Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 5 May 2018 / 20 Iyyar 5778

Parshat Emor

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Say and Tell

We used to know the difference between speaking to a person and speaking to a wall. Alexa and Siri and all of their cousins have changed that. Say to Alexa, “Alexa, lower the volume,” and she will dutifully comply. But try telling her, “Alexa, I have a headache, could you play some softer music?” and you’ll likely hear in response, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that.”

There are two words for speech in the Torah: amirah and dibur. The most common construction preceding commandments uses both of them: Daber el Bnei Yisrael v’amarta aleihem, often translated as speak to the Children of Israel, saying. Our parshah begins with an atypical construct — two consecutive amiras. Emor el haKohanim bnei Aharon v’amarta aleihem…Say to the children of Aharon, and say to them…

Dibur differs from amirah as speaking differs from telling. To speak is to express an idea. Whether anyone is listening is immaterial. Telling, however, implies communication. Speech can give precise expression to an idea, but amirah conveys a more fully developed idea to the mind of another.

Thus, the common construct that uses first dibur and then amirah to introduce a mitzvah includes first the concise description of the law in general terms, and then the fuller explanation of the law in detail, appealing to both mind and heart. These terms also correspond to the Written Law, the exact and precise description (dibur), and the Oral Law, the full and detailed explanation (amirah). A Sage who interpreted law at the time of the Talmud is therefore called an amora.

The Ten Commandments are referred to as the Aseret HaDibrot, whereas the ten utterances of Creation are referred to as the Asara Maamarot. Those utterances produced immediate results: And G-d said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The term amirah is used in Creation because the word immediately materialized in the object to which it was addressed. However, the word of Torah is not automatically accepted and fulfilled. It has been pronounced, but it is up to the Jew to choose to accept and fulfill.

The repetition of the amirah terminology introducing the laws of the Kohanim is significant. Our Sages understood the two separate ‘sayings’ (emor…v’amarta) as instructing the Kohanim to instruct their children. Both are the type of instruction that must be amira, a full explanation conveyed specifically in a receptive way to another. They are to take to heart the fact that the task of kehunah derives from their grandfather Aharon. Before the details of the laws are presented, they must recognize and appreciate that priesthood does not result from their own merit, but it is a task assigned them at birth. An appointment that children must be raised for, so the fulfillment of their task may be true and complete. This must be conveyed in an understandable way, not merely spoken.

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