Torah Portion of the Week: God’s Will, God’s Rituals

Parashat Tzav.

'Abraham Called To Be a Blessing,' an illustration from a Bible card published 1906 by the Providence Lithograph Company.

It could be that we were never meant to read Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), which comprises a list of instructions addressed specifically to priests. The guidelines for the general public – regarding when certain offerings are to be presented – appeared in last week’s Torah reading, Vayikra. There God begins his comments to Moses by saying, “Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them” (Lev. 1:2). In this week’s portion, the opening words define a much narrower target audience: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus” (Lev. 6:1-2).

For each offering described in the general guidelines, a collection of internal directives is given, called “torah”: “the torah of the burnt offering” (Lev. 6:2), “the torah of the meal offering” (6:7), “the torah of the sin offering” (6:18), “the torah of the guilt offering” (7:1), “the torah of the sacrifice of well-being” (7:11). The latter part of Parashat Tzav is not addressed to the priests; rather, it talks about them, describing both their consecration and that of the sanctuary’s tools and furnishings.

These ritualistic instructions may have been stored in the Temple before they were incorporated into the story of Israel’s history, the sanctuary’s establishment and the transmission of the commandments. Whether or not this is the case, the inclusion of such directives in the narrative context serves important aspects of the Priestly theology.

First, the story clarifies that God is the source of the details concerning Temple worship; Priestly literature leaves no room for spontaneous ritual. This point will be dramatically illustrated in Parashat Shemini, where two of Aaron’s sons offer an “alien fire, which he [God] had not enjoined upon them” (Lev. 10:1), and then immediately die. Spontaneous ritual is not considered to be legitimate, either after the sanctuary’s erection or prior to it: Beforehand, nobody offered sacrifices to Israel’s God.

For comparison’s sake, let us recall another story about the creation of ritual that’s associated with another biblical tradition – the story of Cain and Abel, where the beginning of religious worship is the result of human initiative, not an order from God: “Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” (Genesis 4:3-4). The story does not go into detail regarding the altar’s composition, the vegetables and animals sacrificed, or the ritual procedures. Whereas the reason for Nadab and Abihu’s deaths is clearly explained – they performed a ritual that deviated from the precise instructions they had received – the question as to why God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and rejects Cain’s is not answered in the text and continues to fire commentators’ imaginations to this very day.

In the Priestly stories about Creation and about the patriarchs, an effort is made to show that, prior to the sanctuary’s establishment, no religious ceremonies were performed. In Noah’s story, two different versions are intertwined. In the non-Priestly one, God commands Noah to bring seven ritually pure animals for sacrificing after the flood; this commandment recalls pre-biblical versions of the flood story, where the survivor offers a sacrifice to the gods. In the Priestly version, however, Noah brings only two of each species and offers God no sacrifice.

The patriarchs also worship God in the non-Priestly stories. Abraham erects altars in various locations, including Hebron: “And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to the Lord” (Gen. 13:18). However, in the Priestly version, Hebron is not a holy place: As the location of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, it is ritually impure – not a place for divine revelation or divine worship, but a burial site purchased at full price.

The stories of the founding of holy places in Canaan during the patriarchs’ era played a role in establishing those places’ sacred nature. In contrast, the story of Cain and Abel has no realistic setting, transpiring in prehistoric times and in an undefined location. It does, however, teach us something about the intuition underlying sacrificial offerings – the voluntary initiative of an individual who wants to give something to God. Priestly literature does not support such an initiative: It presents not a personal religiosity that undergoes a process of institutionalization, but rather a religiosity that was institutionalized from the start, and whose source is divine commandment, not human need.

The concept that worship of God must be performed only in accordance with divine command – and the insistence that this has been the manner of its performance from the dawn of human and Israel’s history – augments the authority of the mediators. In fact, it is doubtful whether any religious rituals were ever performed without priests. In his article “The Priest, the Temple and Temple Worship,” Menahem Haran, an important scholar of biblical ritual, states that during the biblical era, divine worship was always performed by means of priests. Although non-Priestly accounts of pre-Temple rituals do not rule out the possibility – at least theoretically – of rituals being performed without priests – in this week’s reading, that option is unthinkable.

Even if we accept literally the instructions for rituals in Parashat Tzav, and the necessity of the priests’ participation in them, the issue of authority remains: Who granted the priests their function? Why them and not any other group? Later in the Priestly narrative Moses will grapple with open criticism surrounding these questions. Korah will declare: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Like Nadab and Abihu, Korah will forfeit his life after challenging the authority of those in charge of rituals.

To deal with criticism of authority, the Priestly narrative cites divine command as the basis for both the rituals themselves and the selection of those appointed to be in charge of them. On Mount Sinai, God commands Moses: “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests” (Exodus 28:1).

The appointment of the priests in this week’s Torah reading, which includes a complicated series of acts, opens with Moses’ brief declaration, which perhaps sums up the Priestly concepts discussed above: “Moses said to the community, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded to be done’” (Lev. 8:5).

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.