Background

Parshat Emor deals with the mitzvot specifically pertaining to the kohanim (priests), the descendants of Aaron. These various laws and privileges emerge from the overall function and mission of the kohanim, who were designated to be the backbone of holiness of the Jewish people. The haftarah emphasizes and echoes the concepts laid forth in our Parshah.

Twenty-five years had passed since the prophet Ezekiel, along with the cream of the Jewish people, had been exiled to Babylon; fourteen years had passed since the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the rest of the Jews exiled from their homeland. The Jews felt rejected and hopeless. On Yom Kippur of that year, an angel of G‑d appeared to Ezekiel and began giving him an extensive tour and lesson in the structure of the future Temple, down the the most intricate details. Ezekiel was in turn to teach these laws to his fellow Jews.

The purpose for which G‑d did this was twofold. First of all, the memory of the Temple would invoke a feeling of shame and remorse in the people for the sinful life they had led, which caused the destruction of G‑d’s home in their midst. On the other hand, the promise of the rebuilding of the Temple reassured them that G‑d had not entirely rejected His people. If they would return to G‑d, they would regain the Temple, along with everything that accompanied the era in which it stood.

After the detailed description of the future Temple building, Ezekiel begins to describe the sacred stature of the kohanim who were destined to serve in it. This too was conveyed in a similar spirit. In the years prior to the Temple’s destruction, regard for the priestly position had fallen quite low in the eyes of the people—and justly so, because although of priestly descent, the actions of some of the kohanim did not comport at all with their exalted position. In addition, there were kohanim who were halachically disqualified from serving in the Temple and yet were still holding on to their positions.

This, said Ezekiel, would not be repeated in the future Temple. The kohanim and Levites who served illegitimately will be banned from doing any of the vital services in the Temple (although they would still be able to serve in accessory positions). The descendants of Tzadok, the high priest who served in the days of King Solomon, had always remained faithful to their mission as kohanim. It was they who are destined to serve in the future Temple, along with all those who followed in their path.

Overview

The bulk of the haftarah is an outline of many laws pertaining to the kohanim as part of their priestly privilege and responsibility. As with many of Ezekiel’s prophecies, these law-containing verses require quite a lot of clarification and explanation. The following is a summary of these laws as explained by the Talmud and the biblical commentaries:

1. During the year, the high priest would wear the set of eight garments that the Torah prescribes for him, made of wool dyed in various colors, along with linen and gold thread. The exception for this is during the special services on Yom Kippur, when the high priest would don clothes made of pure linen, containing no wool at all.

2. The long sash worn by the kohanim is not to be worn on a place in the body which becomes sweaty. This includes the lower waist and the area above the elbows. The sash, then, is to be located where the elbows touch the kohen’s torso.

3. When the kohanim finish their service in the Sanctuary, they are to remove the priestly garments before entering the area of the Temple permitted to non-kohanim. Although everyone who enters the Temple had to be ritually pure (tahor), the priests are to keep to an extra standard of purity: they are not to touch any clothing worn by a non-kohen.

4. The appearance of the kohen has to meet a high standard, out of respect for his position. His hair is not to be too long or too short. The kohanim are to cut their hair in a way the the end of one hair reaches the beginning of the next one. (The verse gives the analogy of the spelt stalk, whose kernels grow in a similar manner: the tip of one reaches the bottom of the next.)

5. A kohen is prohibited from drinking wine (or any other intoxicating beverage) before serving in the Temple.

6. The high priest is prohibited from marrying a widow or divorcee, whereas a regular kohen is permitted to marry a widow.

7. A regular kohen may not come in contact with a corpse, with the exception of his immediate relatives: parent, child, brother and unmarried sister. After coming into contact with a deceased relative, the kohen needs to go through the purification process in order to return to his duties in the Temple.

8. Upon his first entry to serve in the Temple, every new kohen offers an inaugural meal-offering, which elevates and purifies him.

In addition to all this, the kohanim have the broader responsibility of being the core of spiritual leadership to the Jewish people. They are to serve as the teachers of Torah law, and as judges who settle arguments and deal with arising questions. In keeping with this, the kohanim receive no share of farmland in the Land of Israel, for “G‑d is their share”; they subsist on the various “gifts” that the Torah obligates the people to give to them. These include (among others): the meat of the sacrifices, certain donations to the Temple, the offering of the “first fruits” (bikkurim), a share from each dough made in a Jewish home (challah), and the first portion of every crop (terumah).

The nearly hidden book

The final verse of the haftarah is a most perplexing one: “Anything that has died of itself, or is fatally wounded, whether bird or animal, the priests may not eat.” This is very difficult to understand, for no Jew, kohen or not, may partake of meat that has not been slaughtered in accordance with the laws of shechitah.

In a fascinating passage, the Talmud1 tells us that this verse, along with others, caused the sages to consider “hiding” the book of Ezekiel—that is, to take it out of the canon of the Tanach (the Bible). As these verses seemed to contradict the words of the Torah, the sages were afraid to have such a book—as holy as it might be—as part of official Jewish teaching for all time.

The man who saved the day was an individual by the name of Chananyah ben Chizkiyah. “Truly, that man is remembered for the good, and his name is Chananyah ben Chizkiyah; for if not for him, the book of Ezekiel would have been suppressed, because its contents, in many details, contradict matters of Torah. What did he do? They brought three hundred jugs of oil (for light and food) up to his attic, and he sat isolated in the attic and did not move from there until he interpreted all of those verses in the book of Ezekiel that seemed contradictory to the Torah.”

The way in which this particular verse was interpreted was as follows:

Some of the sacrifices in the Temple consisted of a bird—a dove or a turtledove. The way in which they were killed was called melikah, and was done with sharp fingernail of the kohen’s thumb. Now, killing a bird in this way, in any other instance, would render it unkosher and forbidden for consumption. In the Temple, however, there were certain bird-offerings killed in this way where the kohanim would eat of their meat. Now, since the Torah does allow a kohen to eat the meat of a bird-offering that was killed by melikah, a kohen may come to think that he is entirely exempt from adhering to the laws of shechitah for meat consumption. The verse therefore clarifies that it is only in this particular instance that this was allowed to the kohen; in any other case they are like any other Jew, and are not allowed to eat an animal or bird that died of itself or is fatally wounded—i.e., that is dead or killed in a way that does not answer to the laws of shechitah.