Parashat Emor is dedicated to the rules regarding the personal status and physical condition of Kohanim, the priests who worked in the Tabernacle. How can we explain biblical laws which appear to discriminate against Kohanim with disabilities?
Dr. Gila Vachman, lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, sheds light on this sensitive issue. The Kohanim who were physically “blemished” actually received symbolic tasks within temple rituals.
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Parashat Emor is mostly dedicated to the rules regarding the Kohanim, the priests, their personal situation and their physical condition.
I would like to focus on the Torah’s attitude towards the disabled Kohanim and the disabled in general. It says: “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering.”
Why? The verse gives an explanation – ולא יחלל -he shall not profane the temple. The Torah doesn’t claim that the disabled Kohen is a lesser person. Instead, this is clearly an aesthetic matter, a proof of respect towards God. Disabled priests as well as disabled sacrifices are unaesthetic and therefore unworthy and undignified towards God.
Both sacrifice and priest should be healthy and perfect in order to serve God.
So, what did the disabled Kohanim priest do in the temple? The Mishnah tells us; “The North-Eastern chamber was the chamber of the wood.” This is the Mishnah describing the second temple. There, the Kohanim who were physically blemished, would check the wood for worms. Any piece of wood containing one was unfit for use on the altar.
This is a very symbolic job. We can see that the Kohanim that are disabled or have a blemish are busy fixing and preparing other things for the sacrifice.
What about disabled people, in general, how does Jewish law treat them? Well, we find in the Tosefta, a special blessing to be cited when a person meets a disabled person or a different, unusual-looking person.
One who sees a black dark person or a redhead person, an albino, a hunchback or a little person says the blessing: “Baruch Meshane Habriyot-” Blessed are you who changes creatures.
Now, at first sight, this must seem like an insult. Why would we say a special blessing when we meet a disabled person? But I think this blessing really gives the meeting a very religious special meaning. When we say a blessing we remind ourselves, who created this person who looks so different than us. Maybe we even remind ourselves that each and every one of us has something broken, has something disabled within ourselves.
Dr. Gila Vachman studied at the Hebrew University where she received a BA (cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew literature, an MA (cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah as well as a PhD. She is a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the Hebrew University. Born in Kibbutz Yavne, married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.