Readings for Saturday, April 4, 2020
The Shabbat preceding Pesach is called Shabbat Ha-Gadol or the Great Sabbath. There are several possible reasons why this particular Shabbat is so named. First is its proximity to Pesach. Second, according to Shemot, this would have been the time during which the Israelites were selecting the lambs that would be part of the first Pesach observance. Third, in the special Haftarah (Malachi 3:3-24) that is read on Shabbat Ha-Gadol reference is made to that “great day” when the prophet Elijah will re-appear. According to tradition, Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the Messiah. We find this theme repeated at the Seder with the Cup of Elijah and the singing of Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) when we open the door in anticipation of his appearance. There is no special Torah reading for Shabbat Ha-Gadol. In earlier times, it was customary for the Rabbis to devote their sermons on Shabbat Ha-Gadol to the rules of Pesach to ensure proper observance of this major festival.
6:1-8:36 Vayikra (Leviticus)
Tzav is the second sedrah in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word of the second sentence in the reading. “Command (Tzav) Aaron and his sons saying…” As the Stone Chumash points out, up until now “commandments regarding the offerings were introduced with ‘say’ or ‘speak’” since the entire nation was being addressed. Here the Torah uses the word “command” in terms of the sacrifices because God is addressing the Kohanim directly and instructing them in the duties that they must carry out with zeal. Tzav is a highly repetitious portion since the first part of the sedrah deals with the sacrifices already described in last week’s sedrah, Vayikra. One of the major differences has to do with order in which the sacrifices are presented. According to Etz Hayim, the sacrifices in Vayikra move from voluntary to involuntary while In Tzav; the sacrifices are listed in order of their holiness. The second part of Tzav deals with ordination or consecration of the Kohanim.
Olah or Burnt Offering (6:1-6)
Minhah or Grain Offering (6:7-11)
Chatat or Sin Offering (6:17-23)
Asham or Guilt Offering (7:1-10)
Zevach Sh’lamim or Offering of Well-Being (7:11-34)
Tzav amplifies the information offered in Vayikra about this sacrifice. Tzav specifically mentions two different types of, and reasons for, offering the Zevach Sh’lamim. One was a “Todah” or Thanksgiving Offering (7:10). The other could be a “Nedavah” or Freewill Offering (7:16). Apparently included in the second group was the “Neder”, a sacrifice brought upon fulfillment of a vow. The Hebrew word Neder means vow.
Ordination or Consecration of the Kohanim (8:1-36)
If you think you have read this already, you are right. In chapter 29 of Shemot (Exodus), God tells Moshe how to conduct the service of consecration. In Tzav, the ordination process actually takes place. The consecration takes seven days. The next sedrah will pick up with the eighth day.
131. The obligation to remove from the altar the ashes of offerings (6:3-4).
132-133. The requirement to kindle a “perpetual” fire on the altar and never let it go out (6:5-6).
134-135. The commandment that priests are to eat the remnants of meal offerings but not cook them so they become leavened (6:9-10).
136. The Specification of the daily meal offerings brought by the High Priest - beginning when he is anointed (6:13).
137. The requirement that the priest’s meal offering should not be eaten (6:16).
138. The specification of how priests are to offer the Chatat or Sin Offering (6:18).
139. The prohibition against eating the offering if any of the animal’s blood has been brought into the Tent of the Meeting (6:23).
140. The specification of the Asham or Guilt Offering (7:16).
141. The specification of the Shalmim or Peace Offering (7:11-14).
142. The specification against leaving overnight any remains of a Todah or Thanksgiving Offering (7:15).
143. The requirement to burn remnants of sacrifices on the third day after they are offered (7:17).
144. That a sacrifice becomes invalidated because of failure to obey the relevant regulations (7:18).
145-146. The prohibition against eating the meat of a defiled offering and the requirement to burn such meat (7:19).
147. The prohibition against eating Helev, or Forbidden Animal Fat (7:23).
148. The prohibition against consuming an animal’s blood (7:26).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Some of the Laws of Kashrut (keeping Kosher) have to do with dishes and how to purify them. In reading 6:21, we see some of the Torah underpinnings for the rulings about kitchenware made of different materials.
In the days of the Temple it was customary to bring offerings of Thanksgiving for the joys of life. With the demise of the Temple, the custom was established of giving a person an aliyah (calling them up to the Torah) to celebrate moments of deliverance or joy. The Gomel or Thanksgiving Blessing is recited at the end of the reading. While Psalm 107 lists four specific reasons for reciting Gomel, the most common one today is recovery from a major illness or successful surgery. Additional moments of joy could include a groom being called up on the Shabbat before the wedding or a father being called up after the birth of a child. In this last example a special prayer is said for the well-being of the mother. This is just one more example of how our religious practices are rooted in the Temple service of old. According to some sages, once the Moshiach has come, all of the sacrifices will disappear except the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving. The other sacrifices have to do with our shortcomings, which will no longer exist in the Messianic Era. But even after the coming of the Moshiach we will still be thankful for enjoying the blessings of the Lord.
The Kohanim only wore their special garb while performing their duties in the Tabernacle (6:3). When away from the Tabernacle, such as when they carried out the ashes (6:4), the Kohanim put on ordinary clothing. In keeping with the spirit of these references to dress, a tradition of wearing one’s finest garments on Shabbat and Holiday developed in many communities. So well-known was this custom that in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, spies would report to the authorities any time they saw Marranos dressed up on days corresponding to Jewish holidays. This was considered a sure sign that their conversion to Christianity was less than sincere.
The Ordination of the Kohanim
Why did God have Moshe dab blood on the ridge of Aaron’s ear, the thumb of his right hand and the big toe of his right foot? Nobody knows what this particular ritual meant to our ancient forefathers. However, the sages have provided us with some interpretations that might be meaningful to us in our daily lives. According to some, the three parts of the body mentioned are “an abbreviated code” for the entire person. To serve God, we must serve him with the entirety of our personage. Blood is a symbol of ritual transition. In the Brit Milah, the drop of blood is a symbol of transition into the Covenant that God made with Abraham. At Pesach, the blood on the doorposts marks the transition from death (for the Egyptian) to life for the Israelites or the transition from slavery to freedom. Here the blood marks the passage of Aaron and his sons from being private individuals to being the Kohanim, the public officials responsible for the ritual well-being of the Israelites. Others have said that the ear reminds us to always listen to God, the thumb (being part of the hand) reminds us to always reach out to God and the toe (being part of the foot) reminds us to move quickly to carry out the will of God.
The Torah repeatedly commands us not consume blood. So why are we commanded to put blood on the altar of atonement? The Israelites were commanded not to consume blood because the pagans consumed it as part of their sacrifices. Also, animals drink blood. The commandments are intended, in part, to differentiate us from the pagans and to help us control our animal soul. At the same time, blood is the life force. That which is prohibited to man, is not prohibited to the Lord. “The holiness of the blood is demonstrated by putting it on the altar as something only for God and not for humans.”
The Five Senses
The sacrifices appealed to all five of our senses. Since we can no longer offer sacrifices we have customs and ceremonies to engage all five of our senses:
Sound - The chanting of our prayers and the blowing of the shofar;
Sight - The public display of the Torah and its ornaments;
Smell - The spices of the Havdalah Ceremony;
Taste - Matzah and Bitter Herbs; and
Touch - The Lulav.
In Place of Sacrifices
Since the Temple has been destroyed, we cannot offer sacrifices. The Sages looked to the TaNaCh to find substitutes. We have already seen that in the words of Hosea, “Let the offerings of our lips and tongue replace the animal sacrifices of the Temple” they found the justification for prayer standing in the place of the sacrifices. Verses in Tzav provided further evidence for this transition. “In the Talmud Rabbi Isaac asked, ‘Why does it say This is the law of the sin-offering, (Vayikra ) this is the law of the guilt-offering? (Vayikra 7:1).’ To teach us that when one studies the law of the sin offering, it is considered as though he had actually brought it on the Altar, and when one studies the law of the guilt-offering, it as though he actually brought it on the altar.’ Rather than merely recite these portions, study them and attempt to learn about the laws and significance of the various sacrifices.” Furthermore, in the opening words of this week’s sedrah, they found the justification for having the study of Torah stand in the place of the sacrifices. “Tzav Ah-haron.zoat torat ha-olah.” “Command Aaron…This is the law (torat) of the burnt offering.” The Rabbis seized on the word torat, a form of the word torah and concluded: “In our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings.”
The Permanent Fire
The Kohanim were commanded to keep a “permanent fire aflame on the Altar” (6:5-6). There are those who contend that the Sanctuary (be it the Mishkan or the Temple in Jerusalem) has its spiritual counterpart within the personage of each Jew. And the heart of the Jew corresponds to the Altar. Just as the Kohanim were to keep a permanent fire burning on the altar by tending to it and feeding it wood, so we are to keep the permanent fire burning in our hearts by studying Torah and publicly manifesting our faith. Sometimes the flame of the fire may burn low. Sometimes our attachment to our faith reaches a low ebb, but the spark is always there in the heart of the Jew waiting to be nourished so that it may roar again with the light and the warmth of God and his mitzvoth.
“Steak and Sacrifices” by W. Gunther Plaut
(The following comes from the pen of one of the leading rabbis of the Reform Movement. You might be a little surprised by what he has to say about animal sacrifices.)
“Being civilized, modern people, we are likely to shudder at the idea of slicing up animals to express our devotion to God. Of course, we see nothing wrong with a good steak for dinner, unless perhaps the cardiologist advises against it. But we leave the killing of animals to others and are not inclined to improve our children’s education or our own by visiting a slaughterhouse. Yet whole chapters in the Torah are devoted to animal sacrifices; the part of Tzav consists of little else. What are we to make of instructions elaborating how the animal is to be slaughtered who may eat of it, what disposition shall be made of the fat, and who shall keep the skin? Or of the rule that the elders of the community will expiate an unwitting error made by the people through laying their hands on a bull and slaughtering it? The whole notion that the merciful Creator demands the killing of innocent creatures as a sign of human obeisance seems at first glance to be an obvious contradiction. Yet we would do well to look a little further. First, we should consider the times and circumstances to which this legislation addressed itself. The Israelites in the Promised Land were almost all farmers, and therefore had a special relationship to their animals and often would know them by name. They were not accustomed to a daily diet of meat, and in that respect were no different from the vast masses of humanity then or now. Animals were domesticated for sale or for the milk or wool they produced. They represented capital that one did not eat up lightly. Consuming meat was reserved for special occasions. Chief among these were visits to the nearest shrine and, later, to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. These pilgrimages were acts of festive celebration, expressed as thanksgiving or expiation for sins committed, and marked major events in life. The pilgrim would take an animal along and slaughter it in the holy precincts. As an act of worship, sacrifice had two important side effects. For one, it served to lessen the guilt a farmer felt (and feels) when he killed a creature he had from its birth. This guilt was attenuated when the killing was done to honor God and when the meal was shared with others. In balancing the desire to eat meat and the moral problem of killing animals, sacrificial ritual was an extension of the wider dietary laws. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, one wrote that all the laws of Kashrut are devised to remind us constantly that we are eating the flesh of once-living creatures. For that reason, for instance, we do not consume animals’ blood, which in biblical tradition is considered “life itself.” Another side effect of bringing the offering in a holy environment was the deep impression the ritual was sure to make. This was not just killing for the sake of pleasurable feasting; it was done for God’s sake. One came closer to God through voluntary giving of one’s possessions, through sacrificing something. (The word “sacrifice” combines the Latin word facere which means ‘to make or render’ and the Latin word sacer which means ‘holy.’ It is a translation of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, which literally means ‘bringing close’ as in ‘bringing close to God.’) And what do we do today? We buy meat at the butcher’s or in grocery store already cellophane-wrapped. Small children have no real inkling of where the meat came from. Any connection to the living creature is totally absent. These animals are to have been “harvested” in some mysterious way, which even adults would rather not know about. In contrast, our biblical ancestors never reduced animals to the status of things. Yet we tend to feel smugly superior to those ancient times. We do so with little reason.”
Haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Gadol
3:4-24 - 3:23 Malachi
The Man: We really do not know much about this prophet at all. Malachi is probably not his name. Rather it is Hebrew for “my messenger.” It may be a pseudonym stemming from the third Hebrew word in the first sentence of the third chapter where we find the words of God, “Behold, I send My messenger (Malachi) and he shall clear the way before Me.” Along with Haggai and Zechariah, Malachi is one of the three post-exilic prophets. In fact Malachi is the last of all of the prophets. He is thought to have lived sometime between 500 B.C.E and 450 B.C.E. By this time the Second Temple had been completed but the Jewish homeland was merely a province of the Persian Empire called Judea. Malachi preached at a time when spirituality and morality were at a low ebb. The reality of the reconstruction of the Temple had not lived up to the expectations of redemption and a great reawakening. In fact, from a historic and spiritual point of view, Malachi actually was setting the stage for the reforms instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah. According to traditional commentators, after Malachi God did not “select” individuals commanding them to speak in his name. Going forward, leaders such as the Scribes and Rabbis would speak and teach in the name of God based on the literary traditions of the Jewish people.
Malachi represents a return to the beginning of the prophetic messages. Some of the early, non-literary prophets were concerned about the ritual of sacrifice. They saw the sacrifices as a key ingredient in man’s communication with God. The Literary Prophets - Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, for example - shifted the emphasis to social justice and prayer. With the opening verses of Malachi, we see a return to the message of the importance of the sacrificial system and properly performed rituals such as tithing. Could it be that in the last words of Prophecy we are being reminded that ritual and social justice are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually inclusive; that to effect a healing of the universe we must nurture Judaism that relies on both aspects of the divine commandments?
The Message: The reading is short, dense and difficult to summarize briefly in writing, It is a mixture of reminders of past glory “Surely the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old” admonitions for the present, “Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses” and a vision of the future, “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”
Theme-link: This time the connection is not with the sedrah but with the calendar. The prophetic reading for the Sabbath ends with a description of Elijah as the herald of the coming of the final redemption. This is consistent with the message of the Seder with the opening of the door for Elijah. Pesach is the holiday of the first redemption, but it came to be seen as the herald of the final redemption in the end of days. Note the highlighted section above and compare the passage of the Lord through the land of Egypt with his passage through the land in the end of days. Instead of a daub of blood on the door, love, as exemplified by the reconciliation of parents and children will be the protection from the Lord’s wrath. Last but not least, Malachai calls upon the people to remember to bring the agricultural tithe to the Temple because it was given to the poor to help them celebrate the holiday of Pesach. In modern times, Jews increase their contributions so that the less fortunate will have the money for matzo and other items necessary for observing Pesach.
Shabbat Hagadol Pogrom: In the spring of 1190, the Jews of England were subject to a series of attacks by murderous anti-Semitic mobs. The worst attack took place at York on Shabbat Hagadol where a mob filled with the fervor of preparing for the Third Crusade attacked the Jews. They sought shelter in Clifford’s Tower. But the crusading Christians were not to be deterred. The next day, the Jews were given the choice of converting or being murdered. Their leader, Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, advised the Jews to commit suicide rather than submit. The Rabbi was a man of his word as he took his own life after killing his family. Most of the Jews followed Yom Tov’s example. The Christians murdered the Jews who did surrender and then burned the tower that was filled with the body of the Jews who had died for Kiddush Hashem.
Family Connection: Pesach is the ultimate holiday of family connection. Shabbat Hagadol is supposed to serve as a reminder that Pesach is coming. In my case it is also an early reminder of the family connection since my father, Joseph B. Levin, of blessed memory, was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat Hagadol.
Copyright; March, 2020; Mitchell A. Levin