Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tetzaveh

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Why Is Moses Absent from Parashat Tetzaveh? Or Is He?

Menahem ben-Yashar

Department of Bible

Speculation is rife among commentators and exegetes why Moses is not mentioned by name in Parashat Tetzaveh. They give various answers, including the fact that in most years-- this year is a leapyear-- this reading falls in the same week as the 7th of Adar, which according to Rabbinic tradition is the date of Moses' death.[1]

These explanations may provide an opportunity for interesting speeches and homiletical interpretations. But the question itself is hardly an issue, for three reasons:

1) This is not the only weekly reading in which Moses is not explicitly named. He is not mentioned either in the Deuteronomic readings of Ekev, Re'eh, Shofetim, or Ki-Tetze, and only reappears towards the end of Ki-Tavo (Deut. 29:1). This is because the middle portion of Deuteronomy records the lengthy oration delivered by Moses on the plains of Moab.

2) The same applies with respect to Tetzaveh, which is entirely a continuation of G-d's detailed commands to Moses on Mount Sinai regarding construction of the Tabernacle. Moses was commanded by name at the beginning of Parashat Terumah (Ex. 25:1), and thenceforth there is no need to continually mention his name.

3) If there anything which should give us pause here, it is not the words of the Torah itself and the absence of Moses' name, but the way the Torah is divided into weekly portions. Indeed, a different and ostensibly somewhat more reasonable division of the weekly reading would lead to Moses' name being included in the weekly reading of Tetzaveh.

How so? The average length of each weekly reading is approximately 110 verses.[2] Tetzaveh, with only 101 verses, is shorter than average, whereas the reading which follows, Ki-Tisa, is longer than average, having 139 verses. Ki-Tisa begins with a continuation of G-d's command to Moses regarding the details of the Tabernacle, commencing with the payment of the half-shekel. Thus the opening passages of Ki-Tisa could have been included in Tetzaveh, and then both readings would be closer to the average length of the weekly portion. If one divided the text in this way--and this is our main point--then the name of Moses, which currently appears in the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa, would fall into the new, expanded portion in this week's reading.[3]

At this point a new question arises: the passages at the beginning of Ki-Tisa, or to be more precise, 30:11 through 31:17, which continue G-d's command to Moses on Mount Sinai with regard to constructing the Tabernacle, consist of a series of commands concerning specific items. There are six of them, and each begins with the formula, "G-d spoke to Moses, saying...."[4] Contrast this with the lengthy, 197 verses in Terumah-Tetzaveh, which are not interrupted even once by any such introductory formulations!

The exegete Don Isaac Abarbanel raised this point as the tenth question is his list of questions on Parashat Terumah. The gist of his response was as follows: in the continuous narration in Terumah-Tetzaveh Moses was instructed about the principle components of the Tabernacle, namely the structure itself, its primary implements, the priestly vestments, and lastly the main elements of the worship to be held there, which include the sacrificial service and the ceremony installing the priests in their office (immediately after the section on the priestly vestments), and the daily offering, followed by the incense altar along with its special purpose of atoning for the sins of Bezalel.

In contrast, Abarbanel continued (and we add some commentary of our own), the passages at the beginning of Ki-Tisa, which are broken up by introductory formulations, contain additional instructions pertaining to the Tabernacle but not those which relate to its principle purpose. First is the passage on the half- shekel (30:11-16), which provides expiation for each person entered in the records for military service. In other words, a person going to war to kill or, G-d forbid, to be killed must pay expiation for his soul because of the blood-shed that is likely to occur, "that no plague may come upon them" (30:12) in the anticipated war.[5] True, the expiation money is given for the worship in the Tent of Meeting (30:16), but in terms of the major principle of expiation or kapparah, this subject was already included in the expiatory purpose of the incense altar, therefore it suffices to present the half-shekel payment in the additional passages.

Other additional passages include the laver and its stand (30:17-21), which has to do with preparing the priests when they enter to minister the sacred service. This is followed by instructions for preparing the anointing oil and the incense (30:22-33, 34-38), and lastly, an explicit statement about the person who will carry out the work of constructing the Tabernacle (31:1-11) and when this work shall be done, or more precisely, when it is not to be done: on the Sabbath (31:12-17). All of these, according to Abarbanel, are instructions of a technical nature, which were set apart from the main command and also separated one from another with introductory formulas.

Now we can turn our opening question on its head, or, in the spirit of Purim, (which would have been marked tomorrow if this were not a leapyear) say "the opposite happened" (Esther 9:1).The lack of any mention of Moses in this week's reading poses no problem--it was intentionally done to divide the readings as we have them today. Those who set the weekly readings sought to concentrate the principal commands about the Tabernacle in the readings of Terumah and Tetzaveh. The additional instructions, where the name of Moses is mentioned, were separated out from the principal commands so that they would come at the beginning of a new weekly portion.

We began by asking why Moses was not mentioned, and we conclude by wondering why Moses actually figures so prominently in the beginning of Tetzaveh. The first three paragraphs begin by addressing Moses in the second person, namely: "You shall instruct" (27:20), "You shall bring forward" (28:1), and "You shall instruct" (28:3). This style of imperative is not usual in the Torah, and indeed is even unique, since in proper Hebrew it suffices to say simply "Instruct," (Tsav) or "Speak," (Dabber) etc. It is a general rule in biblical Hebrew that when a personal pronoun precedes an inflected verb in the past or future it serves for emphasis, stressing the person addressed. Thus we see that the expression ve-attah tetsaveh stresses the figure of Moses, indeed emphasized three-fold at the beginning of the weekly portion.

Homilists could say that this is all for the purpose of honoring Moses, since the date of his death falls in close proximity to the weekly reading and, according to a tradition of the Sages (Tos. Sotah 11.6, Lieberman ed., p. 219), also the date of his birth, as it says in Ex. 23:26: "I will let you enjoy the full count of your days." What would be said by those who like to stay close to the Peshat, the plain sense of the text?

Note that thus far, in the commands concerning the Tabernacle in Terumah, the commands were addressed directly and exclusively to Moses, with only two exceptions. 1) The command to give contributions (25:1-9) was addressed to the entire people, because by contributing to the sacred cause they would actively participate in bringing the Divine Presence to dwell in their midst. 2) The command to make the ark (25:10) was addressed in the plural, "they shall make." Here, too, the emphasis is on participation of the Israelite community as a whole in making the ark, which represents the covenant between the Lord and all His people. Immediately thereafter, however, the fact of addressing Moses alone dictates the use of the second person singular in the phrases "you shall make," "you shall place," "make," and the like. These expressions emphasize Moses' role as the original prophet, as intermediary and emissary in the great act of causing the Divine Presence to dwell amidst the Israelites through the vehicle of the Tabernacle.

This situation in the beginning of Tetzaveh, where after only two verses, Aaron is mentioned-- for two chapters, 28 and 29-- as the person destined to minister the divine service in the Tabernacle. Was Moses being pushed slightly aside from his special position? Indeed, there is an element of role transfer here. During the seven days of ordination Moses served in the priesthood along with Aaron (Ex. 29:1-37; Lev. 8), and the Sages note the consequent tension: "Throughout the seven days of ordination Moses served in the priesthood and presumed it was for him; on the seventh day G-d told him, 'It is not for you, but for your brother Aaron'" (Leviticus Rabbah 11.6).

Because of this very allocation of roles and division of authority between the brothers, the beginning of this week's reading stresses that we are still at the stage of issuing the commands and erecting the Tabernacle, and this role belongs solely to Moses, even as concerns Aaron. Therefore it says "you shall instruct" him, "you shall bring forward" your brother Aaron and his sons, and "you shall instruct" those involved in making the priestly garments.

[1] Tosefta Sotah 11.5 (Lieberman ed., pp. 218-210), arrived at by computing backwards from the 10th of Nisan, the date the Israelites crossed the Jordan river (cf. Joshua 4:19).

[2] Arrived at by dividing the 5,845 verses of the Torah into 53 or 54 weekly readings.

[3] The division we use is principally a technical division instituted by the Jewish communities in Babylon in order to provide a regular schedule for reading through the entire Torah in the course of a single year. That another division is possible and even reasonable is proven by the ancient triennial cycle that was followed in the land of Israel, in which both the end of Tetzaveh and the beginning of Ki-Tisa are included in a single weekly reading (seder). Essentially, seder 23 in the book of Exodus is comprised of chapter 30 in its entirety.

[4] With the exception of a shorter introductory formulation between the text on the anointing oil and the section on incense (30:34), which are related subjects.

[5] Similar to the case of a person who slays the fetus of a pregnant woman (Ex. 21:22), or the owner of a goring ox that killed a person (Ex. 21:29-30), who in principle deserve the death penalty but because of mitigating circumstances may pay to redeem their person.

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