Primary Torah reading: Leviticus chapters 12 and 13.
Second Torah reading: Exodus 12: 1-20.
Haftarah reading: Ezekiel 45: 16 to 46: 18.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaChodesh, which translates to Shabbat of the Month. For most Shabbats, we have only one Torah reading, but for the past month we have observed four special Shabbats when we add a second Torah reading, plus a special Haftarah reading (reading from the prophets). This Shabbat is the last of these four special Shabbats.
First, a quick word about the primary Torah reading, Leviticus chapters 12 and 13. In most years, this week's first Torah reading is combined with next week's, so the reading consists of Leviticus chapters 12 through 15. This year, however, is a leap year, when a second month of Adar is added. So with four extra Shabbats in the year, some of the weekly readings are broken up into two portions, to be read over two Shabbats. This is one of those split portions.
The reading presents obvious difficulties for the modern reader. Most of these four chapters discuss the diagnosis and quarantining people afficted with sarahat, commonly translated as leprosy but likely some other type of skin disease. I assume that the ancient treatment of skin disease doesn't fascinate most of you - so instead I will examine the second Torah reading and the Haftarah. Follow me over the orange squiggly.
In Exodus 12: 1-20, the Lord commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites on how to prepare for the First Passover, and the First Passover sedar. Verse 2 makes it clear that these instructions were given just before the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan - this Shabbat is the Shabbat before the first day of Nisan, which is why we read these verses on this Shabbat. Each family is to take a lamb or a goat, but if the household is too small for a lamb or goat, they are to share a lamb or goat with their neighbor, and pay the neighbor for sharing it. They shall keep the lamb or goat until the 14th of Nisan, when they shall take the animal to be slaughtered. They shall then put some of the blood on their doorposts, then roast it and eat it at the first Passover sedar, with matzoh (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.
Since the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70 CE, we Jews have no longer prepared for Passover by buying a lamb or goat and having it slaughtered. Instead, when Nisan begins and Passover is only 2 weeks or 1 week away, we trek to grocery stores, and look for that packaged food marked "Kosher for Passover," along with boxes of matzah, matzah meal, and the like. And, as we are commanded in verse 15 to remove leaven from our homes, we clean our homes, looking for that crumb of bread or cake that may have fallen under the couch or behind the dresser, and accomplish spring cleaning at the same time. The final shopping for fresh produce comes just before the holiday.
When I was stationed in Turkey, I was impressed at the similarities between the preparations of the Israelites for the first Passover, and thereafter until the destruction of the Second Temple, to the preparations of my Turkish neighbors to celebrate the Feast of the Sacrifice. Early in the lunar month each family would buy a sheep or goat. For several days the side streets of the city of Adana were filled with young boys and girls playing with their new pets, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in just a few days their new pets would be no more - they would be eating their pets! Watching these happy children playing with their lambs and goats made me think of the common threads that bind our three faiths.
The Haftarah for this Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan is from the prophet Ezekiel. In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 13b, we read:
Rabbi Yehudah said in Rab's name: "In truth, that man, Hananiah the son of Hezekiah by name, is to be remembered for good, but for him, the Book of Ezekiel would have been excluded [from the Bible], because its words contradicted the Torah. What did he do? Three hundred barrels of oil were taken up to him and he sat in an upper chamber and reconciled these words."Why did some of the rabbis want to exclude Ezekiel from the Bible? One of the passages that offended them appears in this Shabbat's Haftarah reading:
Thus says the Lord God: In the first month [Nisan] on the first day of the month, you shall take a bull from the herd without blemish, and purify the sanctuary. The priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering and put it on the doorposts of the temple, the four corners of the ledge of the altar, and the posts of the gate of the inner court. You shall do the same on the seventh day of the month for anyone who has sinned through error or ignorance; so you shall make atonement for the temple. Ezekiel 45: 18-20The Book of Leviticus and the two subsequent books of the Torah contain elaborate instructions for the priests to conduct the sacrificial rites in the Temple - but nowhere in the Torah is there any mention of any special sacrificial rites for the first and seventh days of Nisan. Who was Ezekiel to change the Law that Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher and Rabbi, received on Mount Sinai from the Lord Himself? Was Ezekiel really a prophet of God, or a false prophet - the kind of person Moshe Rabbenu warned us about (Deuteronomy 18: 15-22)? That was question that Hananiah the son of Hezekiah answered, for which he was paid 300 barrels of oil.
We think of the Bible as a single Book, the more fundamentalist among us believe it is wholly the Word of God, from beginning to end. Yet the Bible is really an anthology of many works written by many people, and some of these works, including Ezekiel, barely survived one of the two editorial boards. The first editorial board were the rabbis compiling the Talmud, who were deciding which books would make the cut, and which ones would not. Meanwhile, at the same time, the second editorial board, the Church Fathers, were developing the canon for the Old and New Testaments. The Chuch Fathers would include in the Old Testament all the books canonized by the Rabbis, plus additional books, The Apophryca, dating from the pre-Roman Second Temple Period. When the founders of first Protestant churches broke off from the Catholic Church, they discarded the Apophryca from the Canon, so the Protestant Old Testament is identical to the Hebrew Bible.
We can only imagine that there are many texts that were examined by both the Church Fathers and by the Rabbis, that both rejected. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain biblical and apophrycal scrolls, but also scrolls of books that had been lost to us until their discovery in the 1940's. How many other writings were rejected by the Church and the Synagogue and remain lost to us? The next time you read a selection from the book of Ezekiel, keep in mind, this book of the Bible almost didn't make it, and, if it hadn't, it may well have been lost to posterity.