Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Emor

Parashat Emor

November 5, 2014

Rabbi Isaac Mann

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion is in a sense a continuation of last week’s, which dealt with the tenets of kedushah (holiness) that are incumbent upon all Israelites. In Emor the Torah begins with the specific strictures that apply only to the kohanim (the priests of Israel) due to their added state of holiness.

The Talmud (Yevamot 114a) takes note of the unusual wording of the first verse in this parashah (Lev. 21:1)  –  “G-d said to Moses ‘Say (emor) to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them (ve’amarta aleihem) do not defile yourself by coming into contact with the dead…” The duplication apparent in this verse (see Rashi and Siftei Hakhamim ad loc.), which rabbinic interpretation generally eschews, is interpreted by the Rabbis as a warning to the priests – and by extension to everyone else – not to cause their offspring to violate the laws of the Torah. Thus, the first emor is directed to the priests — say to them that they not violate the law — and the second one to the children – say to your children that they not transgress. In the language of the Rabbis it’s expressed as le’hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim (“to warn the adults concerning the minors”).

In context it means that the adult priests who are forbidden from defilement to the dead must teach (“say to them”) their minor sons that they too must avoid such defilement. Similarly, they and all other Jewish adults who are commanded, for example, not to eat non-Kosher food must teach the same to their children – and certainly not provide them with forbidden foodstuffs even though they are not yet of bar/bat mitzvah age.

This general obligation of parents to teach children what to do and what not to do even before they reach the age of maturity is referred to in the halakhic literature as hinukh(roughly translated as “education”) and has many detailed rules and regulations, such as when and how the instruction should take place. What is somewhat surprising is that given the importance of hinukh in Judaism – as in all religions – there is nothing explicit in the Torah directing parents to teach their children to obey the commandments (the obligation to teach Torah to one’s sons/children, as in Deut. 6:7, does not specify mitzvah instruction), and such obligation is only derived from superfluous phrases through midrashic interpretation.

But perhaps herein lies a real message. The ideal form of hinukh involves not just direct parental instruction, as important as that may be, but the indirect conveyance of right and wrong as practiced by the parents. Children learn how to behave, as is well known by educators, through emulating parents – by watching what they do or don’t do – much more than by being told what’s acceptable or not. “Do as I tell you, not as I do” has long been discarded as an effective way of teaching one’s offspring proper behavior or transmitting values.

Thus, the Torah alludes to this truism by couching the obligation of hinukh in a way that downplays direct instruction. Let the adult kohanim be taught the rules that apply to them and then by keeping those rules, their children will in turn learn and keep them. Similarly, all parents will more effectively pass on to their offspring the values inherent in the Torah through their own personal adherence to the mitzvot. By observing, in the sense of looking and watching what the elders do, the next generation will learn to observe the laws of the Torah as well.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.