Behar: The Chiastic Structure of Vayikra-Shemot

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Shouldn't Parshat Behar be in Sefer Shemot?  After all, its opening pasuk informs us that these mitzvot were given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai!  Why then does Chumash 'save' it for Sefer Vayikra instead?

To complicate matters, Parshat Behar is only one example of many 'parshiot' towards the end of Sefer Vayikra that appear to belong in Sefer Shemot.  Take for example the law to light the menorah (recorded at end of Parshat Emor (see 24:1-3).  As you most probably noticed, that parshia is almost a direct quote from Parshat Tetzaveh!  [Compare 24:1-3 with Shemot 27:20-21.]

To answer these (and many other) questions, this week's shiur investigates the intriguing possibility of a chiastic structure that may explain what otherwise seems to be a random progression of parshiot in Sefer Vayikra.


Recall our explanation that Sefer Vayikra contains primarily mitzvot, and neatly divides into two distinct sections:

  1. Chapters 1-17: laws relating to the mishkan itself,
  2. Chapters 18-27: laws relating to living a life of 'kedusha' even outside the mishkan.

Even though this definition neatly explained the progression of mitzvot in Parshiyot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, many of the laws in Parshat Emor seem to contradict this definition.

As the following summary shows, most of the mitzvot in Parshat Emor relate to the mishkan itself, and hence (according to our above definition) should have been recorded in the first half of Vayikra.

Using a Tanach Koren [or similar], scan from the beginning of Parshat Emor to verify the following summary:

  • Chapter 21 - Laws pertaining to kohanim;
  • Chapter 22 - Animals not fit for korbanot;
  • Chapter 23 - Special korbanot offered on the mo'adim.
  • Chapter 24 - Oil for lighting the menorah; and baking the 'lechem ha-panim' for the shulchan.

Based on our above definition of the two halves of Sefer Vayikra, just about all of these topics would fit better in the 'first half'.

Story Time?

To complicate matters, at the very end of Parshat Emor we find a different type of difficulty.  Review 24:10-23, noting how we find a narrative - i.e. the story of an individual who cursed God's name in public and was subsequently punished.  Not only is this story totally unrelated to either half of Sefer Vayikra, it is the only narrative in the entire Sefer!  [Aside from the story of the dedication of the mishkan found in chapters 8->10 (that relates to the mishkan itself).]

As you review these pesukim (and their context), note how this story seems to 'come out of nowhere'!  Nor is there any apparent reason why Sefer Vayikra records this story specifically at this point.  [See Rashi's question on 24:10 'Me-heichan yatza?' - Where did the 'mekallel' come from!]

More Problems!

Parshat Behar (chapter 25) is no less problematic!  Even though its laws of 'shemitta' and 'yovel' fit nicely into our definition of the second half of Sefer Vayikra (see Ibn Ezra 25:1), the opening and closing pesukim of this unit present us with two different problems.

The first pasuk of Parshat Behar (25:1) informs us that these mitzvot were given on Har Sinai, and hence suggests that this entire Parsha may really belong in Sefer Shemot!

More disturbing (and often not noticed) is the very conclusion of Parshat Behar.  There we find three 'powerful' pesukim that seem to come out of nowhere!  Let's take a look:

  • "For Bnei Yisrael are servants to Me, they My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God." (25:55).
  • "Do not make for yourselves any other gods.." (26:1).
  • "Keep My Sabbath and guard My Temple, I am your God"  (26:2).

Indeed, the first pasuk (25:55) forms a nice summary pasuk for the laws of that unit (i.e. 25:47-54);, however the last two laws are totally unrelated!  Furthermore, all three of these pesukim seem to 'echo' the first four of the Ten Commandments.

Why do they conclude Parshat Behar, and why are the first four 'dibrot' repeated specifically here in Sefer Vayikra?

[Note the discrepancy between the chapter division (i.e. where chapter 26 begins) and the division of parshiot (note that Parshat Bechukotai begins with 26:3) - which reflects this problem.]

The above questions appear to shake the very foundation of our understanding of the two halves of Sefer Vayikra.  Should we conclude that Sefer Vayikra is simply a 'random' collection of mitzvot?

[The solution that we are about to suggest is based on a rather amazing shiur that I heard many years ago from Rav Yoel Bin Nun, where he uncovers a chiastic structure that ties together Sefer Shemot and Vayikra.]

To answer the above questions, we must first 're-examine' each of the parshiot (mentioned above) to determine where each of these 'out of place' parshiot really does belong.

As we do so, a very interesting pattern will emerge - that form the basis of a chiastic structure.  [If you've never heard of chiastic structure before don't worry, it will be explained as the shiur progresses.]

Where Do They Belong?

Let's begin with the first topics in chapter 24, for it is quite easy to identify where these two mitzvot do 'belong'.

The Ner Tamid (24:1-4)

As we noted above, these four pesukim (describing the mitzva to light the menorah with olive oil) are almost an exact repetition of the first two pesukim of Parshat Tetzaveh!  [See and compare with Shemot 27:20‑21.]  Hence, this parshia 'belongs' in Parshat Tetzaveh.

The Lechem HaPanim (24:5-9)

This parshia describes how Bnei Yisrael were to prepare the lechem ha-panim [show bread] - that were to be placed on a weekly basis on the shulchan  [the Table located inside the mishkan].

Even though this is the first time that we find the details of this mitzva in Chumash, the general mitzva to put lechem ha-panim on the shulchan was already mentioned in Parshat Teruma (see Shemot 25:30).  Hence, we conclude that this 'parshia' could have been recorded in Parshat Teruma, together with all the other mitzvot concerning how to build the shulchan.

The Mekalel - The 'Blasphemer' (24:10‑23)

Even though this parshia begins with a story (see 24:10-12), this short narrative leads directly into a small set of civil laws ('bein adam le-chaveiro') relating to capital punishment (see 24:13-22).  Furthermore, as your review 24:17-22, note how they are almost identical with Shemot 21:12,23-25 (i.e. Parshat Mishpatim).

For example, note how Shemot 21:24 is identical to Vayikra 24:20.  -"ayin tachat ayin, shein tachat shein ..." ["an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth..."]

Hence, we conclude that the mekalel parshia 'belongs' in Parshat Mishpatim.

The Laws of Shemittah and Yovel (25:1‑25:54)

As we explained above, the opening pasuk of this parshia states that these mitzvot concerning shemitta and yovel were given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai.  However, in Sefer Shemot, we find many other laws that were given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai, and they were all recorded in Parshat Mishpatim.  In fact, in that very same Parsha, the basic laws of shemitta" were already mentioned:

"Six years you shall sow your Land and gather your produce and the seventh year..." (see Shemot 23:10‑11).

Therefore, we conclude that this entire unit of the laws of shemittah and yovel belongs in Parshat Mishpatim, together with all of the other mitzvot that were given to Moshe on Har Sinai.

The 'Mini-Dibrot' (25:55‑26:2)

As we explained above, these three pesukim at the very end of Parshat Behar 'echo' the first four Commandments.  If so, then we can conclude that these pesukim 'belong' in Parshat Yitro (see Shemot 20:1-9).

A Backward 'Back to Shemot'

In case you have yet to notice, not only do all of these parshiot (from chapters 21 thru 25) thematically belong in Sefer Shemot, they progress in backward order, from Tetzaveh, to Teruma, to Mishpatim, to Yitro!

Even though this order may seem to be simply coincidental, the next chapter in Vayikra (i.e. the TOCHACHA in chapter 26) provides us with enough 'circumstantial evidence' to suggest that this pattern may be intentional!

Let's take a look:

The Tochacha (26:3‑46)

The 'tochacha' explains the reward (or punishment) that Bnei Yisrael receive should they obey (or disobey) God's laws.  This tochacha constitutes an integral part of the covenant (brit) between God and Bnei Yisrael that was agreed upon at Har Sinai (see Devarim 28:69!).

[Note that the final pasuk (26:46) is not only parallel to Devarim 28:69, but also includes the phrase 'beino u-bein Bnei Yisrael', which also implies a covenant (based on Shemot 31:15-17)!]

Even though this covenant is detailed in Parshat Bechukotai, recall how its basic principles were first recorded in Parshat Yitro in the Torah's account of the events that took place at ma'amad Har Sinai:

"And now, if you shall listen to Me and keep My covenant faithfully, then..." (Shemot 19:5‑6, see also Shemot 24:4-7) [Compare carefully with Vayikra 26:3,12,23!]

Therefore, even though this parshia is thematically consistent with the theme of the second half of Sefer Vayikra (compare chapter 26 with 18:25‑29), nonetheless, it was given to Bnei Yisrael on Har Sinai.  Hence, it could easily have been included in Parshat Yitro, most probably in chapter 19 (prior to the Ten Commandments).

[Note also that the 'dibbur' that began in 25:1 includes chapter 26 and is summarized by the final pasuk of the tochacha (26:46).  See also Chizkuni on Shemot 24:7 & Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 25:1. where they explain that this tochacha was actually read at Har Sinai at Ma'amad Har Sinai!]

Working 'Backwards'

Let's summarize all of these 'parshiot' that we have discussed (from the end of Sefer Vayikra) that seem to 'belong' in Sefer Shemot.  [Working backwards,] we assign a letter to each 'parshia' for future reference.

(A) THE TOCHACHA (26:3‑46) (B) The 'MINI-DIBROT' (25:55‑26:2) (C) The laws of SHEMITTA And YOVEL (25:1‑25:54) (D) Parshat "ha-MEKALLEL" (24:10‑23) - The 'Blasphemer'. (E) THE MENORAH AND SHULCHAN (24:1‑9)

And there's more!  Let's continue working backwards from chapter 24 to chapter 23, showing how this pattern continues!  We'll continue using the letters of the alphabet for 'headers' as well:

(F) PARSHAT HA-MO'ADIM (23:1‑44) - The holidays in Emor

As we explained in last week's shiur, the Torah presents the mo'adim together with the laws of Shabbat.  Even though these laws relate thematically to the theme of kedusha in the second half of Vayikra, they also relate to the laws of Shabbat that conclude the parshiot concerning the mishkan.  [See Shemot 31:12‑17 & 35:2‑3.]

Note the obvious textual similarities:

  • "sheshet yamim ta'aseh melacha, u-vayom ha-shvi'i..." [Vayikra 23:3- Compare with Shemot 35:2!].
  • "ach et shabtotai tishmoru... ki ani Hashem mekadishchem"[See Shemot 31:13/ compare with 23:3,39.]

Therefore, 'parshat ha-mo'adim' (chapter 23) in Sefer Vayikra could have been recorded in Parshat Ki-Tisa as well, together with the laws of Shabbat.


In this parshia we find the prohibition of offering an animal with a blemish, or an animal less than eight days old.

Surely, this mitzva could have been recorded just as well in Parshat Vayikra (i.e. in the first half of the Sefer), for it discusses the various types of animals which one can offer for a korban (see 1:2).

(H) KEDUSHAT KOHANIM (21:1‑22:16)

Parshat Emor opens with laws that explain when a kohen CAN and CANNOT become "tamey" (ritually impure by coming into contact with a dead person).

Even though these laws thematically relate to the second half of Vayikra (for they govern the daily life of the kohanim OUTSIDE the mishkan), nonetheless the mitzvot that follow (21:16‑22:16) should have been recorded in Parshat TZAV, for they concern who can and cannot eat the meat of the korbanot.

In summary, even though each of the above parshiot may be thematically related in one form or other to the theme of the second half of Vayikra, nonetheless each parshia could also have been recorded either in the second half of Sefer Shemot (or early in Sefer Vayikra) as well!

Using the letters noted above, the following table summarizes these special parshiot, noting where each 'misplaced parsha' really belongs:.

(A) The Tochacha Yitro (pre dibrot)
(B) The Mini-Dibrot Yitro (the dibrot)
(C) Shemittah and Yovel Yitro/Mishpatim (post dibrot)
(D) Mekallel & mishpatim Mishpatim
(E) Menorah and Shulchan Terumah/Tetzaveh
(F) Moadim in Emor Ki Tisa/Vayakhel (shabbat)
(G) Animals Fit to Offer Vayikra
(H) Kedushat Kohanim Tzav

Study this table carefully, noting the correlation between where these parshiot 'belong' and the order of the Parshiot in Sefer Shemot [and the beginning of Vayikra]. 

The Chiastic Structure of Shemot and Vayikra

This literary style is known as a chiastic structure (A-B-C-B-A), a literary tool which emphasizes unity of theme and accentuates a central point (C).

To uncover the significance of a chiastic structure, it is usually critical to identify its central point.  To do so in our case, we must first summarize the basic units of mitzvot (in Sefer Shemot) which Bnei Yisrael receive from the time of their arrival at Har Sinai:

(A)  BRIT - prior to Matan Torah (perek 19 & parallel in perek 24) (B)  DIBROT - the Ten Commandments (20:1-14) (C)  MITZVOT - immediately after the dibrot (20:19-23) (D)  MISHPATIM - the civil laws in Parshat Mishpatim (21->23) (E)  TZIVUI HA-MISHKAN -  Parshiyot Terumah/Tetzaveh (25->31) (F)  SHABBAT  (31:12-18 followed by 35:1-3) (G)  LAWS OF THE KORBAN YACHID (Vayikra 1->5) (H)  LAWS FOR THE KOHANIM - serving in the mishkan (6->7) (I)  THE SHECHINA ON THE MISHKAN:

The dedication ceremony of the mishkan (8->10); laws governing proper entry (11->15); the yearly 're-dedication' ceremony on Yom Kippur (16->17) AND ITS EFFECT ON THE NATION Kedushat ha-AM ve-haARETZ climaxing with "KEDOSHIM TIHIYU"

Using the chart below [I hope your word processor is able to format it, if not try to format it by yourself], note how each of these units corresponds in REVERSE ORDER with the problematic concluding parshiot of Sefer Vayikra (that were discussed above)!

The following chart illustrates this structure:

A) Brit - before Matan Torah |   B) Dibrot |   |   C) Mitzvot - after Matan Torah |   |   |   D) Mishpatim - civil laws |   |   |   |   E) Tzivui Hamishkan |   |   |   |   |   F) Shabbat |   |   |   |   |   |   G) Korbanot of the individual |   |   |   |   |   |   |   H) Kohanim - how to offer |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   / * Shechinah on mishkan |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   I)   Its dedication etc. |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   \ * Shchina in the Camp |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   proper behavior, etc. |   |   |   |   |   |   |   H) Kohanim - who can't offer |   |   |   |   |   |   G) Korbanot - what can't be a korban |   |   |   |   |   F) Mo'adim |   |   |   |   E) Menora & Shulchan |   |   |   D) Mishpatim in aftermath of the Mekallel incident |   |   C) Mitzvot at Har Sinai, shmitta & yovel (Behar) |   B) Dibrot (first 4) A) Brit - Tochachat Bechukotai

Note how the above chart identifies a chiastic structure (symbolized by ABCDEFGH-I-HGFEDCBA) that connects together all of the mitzvot given to Bnei Yisrael in Midbar Sinai from the time of their arrival at Har Sinai.

It should come at no surprise that at the thematic center of this structure - (letter 'I') - lies the dual theme of Sefer Vayikra - i.e., its two sections:

  1. The SHECHINA dwelling on the mishkan, and
  2. Its subsequent effect on the nation.

As we explained in our previous shiurim, this model reflects the impact of the intense level of the kedusha in the mishkan on the spiritual character of the entire Nation in all realms of daily life.

Furthermore, this 'central point' ties back to the basic theme of ma'amad Har Sinai in Sefer Shemot, which just so happens to be the opening 'bookend' of the chiastic structure (A).  Recall how Bnei Yisrael first entered into a covenant before they received the Torah at Har Sinai.  Note once again the wording of God's original proposal:

"And if you listen to Me and keep my covenant... then you shall be for Me, a - mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh - a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"  (see Shemot 19:5‑6).

The achievement is this goal - to become God's special nation -as detailed in 'bookends' of this structure (letters A), is manifest with the dwelling of God's Shechinah in the mishkan (I) -at the center of this structure;  and is achieved by the fulfillment of God's mitzvot of kedusha - as detailed throughout this entire unit of Sefer Shemot and Vayikra.

In essence, the covenant of Har Sinai, the climax of Sefer Shemot, is fulfilled when Bnei Yisrael follow the mitzvot of Sefer Vayikra!  By keeping the mitzvot of both halves of Sefer Vayikra, we become a mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh (Shemot 19:6) - the ultimate goal and purpose of brit Har Sinai.

Brit Sinai & Kedoshim Tihyu

The thematic significance of this chiastic structure is strengthened by its closing 'book-end'.  Just as brit Sinai - the covenant at Har Sinai - is the opening parsha, the details of that covenant - the tochacha of Bechukotai - constitutes its closing parsha.

In that covenant, we find yet another aspect of this 'two-sided' deal.  The tochacha explains how the Promised Land will serve as God's agent to reward Bnei Yisrael, should they be faithful to His covenant, while the Land will punish (and ultimately kick them out) should they go astray.

Finally, note (from this chiastic structure) how the mitzvot of Sefer Vayikra [GHI]- that were given from the ohel mo'ed (see 1:1) are surrounded by mitzvot that were given "be-Har Sinai" [ABCDEF].  Considering that the entire purpose of the mishkan was to serve as a vehicle to perpetuate the fundamentals of Ma'amad Har Sinai, this unique structure beautifully reflects the eternal goal of the Jewish nation.