The Sidra of Shemini begins where the previous Sidra ends. The previous Sidra describes the ceremony of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. That ceremony lasted for seven days. During those seven days the new priests had to remain next to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They were forbidden to leave the entrance and were warned that any violation of that order would be punishable by death.
When the eighth day came everyone was relieved. The eighth day was the first day of the first month, which later became known as the month of Nissan. Interestingly, the Sidra of Shemini is often read during Nissan. On that same day, the Tabernacle was finally erected after many months of hard and dedicated work. It was the beginning of a completely new era. This explains why it was fitting for the events of the eighth day to be marked by the beginning of a new Sidra. It was the last day of the ordination, but the beginning of a new life for the nation.
It is not a coincidence that the eighth day was significant. The number eight symbolises spirituality and sanctity in the Jewish religion. This tradition goes back to the beginnings of our people. Abraham was commanded to circumcise his son, Isaac, at the age of eight days. The Festival of Sukkot ends with the celebration of the Eighth Day of Assembly, known in Hebrew as SHEMINI ATZERET. More than 1000 years after the Torah had been given, when our rabbis instituted the Festival of Chanukah, they decided that it should last for eight days, since it was the Festival of the Rededication of the altar and the Temple.
The Sidra begins with Moses instructing Aaron to offer up his sin offering and burnt offering. Six verses later, in chapter 9, verse 7, we are told that Moses instructed Aaron for the second time to draw near to the altar and offer up his sin offering and burnt offering. His sin offering was a one-year-old calf and a ram. Our rabbis explain that the purpose of the calf was to serve as an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, in which Aaron was involved. Our rabbis also explained that Moses repeated his instruction to Aaron to draw nearer to the altar. This was because Aaron was hesitant to come forward and start the proceedings. In his humility, he felt unworthy of the great honour that was being bestowed upon him. Our rabbis praised Aaron for his conduct and regarded him as a role model. The Code of Jewish Law specifically mandates that when we are invited to conduct the service in shul, on a voluntary basis, we should show some reluctance and initially refuse that offer. We should only consent if invited yet again. By these actions we show gratitude at having been given the honour and we have also demonstrated that we do not take this honour for granted. This is also the reason that men are called up to the Torah by name every time. No one should simply come up to the bimah, even if he knows in advance that it is his turn. Wardens are not permitted them to give hand signals to direct congregants.
Moses said to Aaron KRAV EL HAMIZBE’ACH, ‘draw nearer to the altar’. The same expression is still used to call up the Kohen for the first Aliyah. We say: Kohen Krav Ya’amod. The word KRAV means ‘come near’, which stems from the same root as the Hebrew word for sacrifice, KORBAN. The verb KRV signifies coming near to the Almighty and the purpose of the sacrifices was to cultivate a relationship with Him. The same principle applies when we are called up to the Torah. We come near to the Torah and we reinforce our relationship with the Almighty who gave it to us.
When Aaron completed his offering as God had commanded him to do through Moses, he raised his hands and blessed the people. The Torah does not tell us if he recited the normal blessings to which we have become accustomed or if he simply conveyed his blessing by raising his hands. Nachmanides offers both possibilities. He could have blessed the people simply by raising his hands, in order to allow his spirit to descend upon them. Alternatively, he may have used his own words which have not been recorded. The raising of the hands symbolises the conferring of one's spirit upon the congregation. Moses conferred his authority on to Joshua by putting his hands on him. This action is called Semichah, to this very day. Indeed, the official name for the Blessing of the Priests is Nesi’at kapa’im, which means the raising of the hands. The name ‘Birkat Kohanim’ is a much more recent terminology. The raising of the hands may also be interpreted as being a source of inspiration to the people to cause them to look upwards towards to the Almighty in heaven. This is what Moses did when he sat at the top of the mountain during the war against the Amalekites. The Torah says that when Moses had his hands up, the Israelites were triumphant, but when he was forced to bring them down due to fatigue, the Amalekites got the upper hand.
After blessing the people, Aaron entered the Tent of Meeting and inside it, both Moses and Aaron blessed the people for the second time. Moses, who had acted as High Priest for the first 7 days, then handed over the honour of being High Priest to his brother, Aaron, and taught him how to prepare and offer up the incense. The offering of the incense became the choicest offering in the Tabernacle. The High Priest offered up incense on the Day of Atonement inside the Holy of Holies. Our rabbis declared that the prayers which were recited during its offering were the most favoured prayers.
After the completion of the blessings, the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole nation. That appearance was either in a thick cloud or in a pillar of fire, which is mentioned immediately afterwards in the last verse of chapter 9. This last verse describes the conclusion of this historic and very happy ceremony. Fire came down from heaven or from the Holy of Holies and devoured the burnt offering and the fats which had been placed on the altar. The fire signified that God had accepted the sacrifices which had been offered up with favour.
The people watched the events which were unfolding before their eyes with trepidation. When they saw the positive outcome, they were very pleased and happy. They sang songs of praise to God and fell on their faces to show their gratitude.