In this week’s Torah portion, the special laws relating to the priests who serve in the sanctuary are presented in detail. These include laws the high priest must strictly observe, such as those pertaining to ritual impurity and the types of marriage that are prohibited. However, the list contains nothing that attests to the high priest’s spiritual role.
Something can be learned − at least indirectly − about that role in a story appearing in the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Pesachim (pg. 57A). The tale concerns the evil deeds of one high priest, Issachar, from the village of Barkai: “Our rabbis have learned the following: The Temple’s external courtyard screamed out on four occasions ... [One of those screams was:] ‘Leave these premises immediately, Issachar from Barkai, who honor yourself but desecrate heaven’s holy place’ − because he would wrap his hands with silk cloth when engaged in his work in the Temple in Jerusalem.”
This braitah (an “external” mishnah not included in the edition compiled by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi) explains the nature of the screams emitted by the Temple’s external courtyard. One of them was the cry that the high priest, Issachar from Barkai, must be banished because he wraps his hands with silk cloth so as not to dirty them with the blood of the animals sacrificed there. The courtyard’s ostensible complaint is that, whereas Issachar honors himself, he is desecrating a holy place. The silk that keeps Issachar’s hands from directly touching the animal sacrifice is intended to protect them and also, metaphorically, to isolate the subject (Issachar) from the object (the sacrifice).
Up to this point, what is presented is a simple story of a high priest who sins because he allows his pride to impair the work of conducting sacrifices in the Temple. However, the Talmud’s Tractate Pesachim goes on to present yet a second anecdote about Issachar, one that places him in a political context: “What happened to him, to Issachar from the village of Barkai? The rabbis replied: The king and queen were seated on their thrones. The king said, ‘the goat is a better animal [for sacrifice in the Temple].’ While the queen said, ‘the sheep is a better animal.’ They asked, ‘Who should decide which animal is better?’ − and then immediately replied: ‘The high priest, because he sacrifices animals all day long.’
“Issachar from the village of Barkai was summoned. He appeared before the king and queen, and, gesturing with his hand, stated: ‘If the goat were better, it would be offered as a korban hatamid [that is, the regular daily sacrifice].’ The king replied: ‘Since he shows no respect for the throne, his right hand must be cut off.’ The high priest paid a bribe and his left hand, instead of his right, was cut off. The king heard about this and ordered that his right hand be cut off as well.”
This tale opens with a rather grotesque scene, where the king and queen sit on their thrones and debate which animal is more worthy: a goat or a sheep. To settle the argument, they summon the high priest, whose daily job entails the slaughtering and consumption of both kinds of animals. Issachar is called by the monarchs not because of his religious authority, but rather because of his professional experience. When he is presented with the question, he responds by making a gesture with his hand. While the Talmud does not specify the nature of this gesture, Rashi, in his commentary, interprets it as “making a mocking
gesture with his hand.”
Why does Issachar make such a mocking gesture? Because, for the regular sacrifice that is offered twice a day in the Temple, a sheep is used. If a goat were preferable to a sheep, says Issachar to the king and queen, it would be used for that daily sacrifice. Thus, the high priest is in effect saying the queen is right and the king is wrong. The king is infuriated by the response of Issaschar, who, in the ruler’s opinion, shows no respect for the throne, both in his answer and gesture. Apparently, Issachar’s main mistake is that he does not back the king in this dispute. As punishment for his audacity, the king orders the amputation of Issachar’s right hand, and after the high priest tries to avoid the punishment with a bribe, he orders the other hand to be cut off as well.
This second tale could be read as an example of martyrdom − as sanctification of God’s name. The king asks the high priest a question and, although, from a political standpoint, Issachar’s answer should have supported the king’s position, the high priest expresses loyalty to the Torah’s view. His response challenges the king’s position and thus he loses both his hands.
However, the above reference to how the Temple’s external courtyard objects to Issachar’s use of the silk fabric creates an ironic context, according to which the meaning of the second tale is reversed: The political question he is asked related to the argument between the king and queen is really a question that relates to their conjugal relationship.
Choosing to ignore that political question, Issachar decides to rely on his area of professional expertise − the regular daily sacrifice − as if this is his natural habitat. Indeed, the monarchs had summoned him precisely because they wanted an answer based on that professional experience. However, in falling back on a professional assessment as if this is the most natural thing to do, he is acting deceitfully, because he does not really feel at home when working in the Temple. The anecdote about the courtyard’s complaint proves that he does not identify with that work, but rather is concerned solely with his own dignity − while desecrating a holy place. Issaschar does not allow his hands to become soiled by the blood of sacrificed animals, just as he does not allow himself to be “soiled” by an attempt to solve the marital problems of the king and queen.
In this respect, the second tale becomes an allegory for the first one. The high priest’s attitude toward the king can be seen as identical to his attitude toward the King of the Universe. Just as Issachar shows no respect for a flesh-and-blood king, he shows no respect for his Creator.
When the high priest answers the question, he does so in a frivolous manner, without pausing to consider the deeper issues lurking behind it: What is the nature of the relationship between the king and queen? What does the dispute between them say about the tensions in their marriage? What will happen if one or the other of them wins the argument? In the asking of this question, everything is important but the literal question itself.
The high priest has been asked a political question that, like all such questions, conceals profound residue from the past and broader issues. But Issachar should have supplied a more political response, incorporating other aspects of the question posed, to provide a proper answer to the king’s query.
The king is furious with the disrespectful behavior of the high priest and with the fact that the latter does not understand his political role − namely, as mediator between the king and queen. This is essentially the same complaint uttered by the Temple’s external courtyard: Issachar offers the sacrifices according to protocol, but does not display the deeper emotional commitment incumbent upon the high priest.
The grotesque image of the king and queen seated on their thrones and debating the relative worthiness of animals for sacrifices in the Temple is an allegorical image of the system of sacrifices in the Temple. Essentially, the high priest’s role is to serve as a mediator between God and the Children of Israel, and between the king and queen. In this context, the offering of sacrifices is of a purely political significance and must be carried out with an understanding of the emotional process that accompanies this act.
At first glance, the details of the laws governing the offering of sacrifices might appear to be ridiculous, and indeed that is the way they are seen by Issachar. But a complex and intimate relationship is reflected in these details: The high priest is supposed to understand that there is a special, close and profound bond between God and his nation, and he must grasp the minute details of the system of sacrifices so as to nurture that bond.
But Issachar does not understand that relationship. He betrays the trust that has been placed in him to carry out his position faithfully, as a mediator and buffer between the Jewish people and God, and between the queen and king. He thinks the question he is asked concerns which animal is preferable for sacrifice − a goat or a sheep − and does not realize that it is really about achieving a reconciliation between warring parties. The result is
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