Is there anything that is really unclean?


The law of Moses also calls lepers and people with venereal diseases unclean, forbids touching them, prohibits incest, but … It also declares some things unclean that do not pose the least health risk.

This week’s parasha (Emor) includes the chapters 21-24 of Vayikra / Leviticus. They are about God’s purity rules for the Kohanim, the priests.

The priest’s office is hereditary; it was allotted to the descendants of Aaron, and God asks the priests to be especially holy for His sake (21:8; 22:6): they had to stay away from corpses – apart from their parents, their children or unmarried siblings. Priests were not supposed to cut themselves for the deceased. The High Priest, who was the only priest to enter the holiest part of the tabernacle or of the temple, could not approach a corpse at all; if one of his parents died in his house, he had to remain in the temple. He was not allowed to uncover his head, nor tear his cloak, neither in grief nor in anger. Why?

One possible answer is that God is the God of life, not of death.

One possible answer is that God is the God of life, not of death. He has set up his tents among men, to free them from death – to bail them out; He wants to fill those who approach Him with hope and to not allow their souls to be troubled. In order to make this clear, 1400 years later, God sent His only begotten son, Yeshua. The reality of the death of Lazarus, the mourning of his siblings deeply aroused Yeshua, angered him even (!) … and so he raised the dead back to life! (Yohanan / John 11:43)

Those sons of Aaron who were lame, blind or mutilated, who had broken hands or feet or who were otherwise afflicted with a disease were also not admitted to the service of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). David correctly recognised God’s heart: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Tehilim / Psalm 16:11) Really, God is longing for nothing but to liberate us from all illness and impurity. Just look at Yeshua’s example: “However, a man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” (Mattiyahu / Matthew 8:2)

In fact, most of the purity regulations concerning the priests apply equally to all inhabitants of Israel

If a priest became unclean because he touched a deceased relative, or came into contact with blood, an unclean reptile, a dead body, a leper, a contaminated garment, or because of an emission, God didn’t reject him. For every situation, there was a ritual that restores purity: one impurity was cleansed after an evening, another one after seven days, after ritual washing of the body or the clothes. But until purity was restored, the priest was strictly forbidden to serve in the temple, or to eat the flesh of the sacrifices, so that he may not die! (22:3-9). But this was also true for all the inhabitants of Israel. (Vayikra / Leviticus 7:20-27). In fact, most of the purity regulations concerning the priests apply equally to all inhabitants of Israel, to Israelites themselves or the foreigners (“Ger”); even Rashi wondered why certain purity rules for priests are repeated separately in these chapters. Perhaps God wanted to protect the priests and teachers of the law (and also those with responsibilities in the community of the Messiah) from the temptation to feel that they were special or above the law, to claim special treatment for themselves. (Yirmeyahu / Jeremiah 6:13, Ezra 34) This repetition makes it clear to the priests that they were subject to the same law as all the other people.

Thus, the life-giving proximity of God in the midst of his people is at the same time also a lethal proximity for those who are not afraid of His holiness, for those who do not value the law that promises life to man.

The same paradox appears in chapter 23, concerning the feasts of the Lord: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth. These important, joyous festivals, ordered by God, which celebrate Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery and prophetically announce the liberation of all men, are among the most favourite subjects both orthodox and messianic Jews. Pleasures of joy for Israel, ordered by God – yes, but whoever works on Shabbat, does not celebrate Passover, or eats bread that is leavened during the seven feast days, who does not afflict his soul at Yom Kippur, was to be “cut off from the community of Israel” (Shemot / Exodus 12:19, 31:14, Vayikra / Leviticus 23:29, Bemidbar / Numbers 9:13)!

Yet Yeshua’s life shows that God’s purity is by no means threatened by man’s impurity. As mentioned above, Yeshua touches a leper, sits on a bench with sinners, people who do not respect the laws of purity, and thereby becomes unclean according to Mosaic Law. But he explains that food cannot make people unclean, but that man is unclean through his thoughts and words. (Mattiyahu / Matthew 15:11) The Pharisee Sha’ul, believing in Yeshua, words it consistently: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14)

The orders regarding the temple service and the priests are called “an eternal order” by God in the Torah forty-two times (“Chukat olam”). However, as sure as these laws have eternal meaning, and are still important today, their practical application seems to change through time. For Messianic Jews, their present importance is primarily to make us perceive the deadly abyss between us, who are defiled by sin, and the holy God, so that we can recognise God’s incomprehensible grace, offered to us in His Son, who was sacrificed for our reconciliation, and so that we take corresponding action.

God chose His son Yeshua to become the sacrificial lamb: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12) When Yeshua was asked by the high priest, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” he replied: “’I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven. The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy.’” (Mark 14: 61-64). And then the high council sentenced Yeshua to death.

It is not to be supposed that the high priest, when he tore his cloak, was not aware of the fact that he violated the law of high priests, but he was also unaware of the fact that he forfeited the dignity of his office because a much more worthy man was standing before him, about to take the office of the high priest.

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Is there anything that is really unclean?