Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer in Judaism and the Arts at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, offers an interpretation of Avner Moriah’s painting of Parashat Shemini.
The tablet depicting rows of all animals correlates with being able to control one’s eating habits. Nadav and Avihu’s sin was their desire to go above and beyond basic observance instead of accepting elemental heavenly discipline.
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Parashat Shmini (Eighth) describes the consecration ceremony for the Tabernacle, which took place after seven days of preparation. That was also the day that saw the awesome tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who died for the grievous sin of bringing “strange fire” to the Lord. Moses’ words to Aaron accounting for his sons’ punishment accented God’s request that those closest to Him be holy and be disciplined in seeking holiness before the Lord. That request was made not only of the priests but of all of the people of Israel, about whom God said: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6).
How does a nation become holy, as God commanded: “you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy for I am holy (Lev. 11:45)? What are the characteristics of the various kinds of animals that are considered unclean? How does obeying a prohibition regarding animals convey a measure of holiness?
Avner Moriah’s painting is a figural template consisting of eight rows with five animals in each row, and read from right to left and top to bottom it corresponds to the list of forbidden animals in the biblical text. The top row represents animals that walk on land and are mentioned by name as they either do not have cloven feet or do not chew their cud. Thus we see a camel, a daman, a hare, and a wild pig. The fifth animal in that first row belongs to the group of forbidden aquatic creatures, for which the criterion for distinguishing between clean and unclean is the possession of fins and scales. There are two more water creatures in the second row – apparently a shell fish and a shark – neither of which has both fins and scales.
Images of birdlike creatures for which there is no general category defining them as unclean finishes the second row and fills the next four: “The following you shall abominate among the birds – they shall not be eaten; they are an abomination” (Lev. 11:13). Their names appear in the biblical text as: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon, the raven, the ostrich, the night hawk, the seagull, the hawk, the small owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the pelican, the bustard, the stork, the heron, the hoopoe, and the bat.
Insects, reptiles, and rodents – all forbidden – appear next: “The swarming things that swarm upon the Earth: the mole, the mouse, and the great lizard after its kind, and the gecko, and the land-crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand-lizard, and the chameleon” (Lev. 11:29- 30).
Visualizing all the animals mentioned by name in Leviticus 11 on a poster that discloses their identities, the artist is suggesting the need to review these creatures and to know not to eat them or even to touch them after they have perished. By learning and accepting the rules that God gave to the priests to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the clean and the unclean” (Lev. 10:10), the Israelites came to understand their obligation to imitate their priests and their God and to live with a sense of holiness.
It is difficult to comprehend the rationale behind the entire given list of unclean creatures, but apparently the simple enumeration of such a list was designed to guide the Israelites toward a disciplined existence that would imitate the holiness of God. As we read at the conclusion of Leviticus 11: “For I the Lord am your God; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).