Friday, November 27th, 2020

A Most Holy Refrain by Yaakov Bieler

May 3, 2012 by  
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A unique recurring phrase.

Chapter 19 of Parashat Kedoshim contains a particularly inordinate number of verses listing various individual Commandments,[1] each concluding with the words “Ani HaShem” (I am God) or “Ani HaShem Elokeichem” (I am God, your Lord):

VaYikra 19:3 

An individual should fear his mother and father, and My Shabbatot he should observe “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

Ibid. 4

Do not turn unto the false gods and do not make for yourself molten gods, “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

Ibid. 10

You shall not glean your vineyard nor shall you gather the single grapes of your vineyard. You will leave them for the poor and the stranger “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

Ibid. 12

Do not swear by My Name falsely, for then you would be profaning the Name of your God, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 14

Do not curse a deaf individual, and before a blind person do not place a stumbling block, and you will fear from before your God, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 16

Do not go as a tale bearer among your people; do not stand idly by when your friend’s blood is being spilled, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 18

You shall not take revenge and you will not hold a grudge the children of your nation, and you will love your friend as yourself, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 25

And in the fifth year you will eat its fruit in order to add to you your harvest, “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

Ibid. 28

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 30

And My Shabbatot you shall observe, and my Temple you shall fear, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 31

You shall not turn to mediums or wizards, nor seek to be defiled by them, “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

Ibid. 32

You will stand before the hoary head (a person with white hair, i.e., elderly), and honor the face of the old man, and you will fear your God, “Ani HaShem”.

Ibid. 34

                But the stranger that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt, “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

Ibid. 36

Just balances, just weights, a just Epha and a just Hin, shall you have, “Ani HaShem Elokeichem” Who Brought you out of the land of Egypt.

A rationale for explaining why in VaYikra 19 there are so many instances of this particular phrase.

The concentration of verses ending with a form of this particular phrase within a single chapter of VaYikra suggests that in addition to each of these topics individually being enhanced in terms of its importance and religious significance by a direct reference to God as the source of the topic,[2] that there is some common theme that links them all together. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann[3] suggests an approach by which the verses in question can be organized into a cohesive whole.[4]

These fifteen statements[5] are divided into three groups: The first consists of three verses (19:2-4),[6] the second of five verses (19:9-18),[7],[8] and the third seven verses (19:23-36…)[9]

Between each group, a section is inserted that does not end in “Ani HaShem”. Between the first and second groups the laws of “Pigul”[10] and “Notar”[11] are inserted (19:5-8), and between the second and third groups the laws of “Kilaim”[12] and “Shifcha Charufa”[13] are inserted (19:20-22)…

The division into three groups can be explained as follows: The first group (19:2-4) with the three-word ending “Ani HaShem Elokeichem” constitutes the introduction, followed by a formulation of statutes that themselves are divided into two groups:

The first group (19:9-18) include Commandments between man and man, “Mishpatim” (rational laws that comprise a social contract) and which reach a climax with the exalted Commandment (19:18) “And you shall love your friend as yourself”.

The second group (appearing within the framework of 19:23-36, but specifically 19:33-36) concerns Commandments that require one to conduct oneself with righteousness and love towards the stranger, as well as the need to act justly in all business dealings.

According to the reason that is given for these (latter) Commandments (19:33-36), i.e., that God Acted compassionately towards Israel with respect to the Exodus from Egypt (19:34), these laws take on the status of “Chukim” (lit. statutes; laws that are not rational, but rather “Decrees of the King”), behaviors that God Demands from His People, as a result of His having Freed them from a house of bondage. Therefore at the beginning of this second group (19:23-36), the text includes the phrase (19:22) “My Statutes you shall observe”, with the entire presentation concluding most appropriately with the words (19:37) “And you will observe all My Statutes and all My Laws and you will do them, ‘Ani HaShem’”…


R. Hoffmann therefore contends that the repetition of “Ani HaShem” both divides the list of Commandments in VaYikra 19 and simultaneously connects them with one another. They are divided in terms of the different finite actions that we have to perform in order to fulfill them, but they are also of a piece in the sense that the basic reason why we are obligated to comply with all of them is the same, i.e., because God Ordered the Jewish people to do these things. Particularly with regard to the Commandments that are “Bein Adam LeChaveiro” (between man and man), when Mitzvot appear to be no more than logical and socially utilitarian, there is always a significant danger that an individual will come to think that he is above the law, that one or more specific Divine Directives do not apply to him since he takes issue with the perceived rationale underlying the Commandments. Therefore, according to R. Hoffmann, repeating the phrase “Ani HaShem” after all types of Mitzvot serves the purpose to stress what one should be thinking during the course of a Commandment’s fulfillment. In the same manner that one approaches “Chukim” (lit. statutes; generally Commandments between man and God), i.e., with faith and trust in the Lawgiver, so too must one carry out the “Mishpatim” (laws between man and man) without calling them and their rationales into question.

Difficulties with R. Hoffmann’s hypothesis.

Yet, while R. Hoffmann’s point is well-taken, whether he has adequately accounted for the occurrences of the phrase “Ani HaShem” is questionable. Why does the phrase appear in some instances after a single verse, while in others, only after 2 or 3? Why do certain Mitzvot have the phrase attached to them, while others do not? Is it merely a literary matter in the sense that “Ani HaShem” had to be scattered throughout VaYikra 19 in almost random fashion to make R. Hoffmann’s point? While the rule (e.g., Brachot 31b) “Dibra Tora K’Lashon Bnai Adam” (the Tora speaks in the language of people, i.e., literary conventions could be the basis for the usage of certain terminology or repetitions of words), nevertheless, a more comprehensive explanation that accounted for when and when not the phrase is appropriate would have been welcome.

An alternative hypotheis.

An earlier approach that does not attempt to group together the Commandments in light of the usage of “Ani HaShem”, but nevertheless offers an evocative perspective for understanding the phrase’s implications each time it is used, particularly in light of VaYikra 19, is found in the commentary of Rabbeinu Bachya on VaYikra 19:4:

After each of three consecutive verses (19:2-4) (the phrase) “Ani HaShem Elokeichem” appears. Similarly regarding the Commandments of the stranger (19:34), the Commandments concerning fair weights and measures (19:36) and a few other Mitzvot. And the reason for this is that all of the Commandments are reflections of God, and all Commandments requiring action are testimonies regarding God’s Existence. And for this reason, the Rabbis have said, (Avoda Zora 17b) “Anyone who only studies Tora (to the exclusion of carrying out what has been studied) is like one who has no God.”[14] Because a person who studies Tora constantly but does not pursue the opportunity to engage in practical Mitzvot, is not whole, and it is tantamount to his denying God’s Existence, since he does not provide testimony via his actions of God’s Existence. True beliefs are only concretized and fulfilled by means of actions. And it is for this reason that the Tora constantly cites in connection to some Commandments “I am the Lord, your God” (i.e., you give testimony to Who I Am only if you carry out, rather than merely study, this as well as all other Commandments).

Questions that arise from Rabbeinu Bachya’s approach.

Although one could still wonder, based upon Rabbeinu Bachya’s explanation, why this phrase is attached to some Mitzvot and not others, as well as why there is such a heavy concentration of such verses in Parashat Kedoshim, Rabbeinu Bachya’s overarching principle—that unless a person actively pursues the opportunity to fulfill Commandments, he is imperfect and perhaps even heretical—is an important one, and has a number of practical implications. Not all Tora that is studied is necessarily “Le’Ma’aseh” (for practical enactment). Would Rabbeinu Bachya then claim that to study the Orders[15] of “Kodshim” (dealing with the Temple Service and Sacrifices) or “Taharot” (dealing with ritual purity and impurity) is inappropriate since the vast majority of the contents of these cannot be carried out today in the absence of the Temple and the impossibility of gaining purity from ritual defilement by means of a dead human body due to the impossibility of preparing the “Para Aduma” (the red heifer, whose ashes are needed for mixing in water and sprinkling the mixture upon the person who has been made impure via contact with a dead human)? Furthermore, should Kohanim study only material that pertains to them, just as Yisraelim should not attempt to understand the responsibilities of a Kohen? Must men and women only study material that is gender specific in order that the maximum of what is learned can be personally applied? Would Rabbeinu Bachya then support those who although not in need of baby birds or birds eggs, nevertheless scour the forest for a nest so that they can “fulfill” this Commandment rather than just studying it? And what about Talmud study that is not focused upon identifying and carrying out the “Halacha LeMa’aseh” (the practical Halachic application)? Perhaps, if we take the liberty of speaking on behalf of this commentator, Rabbeinu Bachya would suggest some sort of balance between practical and theoretical, in order that the scope of Tora study does not become overly narrow were it to confine itself exclusively to practical scenarios, and yet can also bring the student to an understanding of the theological and philosophical underpinnings of his tradition and religion.



[1] This essay will focus upon the concentration of verses in Parashat Kedoshim which specify particular Commandments incumbent upon all of Israel, in contrast to verses that  either deal with Commandments in general,

e.g.,   VaYikra 18:4    You shall do My Laws, and you will observe My Statutes to go in them, “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”;

Ibid. 18:5       And you will observe My Statutes, and My Laws that a person does them and lives through them, “Ani HaShem”;

Ibid. 18:30     And you will observe My Statutes, that you commit not any of these abominable actions, which were practiced before you, and that you not defile yourselves in them, “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”;

Ibid. 19:37,     And you will observe all of My Statutes and all of My Laws, and you will do them, “Ani HaShem”;

Ibid. 20:7       And you will sanctify yourselves and you will be holy because “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”;  

Ibid. 24:22     You shall have one manner of law, the same for the stranger as one of your own country, because “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”;

Ibid. 25:55     For to Me are the children of Israel servants, they are My Servants whom I Brought out of the land of Egypt, “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”; 

behaviors required specifically of Kohanim,

e.g.,   Ibid. 21:12      Neither shall he go out of the Sanctuary, nor profane the Sanctuary of His God, for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him, “Ani HaShem”;

          Ibid. 22:2      Speak to Aharon and his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel that they hallow to me, and they profane not My Holy Name, “Ani HaShem”;

          Ibid. 22:3      Say to them: Whomever he be of all your seed throughout all the generations who approaches the holy things which the children of Isarel hallow to the Lord, having his ritual uncleanness upon him, the soul shall be cut off from My Presence, “Ani HaShem”;

or Commandments that are singularly listed, independent of any concentrated group of other Commandments,

e.g.,   Ibid. 18:6       No person shall approach to any that is near of kin to him to uncover his nakedness, “Ani HaShem”;

Ibid. 18:21     And you shall not allow any of your seed to pass through (the fire) to Molech, neither shall you profane the Name of your God “Ani HaShem”;

Ibid. 23:22     And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely remove the corners of your field when you reap nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest. You shall leave them to the poor and the stranger, “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”;

Ibid. 25:17     You shall not defraud one another, but you shall fear your God, for “Ani  HaShem Elokeichem”;

Ibid. 26:1       You shall make no idols nor shall you erect a carved idol, or a pillar nor shall you install a figured stone in your land to bow down upon it, because “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”.

With respect to verses that encompass all Commandments, it is not remarkable that they should conclude with HaShem Identifying Himself as the Origin of these Mitzvot. Despite their apparent diversity, i.e., Statutes, Laws, Commemorations, Testimonies, etc., they all emanate from a single source and a Single Will. As for Commandments that apply to Kohanim in particular, HaShem clearly States that His Intent is that (BaMidbar 30:45) “…they (the members of the tribe of Levi) shall be to Me”. While no human being can become one with HaShem, to the extent that He has Designated the Kohanim for His special Service, and they therefore are required to act in a more holy manner than the rest of the Jews, Commandments that apply to the Priests understandably contain an extra dimension of sanctity, indicated by the phrase “Ani HaShem”. Finally, when an isolated Commandment appearing in some other section of the Tora ends with the phrase in question, the words can be interpreted in a manner similar to the interpretations offered by the Biblical commentators with regard to the concentration of verses in Parashat Kedoshim; nevertheless, the fourteen instances within a thirty-seven verse span is striking and draws attention to itself. Why does the Tora engage in creating this “mantra” for the individual Commandments appearing in this Parasha?

[2] Examples of interpretations of the phrase when looking at a particular verse in its own right, as opposed of trying to link together all of the verses in which “Ani HaShem” appears, include:

a)   RaMBaN, Rabbeinu Bachya on 19:2 If we are holy we have the possibility of clinging to HaShem, becoming one with Him.

b)   RaShI on 19:3 The authority of a parent comes from HaShem and therefore a parent cannot order a child to transgress against the Tora.

c)   Ibn Ezra on 19:3 Emulate Me by resting on Shabbat.

d)   Ibn Ezra on 19:4 I am the only God for you and therefore do not follow other gods.

e)   RaShI on 19:10 HaShem Punishes and Collects souls.

f)    RaShI on 19:14 Even if an individual can mislead others,  HaShem Knows what his intention is when he does an action that could be looked upon either positively or negatively.

g)   Ibn Ezra on 19:14 HaShem can Bring you to the same position as someone vulnerable of whom you have taken advantage.

[3] Sefer VaYikra, Vol. 2, Mosad HaRav Kook, Yerushalayim, 5714, pp. 26-27.

[4] R. S.R. Hirsch (The Pentateuch, VaYikra 2, p. 500) also groups the verses in question, but in a far more perfunctory and, in my opinion, less insightful manner:

The verses in this chapter are quite clearly divided into groups by the concluding words: “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”, in v. 2, 3, 4, 10, 25, 31, 34, and 36, of which groups 11-25 and 26-31 are subdivided by certain sentences being made into separate paragraphs by the concluding words: “Ani HaShem”.

Three fundamental sentences form the basic pillars of our rendering ourselves holy. They deal with: a) parents and Shabbat (v.3); b) the purity of our conception of God (v. 4); c) the purity of and the social results of our relationship to God (v. 5-10).

Aside from personal preference, R. Hirsch does not indicate any sort of textual cue why these verses and concepts are more important than the others, particularly in light of so many verses concluding with “Ani HaShem”.

[5] R. Hoffmann includes the introductory verse of Parashat Kedoshim—VaYikra 19:2 “Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: Be holy ‘Ki Kadosh Ani HaShem Elokeichem’—with the verses that follow, since the last three words constitute one of the two forms of closing shared by the other fourteen. I would not include it not only because it discusses Mitzvot in general or an overall approach to religion (see the first category of verses that I exclude in fn. 1) but also because syntactically 19:2 should be read, “Ki Kadosh Ani (because I am Holy), the Lord your God”, i.e., the first person pronoun “Ani” is the subject of the previous adjectival phrase “Ki Kadosh”, and therefore separated from “HaShem Elokeichem”, in contrast the other manifestations of “Ani HaShem Elokeichem” in VaYikra 19.

(“*” indicates that the phrase “Ani HaShem” or “Ani HaShem Elokeichem” appears at the end of the verse.)

[6] *19:2 The Commandment to be holy.

  *19:3 Fearing parents, observing Shabbat.

  *19:4 Do not worship idols or manufacture molten gods.

à    These Commandments restate the primary themes found among the first five of the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:2-12; Devarim 5:6-16), i.e., believing in and respecting God/refraining from idol worship; observing Shabbat; honoring parents. 

[7] *19:9-10 Leave corners of fields for the poor; allow for gleaning of fields and vineyards by the poor.

    19:11 Do not steal, deal falsely, lie.

  *19:12 Do not swear falsely by God’s Name; do not desecrate HaShem’s Name.

    19:13 Do not defraud, rob, fail to pay wages to neighbor.

  *19:14 Do not curse the deaf; do not put stumbling block in front of the blind.

    19:15 Judge fairly without showing favoritism neither to the poor nor the rich.

  *19:16 Do not be a tale bearer; do not stand idly by when another is endangered.

    19:17 Do not hate your neighbor in your heart; rebuke your neighbor.

  *19:18 Do not take revenge or bear a grudge; love your neighbor as yourself.

à    These Commandments all deal with interpersonal relationships. One can see how the phrase “Ani HaShem” marks a transition from one category of interpersonal Mitzva to another. While they all fit under a general rubric, each is a specific manifestation of a singular aspect of this area of Tora observance:

      9-10 Extending compassion to the poor

11-12 Improper utilization of speech.

13-14 Taking advantage of the weak and disabled.

15-16   When in a position of power or potential assistance, do the right and just thing.

17-18   Promote love and avoid hatred between people.

[8] Within this second section (19:9-18), the occurrence of “Ani HaShem” is quite symmetrical, with each two verses being completed by the phrase. Such an orderly pattern is not repeated in the third section (19:23-26) where the intervals of the phrase are extremely inconsistent.

[9] *19:23-25 Laws pertaining to when one can begin to benefit from the fruit of newly planted fruit trees.

    19:26 Do not consume blood, engage in magic.

    19:27 Men are not to use a straight edge to cut parts of their hair, beards.

  *19:28 Do not mutilate yourself as part of mourning; do not create tattoos.

    19:29 Do not prostitute your daughter.

  *19:30 Observe Shabbat; show respect for the Sanctuary.

  *19:31 Do not engage in necromancy.

  *19:32 Give honor to the elderly.

  *19:33-34 Treat strangers in your land respectfully.

  *19:35-36 Be righteous in judgment and in all weights and measures.

à   Most of these Commandments deal with means by which an individual shows his fealty to God. 

23-25   Self-control and deference to the rules imposed by HaShem, as in all Kashrut issues (see VaYikra 11:44).

26-28   Prohibitions against cultish, magical behavior.

29-30   Respect  holiness of time, place and human beings.

31         Avoiding a particular form of idolatry.

However, 32-36 appear to revert to the types of Commandments found in 19:9-18, listed in fn. 4 above. It is this apparent inconsistency which serves as the basis for R. Hoffmann’s comment.

[10] “Pigul” is a sacrifice that is rendered unfit due to the Kohen who offered it thinking incorrect thoughts regarding what sort of sacrifice it is, where it is to be sacrificed, for how long it is to be eaten, etc.

[11] A sacrifice’s permitted meat is rendered “Notar” (left over) when the designated time for its consumption passes. At that point, the meat can only be burned, and should someone eat it, he would be punished by “Karet” (ritual excision).

[12] The term “Kilayim” is applied to forbidden mixtures, e.g., linen and wool, a donkey bred with a horse resulting in a mule, grapes crossed with wheat, etc.

[13] The case of the “engaged female servant” is explained in the Oral Tradition to be dealing with a non-Jewish female slave who was owned in partnership by two masters, one of whom has freed her, while the other has not. Consequently she is in “marital limbo” since she can marry neither a male servant since she is partially free, nor a male freeman because she is partially enslaved. In the event that someone would try to take advantage of her by rationalizing that since she is not free to marry anyone, therefore she may be desperate and susceptible to improper behavior, the Tora in these verses indicates the consequences in store for the perpetrator of such untoward activity.

[14] Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Seven Years of Discourses on the Weekly Tora Reading, Keter, Israel, 2000, p. 534) states the following regarding Rabbeinu Bachya’s concept and the source in Avoda Zora 17b which he cites as a proof text:

…The intent of the Talmudic passage is that if a person engages in Tora study from a purely theoretical perspective, e.g., he studies Tora and his entire religious universe is a matter of absorbing cognitively the material contained therein, one could say that the knowledge provided by the Tora and the acquisition of information is more important than this individual’s faith, and therefore he is as one without a God.

Such an individual is contrasted to someone “who has a God” if his religious awareness obligates him to concretize something in his life in a practical manner. Therefore with regard to all of those practical Mitzvot that are delineated within this Parasha, e.g., the fear of parents, observing of Shabbat, the prohibition against idolatry, avoiding engaging in tale bearing and so many other similar Commandments, in as much as a Jew actually fulfills them in reality, then for each of these can be said, “Ani HaShem” or “Ani HaShem Elokeichem”…

[15] The Mishna is divided into six “Orders”, the other four being: “Zeraim” (lit. seeds; agricultural matters); “Moed” (lit. appointed time; holidays); “Nashim” (lit. women; matters of marriage, divorce, etc.); “Nezikin” (lit. damages; monetary matters).

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