“No Leaven or Honey on the Altar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, Jews, in synagogues throughout the world, begin to read the third of the Five Books of Moses, the Book of Leviticus. Also known in Hebrew as “Vayikra,” the name is taken from the first word of the book, which means, “He [G-d] called.”

G-d calls to Moses and conveys to him many of the laws of sacrifice that apply to the Jewish people. In fact, the first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus concern the various forms of sacrifices that are offered both communally and individually by the people.

In Leviticus 2:11 the Torah declares the following: “Kol ha’mincha ah’sher tahk’ree’voo la’Hashem, lo tay’ah’seh chametz. Kee chol s’ohr v’chol d’vahsh lo tahk’tee’roo mee’meh’noo ee’sheh la’Hashem,” No meal offering that you offer to the L-rd shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into a fire-offering as a gift to the L-rd.

Now that the Torah has delineated the procedures for the various fine flour offerings (oven baked, pan baked, and deep pan offering), the Torah warns that none of these offerings may be brought on the altar with leaven or with honey.

This rule applies to all sacrifices. There are only two exceptions, both of which are related to the festival of Shavuot. The two loaves of bread from the new wheat may be made with leaven, and the bikurim, the firstborn fruit gifts, contain honey. The reason for allowing the leaven, the rabbis speculate, is that the two loaves brought on Shavuot are eaten only by the priests who are very fastidious about their work in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Consequently, there is no concern that they might contaminate the location. But otherwise, nothing that is sacrificed to G-d may contain any chametz.

Similarly, the first fruits that are brought during the bikurim period from which the honey comes, may be brought to the Temple. Both Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) and Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel b. Meir, French exegete, c.1085-1174, grandson of Rashi) maintain that the “honey” prohibited by the Torah, refers to fruit juice and not bee honey. The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) identifies the honey as the moisture from dates. The rabbis universally reject the possibility of bee honey, because the entire context speaks of bringing the first fruits.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his erudite volume, The Mitzvot–The Commandments and Their Rationale, suggests that the reason for the prohibition banning leaven and honey may be due to their inappropriateness in the context of the Tabernacle. When a person stands before the Al-mighty G-d, Who knows the innermost thoughts of every human being, sweet and pleasant things like leaven and honey are most inappropriate. When offering sacrifices, people must be solemn and serious as they confront their spiritual shortcomings.

However, if the honey or the leaven were not actually part of the offering itself, they are permitted to be used. Thus, honey and leaven may serve as fuel for the fire.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) maintains that the prohibitions against the use of both leaven and honey on the altar is a single law and a single violation. He maintains that since they were customarily employed by the pagans in their idolatrous rites, they were prohibited for use on the Temple altar.

Most other commentators see rather different symbolisms. The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) suggests two possible reasons for the prohibition of leaven and honey. 1. Both leaven and honey symbolize procrastination. Leavened bread takes a considerable amount of time to rise, and honey represents the sweet things in life that distract human beings from fulfilling the words of G-d, unless they are used in moderation. 2. As is often interpreted with respect to matzah, leaven represents haughtiness and swelling. Honey, on the other hand, is a substance that is used to excite passions. Consequently, both of these characteristics must be absent from the altar and from G-d’s Holy Temple.

The Ba’al HaTurim (c.1275-1340, Jacob ben Asher, Germany and Spain, famed halakhist, author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah) also relates leaven to Passover, emphasizing the concept of the evil impulse. Just as the leaven causes the dough to rise, so does the evil impulse multiply and increase the desire of the human being to sin, eventually causing sin and temptation to become as enticing and as sweet as honey.

Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher 1263-1340, Biblical commentator of the Golden Age of Spain) adds to this, that if not for the evil impulse, the human being would never have reason to bring a sin offering. Leaven and honey must therefore be excluded from the offerings, to remind the people of their duty to remove the causes of sin from their hearts and minds.

Even the “minor” symbols in Judaism, have large lessons to teach.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Chodesh Adar II is Monday,  March 7th. Happy Adar!