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Reflections: Tzav

Tzav is one of the most difficult portions of the Torah for the modern reader: not only because the sacrificial cult is alien to contemporary religiosity, but because the general principles of sacrifice have already been laid out in the preceding parsha, Vayikra.

By Matt Plen

Tzav merely supplements the general commandments to the Israelite nation with more detailed instructions for the priests. These regulations focus exclusively on ritual minutiae and show no concern whatsoever for theological or ethical matters.

This kind of obsession with ritual detail has a long history in Judaism. Shabbat Hagadol was historically one of two annual Shabbatot on which rabbis would address their congregations (the other occasion was Shabbat Shuva before Yom Kippur). Rabbis traditionally used their talk to deal with the intricacies of the Pesach dietary laws; it has been humorously suggested that the name “Shabbat Hagadol” – the great or big Shabbat – was connected with the length of the rabbi’s speech. The prophet Malachi – the author of today’s haftara – was similarly concerned with punctilious obedience to the law, sarcastically condemning those with lower standards: “When you present a blind animal for sacrifice – it doesn’t matter! When you present a lame or sick one – it doesn’t matter! … This is what you have done – will [God] accept any of you?” (1:8-9). Unlike the author of Tzav, Malachi had ethical concerns too (see 3:5), but his ultimate concern was for faithfulness to God, expressed through adherence to both ritual and ethical laws.

Were today not Shabbat Hagadol, we’d be reading a different haftara, from the book of Jeremiah, whose opening stands in stark contrast to the accompanying Torah portion:

“Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat! [Rashi explains this sarcastic injunction: as your burnt offerings are unacceptable to Me, why not use those animals for a sacrifice in which the meat is eaten following the ceremony; at least then the meat would not go to waste]. For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you” (7:21-23). While Tzav is all about ritual detail, Jeremiah condemns an exclusive concern for the letter of the law, insisting that sacrifice without obedience to the spirit of Torah is little short of blasphemous.

Tzav, it seems, does not reflect a monolithic Jewish voice which we must either accept or reject. Instead, the Bible consists of a dialogue between different voices and positions, one in which we are invited to participate. This diversity was celebrated by the seminal secular-cultural Jewish thinker, Ahad Ha’am, at the turn of the twentieth century. Ahad Ha’am condemned the tendency of Jews (the ‘people of the Book’) towards a myopic sanctification of the letter of the law. In “The Law of the Heart” (1894) he wrote: “The Oral Law (which is really the inner law, the law of the moral sense) was reduced to writing and fossilized … not conscience but the book became the arbiter in every human question.” He celebrated the prophets and the early rabbis as radicals who refused to submit to the authority of written texts or to allow the tradition to stagnate: “If on occasion the spontaneity of thought and emotion brought them into conflict with the written word, they did not efface themselves in obedience to its dictates; they revolted against it where it no longer met their needs, and so forced upon it a development in consonance with their new requirements.”

Posted on 23 March 2013

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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