This week’s Torah portion‘s name is a great example of how the transliteration of Hebrew is an inexact science. You may see it listed as “Shemini,” “Shmini,” or as “Sh’mini” – all are more or less correct, none of them are quite right. This portion is properly spelled שמיני and it means “eighth,” from the first line of the parashah: “And so it happened on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron and his sons.”
The first word of the portion is Vayehi ( וַיְהִי) which translators render in many ways, most of them awkward: “And it came to pass” or “And so it happened,” “Thus it came to pass” – you get the idea. Probably the most literal translation is more like “And it was [on the eighth day]” which is also quite awkward.
What’s that about? Biblical Hebrew has some subtle tricks that we don’t have in modern English. The “and” here is a way of saying that this passage is connected to the passage before it. It also takes the future form of the verb “to be” and turns it into something that works like a past form. This gets even fussier when you realize that in Biblical Hebrew, there really isn’t a past or a future, just a finished or an unfinished action. There is no way in English to say succinctly that this passage is connected to the action before it, and that it denotes events that happened once but still have significance. That’s why the translations sound stilted – or, as one of my students pointed out, “like the Bible.”
For some drashot on the passage that aren’t entranced with fine points of spelling and grammar, try these:
Are You Really Eating Kosher? by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopez Cardozo
Why Parah Adumah (Red Cow) Now? by Rabbi Amitai Adler
Savor Every Joy For We Never Know When It May Suddenly End by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
More than Just a Nosh by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Refining Our Souls by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Back to Basics by Rabbi Ruth Adar
The Kosher Animal Song by g-dcast (VIDEO)
Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin give a wonderful sermon on Parashat Sh’mini. She pointed out that the first part of the portion has to do with the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. Immediately after their ordination as kohanim [priests] they experiment with making a burnt offering. Instead of working properly, the offering goes horribly wrong and the two of them are burnt up in an explosion of fire from the mishkan, the portable dwelling of God.
Then, she noted, the text swiftly shifts topic. Instead of continuing with the esoteric topic of sacrifices, Chapter 11 of Leviticus switches abruptly to the topic of Jewish dietary laws: “These are the living things which you may eat…” I had always been bothered by this sudden shift, but Rabbi Mates-Muchin explained it: God understood that the Israelites were not in the right place spiritually for the intricacies of the sacrificial cult. What they needed were the basics: “here is the food you are supposed to eat.” That sermon comes to my mind whenever I explain to an Introduction to Judaism student that I don’t cover kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the “Intro” class.
There is something in us human beings that makes us think that “more advanced” equals “best.” Some of it is ego: we want to be black belts, not yellow belts. And we think that if we can do some of the “more advanced” exercises that makes us better than if we were only doing “beginner” things. So we want to jump ahead to advanced Judaism: we don’t want to know about dietary laws, we want to learn about kabbalah or gematria. But beginning Hebrew? – that’s so boring!
The trouble, of course, is that when we jump ahead to the things we are sure will be more interesting, we miss the beauty of the basics, and we will be studying whatever it is without the tools we need. Learning Hebrew is a basic skill for study in Torah and rabbinic literature. The stories in Torah and Tanakh are the building blocks of Jewish ethical and legal thought. But even in English, on the simple peshat level –the level of surface meaning – they are a rich treasury of wisdom.
A life of Torah is a journey. Every step of the way can be a thing of beauty, a precious jewel, from “Aleph, Bet, Gimel” to the most complex lesson in the Talmud. May we each learn some new bit of Torah every day, and value it for the treasure it is!