In the following shiurim, we will demonstrate that learning Sefer Vayikra can actually be quite exciting. As usual, our approach will entail examining the Sefer's structure in order to find its deeper meaning.
The Overall Structure of Sefer Vayikra: Logical or Chronological Order?
To better appreciate Sefer Vayikra it is important to understand how its overall structure differs from the other "sfarim" (books) in Chumash. Let's explain why.
When we study Chumash, we encounter two basic types of 'parshiot':
For example, Sefer Breishit begins with the story of Creation and continues (in chronological order) with the story of the "bechira" (choice) of Avraham Avinu and his offspring. The few mitzvot in Sefer Breishit (e.g. 9:1-7, 32:32-33) are presented as part of that ongoing narrative.
Likewise, Sefer Shmot begins with the story of the Exodus and Bnei Yisrael's subsequent journey to Har Sinai. The numerous mitzvot included in Sefer Shmot (e.g. the Dibrot, Parshat Mishpatim, etc.) constitute an integral part of that ongoing narrative. [Given the narrative nature of these sfarim, 'parshiot' recorded out of chronological order are the exception, rather than the norm.]
Sefer Vayikra is radically different! It contains primarily mitzvot and very little narrative. Instead of continuing the narrative from Sefer Shmot, Sefer Vayikra presents us with a collection of mitzvot. Consequently, in our study of Sefer Vayikra we will show how the parshiot progress in topical order and not necessarily the chronological sequence of their original presentation to Moshe Rabbeinu. [Chazal's reference to Sefer Vayikra as "Torat Kohanim" (the laws for those who officiate in the Mikdash) reflects this understanding.]
Interestingly, Sefer Vayikra does contain two interesting narratives:
[For example, 8:1-10:20 - the story of the dedication of the Mishkan - belongs in the last chapter of Sefer Shmot together with the primary story of the original dedication of the Mishkan (see Shmot chapter 40).]
The Theme of Sefer Vayikra
Given that Sefer Vayikra progresses according to theme, we may identify the central theme of the sefer by carefully following the logic of its progression. Therefore, in our shiurim, we must deal with such questions as:
Sefer Breishit recounts God's designation of Avraham Avinu for the purpose of forming a great nation from his offspring ("zera") that will represent Him in the Promised Land ("aretz"). In Sefer Shmot, God begins to fulfill that covenant by redeeming Avraham's descendants from Egypt and giving them the Torah - the guide for establishing this special nation. "Chet Ha'Egel," however, raised serious doubts as to whether this special relationship could continue. The construction of the Mishkan and the consequent return of the Sh'china, as described at the conclusion of Sefer Shmot, indicated that this relationship could indeed be maintained. It is at this point where Sefer Vayikra begins. Now that the Sh'china has returned, Bnei Yisrael can continue on their journey to Eretz Canaan. Before they travel, however, they must learn the mitzvot that will make them into a "mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh" (see Shmot 19:5-6). These are the mitzvot of Sefer Vayikra.
In this sense, Sefer Vayikra constitutes more than simply a technical list of the various rituals performed in the Mishkan. As we will show, the laws of Sefer Vayikra involve the very nature of Am Yisrael's relationship with God, at both the individual and national level.
A Few Important Clarifications
A. Ramban's Shita
Despite our observation that Sefer Vayikra is basically a book of mitzvot, it is important to note that a brief narrative introduces each set of mitzvot. For example, most mitzvot begin with the classic header:
"Va'y'daber Hashem el Moshe lay'mor... - And God spoke to Moshe saying..." [See 4:1; 5:14,20; 6:12 etc.]Sometimes, God directs His "dibur" to Aharon, as well:
"And God spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying." (see 11:1, 13:1)And one some occasions, the opening phrase may even tell us where these mitzvot were given to Moshe. Two classic examples:
"And God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Ohel Mo'ed saying: speak to Bnei Yisrael..." (1:1)2) At Har Sinai -
This is more or less Ramban's shita, who maintains "yeish mukdam u'meuchar ba'torah." See the lengthy Ramban on Vayikra 25:1 (till the end)!
In truth, however, the two examples mentioned above clearly demonstrate just the opposite, that the mitzvot in Sefer Vayikra are not presented in chronological order. According to 1:1, the first set of mitzvot is transmitted from the Ohel Mo'ed, and thus this "dibur" must have occurred only after the Mishkan was built. However, the mitzvot in chapter 25 were given on Har Sinai (see 25:1), and therefore had to have been given before the Ohel Mo'ed (1:1) was built! [See also 26:46 and 27:34.]
Further proof may be drawn from Parshat Tzav. Although, as mentioned, the first set of mitzvot in Sefer Vayikra was given from the Ohel Mo'ed (chapters 1-5; see 1:1), the Torah tells us that God taught Moshe the next set of mitzvot (chapter 6-7 - Parshat Tzav) on Har Sinai (see 7:37-38) - before the Mishkan was built! Nevertheless, Sefer Vayikra juxtaposes them, evidently because of their thematic connection (i.e. they both discuss the laws of korbanot).
Note that Ramban on 7:38 seems to disagree. Im yirtzeh Hashem, his "shita" will be discussed in greater detail in our shiur on Parshat Tzav.
B. Significant Headers
As noted above, a brief header introduces each set of mitzvot. In most cases, these introductions make no mention of where these mitzvot were given to Moshe, only that "God spoke to Moshe saying..." When the Torah does offer this information, the commentators will always find significance latent within the Torah's specification in this regard. (For example, see 25:1 - Rashi, Ramban, and Chizkuni.)
Similarly, certain parshiot in the middle of the sefer, such as the laws of Yom Kippur (16:1 - "acharei mot..."), were given in the wake of a certain event. These laws must have been given to Moshe only after the Mishkan was constructed, while other laws may have actually been given earlier, on Har Sinai, but recorded only later on in Sefer Vayikra.