Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav 5763/ March 22, 2003

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.
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Parashat Tzav 5763/ March 22, 2003

The Priesthood - Privilege and Obligation

Rachel Lifshitz

Parshat Tzav deals with the priests, commanding them, admonishing them, placing on them tasks and restrictions, etc., that pertain to the sacred worship in the Tabernacle and the sacred worship of the future, when worship of the Lord will have a fixed place. On the second verse of the Parasha, "Command Aaron and his sons thus,- Rashi commented that the expression "command- indicates urging the action to be carried out immediately and making it binding for all generations. In other words, all that was written and demanded of the priests had to be implemented immediately but would also be valid for subsequent generations. Of all the possible imperatives, such as "say,- "tell,- or "speak to,- precisely the word "command- was chosen, since the others lack the component indicating that this instruction was to apply for all time.

The body of commandments presented in this week's reading includes the commandment to anoint the priests with the oil of anointment: "Those shall be the perquisites of Aaron and the perquisites of his sons from the Lord's offerings by fire, once they have been inducted [lit. "anointed-] to serve the Lord as priests; ... once they had been anointed, as a due from the Israelites for all time throughout the ages- (Lev. 7:35-36). Aaron and his sons, according to Rashi, were anointed immediately, but the commandment to anoint the priests stood for all subsequent generations.

Aaron was granted a privilege, and so were his descendants for all generations; the priesthood was given to him and his offspring for all time, and to him and his family alone. Anyone could become a great figure in the Jewish people, even as prominent as Moses, or could achieve the level of the prophet Elijah, who never died but went up to heaven. Great leaders in Torah and morality could arise (as they indeed did) - prophets, kings, leaders, and men of stature. But none of them could become priests if they were not born into the priesthood. The determining factors is genetic. What, one might ask, if the priest is a person of mediocrity? That is not important. Knowledge, degrees, etc., are not relevant criteria. Neither is their any relevance to the person's world outlook or leadership and organizational talent - criteria to which we are accustomed. Only genetic affiliation can give a person the right to be a priest. Tractate Yoma (1.6), in its presentation of the ritual for the sacrificial service on the Day of Atonment, says: "If he was wise, he would give a sermon; if not, the rabbis would give a sermon in his presence. If he was well-versed in reading, he would read; if not, others would read in his presence.-

The above text refers to the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would prepare himself for the great moment of entering the Holy of Holies. True, over the years there were priests (including high priests) who were not educated, or who were mediocre in their leadership talents and wisdom. Nevertheless, the commandment was not altered nor the office transferred to others. The Torah said for all time, throughout the ages, and that indeed is how it was.

The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 71b) tells the following story: Once there was a high priest who came out of the Temple, and all the people followed him. When they saw Shemaiah and Avtalion coming, they left him and followed them (for they were sages, in contrast to the high priest, who was not distinguished in learning or virtue). Eventually, when Shemaiah and Avtalion came to take their leave of the high priest, he said to them: May the sons of foreign folk come in peace. [Shemaiah and Avtalion were the sons of proselytes, and the high priest was therefore poking fun at them, calling them the sons of foreign folk, since they were descended from Sennacherib.] They answered him: May the sons of foreign folk who act like Aaron come in peace, but let not the descendant of Aaron who does not act like Aaron come in peace [i.e., for he had not followed Aaron's example of loving peace and pursuing it, but had reminded them of their origins].

The criticism launched here at the high priest by the two great Sages, Shemaiah and Avtalion, is further confirmation that the high priests were not necessarily great figures of their times, even though they ministered in a high spiritual office, bordering on the Divine. It was the will of the Creator that the priesthood, given to Aaron and his sons, pass by descent from generation to generation. They are neither elected by the people nor chosen by tender. The commandment assigning the priesthood to Aaron and his sons is immutable, not to be violated. They and they alone would be permitted to minister the sacred service, and anyone who does not belong to this family is considered an outsider: "any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death- (Num. 3:10).

What we see here is a different perception of authority, set by G-d's command and surely taking into consideration possibilities such as those discussed above. The people's opinion is important (note Shemaiah's and Avtalion's attitude), but not enough so as to replace those ministering in office.

Another element that contradicts our usual way of thinking is that a priest cannot resign from the priesthood. A person can say: I do not wish to be president, or a member of Knesset, or serve in any other office. But he cannot say that he does not wish to be a priest, that the job should be given to someone better than him. The office is not elective. Besides being a privilege, it is also an obligation. Note that the attitude towards authority and control expressed here is different. Similarly, being made a prophet is not up to human choice. Moses did not wish to be a leader or prophet, and argued that he was slow of speech. Jeremiah said, "I do not know how to speak, for I am still a boy- (Jer. 1:6). In both instances, and in similar cases, the Lord imposed His choice on the figures whom He had elected. Prophecy, however, in contrast to the priesthood, does not pass by inheritance.

When does a priest lose his right to minister the sacred service? There are two categories of people who are not eligible to serve as priests: one group is mentioned in Parashat Emor (Lev. 21:16-23), namely people who have any one of the defects that the Torah lists as making them unfit for service. These people, however, are entitled to share in eating from the most holy and holy food of the sacrifices: "No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord's offering by fire; ... He may eat of the food of his G-d, of the most holy as well as of the holy- (Lev. 21:22).

The other group consists of the descendants of priests who have been declared unfit due to having been born of a union that is forbidden to priests. For example, if a priest happened to marry a divorcee, convert, or halalah (a woman descended from a person declared unfit for the priesthood), then the children of the couple are called halalim, indicating that their sanctity has been profaned (heb. hulal). The appointment for all generations is severed and the rights of priesthood abrogated.

The task required of the priests is to minister the sacred service. This is a special concept, known and accepted only in the religious world. The world generally views good and evil as concepts coming from the realm of ethics, beautiful and ugly as terms coming from aesthetics. The religious world recognizes that the concepts of impure and pure, of sacred and profane, have laws of their own (without invalidating other categories) and requirements of their own. The unifying principle is the spiritual world, which stands above good and evil, above the beautiful and the ugly. According to the concepts of this spiritual world, it does not suffice for a person to pay up his debt; he must also give a sin-offering, guilt-offering, or offering of atonement. Correcting the evil is one stage, and self-purification, a higher stage which restores people to their position before their fall. After correcting what is wrong, one must atone; only thus is proper balance restored to the human soul.

The priests ministered in this sacred atmosphere, and their service was performed for the sake of creating this very atmosphere. They are at once emissaries of the people and servants of the people for the purpose of achieving spiritual uplifting through atonement, guilt-offerings, sin-offerings, etc., and by expressions of appreciation through payment of vows, offerings of well-being, etc. The sins of the people require redress, as do the sins of the individual. The needs of the people call for prayer, as do the needs of the individual. It is the task of the priests to represent the people before the Almighty in the way they were commanded by Him. The survival of the people and its individuals, their well-being and success, rest to a large extent on these intermediaries.

There is a price to being a priest: it is an honorific, but difficult office, very demanding and exacting. There is no room for error, and a mistake can cost the priest his life: "You shall remain ... keeping the Lords' charge - that you may not die- (Lev. 8:35). When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, the entire people waited with baited breath: would he emerge alive? The battle was fought day to day, hour by hour, in the presence of a sanctity that knows no compromise, that has its own demands and insists on its ways alone. Indeed, Aaron and his descendants were privileged, but along with the privilege came demands and dangers.

The right to the priesthood also entails giving certain things up:
  1. Restrictions on whom they may marry, as mentioned above: a priest is forbidden to marry a divorcee, a convert, and a woman who has had conjugal relations with a man whom she is not permitted to marry. No arguments in support of these marriages are accepted. The right to be a priest is associated with renunciations which are not easily made.
  2. Another restriction pertains to mourning. A regular priest may only defile himself with impurity from the dead for seven relations: his wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, or as yet unmarried sister. (What if he has an adopted son, and he feels closely bound to him? What if his best friend passes away?) The high priest may not defile himself even for his father or mother, "for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his G-d- (Lev. 21:11-12). It is no easy thing to comply with this demand, which stands in opposition to human nature and the patterns for expression of grief that have been created throughout the ages, among all peoples and all generations. Here, too, a different sort of perception is expressed - a perception of divinity. It is the Deity who gives rights and obligations, and He surely had His reasons. Throughout the generations the behavior of priests has proven that it is possible to live up to these tests.
  3. Regarding apportionment in the land of Israel, the priests' position was like that of the levites. They were allotted forty-eight cities and lots throughout the tribal inheritance of Israel, but they themselves had no single tribal inheritance.
  4. As for earning a living, the priests received their share of the various sacrifices and presents to the priesthood, in accord with Numbers, chapter 18: "I hereby give you charge of My gifts, all the sacred donations of the Israelites- (v. 8). The privilege of being a priest has various costs, and one of them was dependence on the offerings brought by their co-religionists, on the contributions, donations, and fulfillment of vows made by the people. This too, reflects a godly idea - that the one who ministers in the sacred service is dependent on the people, and they on him.