Shabbat candles: 6:48 p.m.
Torah reading: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-24:23
With the Tabernacle’s construction complete, the Torah turns its attention to the laws of the korbanot, sacrifices. The korbonot (whose Hebrew root letters translate as “close”) described in Vayikra are vehicles for atonement and thanksgiving, creating a relationship with God.
What about the sacrificial system is intended to stimulate a sense of spiritual intimacy with the Divine?
In the description of the very first sacrifice one curious detail provides us with a clue. As an Israelite offers a sin offering, the olah, “he shall lay (samakh yado) his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” [Leviticus 1:4].
The Rabbis say that this act, known as semikhah, is performed with both hands and not one as written in the text. In addition, the hands are supposed to lean on the animal’s head with one’s weight and strength, rather than merely laying there passively.
It is intriguing that this gesture serves no practical purpose. Semikhah neither holds the animal’s head in place nor massages the animal’s neck to bring out the jugular. One can argue that the service’s more meaningful touchstone occurs when the person making the offering recites a prayer acknowledging his/her transgression.
While some commentators assert that semikhah ritually demonstrates that the one offering the sacrifice transfers his sins to the animal as our stand-in for punishment, others explain that semikhah represents sincere contrition and a desire to atone. In the bent-over position, the one seeking atonement demonstrates humility through his posture and feels a sensory connection with his surroundings on multiple levels.
The power of Torah is that a single word can simultaneously convey resonant meanings on many levels. Semikhah has a variety of meanings: the placing of hands, the transfer of authority and mutual support. The unifying themes among these concepts are community and connection.
Our understanding of this hand-centered sacrificial ritual is enriched by semikhah’s usages in other biblical contexts. The semikhah most familiar to us today is the transfer of authority, such as when Moses appoints Joshua as his successor: “Take thee Joshua, the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay they hand upon him” [Numbers 27:18]. In this iconic and moving encounter, Moses’ hands grant authority to and affirm Israel’s next leader, who will lead the Jewish people to their future destiny.
Moreover, the Hebrew root of semikhah translates as support. During the Ashrei prayer, based primarily in Psalms 145, we recite, “God supports (somech) those who have fallen and straightens all those who are bent.” We can only hope that God assists us in our most vulnerable moments, such as when we are a sacrifice of atonement for a transgression.
On Friday night, when parents bless their children at the Sabbath table, words are coupled with action. Parents place their hands on the child’s head. This simple gesture creates bonds of connection that can last a lifetime.
Soon we will celebrate Passover. At the seder, parents often bless their children as on Shabbat, placing hands on the child’s head. The upcoming seder provides us with a familial and communal opportunity to open our doors everyone who might be yearning for connection. An invitation to a seder shows particular support at a time when no one should be alone. Just as we left Egypt as a community, so too should we re-experience the Exodus in the company of friends and family.
Learning how to celebrate together, mourn together, learn from one another, and care for each other are important components of being Jewish and part of the human family. Being present with one another, transmitting our values to the next generation and supporting each other during moments of need and jubilation are the cornerstones of community and connection. With the description of the subtle ritual of semikhah, the Torah communicates to us how this sacrifice is a conduit of connection to community and, equally important, to God. n
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is the executive director of the Metropolitan New York District of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.