Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav 5767/ March 31, 2007

Shabbat Ha-gadol

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Taking up the Ashes and Sacrifices of Thanksgiving


Dr. Jeremiah Malhi


Department of Talmud


Just as time has great impact on our lives in general, so too it is an important factor in worshipping the Lord.   This theme finds prominent expression in two halakhic issues in this week’s reading:   the first is the commandment of taking up the ashes and the second is the commandment regarding sacrifices of thanksgiving.

At the beginning of this week’s reading, the priests are commanded to take up the ashes in the following words (Lev. 6:3):  “The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.”  In Hilkhot Temidim u-Musafin Maimonides describes how this commandment was performed: [1]

Taking up the ashes from the altar every day (terumat ha-deshen) is a positive commandment, as it is written. . .   It is one of the tasks performed by the priests…  When are the ashes taken up each day?  As soon as the day dawns … How were the ashes taken up? Whoever was privileged to take them up would bathe, then put on clothing for taking them up, and cleanse his hands and feet … and afterwards he would take the pan, which was made of silver, … ascend to the head of the altar and stir the embers, scooping up those that were spent … then he would descend back to the ground … and amass the embers which he had scooped on the tiling three tefahs away from the ramp. … and this act of scooping that he did with the pan, lowering [the ashes] to the tiling around the altar, was a commandment which had to be performed each day.

Note here that the purpose of this commandment is not to clear the altar and clean it of the remains of the previous days’ offerings (called hotza’at ha-deshen) in order to prepare it for the sacrificial service the next day, since this matter is made clear in the verse which follows:  “He shall then … carry the ashes outside the camp, to a clean place.”  The latter action is called “removal of the ashes,” and is not obligatory every day, rather only when there is a large accumulation of ashes on the altar.

The commandment to take up the ashes comes after a special introduction, unusual in the formulation of commandments in the Torah.  The passage begins with the words (Lev. 6:2):  “Command [tzav] Aaron and his sons thus:  This is the ritual of the burnt offering.”  Rashi’s commentary on this verse cites the Sages’ interpretation in Torat Kohanim: [2]   “When the expression tzav is used it serves no other purpose except to indicate spurring on, both forthwith and for all generations.  Rabbi Simeon said:  Scripture has the greatest need of spurring on in those places that affect a person’s pocketbook.”

Malbim, in his commentary on Torat Kohanim, [3] explains at great length the various meanings of the root tz-v-h, both in the narrative parts of the Torah as well as in the halakhic passages. He points to the fact that such expressions as “command the Israelites” or “command Aaron” (instead of the more usual expressions, “Say [emor] to the Israelites” or “Speak [dabber] to the Israelites”) are intended to emphasize one of the following meanings:  spurring to action; performing the commandment forthwith; or a commandment that will be observed for all generations. 

The time factor in this commandment is discussed by Rabbi Moses Sofer (author of Hatam Sofer) in his commentary on this week’s reading. [4]   He stresses that precisely because this commandment is required of the high priest and must be performed every day, in the same manner, in all generations – precisely because of this there is reason to fear lest the high priest perform it perfunctorily, as a matter of routine.  Therefore it is necessary to give extra encouragement.  According to his interpretation, one could say that there are commandments, such as taking up the ashes, in which all three meanings of the verb tz-v-h come together; i.e., special encouragement is needed regarding commandments which are to be performed “forthwith and for generations to come.” 

In similar fashion the Hatam Sofer interprets the words that are generally said in the preliminaries to the morning service, in the passages of Korbanot before Pesukei de-Zimra (passages from Psalms):  “Happy are we!   How goodly is our portion. . .   Happy are we that we rise early in the morning and come also in the evening to the synagogue and house of study, to proclaim the unity of Your name, perpetually, every day, declaring with loving devotion:  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.”  Why “with loving devotion”?  Said the Hatam Sofer, since we proclaim the unity of Your name “perpetually, every day,” there is a danger that this act might become routine, therefore special emphasis to perform this mitzvah with loving devotion is needed.

Another topic in this week’s reading that lends expression to the factor of time and its significance in worshipping the Lord is the commandment regarding the laws of thanksgiving sacrifices (korban todah).  While the time factor is significant both in the commandment of taking up the ashes and in the commandment regarding sacrifices of thanksgiving, unlike the case of taking up the ashes, which is performed daily, in the case of thanksgiving sacrifices the commandment is performed only occasionally, under special circumstances. The thanksgiving sacrifice is closely related to another sacrifice, that of well-being (shelamim), discussed further on in this week’s reading (Lev. 7:11):

This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well-being that one may offer to the Lord.   If he offers it for thanksgiving (todah), he shall offer together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, … This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being.

When someone brings a sacrifice of well-being as fulfillment of a vow or simply as a freewill offering, it is called a sacrifice of well-being and may be eaten over two days and one night and does not require that leavened bread accompany the offering.   But, as Rashi explains in his commentary here (verse 12), if it is brought “in thanksgiving for something miraculous that happened to him, as in the case of people who have crossed the sea or desert, or prisoners [who have been released], or a sick person who has recovered his health – all of whom must offer thanksgiving, as it is written:  ‘Let them praise the Lord for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind’ (Ps.107:8) – then it is a sacrifice of thanksgiving and must be accompanied by four sorts of cakes, three sorts of unleavened cakes and one of leavened, and it may be eaten only for one day and one night.  After this time, that which has not been eaten becomes “leftover” and must be burned.

The Netziv [5] in his commentary on this passage of the Torah says that the purpose of the sacrifice of thanksgiving for a miracle is to proclaim the Lord’s steadfast love that was bestowed upon the person, in accord with Psalms 107:8:   “Let them praise the Lord for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind.”   A person who has experienced one of the miracles mentioned above, after giving his sacrifice of thanksgiving, would generally hold a feast of thanksgiving for many friends, where he would publicly broadcast the miracle that happened to him.   Therefore the Torah stipulated, according to the interpretation of the Netziv, that the sacrifice could only be eaten for a single day, so that the rejoicing not spread over several days but be concentrated in a single day.

For this reason too the Torah commanded that he bring leavened bread, which is of primary importance, as we see from verse 13:  “This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer,” as if to say the leavened bread is the principal part and the varieties of unleavened cakes secondary to it, since, as we know, unleavened bread is “bread of affliction” and is not as easily edible as leavened bread.  All this was designed to assure that a larger number of people be invited to the feast of thanksgiving, offering them a fine feast in the course of which he would tell his guests about the miracle that happened to him; then he would be able to fulfill in all its aspects the verse of Psalms:   “My mouth shall sing much praise to the Lord; I will acclaim Him in the midst of a throng” (Ps. 109:30).

From the two halakhic issues in Parashat Tzav which we presented here we can see how the Torah instructs people to constantly put their time to good use in order to excel in worshipping the Lord. In the first case, a mitzvah having no special time but performed daily needs special encouragement, tzav, so that it still be considered “special.”  In the second case, a mitzvah performed on special occasions needs to be done immediately, as close to the occasion as possible, to stress the significance of the time. May it be the Lord’s will that the words of the prophet read in this week’s haftarah for Shabbat Ha-gadol come to pass for us:   “Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old” (Malachi 3:4).


[1] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, ch. 2, halakhah 10-12.

[2] Torat Kohanim [otherwise known as Sifra], Tzav, ch. 1.

[3] Ha-Torah ve-ha-Mitzvah, vol. 1, p. 690.

[4] Rabbi Moses Sofer, Torat Moshe on Parashat Tzav.

[5] Rabbi Naphtali Tzevi Yehudah Berlin, Ha’amek Davar on Lev. 7:13.