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Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the
land of Canaan to which I am taking you; you shall not follow their laws.” (Leviticus 18:3)

We read two parashot (portions) this week because of how the Jewish calendar is calculated. The moon’s cycle determines the months, but the sun’s cycle determines the year. Therefore, a Jewish year (including leap years, which add an entire month) can have from 50 to 55 weeks. Since the number of parashot doesn’t change, some years require certain parashot to “double up” on a given Shabbat.

Parashat Acharei Mot begins with a description of the Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the mishkan (Tabernacle) and ends with a list of forbidden sexual relationships. It concludes with the admonition, “Ush’martem et mishmarti…You shall safeguard my guardings not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices…” (Lev. 18:30) The repetition of the root SH-M-R (guard) is noteworthy and this verse becomes the prooftext for the rabbinic concept of siyag latorah, or building a fence around the Torah (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 21a). A siyag is an additional legal restriction created to prevent an accidental violation of the original law: restricting your speed to 60 mph to ensure you don’t violate the limit of 65 mph is a siyag.

But the root of the word siyag (S-Y-G) can also be used reflexively as l’histayeg, meaning to doubt, demur, or to reserve an opinion. Now the rabbinic injunction, “…asu siyag latorah…make a fence around the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:1) suggests a different way to keep the Torah: through debate and deliberation about the intention and meaning of the laws. This approach requires intellectual engagement, rather than behavioral barriers. It suggests the Torah is strengthened when we challenge it and identifies ongoing interpretation as a form of preservation.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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