The Essence of Sefer Vayikra

Written by Alan A. Fisher on . Posted in Torah

Some Jews find Vayikra to be boring, even embarrassing, because it focuses largely on korbanot (sacrifices). Yeshivas, however, traditionally started teaching Torah to young children with Sefer Vayikra. What did the yeshivas find that some modern Jews seem to be missing?

One of the most common stylistic patterns in the Torah is a chiastic structure (of the form A-B-C-B’-A’). In this structure, A and A’ have the same or parallel focus, as do B and B’. This structure focuses attention on the central section, C. (A complex chiastic structure can have many more levels: D, E, F, G, etc.)


Following this structure for the five books of the Torah, one would expect to find parallel messages in Bereshit and Devarim; another set of parallels between Shemot and Bamidbar; and the most significant material in Vayikra. In a very simplified sense, one can consider Bereshit as a discussion of Jewish history prior to the exodus, with a parallel in Devarim as a preview of Jewish history after entering the land. Shemot would be the story of how the Jews became a nation and G-d’s presence came to the Jews. Bamidbar would be the story of the Jews’ journey from the base of Har Sinai to the border of the land, following G-d’s presence (with the help of Moshe and Aharon). Under this interpretation, there should be something special in Vayikra that it deserves central focus (see below).

Sefer Vayikra consists almost entirely of mitzvot, with very little narrative. All of Sefer Vayikra takes place at the base of Har Sinai, where the Jews arrived shortly after the revelation, and where they stayed until the sixth aliyah of Behaalotecha (Bamidbar 10:35). The arrangement of topics in Vayikra is thematic, not chronological.

Prayer is a Jew’s basic form of communication with G-d. The basic form of Jewish prayer from earliest times (Hevel, Bereshit 4:4), Noah, the Patriarchs, and B’Nai Yisrael in the Mishkan and Mikdash) was animal sacrifice. When the men of the Great Assembly faced the problem of how to practice Judaism without a Mikdash, they instituted prayer mentioning the sacrifices as a substitute for performing the sacrifices. Orthodox davening includes a prayer for rebuilding the Temple and re-instituting the daily (and musaf) sacrifices speedily, in our times. The Conservative movement changed these prayers to recalling the sacrifices (rather than praying for a return) approximately 70 years ago, and some of the more recent versions of Conservative prayer books omit mention of the sacrifices entirely or provide an alternative text omitting mentioning them. Reconstructionist and Reform prayer books take the extra step of leaving out musaf entirely, as well as mention of the sacrifices. (Since the purpose of musaf is to replace the additional, musaf, sacrifice, there is no logical reason for a musaf service if one will not be mentioning sacrifices.)

What is the essence of Sefer Vayikra that makes it so special? One hint is the word kadosh, which in various forms of the root “k-d-s” appears approximately 150 times in the sefer. Rabbi Eitan Mayer, a student of the Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, has the definition of kadosh that I find most compelling: dedicated to a special purpose, the means to a special end. The focus of a chiastic structure of the Torah is Parshat Kedoshim, where the message is that we should be kadosh because Hashem is kadosh. We encounter kadosh in terms of objects (such as korbanot and food), time (Shabbat and moadim), space (Mishkan and places where Hashem’s presence comes temporarily, such as Har Sinai), and body (kashrut; tahara and tameh — ritual purity and impurity). In all instances, Sefer Vayikra teaches us how and when to come close to G-d — when
and how we may do so appropriately and when and how we are forbidden to do so (the lesson that Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu learned too late).

We start reading Sefer Vayikra each year during the period leading up to Pesach (shortly before Purim during a leap year and between Purim and Pesach during a non-leap year). I see a parallel between this period of cleansing our homes and our souls of chametz to prepare for Pesach with the period of teshuvah during Elul as we prepare for the holiness (and judgment) of the High Holy days. Twice a year, we prepare to come close to Hashem, through the message of Sefer Vayikra leading to Pesach, and through Moshe’s focus on teshuvah in Sefer Devarim.

As we focus on the mitzvot of Sefer Vayikra over the next eight weeks, if you feel bogged down in a maze of mitzvot and korbanot, step back and focus on the big picture. This section of the Torah is where many generations of young Jews started learning about the Torah. We are learning how to come close to our creator. Remember the overall message coming out of the details.

Alan A. Fisher, a retired economist with a government agency, is the membership chairman of the American Dahlia Society. He produces and shares a weekly compilation of divrei Torah (Potomac Torah Study Center) and davens most often at Beth Sholom in Potomac, Maryland.