Parashat Emor is the thirty-first weekly portion in the Torah and the eighth in the Book of Leviticus (21:1-24:23). It is the longest portion in Leviticus, containing more than ten percent of all the mitzvot in the Torah. It is also one of only two portions in Leviticus to contain any narrative.
While the previous portion, Parashat Kedoshim, broaches the topic of holiness, it is in Parashat Emor that the Torah shifts its focus to the positive sanctification of God’s name.
The first example of this holiness (Chapters 21-22) is holiness of man: in particular, the priestly class, the descendants of Aaron, kohanim. Their holiness is expressed in restrictions upon when they may enter a cemetery, whom they may marry, when they may serve and what they may eat from God’s table.
Even today, when the Temple no longer stands, these laws remain in force. It is for this reason that priests (often, but not always, using family names like Cohen, Katz, Azulay and variations on “Aaron”) are buried at the edge of Jewish cemeteries and hospitals in Israel will indicate at the entrance whether it is permissible or forbidden for priests to enter to visit. In addition, a minute portion of the crop is separated and disposed of to represent the priest’s portion, which cannot be partaken of until the Temple is rebuilt and the rites of purity restored.
The second sphere of holiness is holiness of time (chapter 23). Every six weekdays are followed by the Sabbath, and every year has six festivals: Passover and Shavuot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Each of these is “a holy convocation,” a time to rejoice before God and share with those in need. (indeed, the Torah takes special note of agricultural gifts for the poor as Shavuot approaches, which is when Parashat Emor is read every year.)
However, the Torah (24:1-9) points out that holiness is not limited to the Sabbath and holidays, noting the ner tamid, the eternal light which must be lit every night in the Sanctuary on the Menorah. This is the term for the light by the Holy Ark in every synagogue. Meanwhile, on the Table, the Showbread are a continual presence, replaced every Shabbat. Thus, this unit begins and ends with the Sabbath.
The portion ends (24:10-23) with a case study in the consequences of desecrating God’s name, the tragedy of the Blasphemer, a man with an Egyptian father and Israelite mother. He gets into a quarrel with another Israelites and curses God’s name, for which he is condemned. This underscores, in a brutal way, the role of God’s people: to sanctify His name — even on pain of death!
The universal custom for the portion from the Prophets is to read Ezekiel 44:15-31, in which the prophet, himself a descendant of Aaron, reiterates the standards of holiness for the priestly class of kohanim.