Parashah of the week: Tzav

“While the fire is kept going on it’” Leviticus 6:2


Tzav describes the rituals for the various types of sacrifices that were brought by the priests at the Tabernacle. Starting with the daily burnt offering, the Torah writes: “It shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning while the fire on the altar is kept going on it” (Leviticus 6:2).

The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839) suggests that the Hebrew tukad bo (“is kept going on it”) should be read as “the fire is kept going in him”, referring to the officiating priest rather than the sacrifice; the priest must ensure that a fire of enthusiasm keeps burning in him while he performs his task.

The removal of the ashes of the previous night’s sacrifice, a task known as terumat hadeshen, certainly did require extra enthusiasm. Performed daily, first thing in the morning, while the priest is dressed in ordinary linen clothes rather than shiny priestly vestments, and without anyone to witness, it seemed more a chore than a privilege and decidedly unglamourous.

Indeed, Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Przysucha (1765–1827) suggested that the mundanity of the task was aimed to remind him that he was not above the ordinary people who spent their days in everyday pursuits.

The Mishnah assumed that the mundanity of terumat hadeshen would make it unpopular and therefore did not include it in the lottery by which various sought-after priestly tasks were allocated in the Temple. Instead, whoever wanted to volunteer had to “run and ascend the ramp” of the altar, and the one who arrived first would get the job (Yoma 2:1).

However, its assumption proved unfounded as on occasion priests were so eager to perform terumat hadeshen that accidents occurred as they pushed one another off the ramp. The Talmud even reports an incident of one priest murdering his colleague when the other overtook him on the ramp (Yoma 23 a-b).

Parashat Tzav teaches us that even when we perform mundane tasks we must do so with passion, for even the most dull and unglamorous tasks must be done well and with respect for those who usually perform them. Passion, however, as the mishnaic and talmudic tales illustrate, must be handled like fire; with caution, so that it stays within (bo) and we do not allow it to consume us and those around us.

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