Tetzaveh (Exodus 27, 20 – 30, 10) – the hereditary priesthood

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The Torah reading of Tetzaveh is the only Torah reading since the beginning of the Book of Exodus, when the story of Moses begins, until the end of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) in which the name of Moses does not appear. The Torah reading of Tetzaveh concerns priests – Aaron and his sons, from whom the hereditary, Israelite priests are descended. The hereditary priests are central figures and institutional leaders of the Jewish people in the Biblical literature who in the main are consecrated for ritual service in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple of Jerusalem) especially overseeing the offering of sacrifices as the central form of ritual worship of the Tabernacle (and Temple). The priests in the Bible also had other institutional functions such as teaching law and adjudicating legal matters.

 

The hereditary priests remained central figures and leaders of the Jewish people in Judaism following the Biblical period until the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century CE (the first Temple having been destroyed in the 6th century BCE by the Babylonians). Since the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem marking the end of sacrificial offerings as a form of ritual worship in Judaism, and especially since rabbis have replaced priests in such functions as teaching and adjudicating legal matters, priests are no longer central figures in Judaism. In traditional rabbinic Judaism, rabbis have replaced priests as the central figures and leaders of the Jewish people.

 

The modern Jewish movements today – orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist and reform as well as secular Judaism – have all grown out of the ancient Jewish, rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud. In the Talmudic and medieval periods there were Jewish sects outside of the Jewish rabbinic tradition – like the Sadducees in the early Talmudic period and the Karaites in the medieval period. The Talmudic period was from about the 1st century BCE until about the 6th century CE, and the early Talmudic period in which there were Jewish sects such as Pharisees and Sadducees was from about the 1st century BCE until the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century CE.

 

The terms Pharisees and Sadducees took on a negative connotation due to Christianity, but both the Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects during the early Talmudic period. The Sadducees were a priestly sect, and most of the ancient, hereditary priesthood were Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in the Bible (the Written Torah). The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans – the Temple being the institutional center of the priestly cult. The Karaites were a medieval sect who like the ancient Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in the Bible (the Written Torah). There were Karaite Jews in large numbers during the medieval period, but they too have largely disappeared.

 

The Pharisees were a sect that was in the main led by scribes and teachers. The Pharisees evidently were willing to interpret Scripture beyond the plain or literal meaning. The Talmudic rabbis were ideological descendants of the Pharisees. In traditional, rabbinic Judaism, based upon the ideology of the Pharisees of interpreting Scripture beyond the plain or literal meaning, we as Jews live not by what is written in the Bible (the Written Torah) but by the Bible as interpreted and understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) – the foundation of which is the Talmud.

 

Traditional rabbinic Judaism is not bound by the literal meaning of Biblical texts, not bound by what is written explicitly in Biblical texts and not bound by the plain, simple meaning of Biblical texts – and, this is true of Halacha (legal material), and Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) of the Jewish tradition. Most of the material of the Jewish rabbinic tradition, whether legal material or moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings, is not the plain meaning of Scripture – and is considered midrash (midrash Halacha or midrash Aggadah). Midrash, originally, was a method of Biblical commentary (interpretation) of the Talmudic rabbis, according to which they elaborated beyond the plain or literal meaning of Scripture – and also included stories or parables that were told as an elaboration upon Biblical texts. Most Halachic (legal) material of the Jewish tradition is midrash Halacha, and most Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual) teachings of the Jewish tradition are midrash Aggadah – and, not found in the plain or literal meaning of Scripture. The midrashic method of Biblical interpretation was rejected by the Sadducees and Karaites in attempting to live according to what is written in Scripture.

 

The implications here are enormous – we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition, and therefore in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts is what allowed Judaism to evolve and develop, and, an important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.

 

The Talmudic rabbis then actually brought about a revolution during the Talmudic period in transforming the nature of Judaism from Biblical, prophetic and priestly Judaism, in which prophets were non-institutional spiritual leaders and hereditary priests were institutional leaders of the Jewish people, to traditional rabbinic Judaism in which rabbis replaced prophets and hereditary priests as leaders of the Jewish people. The term rabbi is a Talmudic term that literally means teacher – and, the term is not found in the Bible. In the plain meaning of Scripture it is priests who are the institutional religious leaders of the Jewish people as reflected in the plain meaning of Scripture (Deuteronomy 17, 8-11) – “If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment… And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment…according to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do”. In the plain meaning of Scripture here the authority to teach law and adjudicate legal matters is given to priests – yet, the Talmudic rabbis midrashically interpreted these verses not according to their plain meaning as giving authority to teach law and adjudicate legal matters to rabbis.

 

In the Talmudic transformation of Judaism from Biblical prophetic and priestly Judaism to traditional rabbinic Judaism, in which rabbis replaced priests as leaders of the Jewish people, the role of the hereditary priest was significantly reduced. Today, in traditional rabbinic Judaism, in the synagogue prayer service, which replaced the ancient Temple service of sacrificial offerings in which priests officiated, priests have no significant role in conducting the prayer service – and, their role has been reduced merely to a priest being given the honor of being called up first to read from the Torah among those who read on the days when there is a Torah reading in synagogue, and of priests making the priestly blessing (based upon the Biblical passage of Numbers 6, 23-27) in the synagogue during the morning and musaf (additional) prayer services.

 

But, of even greater importance, the Talmudic rabbis did not only reduce the role of priests from a practical point of view. The Talmudic rabbis also changed the perception of the importance of priests in the Jewish tradition. I will cite two glaring examples. First, there is a Talmudic teaching (Mishna, Horayot 3, 8) – “A mamzer (the child of a forbidden sexual relationship not allowed to marry a fellow Jew) who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest”. This teaching reflects the importance of study, which becomes the central form of religious experience in traditional rabbinic Judaism (even more than prayer) – and, the teaching as an attack upon priesthood reflects the Talmudic opposition to heredity as a standard for determining religiosity and leadership of the Jewish people.

 

Second, the opening teaching of Pirkei Avot (literally “chapters of the fathers”), a Talmudic tractate containing moral and spiritual teachings of great Talmudic rabbis of the early Talmudic period as the spiritual fathers of the rabbinic tradition, says – “Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the men of the great assembly”. This teaching here is speaking of the transmission of Torah (Written and Oral) from Moses down to the men of the great assembly marking the beginning of the rabbinic tradition – and, the other figures mentioned in the transmission (Joshua, elders and prophets) are found in the Biblical literature. However, shockingly, there is one figure from the Biblical literature who is glaringly absent from the transmission – priests. Indeed, priests have been omitted from the opening teaching of Pirkei Avot describing the transmission of Torah from Moses to the men of the great assembly and replaced by prophets. Biblical prophets in the plain meaning of Scripture were not part of a transmission of formal teaching of Torah, as the Biblical prophets were non-institutional figures who encouraged the people Israel to observe and not to violate Torah. In the plain meaning of Scripture, the priests as institutional leaders of the Jewish people were teachers of Torah and an integral part of the transmission of Torah as reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy (31, 9) – “And Moses wrote this Torah, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi that bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord and unto all the elders of Israel”. Here it is written explicitly that Torah was transmitted by Moses to the priests as well as the elders.

 

Traditional Judaism has evolved and developed from a historical point of view – and, such historical development in the case of the revolutionary transformation of Judaism from Biblical prophetic and priestly Judaism to traditional rabbinic Judaism involved political and social upheaval and struggle. In the early Talmudic period there was a political and social struggle for leadership of the Jewish people between the Sadducees, a priestly sect, and the Pharisees, a sect led by scribes and teachers of whom the Talmudic rabbis were ideological descendants. In the plain meaning of Scripture, the priests were clearly the religious leaders of the Jewish people from an institutional point of view – and, priests and priestly functions were clearly of central importance in the Biblical literature, as reflected in the Torah reading of Tetzaveh.

 

However, two things led to the Talmudic rabbis replacing of the priests as religious leaders of the Jewish people. First, and most important, the destruction by the Romans of the second Temple of Jerusalem, the institutional center of the priestly cult, led to the disappearance of the Sadducees. Second, the Talmudic rabbis used the Talmudic method of midrash to interpret Scripture not according to its plain or literal meaning – and, such a method enabled the Talmudic rabbis to claim authority from Scripture for teaching law and adjudicating legal matters even though in the plain meaning of Scripture such authority had been given to priests. Moreover, the Talmudic rabbis, as a part of a political and social struggle with priests over leadership of the Jewish people, used the midrashic method to significantly reduce the role of priests in the Jewish tradition even excluding priests in the opening teaching of Pirkei Avot from the transmission of Torah through the generations.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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