An Introduction and Tribute to Nechama Leibowitz’s Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Skootsky

This year, the yartzeit of Nechama Leibowitz (1905 – 1997) falls out during parshat Vayikra. In honor of her incredible work teaching Torah and encouraging the study of Torah, this devar Torah will be based on her teachings. This is meant literally. Perhaps best-known to the English speaking world through the translated essays in “Eyunim – Studies in Torah,” originally published (Hebrew) in 1954, earlier, in 1942, she began printing and mailing out the original parsha sheet – her gilyonot. Unlike today’s parsha sheets, gilyonei Nechama had questions, developed out of reading the text of the parsha closely, sometimes with unfamiliar questions based on familiar commentators, and sometimes along with more obscure or contemporaneous commentators, such as Umberto Cassuto or Benno Jacob. Nechama would mail out the sheets, and her “subscribers” would learn them and attempt to answer them. Then they would mail them back, and Nechama would mark their papers before mailing them back, to give feedback to her many students. To receive a rare יפה from her would fill the “student,” of any age or achievement in Torah learning, with well-deserved pride.

All of her parsha sheets are available online:

This one can be found here:

For Vayikra, I will “walk through” the process of reading the gilyon, her questions, and then trying to answer them. For פרשת ויקרא תשי”ג, parshat Vayikra of the year 1953, Nechama first quotes the Abarbanel, who cites the Midrash in Vayikra Rabba to Acharei Mot.

Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi stated a parable:

“It is like a King whose heart is filled with love for his son, and his son is accustomed to eating non-kosher things. The king said: feed him from my table, and he will learn on his own to no longer eat non-kosher things.

Similarly, the nation of Israel were sinners, worshipping idols, and were bringing sacrifices to forbidden demonic spirits, and causing themselves to be harmed. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: Offer your sacrifices before me, near the Tent of Meeting, and separate yourselves from idol worship!”

Nechama then cites Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, from his commentary to Vayikra:

“After careful and extensive study, it seems clear that the version of Vayikra Rabba that the Abarbanel cites is completely textually flawed. In the version he cites, the story cannot be understood and is illogical. Indeed, in all the published versions of the midrash, we have a different text:

‘and his son is accustomed to eating non-kosher things. the King said: let this one always be by my table, and he will learn to no longer eat non-kosher things.

Similarly, since the nation of Israel were passionate about idol worship…’”

Then Nechama asks three questions. Some of her questions would be marked with an “x”, indicating that they were harder than usual. Some had “xx”, indicating that they were very hard. For this gilyon, none of the questions are marked with “x”s, so I will venture to answer them.

  1. Explain, how it is possible for the Midrash, in the version cited by the Abarbanel, to serve as a support for the opinion of the Rambam about the sacrifices.
  1. Explain why this version “cannot be understood and is illogical” according to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman?
  1. What is the essential difference between these two versions of the midrash?

Before I answer them, note pedagogically what is going on here. Questions 1 and 2 require the student to offer two explanations, from two points of view, that contradict each other! Then, Question 3 asks the student to identify what the difference in meaning between the two versions would be. This is all based on two versions of a Midrash! Nechama’s incredible attention to language and Hebrew was not limited to the text of Chumash, and allowed her to teach incisive lessons where others heedlessly continued reading.

My answers:

  1. Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim 3:32,  takes the position that the purpose of many commandments, including the sacrifices, was to gradually and gently bring humans to gradual knowledge of God, rather than attempt to bring them from one extreme to another all at once.

Therefore, in the version of Midrash cited by the Abarbanel, the son continues to engage in behavior similar to what he was doing before the King took an interest in him. Eventually, by merely being brought closer to the King, the son will slowly, at his own speed, come to knowledge of God and proper behavior.

  1. According to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, it does not make sense for the King to basically allow his son to continue the same bad behavior. It is implied that the King serves his son the same non-kosher food that he ate before. For Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, this seems impossible. Therefore, he prefers the version where the son is brought close to King’s table, so that he can learn which foods ought to be eaten. The change from worshipping idols to worshipping God is analogous to the change from eating non-kosher food to kosher food, even if the means of worship, including animal sacrifice, remain similar.
  1. The essential difference between the two versions of the Midrash is whether or not the King provides non-kosher food for his son. It seems strongly implied in the first version of the Midrash that this is the case, and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s forceful objection, that the Midrash as cited by Abarbanel “cannot be understood and is illogical,” actually supports and sustains that read.

The Abarbanel says that, in of themselves, the sacrifices were analogous to the non-kosher food of the midrash, but moving the sacrifices into Mikdash, governed by the rules in Sefer Vayikra, was an improvement over the Israelites’ worship of idols. This would eventually lead to proper knowledge of how to serve God.

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman says that the purpose of the sacrifices instituted in Sefer Vayikra was to direct the Israelite’s passion for worship towards Hashem exclusively. By directing the sacrifices to Hashem, the means of worship that previously was used for illicit idolatry becomes “kosher.”

So, out of two different texts of the Midrash, cited by two relatively obscure sources, Abarbanel and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, Nechama taught two perspectives on the sacrifices detailed in Sefer Vayikra, each belonging to a great rabbi whose opinions were not explicitly stated, but had to be drawn out by a master teacher.

May her memory, and the Torah that she teaches, be a blessing.

Joshua Skootsky (SBM 2012, 2015) is a student at Yeshiva University.


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