Tetzaveh: “Once in a Year”
This week, once again, we have one of those situations where the parashah starts and ends in the middle of Christian chapters. Note that the Masoretic text does clearly mark Exod 30:10 with a פ as the end of a paragraph. But that’s not our subject this week. Instead, we’re going to look at one of the technical details involved in making the Tabernacle and everything that goes along with it.
The altar that’s described at the beginning of Exodus 30 is not the altar that you would use for animal sacrifice; this is the altar that’s inside the Tabernacle, for burning incense. There are some complicated instructions that go into making this altar: how it is to be overlaid with gold, that it should have poles to carry it, where exactly it should be located, and finally the kind of warning (in 30:9) that we are used to seeing on dangerous equipment:
- Do not put unauthorized incense on it!
- Do not put a burnt offering or grain offering on it!
- Do not pour a libation on it!
Now that we’ve been suitably warned, let’s turn to v. 10, the last verse of this paragraph and of the parashah:
Once a year, Aaron shall make atonement (כפר kipper) on its horns. With some of the blood of the atonement (כפרים kippurim) sin offering, once in a year, he shall make atonement (כפר kipper) on it, for all your generations. It is most holy to YHWH.
It seems strange to think of purifying things by applying blood to them, but in the temple ritual that’s how you do it. The animal blood somehow neutralizes the miasma of sin that has accumulated during the year.
What I want to look at is the phrase אַחַ֖ת בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה aḥat ba-shanah, literally “once in a year.” You might think this would be a common phrase in the Bible, but it isn’t. Biblical Hebrew has at least five different ways to say “annually”; we’ll hear another of them, b’khol shanah v’shanah, next week when we read the Megillah for Purim. You’ll find them all in the longer version of this column.
But today’s expression, “once in a year,” though it occurs twice in Exod 30:10, is found only once elsewhere in the Bible, and that is Lev 16:34:
This shall be an eternal law for you, to make atonement (כפר kipper) upon the Israelites from all their sins once in a year.
What is the once-a-year occasion on which the High Priest performs this ritual? You might well guess that it is Yom Kippur, then as now the most sacred day of the Jewish year, but although in traditional sources everyone understands Leviticus 16 to be talking about the Day of Atonement, the word kippurim (always plural in Biblical Hebrew) does not appear in that chapter. If you are looking for the Day of Atonement, yom ha-kippurim, you need to look in Leviticus 23, where vv. 27–28 tell us that the tenth day of the seventh month is the day of atonement, yom ha-kippurim, “for making atonement upon you before YHWH your God.”
Back in Exodus 30, we are inside the tent, where the incense, according to vv. 7–8, is burnt every morning and evening. Yet once a year a kippurim ritual is performed by putting blood on the horns of this altar where no animal sacrifice occurs and only incense is burnt.
Quick! Which date on the calendar is this ritual on the horns of the incense altar performed?
In the storyline of the Torah, we are still before the beginning of the Tabernacle ritual. The Tabernacle itself has yet to be built. It is just being described. Most importantly, strange as it sounds, the Jews don’t yet know anything about the Day of Atonement, Yom ha-Kippurim.
Did Aaron, and after him the succeeding High Priests, perform the cleansing, the kippurim of Exod 30:10 on the 10th day of the 7th month, on the day described in Leviticus 16, the day that we call the Day of Atonement? The Mishnah thinks so, detailing this ritual in M. Yoma 5:5 as part of the procedure performed on that day.
The mystery remains. Our text is not about the Day of Atonement but about the incense altar: how to make it, how to use it, and — oh, yes — a warning to make sure it is “cleansed” with blood once a year. Nonetheless:
- The unusual “once in a year” phrase occurs nowhere else but Leviticus 16.
- Two of the other 7 occurrences anywhere in the Bible of kippurim are in Leviticus 23, describing the Day of Atonement.
- The phrase kipper al (כפר על), ordinarily “to make atonement on behalf of,” as in Lev 16:34 and Lev 23:28, is only used twice in its literal sense, “to make atonement over” — in Exod 30:10 and Lev 16:10, over the goat that will be sent off to Azazel.
- Perhaps most mysterious of all, the entire Tabernacle description directs just one thing to be done annually, using any of the possible Hebrew ways of saying it: the purging of the golden incense altar inside the Tent.
I, for one, am still wondering why.