Texts and beliefs By Mike Fenster 29th Mar 2019

This week’s parasha addresses the problem of political legitimacy. How does Moses establish the legitimacy of the priestly family? In Pekudei we read that on the first day of the first month of the second year, Moses set up the Mishkan (tabernacle). Naso also describes the initiation of the Mishkan, describing how Moses anointed the Mishkan and how each tribe brought their offerings. But Tzav is the only one of three accounts in the Torah of the initiation of the Mishkan in which Moses anoints Aaron with anointing oil (shemen hamishchah), and later in the ceremony takes the oil together with blood from the altar and sprinkles them on Aaron and his vestments, on his sons and on their vestments. 

The tradition of anointing with oil preceded the Torah. It is mentioned in the Egyptian El-Amarna tablets. Anointing oil was precious and mystical – its recipe is given in Ex:30:23. The legend is that the 12 log (=4 litres) prepared by Moses sufficed for anointing everyone in biblical times. The unused oil was hidden by King Josiah beneath the Temple (together with other Temple artefacts such as Aaron’s budding almond branches) and will be recovered at the time of the Messiah (the anointed one). 

So who was anointed? There is a tradition that after Aaron’s sons, anointing was reserved for high priests only. With the possible exception of Elisha, prophets were not anointed. But kings were, and the phrase ‘The Lords anointed’ became a synonym for a king, not a priest,(e.g.1 Sam 12:3). Saul and David, the first two kings, were anointed by Samuel. But the rabbis worried that this 4 litres of anointing oil had to last and shouldn’t be wasted. Based solely on which monarchs the authors of the Tenach chose to mention as anointed, they developed a theory that anointing the king is only necessary when the normal succession is disputed. The act of anointing therefore becomes a public affirmation that the new king is linked back to David through Moses’ mystical oil. A discussion in the Talmud (Horayot 11b) lists the instances of ‘disputed’ successions where the legitimacy of the new ruler needed to be legitimised by anointing, for example Joash was anointed because the people thought all legitimate heirs had been killed by the familicidal Queen Athaliah (II Kings, xi. 12). 

British monarchs are still anointed, though not with that original 4 litres of oil. Their coronation service adapts I Kings 1:39-40 to chant: ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king; and all the people rejoiced and said: “God save the king, Long live the king, May the king live for ever”’. 

Although the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t foresee modern nation states, they realised that political legitimacy was always vital to avoid conflict and civil war. Power no longer sits with the monarch, but political legitimacy is still disputed – just look at Venezuela! Free and fair elections and referenda are required. Our media and the electoral commission now play the role of Moses’ anointing oil – conferring legitimacy when succession is disputed. 

Mike Fenster is a longstanding member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.

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