Between Terumah and Tetzaveh

The opening two verses of Parashat Tetzaveh are somewhat perplexing:

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.” (Shemot 27:20-21).

Looking at their content, they aren’t that unusual. But looking at their placement in the context of the surrounding verses, a few questions arise:

  1. The section opens with the request for the Israelites to bring oil for lighting. But that same request was made earlier in Parashat Terumah: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts […] oil for lighting…” (Shemot 25:2,6)
  2. We read here about who should light the lamps. But a similar instruction (without indicating who) is found in Parashat Terumah as well, when describing the menorah: “And you shall make its seven lamps: and they shall light its lamps, that they may give light over against it.” (Shemot 25:37)
  3. In the second verse of Tetzaveh, it says that Aharon and his sons are in charge of lighting the lamps. However, we only read in the subsequent verses the commandment to appoint Aharon and his sons as the priests: “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests” (Shemot 28:1). Why mention their tasks before describing their appointment?

To summarize the above points, it seems that on the one hand these verses really belong earlier, in Parashat Terumah. On the other hand, it would make sense to have them later, further along in Parashat Tetzaveh. What is happening here?

I think that these two verses should be viewed as a sort of bridge – a transition between the descriptions of the objects of the mishkan found in Parashat Terumah, and the descriptions of the actions done in the mishkan found in Parashat Tetzaveh. In principle, they belong to both parshiyot. But of course, they can only belong to one parasha.

A strong argument could be made to have them be the final verses of Parashat Terumah. They would serve as bookends, in an almost chiastic structure – Terumah would both begin and end with the Israelites being commanded to bring materials required for the mishkan. And then, with the next parasha beginning with the appointment of the Kohanim, it wouldn’t seem quite so strange that Aharon and his sons were already given a task in the previous parasha.

And in fact, this seems to be the decision of Stephen Langton, the English cleric who in the 13th century came up with the chapter divisions used today. He ends chapter 27 with the verses regarding the oil and the lamps, and a new chapter (28) begins with the appointment of the priests.

So why then, did the Jewish sages begin Parashat Tetzaveh where they did?

I think the reason was to make a clear division between the protagonists in each parasha. Parashat Terumah begins with God speaking to Moshe, and the mishkan itself is described as a place where God can speak to him: “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you […] all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Shemot 25:22)

Parashat Tetzaveh, on the other hand, is famous for being the only parasha in the Torah (outside of the book of Bereshit) that doesn’t feature Moshe. Rather, this is the parasha of Aharon and his sons – the priests.

Moshe and Aharon each represent important, but separate, authorities. Moshe was the prophet and the law giver. Aharon was the High Priest. The nation had a different relationship with each. Throughout Jewish history, there have been problems when the line between sage and priest was blurred. Therefore, it was important that each received its own parasha, where the significance of each could be taught with clarity.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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