Israel Drazin

Thoughts on the biblical portion Tetzaveh, priests, and superstition

The weekly portion of Tetzaveh begins and ends in the middle of chapters, showing once again that the rabbinic division of the Torah defers from the division of chapters that originated by Christians. We read about the oil for the Tabernacle lamp maintained by Aaron and his sons, who were appointed as priests in the Tabernacle. This lamp became a symbol of the perpetual light of Judaism, more important than the Star of David. This is followed by a discussion of the priest’s clothing when serving in the Tabernacle. The garments reminded the priests and the community that the priestly religious services should be loftier than the behavior of the ordinary Israelite. This was done to impress the people and educate them. The impressive consecration ceremony of the priests is described. The portion concludes with a summary of the daily sacrifices and the building of an altar upon which Incense was burnt, unlike the animal sacrifices that were offered on a second altar. As we have seen in the past, the portion raises many questions which should prompt us to think, not critique, but learn from, including superstitions.

  • The word “priest” comes from Latin, which was derived from the Greek “presbyter,” the original form of “priest,” which means “elder” According to Jewish tradition, before Aaron and his sons were installed as priests, the eldest son of each family had this function. Tradition states that this right was taken from the firstborns because so many of them worshipped the Golden Calf. Is this reasonable? Why are future firstborns punished because some of their ancestors misbehaved?
  • When Isaac’s son Esau sold the firstborn’s birthright to his brother Jacob, the Bible commentator Rashi reflects this idea. He states in his commentary on Genesis 25:31-34 that Esau also sold his right to the priesthood. Esau held it until he gave it to Jacob because priesthood belonged to the firstborn. Rashi states that Jacob felt he was doing the right thing because his brother was a wicked person who was unfit to offer sacrifices to God. Despite what many think, there is no indication in the Torah that Esau was evil. His father, the patriarch Isaac, loved him more than he loved Jacob. Similarly, while many people think that Abraham’s son Ishmael was wicked, there is no indication of this in the Torah. Abraham loved him. When his wife requested that Abraham exile Ishmael from their home, Abraham was reluctant. He only did so because God suggested doing what his wife desired.
  • Although the priesthood was taken from the firstborns and given to Moses’ brother and his male children in Exodus 28:1-2 and 29: 4-5, all Jews are required by Exodus 19:6 to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  How does the priesthood of all Jews differ from the priesthood of Aaron’s family?
  • A priest is a person who is authorized to perform certain religious practices as a mediator. Do we need a mediator? Shouldn’t we have a direct relationship with God and only use priests and rabbis for some guidance because they spent time that we did not studying how we should behave? Isn’t this the meaning of all Jews being priests?
  • In Orthodox and Conservative Judaism and Catholicism, only males can be priests. A Jewish priest has no special powers. His function is to inspire Jews to observe what God requires of them. His role is, in this respect, similar to that of a rabbi.
  • The Hebrew name for “priest” is The plural is kohanim. The word is most likely derived from a Semitic term. In ancient Phoenicia, priests were called khn. Should it bother us that the Torah incorporated a word used for idol worship and applied it to a Jewish practice? Scholars point out the similarity of much of the Tabernacle and later Temples to the temples for idol worship. Should Jewish houses of prayer be much different from those of other religions?
  • Since the time of Moses and for centuries later, the kohanim functioned in the mishkan, which means “dwelling place.” It was a tent that inspired the Israelites to think that God dwelt among them metaphorically. The Tabernacle tent of Ugarit for their god El was also called
  • Almost 400 verses discuss the Israelite mishkan and its furnishings, while only 70 verses are devoted to Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 6 and 7, which was twice as large as the Tabernacle. Why?
  • When the Israelites left the desert and settled in Israel, the ohel moed, another name for the Tabernacle, meaning “Tent of Meeting,” was placed in Shiloh, where it remained during the pre-monarchal period for what tradition states were 369 years.
  • In Modern Hebrew, Christian priests are called  Catholics refer to their priests as “fathers” for many reasons. It recalls the origin of the terms priest and presbyter, which meant “elder, it is a sign of respect and filial affection, and because the priest, like a father, is the spiritual guide and leader in their lives. Jews do not feel that priests are like their fathers, nor are rabbis.
  • Special rules of behavior were established for Jewish priests. The rules are designed to impress Jews. A priest, for example, may not enter a cemetery or deal with the dead. This should remind Jews that the Torah wants to create a better life for individuals and society. A kohen may not marry a divorcee, a prostitute, or a dishonored woman (Leviticus 21:7). A kohen who enters such a marriage loses the entitlements of his priestly status while in that marriage.
  • The Israeli rabbinate will not perform a marriage that Jewish law forbids to a kohen, although a foreign marriage would be recognized.
  • Kohanim deliver the priestly blessing in synagogues today during the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei The blessing in Hebrew is called Nesiat Kapayim, “Lifting Hands.” It is found in Numbers 6:23-27. The priests stand in the front of the congregation and face the men with their arms held outwards and their hands and fingers in a traditional formation, with a Jewish prayer shawl, called tallit, covering their heads and outstretched hands so that their fingers cannot be seen.
  • In the traditional form of the hands, the thumbs of the two hands touch each other, and two each of the remaining four fingers are joined. This creates four spaces corresponding to the four letters in Y- h- v- h. The hands are covered to show respect to God. However, many think God appears during the blessing, and the fingers are covered because one should not look at God. Many congregants cover themselves and their sons with a tallit as an additional safeguard. Rational thinking Jews consider the congregational covering superstition and do not do so. They even jokingly wonder if the covering by congregants stops the priestly blessing from penetrating them. There is also the superstition not to look at the priests during the blessing, which rational thinkers ignore.
  • Some grooms cover their brides at weddings with their tallit similarly when the prayers are recited at the wedding ceremony.
  • All priests, including the high priest, worked barefoot in the Temple. Each had to immerse himself in the ritual bath before dressing and washing his hands and feet before performing any sacred act.
  • The Nesiat Kapayim practice in synagogues today is designed to recall the temple practice because we learn much by remembering how Jews acted in the past. Therefore, before the kohanim go to the front of the synagogue, Levites wash their hands, and the kohanim practice barefoot.
  • Similarly, eating meals at our homes have behaviors reminding us of the priestly temple service. We wash our hands before eating bread and cover over the knife we use to cut the bread before we use it, recalling the command that no weapons were used in the temple.
  • Nesiat Kapayim varies in different localities. The blessing is done daily in Israel and many Sephardic congregations outside Israel. Ashkenazi Jews living outside Israel say it only on Jewish holidays.
  • When the priests functioned in the ancient Tabernacle and Temples, they wore special garments to impress the people. The high priest, called Kohen Gadol, wore eight garments. Four were of the same worn by all priests.
  • Clothing for all priests were (1) linen pants that reached from the waist to the knees, (2) a linen tunic that covered the body from the neck to the feet, with sleeves reaching to the wrists, (3) a sash, and (4) a turban.
  • The high priest also wore (5) a sleeveless, blue robe, the lower hem of which was fringed with small golden bells, (6) a richly embroidered vest with two engraved gemstones on the shoulders, on which were engraved the names of the tribes of Israel, (7) a breastplate with twelve gems, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes; a pouch in which he probably carried the Urim and Tummim. (8) A golden plate was on his turban with the words: “Holiness to Y-h-v-h.
  • Leviticus 16:4 states that the high priest wore a second set of white linen garments on the Day of Atonements (Yom Kippurim).
  • Yom Kippurim, meaning Day of Atonements (plural), when the high priest atoned for several things in the Temple, was discontinued when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement (singular), replaced it, during which all Jews prayed for the atonement of their past mistakes.
  • According to the Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 17, the priests were only permitted to work in the Tabernacle and Temples when they wore priestly garments.
  • The Torah states in 28:2 that the priestly clothing is “for splendor and beauty.” Nachmanides (Ramban) explains that it does so in many ways, including mimicking royal apparel, bringing honor to God who is being served in splendor, to Jews who delight in what they see, and to the general Tabernacle and Temple services.
  • What do we think when we see that the priests wore splendid clothes but remember the saying “clothes do not make a man?”
  • Why do rabbis and kohanim not dress in splendor today? Why doesn’t the president of the US dress in distinctive splendor? Is this another example of a practice necessary for Jews in ancient times, such as sacrifices, because they saw other cultures doing so and felt it was right? But it is not fit for the democratic ideas today when people think or should think that we are all equal.
  • The kohanim were compensated for their service in the Temple by giving them twenty-four gifts. One of these gifts still given today is the five coins parents give to a kohen during the pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn ceremony.
  • Why was the priesthood given to Moses’ brother? Shouldn’t Moses have been made the high priest? In later Jewish history, the Hasmonean family ruled Judea as kings and high priests.
  • The final command in Tetzaveh, in 30:1-10, is to build a second altar where only incense was burnt. Non-Israelite countries also had incense altars. Why offer God incense? Is it the Israelites and not God who benefit from the smell? How? Should it bother Jews that non-Jews also had an incense altar?
  • Both the incense altar and the one upon which animals were sacrificed have horns on the four corners of the altars. A horn symbolizes power in the Bible in Psalms 18, 75, 148, Amos 3:14, and elsewhere. Its placement on the altars signified God’s ability to protect Israel.
  • Symbols, as we saw in the past, can have opposite meanings. Placing horns on a husband symbolizes that he has been cuckolded, as in the humorous play by the Frenchman Moliere in his 1662 play “The School for Wives.” The fool Arnolphe raised a female from childhood and gives her no education believing doing so would protect him when he marries her from having another man seduce her. Is there a connection between “power” and being “cuckolded”? Isn’t the horns on the cuckold a sign that he lost power?
  • Remarkably, Moses’ name is not mentioned in Tetzaveh. Why? One answer in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b is that Moses pleaded to God to forgive the Israelites for worshiping the golden calf. Moses added, “If not, erase me from the book You wrote.” According to this midrashic tale, God forgave the Israelites but removed Moses’ name from the portion of Tetzaveh. Does this tale make sense? Looking at it as a parable, what is the moral of this tale?
  • Why didn’t the rabbis say simply that this portion deals with the priests and Moses wasn’t a priest? That is why he isn’t mentioned.
  • Actually, this question implying that God did not place Moses’ name in Tetzaveh is an unenlightened question. We know that God did not create the division of the portions. The rabbis did it. At first, there were two types of division. In Israel, the portions were divided so that Jews could complete reading and studying the parts in three years. In Babylon, the rabbis divided the Torah into portions that could be finished in a year. Jews finally agreed to accept the method of the Babylonian rabbis. I am sure that the Talmudic rabbis knew this, and as I said previously, the story is a parable.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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