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Understanding the role of Acharei Mot

- The Bridge of Sefer Vayikra

Acharei Mot is a difficult Parsha to see in a single shot. It seems to have three distinct chapters with three very different topics:

Ch.16 – The Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple

Ch.17 – Laws of eating meat outside the Temple

Ch.18 – The “culture of Canaan” – sexual violations and the threat of Exile.

What is the connection between these three topics?

Acharei Mot sits at the seam line between “inside” and “outside” and in order to explain, we need to say a word about Vaykra as a whole.


The theme of Vayikra is holiness.

But how does one achieve holiness?

There are in fact two ways:

  1. Ascend to God, so to speak – withdraw from society and rise to God.

  2. Bring God down to earth, so to speak – inject some Godliness into this-worldly living.

Broadly this is the two segments of Sefer Vayikra

SECTION A – Holiness apart from society / in the Mishkan
  • Ch. 1-7 – The 5 key sacrifices

  • Ch. 8-10 – Inaugurating the Mishkan

  • Ch. 11-15 – Laws of impurity which restrict or grant access to the Mishkan/Sanctuary


So ch.1-15 describe a way of “meeting God, by withdrawing from Impurity, incurred by all sorts of bodily conditions, purifying oneself and coming close to God.

The one narrative of Segment A is the story of Nadav and Avihu. Notwithstanding their aristocratic pedigree, they approached God inappropriately and were struck down. This teaches us that approaching God is no small matter, and great caution must be exercised when entering God’s holy space.


SECTION B – Holiness in society

The second segment of Vaykra deals with holiness within society – all sorts of practices – ritual,  sexual and societal practices that are prohibited or encouraged, to build the fabric of a holy society.   

Here we see the language of “Kedoshim Tihyu – Be Holy!” as applied to a panoply of human behaviour, from Shabbat and honoring parents and the elderly (- yes), to witchcraft, gossip and vengeance (- no), to social and charitable practices in agriculture (- yes), and a whole plethora of forbidden sexual relationships. The phrase “I am the Lord – Anu Hashem” appears tens of times in this second part of Vaykra. God is saying that we should not think that God is present exclusively in His sanctuary. Rather, God is manifest in each and every avenue of existence, and expects human beings to accord themselves with the best in human comportment.

See the section headings below. One can see that this second segment of Vayikra includes chapters that relate to priests and sacrificial animals. But note -it speaks about how to handle them OUTSIDE the Temple.  When it legislates holy times – festivals – it doesn’t list the sacrifices in detail (as in Numbers 29-30) but rather speaks about practices to keep “in all your settlements”. It dictates measures that sanctify time – holy days – and land – the Sabbatical Year, rooted in the ups and downs of economic living.  

  • Ch.18-20 – Ethical conduct

  • Ch. 21 – Priestly purity and conduct – outside the Temple

  • Ch.22 – pre-requisites for sacrificial animals – outside the Temple

  • Ch.23 – Holy Days and Times

  • Ch.25 – Holy Land


If the language of SEGEMENT A is pure/impure, the language of SEGEMNT B is holy and profane-secular. The goal in the second section is to act with restraint, dignity and ethics to create a society very different from that in Canaan and Egypt, riddled as they were with mythologies, idolatries and sexual deviance. The only genuine story in the second section of Vayikra is the Mekalel – the blasphemer (end of ch.24) who takes God’s name and profanes it , “in the camp”, in a moment of frustration – and is put to death. This story seems to be the coroallary of the Nadav and Avihu story. God’s name is always sacred even IN THE CAMP of Israel.


SEFER VAYIKRA closes in ch. 26 with the covenantal conditions. (Well there is also ch. 27, but let’s leave that for now.)




So Acharei Mot is the bridge – the transition – between inside and outside, between the “kedusha” of Mikdash to the “kedusha” of society and land.

Ch.16 – the Service of Yom Kippur is the moment that the Temple ritual atones for and purifies the world outside, allowing for the sins of the nations to experience a release, a purification, and everyone a new start.

Ch.17 asks the question as to whether one may slaughter an animal outside the Temple. In the Temple, the blood – the life-force – is spilt on the Altar expressing the idea that all life is God’s. But then, may I slaughter an animal outside the Temple? If so, what do I do with the blood; would blood outside the Temple also be sacred in some way? And what about the possibility that slaughtered animals outside the Temple might be abused for idolatrous purpose?

Ch. 18 opens the second section of Vayikra. It deals with sexual violations, but is bookended by references to Canaanite society:

“v. 2. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws...

... “v. 24-28 - Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves... Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants... So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.”

Here society is at the centre of things. The Jewish people have tro create a DIFFERENT society, a holy society. If they fail to create a different mode of human interaction, then the “Holy” land will spew them out much as it would not stomach the Canaanites that precede them.


So I return to Parashat Acharei Mot. Acharei Mot does have three very different chapters but put in context they form a coherent bridge between the first and second segment of Vayikra.

There is an important value statement here.

We have lived for 2000 years without a Temple. But Jews were always engaged in sanctity. They knew how to sanctify time, family relationships, their farms and their tables, their bedrooms and their economic interactions – Jews appreciated that “there is no space devoid of God” and learned the lesson that even when we cannot ascend to God, God is always found in the homes, streets and minds of each and every Jew.

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