yom Kippur. Hoffman also conjectures that the seven lamps of the Menorah symbolise the seven biblical days of Yom Tov whilst the 12 loaves of bread represent the other semi sacred festival days, Chol Ha’moed. The number 12 is reached because Erev Pesach is included, due to the fact that it also has a semi-sacred status. Thus, there are 6 semi-sacred days in the spring and seven in the autumn.
It is interesting to note that the law of the Menorah follows the laws of the festivals. Surely, it serves as an indication which highlights the fact that later on in Jewish history Chanukah joined that impressive list.
Other suggestions have been put forward to explain the reference to the Menorah in this Sidra. One is that it is connected with the timeframe of events that occurred during the first year in the wilderness. After the laws of the festivals were given, the tabernacle was erected. As soon as the Tabernacle was completed, instructions were given regarding the sacrifices. Now the time had come for the mitzvah of lighting the menorah which had to be observed on a regular basis. A regular supply of oil was needed and this had to be organised by the people. It was Aaron’s task not only to light the menorah every evening but also to assess how much oil was needed for each night. This varied as the amount of oil changed, according to the length of each night.
The second law in this chapter relates to the 12 Challot which the Torah calls ‘LECHEM HAPPANIM’. This number represents the 12 tribes. Some commentators suggest that this law is mentioned here because the Challot were changed every Shabbat. The old Challot were given to the priests who were serving that week as a reward for their devotion. . They were placed on the pure and holy table in two rows of six.
Three explanations have been advanced for the term ‘LECHEM HAPPANIM’. Rashi thinks that the Challot were baked in the shape of open boxes and that their open sides were like faces which were directed towards the walls of the tabernacle. His grandson, the Rabbi Shmu’el ben Me’ir, otherwise known as the Rashbam, maintains that the term refers to the high quality of the bread which was suitable to be offered to kings. He says that in this context PANNIM means ‘distinguished people’. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra suggests that PANNIM refers to the divine presence. The Lechem Happanim signified the people’s gratitude to the Almighty for giving them bread to eat on a regular basis.
The last sections of the Sidra deal with two incidences which must also have occurred soon after the laws of this Sidra were announced, i.e. in the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot in the first year after the Exodus.
The conclusion of the Sidra is not so pleasant. The Torah warns that the Israelite judicial system had to treat everyone equally, both the regular citizen and the stranger, and concludes with details of the execution of the blasphemer, whose crime is mentioned earlier. The whole congregation had to stone him outside the camp. In later Judaism, our ancient rabbis changed the manner in which this punishment was carried out.