Leviticus: it gets a bad rap but G-d meant it for joy


Did you know that the name of this important Book is not really Leviticus? This was invented much later by non-Jewish interpreters for their non-Jewish readers, many of whom were pagans. Its actual original name in Hebrew is Vayikra, which means 'And G-d called'. Some have even said that it means 'G-d's calling.'

The book of G-d calling is the seminal book of the Bible. For this reason it is planted right in the middle of the five Books of Moses, the Jewish Torah, the Pentateuch, and is about the 'how' of loving your neighbour.

The injunction to 'love your neighbour as yourself' comes from Chapter 19 of the book. And the book is encased in definitions of love. Not license, but how to look after ourselves, how to look after our neighbours, how to look after the stranger, and on a different level, how also to look after animals and plant life. Nothing is alien to the Biblical writer, but neither does he mince his words.

Vayikra's call is to a disciplined life of enjoyment through restraint, of how to curb our passions without cutting ourselves off and, most of all, how to live in community. This is why it is read now, at this time of year. A bunch of slaves is about to become free. But having been slaves, how can they live as free people in a free community under G-d? We have already read the Exodus story in Shul. That is by way of preparation. But now we have to buckle down and learn rules for life. That's why we read this book during the period when we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, the moment when G-d redeemed us to be free people in our own Land.

Much of what is taught about loving your neighbour as yourself, as outlined in Vayikra, stands in contradiction to many of the laws in this country now, even though these are the core teachings of Judaism, and the key mantra of Jesus the Jew.

But diaspora Jewish communities everywhere will fight for their right to educate their children in the ways depicted in Vayikra, assisted by rabbinic commentaries. And where religion and state clash, religion will always come first, even at risk of imprisonment or deportation. Civil disobedience is often a stronger weapon than complicity or than violence, and after all, we are supposed, after all, to be 'a light to the nations', aren't we?'

The first Book to be studied by Jewish children at around the age of 3 was always Vayikra. Here is the depiction of one small boy's introduction to the Book of Vayikra – typical of the way observant Jews induct their children into the school experience and to the life of the Bible:

'We wrapped the boy in a tallit [prayer shawl], covering his face so that he would not see anything impure on the way to school and led him through the city from south to north. The teacher opened the text-book, entitled 'First Dawn.'....His mother baked a cake on which she sprinkled the Hebrew letters of the verse, 'Moses commanded us the Torah'. The child licked up the letters, while the cake itself was shared by the teachers and the other pupils.' (Taken from Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace by Yechiel Frish and Yedidya HaCohen, Urim Publications)

So, don't be put off reading the wonderful book of Vayikra because it's not as grim as many people think it is. Get stuck in and you will find real enjoyment - a God-given enjoyment through restraint. Even better, if you can, find yourself a Hebrew speaker who understands the original language it was written in and can tell you what it really means, unhampered by versions which more often than not lose something in the translation.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.