Tzav: A Command Performance
Last week, we got stuck on the first word of the reading, ויקרא vayikra ‘and he called’. This week we’ll spend our time on the first significant word, the word that gives this week’s reading its name: צו tzav.
Tzav means “command,” an imperative from צוה tz-v-h, the same root that gives us the word mitzvah. The mitzvot are the commandments. Why must Moses command Aaron and his sons all the rules for the burnt offering?
It’s not that God never says this to Moses elsewhere; every once in a while, he does. There is even another reading whose name comes from this verb, Tetzaveh:
You shall command [תְּצַוֶּ֣ה tetzaveh] the Israelites that they get you oil of pure, crushed olives for the light, to keep a lamp constantly going.
But what’s the reason for it? Why not say, as the Torah does so often, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and say to them”? Is God worried that Aaron will think of these rules not as a commandment but just a serving suggestion? What’s the difference between commanding someone to do something and just telling them to do it?
Here at the beginning of Leviticus 6, the “command” is about “the instructions [תורת torat] for the burnt offering” — how you are to slaughter an animal and burn it on the altar as an offering to God. For comparison’s sake, let’s move along to v. 17, where Moses is told to speak (דבר dabber) to Aaron and his sons to give them the instructions for the sin offering. Why command the instructions for the one but just tell them the instructions for the other?
“Command” is used to give an instruction that must be followed with alacrity, both immediately and in succeeding generations. R. Simeon says, “The text must especially command us to act with alacrity in a matter that involves taking money out of one’s pocket.
But Nahmanides thinks Rashi has misunderstood the rabbinic text that he was reading:
The book of Leviticus begins with “Speak to the Israelite people” (1:2) because that section describes the bringing of the offerings, and the offerings are brought by all of the Israelites. Now, however, Moses is told to “command Aaron,” because this section describes how the offerings are to be made, which is the job of the priests. The comment of R. Simeon mentioned by Rashi is therefore not pertinent, since the priests who are commanded here make no expenditure themselves; in fact, they profit by making the offerings. R. Simeon is actually arguing with the first comment provided by Rashi, which says that “command” refers specifically to commandments that go into effect immediately and also pertain to future generations, while other commandments are introduced simply by saying “Speak to the Israelite people” or “Say to them.” R. Simeon’s point is that “command” actually is sometimes used with commandments of limited applicability: when they involve expenditure—e.g., for oil for the lampstand (Exod. 27:20) or for towns for the Levites to settle in (Num. 35:2). It might be that R. Simeon’s comment is understood to apply here, since v. 13 does speak of an offering to be brought by “Aaron and his sons.” But in the Sifra [the Tannaitic midrash on Leviticus], where both comments originate, R. Simeon is (as I said) arguing with the first comment, not supplementing it as Rashi makes him seem to do.
The Sifra itself justifies the use of “command” here but doesn’t really explain why it’s here and not elsewhere.
Turning to the moderns for some enlightenment, I have the wonderful Anchor Bible commentary by Jacob Milgrom, who spent his entire life studying Leviticus and the priestly system of the Bible. When you get tired of reading this commentary, you can use it to exercise with: three volumes and a total of 2,714 pages, but he just didn’t address this question.
The reason I’m pushing on this so insistently is we would all like the words in the Torah to be significant. You don’t have to think that every single letter in the Torah is of mystical significance — omnisignificance, James Kugel calls it — to want there to be a reason for these instructions to be “commanded” rather than merely “said” or “spoken.”
My friend Zev Farber, on thetorah.com, points out something from Milgrom’s introduction that was anticipated by the 19th-c. rabbi and Bible scholar David Zvi Hoffmann. Leviticus 6–7 cover the same ground as Leviticus 1–5, but from a different perspective. As you remember, this was also anticipated seven centuries earlier, by Nahmanides:
The book of Leviticus begins with “Speak to the Israelite people” (1:2) because that section describes the bringing of the offerings, and the offerings are brought by all of the Israelites. Now, however, Moses is told to “command Aaron,” because this section describes how the offerings are to be made, which is the job of the priests.
It’s not impossible to imagine that “command” is not merely Moses’s way of interacting differently with the people and with the priests, but a way to focus readers of the Torah on the repetition of and the distinction between these two sections of Leviticus. And that’s an explanation that works for both modern and traditional perspectives on the text. It also explains why the next set of instructions, the torah of the sin offering, is “spoken” rather than “commanded.”
Will it work the next time we find an instruction being commanded rather than merely spoken? Let’s keep reading and find out.
Back in two weeks after Passover — until then, חג שמח!