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Parsha Mitzvot: Acharei Mot: Mitzvah 188 – Concept 175; Rabbeinu Bachya Overview

“Any man shall not approach his close relative to uncover nakedness; I am God (Vayikra 18:6).” We may not make pleasurable physical contact with any person with whom we are forbidden to be intimate (Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah – The Laws of Forbidden Relationships)


Relationships are divided into three categories: The first category comprises kinship between people who had never been separated. The second category comprises new kinship between people between whom there never had been any genetic relationship before. The third category of kinship is that between people who are related by blood but have been separated at one stage or other in life.

An example of the first category is Adam and his family; all of his descendants were allowed to intermarry freely, their union being considered like branches which unite their common root. This is how we must understand the saying of our Sages (Berieshit Rabbah 22:3) that hwne Adam and Eve had their first marital union they joined in a bad and when they got off the bed there were seven human beings; Kayin and his female twin, Hevel and two female twins. The number seven symbolizes the “union” just as the Menorah had seven arms, all of them being part of the central shaft. Our Sages say further that from a legal point of view Adam could have married his own daughter, however, he performed an act of kindness toward his son Kayin giving him his daughter as a wife. This is the meaning of, “The world is built on Chesed (Psalms 89:3.” This kind of kinship where all the parties had never been separated was not subject to the present legislation. Just as Adam and Eve were made of the same flesh, so their children were the product of genetically the same material as their parents. No other genetic material was part of any of these children.

The second category of human relationships is the exact opposite of the first. Two people who are of genetically totally different background are permitted to join together in marriage precisely because they are not related to one another. Such a union is comparable to the branch of a tree which had been totally cut off and is being planted in the earth again to produce a new route.

Thirdly, the kinspeople who are too closely related to one another have been forbidding as potential marriage partners because they had at one time become separated. This is the group of people for whom this legislation has been written. Seeing these people were united generations back but had grown apart in the interval they cannot serve as a symbol of unity, something that marriage, building a family is all about.

To sum up: the rule is that people who are genetically distant from one another may unite in marriage in order to demonstrate that genetic distance from one another is no barrier to union, on the contrary the concept of unifying, creating a bond resulting in a union is best demonstrated by such people. People who are genetically very close must not enter marital unions or sexual unions because up until then they were symbols of the reverse of union, of separation. Seeing that the kinsmen and kinswomen were not the product of the kind of genetically unified unions such as Adam and Eve, they do not display signs of such genetic uniformity.

Seeing that branches should unite with their roots, the Torah encourages marriage between such “stray, isolated” branches. The same is true of a solitary trunk. A trunk’s genetic excellence can be demonstrated only by means of its branches. If these branches had been cut off and scattered this is equivalent to the root having lost its genealogical excellence. We may view people who violate the laws pertaining to forbidden sexual unions, as destroying the concept of creating unity. This is also the reason why the Tetragram, the four letter name of God emphasizing Is Unity, prefaced this legislation. This is why the words, “I am God,” are appended at the end of verse two in our chapter. (Rabbeinu Bachya)

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