“Making the Menial Hallowed and the Mundane Holy”
(updated and revised from Tzav 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, continues the theme of sacrifices that began in parashat Vayikra.

The laws of the עֹלָה–Olah–the burnt offering, the מִנְחָה–Minchah–the meal offering, the חַטַּאתChah’tat–the sin offering and the אָשָׁםAh’sham–the guilt offering, are all enumerated in parashat Tzav. These are followed by additional regulations pertaining to the sacrificial offerings. The parasha concludes with the consecration ceremony of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.

It is often tempting to avoid commenting on parashat Tzav, and to expound instead on the upcoming holiday of Passover, especially since this Shabbat, the Sabbath that precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Ha’Gadol–the Great Sabbath. As a result, parashat Tzav often gets short-shrift from many contemporary commentators who prefer to comment on the more upbeat theme of Pesach. And yet, as I have maintained throughout these weekly commentaries, there is really no verse, no jot, no tittle in the Torah that is without great relevance. Indeed, I brazenly declare, that every single Torah portion, even those dense and seemingly boring/irrelevant portions, are brimming with revolutionary ideas and are of profound contemporary relevance.

As is well known, the כֹּהֲנִיםCohanim–the priests, supervise, and personally conduct, the sacrificial rites. In ancient times, as part of the Temple ritual, each priest was assigned a specific task. During the Second Temple period, the priests were organized into 24 groupings/rotations, known as מִשְׁמָרוֹת–Mish’mah’rot. Each מִשְׁמַר–Mishmar of priests served for a week at a time. Each of its subdivisions, known as בֵית אָבfather’s house, served a single day of that week.

Each day, two sacrifices, known as the תָמִיד קָרְבָּן‎–Korban Tah’mid, the daily burnt offerings, were brought, one in the morning, a second in the afternoon.

The sacrificial rituals, in both the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple, involved much pomp and ceremony. The service in the Temple was accompanied by the sounds of the חֲצוֹצְרֹת —silver trumpets, and the singing of the Levites. Though moderns may find it hard to fathom, the sacrificial rite was solemn and sacred, requiring absolute focus and awareness on the part of the priest. Members of the priestly caste were accorded great honor and respect. Because of their exalted status, any misstep in the ritual might result in the priest’s severe punishment, even premature death at the hands of Heaven.

To further enhance this already grand setting, the priests were robed in glory, garbed in four special garments that served as symbols of their consecration. So holy and so necessary were the priests’ services to the nation, that the cost of the priests’ upkeep and sustenance was assumed by all the Jewish people. Consequently, every farmer donated Terumah, a small percentage of the annual produce of his fields, that was given directly to the priests.

Apparently, the rituals performed by the priests were quite moving and elevating–even the sprinkling of the blood and the burning of the incense. Those who have difficulty imagining this, need to remove themselves from contemporary times and transport themselves back 3,000 years, or review some of the animated video reconstructions of these elaborate ceremonies on-line.

Parashat Tzav opens with a description of the first service of the day. It might be assumed that each morning the priests would be most eager to go on “stage,” before the admiring crowds who had had gathered, and start the day with an especially impressive ritual. And yet, the priest’s daily “opening act” was hardly a crowd-pleaser. Known as תְּרוּמַת הַדֶּשֶׁן–Terumat ha’Deshen, it consisted of the daily removal from the altar of a portion of the previous day’s ashes. Following the removal of the ashes, two wooden logs were placed on the main altar to fulfill the overriding commandment of keeping the altar fires burning at all times (Leviticus, 6:6), and to never allow the fire to be extinguished.

If the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) service is supposed to inspire awe and reverence, why then does the daily service open with the removal of yesterday’s ashes?

Perhaps this seemingly menial ritual is done first because the Al-mighty seeks to set the appropriate tone for the service by making certain that the ministering priests will serve with proper humility. After all, just being born to a priestly family is more than enough reason to boast and gloat. Knowing that one is a direct descendent of Aaron, the High Priest, is sufficient reason for one’s heart to swell with pride, and perhaps, even hubris. Consequently, the priests are instructed to begin their day with the removal of the previous day’s ashes. Tradition, in fact, describes this ritual as a mere formality. A single scoop of ashes is placed beside the altar, while the rest of the ashes are heaped in a pile in the center of the altar. When the pile grows too high, one of the priests is assigned to carry the ashes outside the confines of the Tabernacle, or, in Temple times, outside the city of Jerusalem.

In effect, we see that the “prestigious” priests were now reduced to playing the role of glorified “sanitation” men. Each day commenced with a profound humbling experience. Simply stated, the removal of the ashes made certain that the priests would not allow their egos to get the best of them, or allow them to be carried away by their own sense of self-importance.

Keeping the priests humble, explains the unexpected manner in which the Torah in Leviticus 6:3, instructs the priests to prepare for these important services. וְלָבַשׁ הַכֹּהֵן מִדּוֹ בַד, וּמִכְנְסֵי בַד יִלְבַּשׁ עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ, וְהֵרִים אֶת הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעֹלָה, עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, The Priest shall dress himself in his linen tunic and shall put linen breeches on his flesh. And he shall separate the ash which consumed the fire of the עֹלָה-Olah (burnt offering), on the altar, and place it next to the altar.

How odd that the priests are instructed to wear their clean white sacred robes to remove the ashes from the altar. The priests, in effect, are commanded to don their formal wear to take out the “garbage!”

Rabbeinu Bachya the medieval bible commentator, explains that the priests must be garbed in their priestly dignity when performing such “menial labor” since this labor is performed as a service to G-d. By wearing his sacred clothes, to perform a menial task, the priest affirms his complete dedication to G-d.

Although the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,”has become quite popular lately, most of us know full well that the truth is that “G-d is in the details.” Washing the dirt off the clothes of a dribbling senior citizen could very well be a sacred act. Changing a child’s diaper can also be seen as a sacred act. Ridding the environment of improper wastes and ensuring proper sanitation are, similarly, sanctified acts. Cleansing one’s body from waste is also a sacred act, so much so, that it even merits a special blessing, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר, “Asher yah’tzar.”

It was indeed fascinating to see how clever “fashion designers” were able to create a fashion “rage” by boldly marketing garments that became known as “Designer Jeans,” that are often washed out and/or torn. Truth be told, not many citizens aspire to sweep streets or remove garbage. How ironic it is then that so many choose to “dress” in clothes that objectively reflect those menial, at times, repulsive, labors. Obviously, these clothes are not so much a fashion statement as they are a philosophical statement.

We can indeed, learn from these priestly rituals, how to make the profane holy and recognize that the true building blocks of life are often in the mundane and in the menial.

May you be blessed.