Shabbat BeHar Sinai: What do kidneys have to do with Sinai?

חוֹקֵר כְּלָיוֹת חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ

You, Examiner of Kidneys, we have sinned before you, have compassion upon us!

from the Selikhot prayers of the Edot haMizrakhi, the Jews of the Middle East


This week our parashat hashavua is BeHar Sinai, “on Mt Sinai.” It seems jarring to us and strange to see this reference to Mt Sinai long after the action there in the Book Shemot, Exodus. All the more necessary a reminder that the essence of all that we’ve been instructed comes from there. Sinai is the heart of it.

Or perhaps I should say, as ancient Israelites would, that Sinai is the kidneys of it.

As I recuperate from surgery to donate a kidney it has been delightful to delve a bit into the meaning of the kidneys for our ancestors. Interestingly enough in this week of being reminded of the source of all things, for the ancient Israelites, the kidneys are seen as the source of our own personal Mt Sinai. They are the seat of the human conscience.

כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה קָנִ֣יתָ כִלְיֹתָ֑י תְּ֝סֻכֵּ֗נִי בְּבֶ֣טֶן אִמִּֽי׃

It was You who created my conscience (literally, “kidneys”);

You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.

(Psalm 139.13)

In other words, for ancient Israelites and others, one’s heart is the source of thought and feeling, and one feels the truth of right and wrong from the kidneys.  How does this understanding shed light on what we know about the way our ancestors offered sacrifices? For example in this case:

וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֗ אֶֽת־כׇּל־הַחֵ֘לֶב֮ הַֽמְכַסֶּ֣ה אֶת־הַקֶּ֒רֶב֒ וְאֵ֗ת הַיֹּתֶ֙רֶת֙ עַל־הַכָּבֵ֔ד וְאֵת֙ שְׁתֵּ֣י הַכְּלָיֹ֔ת וְאֶת־הַחֵ֖לֶב אֲשֶׁ֣ר עֲלֵיהֶ֑ן וְהִקְטַרְתָּ֖ הַמִּזְבֵּֽחָה׃

Take all the fat that covers the entrails, the protuberance on the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat on them, and turn them into smoke upon the altar. (Shemot 23.18)

The Psalmist sings that understanding and justice belong to HaShem; the Priest carries it out by giving the liver, seat of divination, and kidneys, seat of conscience, to HaShem. The Jewish mystics of Sefer Yetzirah, the first known expression of theurgic mysticism in Judaism (attributed to Abraham!), show how the human being physically echoes and is linked to the cosmos, kidneys included:

המליך אות ט’ וקשר לו כתר וצר בו אריה בעולם ואב בשנה וכוליא ימין בנפש. 

The Letter ט Tet was set up to rule

And given its crown

Through it the constellation Aryeh (Leo) is formed in the world

The month of Av in the year 

And the right kidney in the human.

המליך אות י’ וקשר לו כתר וצר בו בתולה בעולם ואלול בשנה וכוליא שמאל בנפש.

The letter י Yud was set up to rule

And given its crown

Through it the constellation of Batulah (Virgo) is formed in the world

And Elul in the year

And the left kidney in the human.

(Sefer Yetzirah 5)

The research is ongoing but for this Shabbat we have this much: two kidneys, both the seat of conscience and of consciousness of right and wrong, revered in all creatures and, as I’ve found, a highly sought-after organ to transplant –  a mitzvah of the highest order. that of piku’akh nefesh, saving a life, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to undergo the process. On a personal note, what kind of amazing coincidence is it that I now only have a right kidney, and that I was born under the constellation Aryeh?

What a useful counter to our too-intellectual ways of approaching our spirituality in our own day! As well, here’s another reason to learn enough Hebrew to recognize the letters, so that you are able to see all the places where a body part is replaced in the translation with “mind” or something similar, such as in Jeremiah 17.10.

אֲנִ֧י יְהוָ֛ה חֹקֵ֥ר לֵ֖ב בֹּחֵ֣ן כְּלָי֑וֹת וְלָתֵ֤ת לְאִישׁ֙ כדרכו [כִּדְרָכָ֔יו] כִּפְרִ֖י מַעֲלָלָֽיו׃ (ס)

I HaShem probe the heart,

Search the mind

To repay everyone according to their ways,

With the proper fruit of their deeds.

We are told that we only need the functional capacity of one kidney to live a perfectly healthy life. May you on this Shabbat feel that the abundance of your capacity to know right and wrong, and to do what you can to act upon it, is healthy, and strong!

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