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Rabbi Arthur Segal’s love of people, humanity, and Judaism has him sharing with others “The Wisdom of the Ages” that has been passed on to him. His writings for modern Jews offer Spiritual, Ethical, and eco-Judaic lessons in plain English and with relevance to contemporary lifestyles. He is the author of countless articles, editorials, letters, and blog posts, and he has recently published two books:

The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal: A Path of Transformation for the Modern Jew


A Spiritual and Ethical Compendium to the Torah and Talmud

You can learn more about these books at:

Sunday, March 9, 2014



LEVITICUS 6:01-8:36


Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Jewish Renewal
Jewish Spirituality
Hilton Head Island, SC; Bluffton, SC; Savannah, GA

"Mare's Sweat"

Did all y'all love watching Zero Mostel, of blessed memory, perform as  much as I did? He was such a wonderful presence on the stage and screen. I  remember him well as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He and another character aptly named Hero, were chasing after
horses trying to extract mare's sweat to be used in a potion. How silly and so pagan, the audience thought, to use a large mammal's glandular secretions for an elixir.

I wonder if Cecil B. DeMille were to make a sequel to the Ten
Commandments would he have Zero play Aaron chasing after red heifers when he came to this part of the Bible? Let me explain.


While this week's Torah portion is Tzav from the book of Leviticus, next Shabbat is one of the special Sabbaths that come before Passover (as well as Purim), and it is called Parah. We
read a special portion from the Torah (a maftir) from Numbers 19:01 to 22. It is about our priests finding a perfect unblemished red cow, burning the whole animal including its dung, and adding in a bit of red thread and some spices. 

Then a "pure" man gathered the ash and mixed it with water. He then became "unclean." But, anyone else who became unclean by touching a corpse, could become clean by sprinkling the dead cow's ashes on themselves. This type of law is called a "chuk," a decree. There was no rational rhyme or reason for it.

Regarding this law, King Solomon said, "I said I would be wise, but it [the explanation] is far from me" (Proverbs 7:23). Modern Israelis when asked about a nonsensical governmental law, will say "Parah Adamah" (it's a red cow). In Job (14:04), it is asked :"Who can draw a pure thing out of an impure one? Is it not the One God?" Perhaps Zero Mostel could.

This week's Torah parasha derives it name from the word "command," as God is giving us more sacrificial ritual laws. For those of us who have ever dissected a frog in high school or have gone on to study larger animals, a quick read of this section will bring back some memories of your favorite (or not so  favorite) organs.


 The rabbis long after the Temple was destroyed and the
sacrifices were stopped have tried to parse some mussar (ethical
teachings) from this portion.

I invite you to look at Leviticus 6:18. "This is the law of the sin
offering. At the PLACE [capitals are mine] where you slaughter the elevation offering, you shall slaughter the sin offering." Talmud Tractate Yevamot (8:3) explains that this was enacted to save those who sinned from embarrassment.

Folks who sinned and those who were bringing offerings to raise their spiritual level were all in the same area. No one could be pointed out as a sinner.



We learn from this that if God could make certain that sinners were not publicly shamed, surely it is important for each of us not to humiliate or cause  public discomfort to another.


 Rabbi Elazar taught "that one who humiliates his  fellow in public, though he may know Torah and do good deeds, has no
share in the world to come" (Pirkei  Avot 3:15). Talmud Bava Metziah (58b) says shaming someone publicly drains the blood from his face and is tantamount to murder.

The Torah also shows sensitivity to the feelings of the poor. It permits each person to bring what he could afford. A closer read will see that the Torah refers to one bringing an expensive bull as a "person." But the Torah's author calls one bringing a bread offering a "soul." It is not the value of our gifts that is important, but rather our intention that is crucial.

A poor man may not know from when or where his next 'bread' is coming. And so it is with our prayer (see last week's d'var). What is important about our prayers is not the showy length of the service, or if we can rock and chant faster than our pew's neighbor, or if we can  speed- read in Hebrew. Rather it is our intention, our kavenah, that must be  pure and from our soul.

Another section of the parasha deals with thanksgiving offerings (Lev. 7:1-15). This ritual is still done today in an abbreviated fashion on some bimahs at the time of the Torah reading. It is now called "Birkat ha Gomel."  


Traditionally one makes this beracha   if one has survived childbirth,  recovered from illness, arrived safely from a journey, or escaped unharmed  from an  accident. Actually, there is one more. If you escaped from prison where you were to be executed, this prayer was said as well. (Obviously, this
prayer for THIS reason is rarely heard in Texas.) 

When we read this portion and think of the body parts and organs of the  animals on the altar and elsewhere, perhaps for a moment instead of reeling in disgust, let us think for a second of all the body parts that we have that are working well that we take for granted.


 In our morning prayers, we  traditionally thank God for our consciousness,  our mobility, and our eyesight, as well as our freedom.  When we think, just for a second, of
the bulls' kishkas (intestines) spilling onto the floor of the temple, we can see how the prayer that traditionally we say after leaving the rest room, might be something that we can gratefully recite.


 "Blessed are you, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who fashioned man with wisdom and created within him many openings and cavities. It is obvious and known before your Throne of Glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured, or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You. In the merit of my appreciation for Your wondrous works, may you grant me good health and long life."


It is easy for one to scoff at this
prayer. But ask one who has survived colon cancer, an intestinal
blockage, or even a kidney stone just how meaningful this prayer is.

Some years ago there was a public debate in the newspapers when a beloved  rabbi was misquoted as saying that the Orthodox are praying  daily for the return of Temple sacrifices. It is the traditional belief that when the  Messiah comes and the world will be perfect, there will no longer be a need
for offerings of atonement because people will no longer sin. However the thanksgiving  offerings will always be needed (Talmud Pesachim 50a). These thanksgiving offerings will be 40 loaves of bread of the four types outlined in this  week's portion in Leviticus 7:1-15. 

In next week's special Haftarah  from the Book of Ezekiel 36:16-38,  the prophet speaks of the ingathering of the exiles and our purification.

Ezekiel says something interesting: "I shall give you a new heart and a new spirit....I  shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (36:26). This, the sages teach, is all in preparation of Messianic times.


Why, do I, as a modern Jew,  have a Moshiac theme in this d'var along with numerous mentions of body parts and organs?

This week a dear friend asked me about the traditional position on organ  donation. I wrote to her that her important question touched on traditional halachic Jewish law principles as well as many Midrashic and  folkloric interpretations. The idea of organ donation is not really a new question for the Talmudic sages.


Remember that traditionally it is believed that the Talmud and the laws derived from and codified from it, were orally given
by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Liberal Jews think of the Talmud and the laws that derive from it as scholarly works of learned men who were doing their best to keep us together during the enormous national disaster of the Babylonian and Roman
forced  diasporas and the nationalization of Christianity as the state religion by Emperor Constantine.

We as Liberal Jews are not bound by these ritual laws. We may, however, chose to do certain rituals after careful study of it's historical   significance. 

Talmudically we have an obligation to preserve human life. This is derived from many verses in the Torah. This is called Pikuah Nefesh. The most pious are commanded to break Shabbat to save a life and must break keeping kosher to do the same.

There is another pertinent Talmudic principle. This is the law against the desecration of a dead body (Nivul Hamet). Every part of the body must be buried, even if parts are lost from the body before a person's death. In theory, if a traditional Jew gets his hand cut off (God forbid),  it must be buried with him. If there is a motor vehicle accident involving a Jew, his blood and skin must be scraped from the street and buried.

The traditional rabbis have posited that if there is an immediate
specific known need of an organ, one can permit a donation of organs from a deceased  loved one. It is not "kosher" to put organs in a frozen bank waiting for someone to need them. It is also forbidden to donate a traditional Jew's body to science
for medical students to dissect and learn.

A doctor cannot harvest an organ if one is still alive. Of course, you say, but it is not that simple. Traditionally, there is no such thing as brain dead. If the heart is pumping, you are alive. Let us hypothesize that one is brain dead and in a vegetative state. The doctor persuades a family member to "pull the plug" and donate the fresh organs. Halachically, this would not be allowed and would even be considered murder.

On a different note, one could donate a kidney if one's doctor guaranteed one was not putting their life at risk. One can only give up one's life for three  reasons: If an aggressor demands that you commit murder, a sexual misdeed, or idolatry. For other than these three reasons, you must protect your own life first, as the Talmud says that  no one's blood is redder (better) than anyone else's.

And, of course, cremation is not allowed.

What you will not find in the Halachic laws is the reason that we are  traditionally concerned about our body and its parts postmortem. Why can one give an organ if it is going to be used immediately, but not if it will be in a freezer to be used next week? Saving lives is important and a cornerstone in Judaism, but why would we prefer that a body rot in dirt than be used
for medical research? What is the real reason?

Traditionally, derived from Talmud Sanhedrin, chapter 11, we believe in  corporal resurrection! When the Messiah comes, we will get our same bodies back and be transported to Jerusalem. If we are buried in Galut  (exile), we roll through special tunnels underground to Israel.


An amputated limb must be  buried with its original body so that God can reattach it. Somehow, if we are  dismembered on a dissection table, or if our organs go to someone else, God cannot figure out where the pieces are to give them back to us.


For a more detailed look at organ transplant and other issues of death, dying and illness for a Jewish Spiritual and Ethical point of view, please read : Jewish Ethical, Spiritual+ Personal Considerations with Illness, Dying+ Passing 

By reading chapter 11 of Talmud Sanhedrin you will see that the whole Messianic concept is not a clear TaNaK (Holy Scriptures) idea. Our  rabbis are grappling with the conception of a human king-savior to come and save us from the Romans (who they postulated are descended from Esau!).

They are also dealing with the Christian theologians in 500 CE using our Bible as  their own source book for Jesus. Few rabbis agree with one another as they debate the issue.

Rabbi Hillel certainly does not believe in these theories. But as usual, a vote was taken. The traditional point of view may be thought of as the word of God from Mt.  Sinai, but to the rabbis 1,500 years ago, it was a theological guess. This guess is keeping
many deserving sick people from getting organs, corneas, and skin grafts. A chance for  continued life on this earth is not being granted to some people, while others are  superstitiously holding on to folkloric thoughts of Olam ha Ba (the world to come).

The Conservative Jew, depending on who you ask, will tell you organ donation is fine, to save a life or help a life, whether you do it immediately or later with a frozen part. Talmudically, a partially blinded person is freed from many mitzvoth especially the regelim  (pilgrimage) holidays, as being half blind was considered a danger to life. The Conservative rabbis posited
then that corneal donations, even if frozen in a bank, should be allowed. And if these were allowed, then of course, liver, heart, kidney, and other similar organ donations should be allowed as well.

As informed modern Jews we have to do what our conscience permits. Certainly, if you believe in Olam ha Ba, with its entrance requirements of mitzvoth, what better good deed is there than to save a life? The Talmud says that he who saves one life has saved the world. And the converse is true as well. By not donating an organ, and causing a life to be lost, one is Talmudically "killing the world."

If we believe in a kind compassionate God, full of chesed, then it is not inconsistent for God to punish us by keeping us from Olam ha Ba because we gave a cornea to Pedro, a kidney to Achmed, a liver to Kenesha, a heart to Kanwal, our spleen to Moshe-Pupik. After all, if Ezekiel says God will give us a
new heart anyway, and God is all powerful, who is to say God cannot give us whatever parts we may be missing?


But as Zero might say while studying Torah: "Parah Adamah. Have a chalice of mare's sweat and a Gut Shabbos!"

Shabbat Shalom,

Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Jewish Renewal
Jewish Spirituality
Hilton Head Island, SC; Bluffton, SC; Savannah, GA
If visiting SC's Low Country, contact us for a Shabbat meal, in our home by the sea, our beth yam.
Maker of Shalom (Oseh Shalom) help make us deserving of Shalom beyond all human comprehension!

Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Jewish Renewal
Jewish Spirituality
Hilton Head Island, SC; Bluffton, SC; Savannah, GA