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Behar Bechukotai 5764

By: Rav Ari Shames

In the end of the first half of our double parsha this week we find two pesukim that seem out of place at first glance. The final verses of Parshat Behar tell us not to serve idols, not to set up monuments, not to have bowing stones, to keep Shabbat and respect the Mikdash. The grouping of these mitzvoth is not all that clear, though it is not hard to see some sort of common denominator. The more striking question concerns the connection to any of the previous material in the parsha.
As we will see in the shiur, this problem was obvious to the commentaries as well as to the Christian students of the Bible. The later felt the problem to be unsolvable and therefore decided to end the section two pesukim earlier, ending Chapter 25 and starting Chapter 26 for the final two pesukim of the parsha.
It is clear that the Torah had intended to add these pesukim to the previous section as is evidenced by the paragraph break at the end of Behar and not two pesukim prior. It is therefore our goal in this shiur to try to understand the connection between the earlier parts of Behar and the final pesukim.
I would like to focus on two approaches to the prohibition of "even maskit". At the most basic level the question is what is the meaning of "maskit". The Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot (Negative 12), the Sefer Hachinuch and the Ibn Ezra understand this to mean a decorated or engraved stone. The prohibition in this pasuk is not to bow down on an embellished rock, as this is the way of idol worship. The obvious advantage in this position is the clear common denominator between the other elements of the same pasuk, serving idols and erecting monuments; all three focus on idolatry and they are listed in descending order of severity. Do not serve idols, do not erect an idol like structure (even not for the purpose of worship) and do not bow down (even to Hashem) on something that looks like idol worship.
The position of the Rambam is consistent with his position on hewn stones for the mizbaech, in Parshat Yitro, in which he negates the use of items that can be misconstrued to have any connection to idolatry. (See our shiur at
The connection to the earlier sections is explained in the Sifri quoted by many of the commentaries on the spot. Parshat Behar is seen to form a continuing tragic nightmare that progressively gets worse as the individual sinks into deeper and deeper sin. It all starts by ignoring the rules of shmitta which creates financial ruin causing one to sell of their belongings including the family estate. In the final tragic see the individual is forced to sell themselves as slaves. This sale is even more severe in that it is to a non-Jew and the person finds himself in the midst of a non Jewish environment enslaved once again. This of course is the opposite of God's plan in taking us out of Egypt, but is a result of our refusal to keep the mitzvoth properly.
The Sifri explains that the individual in such a precarious social predicament needs to be reminded of their obligations as a Jew and hence the stress on idolatry and Shabbat.
The trouble with the Rambam is a particular detail also mentioned in the Sifri. The prohibition of "even maskit" is only outside of the Mikdash. The pasuk states do not place an "even maskit" in "your land" which is understood to mean only in the land and not in the Mikdash.
If this is related to idolatry it is very hard to understand the allowance in the Mikdash. Both intuitively and given the Rambam's harsh position on hewn stones as mentioned earlier it is hard to reconcile such a leniency.
The Sefer Hachinuch was bothered by this question and concludes that the Rambam must have had some explanation for this but he can't figure out what it is. The Chinuch suggests, albeit in attempting to explain another interpretation that the fact that one would have such a rock in the Mikdash itself would neutralize the concern that it may look like idol worship. In other words, bowing on such a rock is not actually idolatry but simply looks like it and in the right context it is clear that his intentions are pure. To quote the Chinuch "since the Mikdash was chosen for the service of God and is clear to the entire world as the sun is clear in the sky at midday that there is no service there to any other entity." [May we be zocheh to live these words immediately!!]
Rashi offers us an entirely different line of thought. Firstly he translates the term "maskit" as covering and explains that we are dealing with a prohibition of bowing down on a paved surface (paved specifically with stone and no other material). The basis of the mitzvah has nothing whatsoever to do with idolatry but rather it is based in the concept of the uniqueness of the Mikdash. When we bow, in the most complete form i.e. by flattening ourselves on the ground not simply kneeling, we perform the clearest act of subservience. This overwhelming expression of Avodat Hashem is reserved for the one place in which we fully come in contact with the Shecinah. If we blur the distinction between Kodesh and Chol we loose appreciation for the Kodesh itself. By comparison it can be sad that if we dress each and every day in our Shabbat clothes and eat the types of food that we generally reserve for Shabbat, we have watered down the Shabbat experience.
Rashi fits in quite nicely with the limitation of the issur to non-Mikdash territory, however it becomes even more difficult to explain how this fits into the wider scheme of Parshat Behar.
I would like to suggest that we might find the answer in the lines of thought of the Seforno. According to the Seforno the series of Mitzvoth at the end of the parsha relate to the individual in Galut.
"Even though you are in Galut you should not despair and begin to serve other gods as I am your God under all circumstances. Despite the fact that Shabbat symbolizes your freedom you should nevertheless keep it while exiled and in a state of slavery, and always respect my "Mikdash"- meaning the "miniature Mikdash" that you will have in Galut - the Beit Kenesset and Beit Midrash".
The Seforno explains all clauses of these pesukim except for "even maskit". If we continue the logic that he posits we may make the following statement: Even if we are in Galut and even if we have the greatest of intentions in our service of God we must never forget that any "mikdash miat" be it a Bet Kennest or Bet Midrash is not to be confused with the real thing- the Mikdash.
I write this just a few days before we are about to celebrate Yom Yerushalyim, thanking God for the miracles that he did for us 37 years ago. I expect it to be a heart-warming scene of throngs of people streaming to the Kotel to celebrate this very special time. At the same time I am frustrated by our lack of integrating the ideas stated above. We arrive at the Kotel and feel that we have reached the ultimate in terms of Kedushat Makom. We must never forget, and do everything that we can both physically and spiritually, to get to the next stage. The Kotel, with all the reverence and respect that I have for it, is an outer wall of Har Habayit. We must set our sights higher, we must strive to reach the top of the mountain and be able to serve Hashem in the manner in which he has deemed proper.
"Even maskit" applies anywhere outside of the Mikdash. As we have learned according to Rashi we are warned not to replace the mikdash with any other experience.
How wonderful it will be to stand on the side of the huge crowds on Har Habayit at the end of a tumultuous festival, such as Sukkot or Yom Kippur, watching them file out, off the mountain and be able to fall on the ground, on the bare stone floor of the Mikdash and thank God for the rebuilding of the third Bet Hamikdash.
To quote the Midrash (BR 56:2)
"R. Yitzchak says: All is in the merit of bowing: Avraham returned safely from Har Hamoriah because of his statement "We will bow and return to you". Am Yisrael were redeemed by the merit of their bowing as it says, "They believed and they bowed down". The Torah was given through the merit of bowing down as it says, "They bowed from afar". Chana was remembered because of her bowing as it says, "She bowed before God". The exiles return through the merit of bowing as it says "On that day there will sound a great shofar and they will bow to Hashem in Yerushalayim". The Mikdash will be built through the merit of the bowing as it says "Glorify God and bow to His holy mountain".


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