May 3, 2007
Where it comes from
Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
Why not take a moment's pause in reading this commentary, if you will, and open your Chumash to this week's portion. Look at Leviticus 23. Do you see how it is all there, laid out for us? The Passover seder, the stack of three matzot and the horseradish or lettuce for maror, the celery or parsley or potato for karpas, the four cups of wine and hiding the afikoman and singing "Mah Nishtanah" and "Dayenu." It's all there.
Same with each holiday that follows. The nightly count of Omer. The tradition of staying up all night on Shavuot, the ram's horn on Rosh Hashanah, fasting and no leather-supported footwear and the other restrictions of Yom Kippur, the etrog for the sukkah and the minimum architectural requirements of the sukkah itself, from the topping to the walls.
It's all there.
And that is why -- whether your Jewishness is Orthodox Litvak, Modern Orthodox, Chasidic Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Age, Humanist, Ashkenazi, North African/Edot Mizrach Sephardi, Spanish/Portuguese Sephardi, Persian, Hillary Democrat, Obama Democrat or Republican -- all Jews practice these same traditions. The Passover seder. The ram's horn on the New Year. Fasting on Yom Kippur. Building a sukkah with all the toppings and acquiring, among other species, an etrog for the service.
We all do it the same way because, when we open our Chumashim and look at Parshat Emor chapter 23, it's all there.
Only it isn't.
Not only is it not all there. Virtually nothing of it is there. None of it. Nada. No seder and no etrog. No ram's horn and no fasting. None of it. Zilch. Gornisht.
So where did it all come from?
It all comes from the Torah Sheh-B'Al Peh, or Oral Law, as recorded ultimately in the Talmud.
None of it appears in the Torah She'bikhtav, or the Written Law. Look it up. Use a Concordance. These core mitzvoth of Judaism are never recorded in the Chumash. Yet virtually every Jewish community in Jewish history has understood that one attends a seder and does and sings all the seder things on Passover, blows the horn of a ram in a certain cadence of soundings on Rosh Hashanah, fasts and avoids leather-supported footwear on Yom Kippur, and uses an etrog and not a lemon on Sukkot.
Without a mindset and lifestyle that place the Talmud and the Oral Law at the center of our Jewish lives, our Judaism becomes empty and void because its heart and soul have been extracted. Without it, we drift into a form of Seventh Day Adventism, only with better Hebrew, more fundraisers for Israel and more holiday recipes.
As you read Parshat Emor this Shabbat, think about the central role played by the Oral Law in understanding, celebrating, and living the Written Law. They go together because they were given to our nation at Mount Sinai with the intention that they would.
Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.