A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: TZAV (LEVITICUS 6:1-8:36)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


The primary theme of last week’s Torah parsha, Vayikra, pertained to the five diverse sacrifices which the Israelites presented at the Sanctuary. On the surface, this week’s parsha, Tzav, appears to be merely an extension of Vayikra, differentiated solely by the focus shifting to the kohanim, who were the recipients of the various offerings.

However, in-depth research suggests that the two parshiot are quite unique, primarily due to the infusion of dissimilar (and often contradictory) interpretations, expressed by our most highly esteemed sages, Talmudists, and Prophets.

The parsha begins with the Lord telling Moses: “The Kohen shall don his linen tunic and linen trousers; he shall lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offerings upon the altar, and place them next to the altar”(1). The explanation provided to explain the significance of this menial task is that it is a metaphor for “putting aside the past, in order to move forward” (2). Shortly after reading this directive, we also learn that “a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar”(3). Based on the Talmud, “this flame shall take the shape of a lion, and blaze as brilliantly as the sun”(4).

The first offering mentioned in both parshiot is the ‘Olah’, which was wholly burnt, with nothing left for the officiant to eat. Rashi explains that the Torah uses the emphatic expression, Tzav (‘command’), to warn the Kohanim not to expect any compensation for the ‘monetary’ loss.  Rashi’s comment is clarified in the Midrash: “The kohanim’s livelihood was based on receiving a portion of the sacrifices”(5).

One of the most difficult elements of the Torah is the phenomenon of animal sacrifices. Although this practice ended over 2,000 years ago(6), virtually all of our sages and Prophets considered these ceremonies as antithetical to the essential tenets of Judaism.

Maimonides asserted that the sacrifices “are a distant means to achieve the exalted sanctity and closeness to God”(7). Abranel believed that the sacrifices were “an antidote to the Israelites’ tendency to rebel against God”(8); and the Prophet Jeremiah wrote: “Does God take as great delight in burnt offerings, as in obeying Him?”(9). Similar expressions can be found in the writings of the Prophet Micah, and the Talmudist, Radak(10).

To obviate any blemish of animal sacrifices, our sages quickly and smoothly constructed substitutes in prayer: Torah study, days of atonement, holy rituals and charity.


Parsha Tzav ends with a prolonged and somewhat bizarre purification process which Moses performed on the Kohen Gadol and each of the Kohanim. Subsequent to this spiritual cleansing, the Kohanim were told to mourn for seven days, for shortly they would be losing beloved members of their family (a reference to the imminent and inexplicable deaths of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu)(11).



(1) LEVITICUS (6:3)

(2) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Frankfurt, Germany

(3) LEVITICUS (6:6)

(4) Mishken Torah: (Yoma 21 b)

(5) Sifra Torah Kohanim (1:1)

(6) Judaism 101: “Kohanim: Sacrifices and Offerings”

(7) “Virtual Brit Midrash”

(8) Issac ben Judah Arbanel (1437-1508), Lisbon, Portugal

(9) Canfei Nesharim , Jeremiah (15:22)

(10) ibid.

(11) JTF.org