Commentary on Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Numbers 19:1-22
This week, we read Parashat Tzav, which deals with some of the specifics of the basic daily sacrifices, and the ritual that was practiced in order to sanctify Aaron and his sons as priests who serve in the Temple. Parashat Tzav often occurs on the Shabbat before Passover, which is traditionally called Shabbat HaGadol — the great Shabbat, the Shabbat which precedes the exodus from Egypt and the birth of the free Jewish nation.
The Grain Offering
One of the sacrifices discussed in the portion is the Mincha, or grain offering. This sacrifice, brought by the priests on a daily basis, as well as by other individuals on certain occasions, consisted of flour, olive oil, and frankincense. A handful of it was offered on the altar, and the remainder was eaten by the priests. Interestingly, the Torah tells us that the Mincha must be made “kosher for Passover” “as a matzah (unleavened bread) it is to be eaten…it is not to be baked as leaven.” This, in fact, is the rule for all but one of the various grain offerings in the Temple.
Why does God demand that grain offerings not be allowed to leaven? Why is the law prohibiting hametz (leavened bread), which seems to be specific to the Passover holiday, enforced all year long in the Temple?
The symbolism of refraining from eating leavened bread on Passover seems to be fairly straightforward. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were forced to leave very quickly; the Egyptians were, understandably, totally freaked out by the Plague of the First-Born, and pressed the Jews to leave as speedily as possible. As a result of this need to rush, the Torah tells us that “they baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into matzot, for it had not fermented, for they had been driven out of Egypt, and were not able to linger…” On Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating hametz to commemorate this event.
There seem to be a number of messages here. The miraculous turnabout, wherein the Egyptians, who for so long had been so unwilling to free the Jewish slaves, but were now urging them to hurry out of Egypt, is apparently worth commemorating, as is the speed of God’s salvation, which, after years of suffering in slavery, ultimately occurred quickly — “in the wink of an eye” in the Rabbinic phrase.
These lessons serve as a comfort and a beacon of hope to the oppressed and discriminated against, who may not be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but are reassured by the Exodus story of the possibility of an unexpected, speedy redemption. The eating of matzah and rejection of hametz would seem to be an attempt to identify with the experience of the Jews in their exodus from Egypt, and learn these lessons from it.
However, there seems to be more to the imagery of the matzah than just the speed of the Exodus. Before the last plague, at the beginning of the month of Nissan, some two weeks before the Exodus, God had already instructed Moses to tell the Jews to bake matzot for Passover, long before, and apparently unconnected to any rush to leave Egypt in a hurry.
Why We Eat Matzah?
There seems, therefore, to be another reason why we eat matzah and reject hametz on Passover. The Rabbis have discussed the larger symbolism of hametz at length, and I would like to summarize some of their thinking.
Broadly speaking, leaven is seen as a symbol of surfeit, appetite, gluttony, and desire. The matzah on the other hand, is seen as not only the bread we ate because we were in a hurry to escape affliction, but also the bread of affliction itself, the bread of the destitute, which we ate as slaves in Egypt.
In this nexus of symbols, eating the matzah is a way of identifying with the poor, oppressed and downtrodden, and of rejecting the excess and luxury of the oppressor — imperial Egypt with all of its decadence and excess. A sinful, oppressive, inhuman Egypt, which enslaves and murders strangers in order to build itself magnificent monuments, is what we reject by shunning the richer leavened bread and eating simple matzah on Passover.
With this in mind, we can see the insistence on only serving matzah in the Temple, all year round, as an attempt to make the Passover revolution against imperial Egypt an ongoing one. By prohibiting the baking and eating of leaven in the Temple, the Torah is turning the revolution of Passover, in which the oppressors were punished and the oppressed were freed, into an ongoing, permanent value in Jewish life.
Just as, when we sit around the Passover Seder table, celebrating, we are commanded to eat the bread of affliction and thereby, even as we celebrate our own freedom and autonomy, identify with the downtrodden and enslaved, so too, in our Temple, which represents national strength, autonomy and independence, we are forced to reject the hametz of the rich and oppressive, and eat matzah, the bread of the oppressed and the poor. This acts as an antidote, a corrective, to the kinds of feelings which could easily be engendered around the Passover table or in the Temple; feelings of self-satisfaction and self-congratulation, of power and possession, which we must reject, or at least temper.
By eating matzah and refraining from hametz, we embrace, both at the Pesach Seder that celebrates our birth as a nation, and in the Temple, our national religious center, solidarity with the oppressed, the poor, and the enslaved. This is the symbolism of the mincha, the kosher for Passover grain offering offered daily in the Temple.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
Pronounced: khah-METZ or KHUH-metz, Origin: Hebrew, bread or any food that has been leavened or contains a leavening agent. Hametz is prohibited on Passover.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: MINN-khah, Origin: Hebrew, the afternoon prayer service. According to traditional interpretation of Jewish law, men are commanded to pray three times a day.
Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronounced: PAY-sakh, also PEH-sakh. Origin: Hebrew, the holiday of Passover.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.