Lost and Found: From Obsolete Ritual to Personal Responsibility

The complex rules of thanksgiving offering ensured that it enabled the public participation of the broader community in thanking God.

Commentary on Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Numbers 19:1-22

The five sacrifices that the priests are to perform are described. (Leviticus 6:1-7:38)

  • Limitations on the consumption of meat are delineated. (Leviticus 7:17-27)
  • Details about the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests and the preparation of the Tabernacle as a holy place are given. (Leviticus 8:1-36)

Focal Point

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, Command Aaron and his sons thus:

This is the ritual of the burnt offering. The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: Every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. (Leviticus 6:1-6)

Your Guide

The previous portion, Vayikra, begins with the words “Speak to the Children of Israel,” while Tzav begins with “Command Aaron.” Why the difference in tone? In other words, why are priests “commanded” but laypeople are simply “told”?

Why was the olah, the burnt sacrifice, offered in its entirety?

What purpose did the olah sacrifice serve?

Has some aspect of contemporary Judaism replaced the olah as a means of spiritual surrender?

What do we learn from the words “all night until morning”?

Why do the ashes need to be removed daily from the mizbei-ach [altar]?

Why is the need for a fire burning repeatedly emphasized? That is, why is the admonition that the fire on the mizbei-ach not go out repeated?

By the Way…

“Command Aaron and his sons” can only mean “Urge Aaron and his sons,” according to Rashi. If there is only “command,” one needs extra urging. When the Holy Blessed One commands something, the yetzer [the evil impulse] steps in so that one will not fulfill it. This is the reason our Sages said (Tractate Kiddushin 31), “One who is commanded to do something and then performs it is greater than one who is not commanded yet does it. One who is not commanded does not face the yetzer as much.” (Rabbi Heschel of Krakow on Leviticus 6:2)

Does Adonai delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to Adonai’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. (I Samuel 15:22)

Rava said: “He who occupies himself with the study of Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, nor the guilt offering.” (Talmud, Tractate M’nachot 110a)

Rabbi Levi said: It is a praiseworthy enactment that a person who behaves boastfully should be punished by fire, as it is said, “This is the law regarding a person striving to be high: It is that it goes up on its burning place.” [Note: The burnt offering (ha-olah) is linguistically related to the verb, alah, “to go up,” “rise,” “ascend,” and is midrashically taken here to mean climbing to pretentious heights, assuming an insolent and overbearing attitude.] (Leviticus Rabbah 7:6 on Leviticus 6:2)

He [the priest] shall put on common clothes and busy himself in common work in order that he should remember to pray for the ordinary and simple needs of the common people. (Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Przysucha on Leviticus 6:4, cited in Kol Simchah)

“He [the priest] shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments,” (Leviticus 6:4). Sages in the school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: The Torah teaches you good manners. A person should not wear the garments in which he cooks a dish for his teacher when he mixes a cup of wine for him. (Talmud, Shabbat 114a)

The pure (i.e., the Children of Israel) should come and study the pure (i.e., the sacrifices). (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3)

Your Guide

According to Rabbi Heschel of Krakow, what is the distinction between “command” and “urge?” Which word do you believe is more effective for getting someone to do something?

What is Rava’s opinion of why God prefers the offerings of our hearts to the sacrifices of our livestock? How does this concept translate into contemporary Jewish thought and practice?

Is Rava’s statement an all-too-sweeping generalization of the ideal human condition? Is it necessarily true that being constantly pre-occupied with the study of Torah will automatically protect us from the ravages of sin and wrongdoing?

In Leviticus Rabbah 7:6, Rabbi Levi is interested in the correlation between the impurity of our thoughts and the purity attained after such desires are raised upon the altar of conscious transformation. How can this purity be attained? How can we rekindle sparks of holiness from the ashes of transgression?

Rabbi Simchah Bunem’s understanding of different priestly garb for different rituals is striking in its relevancy for the contemporary rabbinate. Do you think that clerical vestments are essential for the conduct of any or all religious services and life-cycle events? If so, why? If not, why not? Must a rabbi always be “on call?” Can he or she ever wear “common clothes?” When and under what circumstances?

The passage from Talmud, Shabbat shows that our biblical and talmudic texts appear to be in favor of a strict clothing regimen for the performance of specific ritual activities. Do clothes “maketh the man?” Should there be a specific dress code for attending worship services? Similarly, are you in favor of school uniforms?

D’var Torah (Commentary)

Parashat Tzav elaborates further on the sacrifices already mentioned in last week’s portion, Vayikra. The sacrifice of well-being, known as the zevach sh’lamim, is now categorized as a todah, a voluntary thanksgiving offering that has two special features:

According to the Mishnah, M’nachot 7:1, it is accompanied by an elaborate offering of thirty loaves of bread, and it must be eaten on the day it is offered. This is unusual because the time allotted for eating all the other peace offerings is two days. Only compulsory sacrifices are eaten in one day.

Hence the question: Is the todah, the thanksgiving offering (Leviticus 7:11-12), a compulsory or a voluntary sacrifice? To more fully understand the nature of this particular sacrifice, let us consider a reference from Psalms 116:14: “I will pay God my vows in the presence of the whole nation.” The individual worshiper is therefore obligated to thank God in public. Thus a voluntary sacrifice might well be considered an obligatory one, given the public proclamation of God’s goodness.

If the elaborate offering of 30 loaves of bread had to be consumed in one day, there was no other alternative but to have others also partake of the feast, thus enabling the individual to tell his story publicly! Surely such a widely heard testimony had the effect of both encouraging and unifying the community in its own belief system. Thus the thanksgiving offering, performed in and with the participation of the public, had the unique capacity to strengthen and fortify the people’s morale and code of conduct.

It’s interesting to note that later in the parsha, before Moses inaugurated Aaron and his sons into the priesthood, he assembled the community, as God had commanded him. The word vatikaheil, “and they gathered” (Leviticus 8:4), has the same numeric value as Yisrael. [In Jewish tradition, letters are assigned numerical values, and some commentators read messages into the resulting numerical values of words.] The symbolism is as predictable as it is perfect: The Children of Israel — the Jewish people — exhibit their greatest strength when they gather together in unison.

Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

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