The third book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Vayikra (after the first word of the text, which means “and He called”), is also called Torat Kohanim, the Teaching of Priests, because so many of its laws revolve around the service and lifestyle of the Levite priests, descendants of Aaron. This is the source of its English (Greek) name, Leviticus.

Though sometimes viewed as a collection of arcane laws of animal sacrifices and ritual purity, Leviticus is very much valued in Judaism. In fact, traditionally, the first Torah verses that children learn are from Leviticus. We read in the Midrash, “[When] we start the children with the book of Vayikra, G‑d says, ‘Let the pure ones come and involve themselves in the pure [laws], and I will consider it as if they brought a sacrifice before me.’”

What it contains

Coming on the heels of the Book of Exodus, where we read how the people of Israel built the Tabernacle, a home for G‑d in the desert, Leviticus opens with the laws of the sacrifices that would be offered there:

  • Olah: A sacrifice to be burned on the altar, brought from cattle, goats, sheep, or birds.
  • Minchah: An offering of grain mixed with oil (and frankincense). Part was burned on the altar, and the priests consumed the remainder.
  • Shelamim: A peace offering, part of which was burned on the altar, the remainder eaten by the priest and the one who offered the sacrifice.
  • Chatat: A sin offering brought for accidental transgressions. The exact procedure was different for private individuals, public officials, and instances of communal guilt.
  • Asham: A guilt offering brought for specific sins.

We also read of the special seven-day inauguration of the Mishkan during which Moses served as high priest, bringing special sacrifices and anointing Aaron and his sons, who would then take on the mantle of priesthood.

On the eighth day, tragedy struck when Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, brought an unwarranted incense offering in the Holy of Holies. A fire came forth from G‑d, and their souls expired. In a great display of stoic faith, Aaron was silent.

Many of the laws focus on how G‑d’s special people must be sanctified through living a holy lifestyle:

  • A holy people only consume animals deemed fit by G‑d. The Torah lists mammals and birds that are unfit.
  • The laws of ritual purity dictate that a person who comes in contact with corpses, unclean carcasses, or people emitting certain fluids must be cleansed through immersion and must offer a sacrifice.
  • A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the laws of tzaraat, a discoloration that appears on skin, clothing, or even homes, as a sign of spiritual deficiency.
  • As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, G‑d tells the people that they must rise above their neighbors by not engaging in forbidden relationships, serving idols or mimicking other practices of the surrounding nations.
  • Priests are not to come into contact with dead bodies – except for their close relatives – and are limited regarding whom they can marry.
  • Priests who are deformed are not to serve in the Tabernacle, and only unblemished animals are to be used as sacrifices.
  • Sanctity is also conferred upon the calendar, as G‑d outlines the major holidays: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
  • Even business is to be elevated. Ancestral fields are to be returned to their owners at the Jubilee (50th) year, and debts are to be cancelled on the Sabbatical (7th) year. Farm work is forbidden during both time periods.

In the last section, G‑d tells the people that if they follow His laws, they will live in peace and security. If, however, they choose to ignore His Torah, they will endure persecution, starvation and fear. But even then, G‑d will remember His covenant and redeem His people.