A Burning Sense of Devotion
a.k.a. Parashat Tzav
God gave Moses instructions for Aaron and his sons, the priests, regarding burnt offerings. The burnt offering had to be kept on the hearth
of the altar all night and the fire had to be kept burning. The attendant priest had to put on his linen
clothes and then take the ashes from the burnt offering and put them beside the altar. Then he had to change
his clothes and take the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.
God then gave instructions for the homage offering, which was to comprise a
combination of fine flour, oil and frankincense. The part of the offering not burnt had to be eaten,
unleavened, by Aaron and his sons in the court of the tent of meeting. This ritual was considered very holy,
just as the sin offering and the guilt offering. Every male among the children of Aaron that made a fire
offering would be sanctified by it.
The offering of anointment required a specified measure of fine flour. All of it had
to be burnt, with nothing eaten. Then God gave instructions for the sin offering, which would clear the
sinner of his sins. The sin offering was to be killed in the same place as the burnt offering. The priest who
made the offering had to eat it in the court of the tent of meeting.
The guilt offering, a most holy offering, had to be killed in the same place as the
burnt offering. Its blood had to be thrown onto the altar and all of its fatty parts had to be offered.
Priests were allowed to eat this offering. If a peace offering was offered in thanksgiving, it had to include
cakes of leavened bread. Rules regarding a freewill offering were also laid down.
Nobody was allowed to eat meat that had come into contact with any unclean thing.
Instead, this meat had to be burnt in the fire.
The fat of an ox, sheep or goat was not to be eaten. Fat from animals that had died or
been torn by beasts could be used for anything except food. Those who ate the fat of an animal offered to God
by fire were to be banished from the community. Anyone who ate blood of a bird or animal was also to be
God told Moses that supplicants had to bring the offerings to the altar with their own
hands, and then hand them over to the anointed priests.
These, then, were the offerings stipulated by God on Mount Sinai.
Having laid down these laws, God turned his attention to the consecration of the
priests. He ordered Moses to assemble Aaron and his sons, along with the whole congregation, at the entrance
to the tent of meeting. The priests were ritually cleansed and clothed in their priestly garments. Then Moses
took oil and anointed the tabernacle, the altar and all other ritual objects in a ceremony of consecration.
He poured oil onto Aaron’s head to anoint him.
Moses then killed a bull as a sin offering, and a ram as a burnt offering. After this
another ram, the ram of ordination, was sacrificed. Some of this ram’s blood was put on the right ears,
thumbs and great toes of Aaron and his sons as part of their ordination.
Moses told Aaron and sons to cook the meat at the door of the tent of meeting and eat
the bread in the basket of ordination. Flesh and bread left over had to go into the fire. They were then to
stay in the entrance for seven days until their ordination was complete.
Aaron and his sons carried out the commands God had given to Moses.
Commentary on the 25th parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: If I have to hear
another word about how to offer a sacrifice, I am going to tear my clothes and offer them on a pyre of my
own. What a load of nonsense! Your text is a model lesson in how to tie a people down with a host of rituals
that suggest obsessive-compulsive behavior of the worst kind – turn left, don’t turn right; put your right
hand on your head and the left one behind your back – that sort of thing.
MS: Go on! Reduce everything
to an absurd caricature! The whole point of ritual, my friend, is to bring communities into a pattern of
observance and behavior. This unites them as a people and directs their actions and thoughts in a meaningful
and worshipful way. Rituals have meaning. They are not simply ways of forcing people to be
SAS: That’s rot! All this
prescribed ritual does is turn them into a bunch of superstitious robots carrying out a choreographed routine
of bowing, scraping, twitching and – of course – burning. Sure it unites people, but it unites them in
superstition. It also breeds a herd mentality into them. Compliance is the order of the
MS: Oh, so you think
non-compliance is a virtue, do you? I’d like to see an ancient community survive that wasn’t bound by the
strictest adherence to rules and a joint purpose. The rituals you deride provided the main point of focus for
community action. It was the key uniting force for us Jews. Take our religious rituals away and we would have
been a far less cohesive community – a community that would not have survived amongst the tribes of the time.
What kept us going, and what still keeps us going, is our sense of identity and unity as a people. Religion
made that happen!
SAS: Nonsense! I refuse to
believe that a tiresome set of superstitious rules and practices were necessary to unite us and inspire us.
Couldn’t the people have been religious without engaging in rituals of killing and burning? Half the time
these rituals must have made people angry and frustrated! Can you imagine people committing accidental errors
being dragged up to make homage offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, burnt offerings – it’s a miracle
the people could even keep track of the rules.
MS: It’s those rules that
saved our lives. Without that glue to unite us, we would have been nothing, my friend. God’s gift to us was
the small, punctiliously performed, meticulously prescribed set of actions that made us the Jewish people.
Judaism was not a philosophical construct. It was, first and foremost, a set of observances. Only once we
acted as one could we be a people. In a room of 100 people, there are 100 opinions. Performing these rituals
before an altar is not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of devout practice.
SAS: Wow! That hurts my head,
not to mention insulting my intelligence. By your logic, any rule would be a good one as long as the
community united behind it.
MS: No, my friend – any rule
from God is a good one. If you’d been paying attention, you would have noticed that the rules are not
arbitrary. They have a point to them. They do not run counter to reason. For example, there’s the rule that a
priest must change his clothes when taking out the ashes.
SAS: I know what you’re going
to say – he did this to keep his best suit of priestly clothes clean as a sign of respect to God. The other
set was to take out the rubbish.
MS: Yes – you do understand
something, I see. And the other rules make sense too – like not eating meat that had come into contact with
something unclean. That is simply a matter of good hygiene. There’s nothing superstitious about
SAS: Fair enough, but why not
isolate what’s scientifically reasonable, and leave out all the mumbo jumbo and the horrific waste of time
MS: You know the answer. I’ve
already explained this to you. Sacrifice teaches people about loss and paying a price for wrongdoing. It is a
way of letting go of guilt and coming close to God. Rules and rituals are about acting in concert with a
common sense of devotion and recognising a world beyond ourselves. And doing these things for God shows that
our love for God and maintaining our covenant with him is our defining purpose.
SAS: I’d be sympathetic if
the purpose was a loving celebration of life. But my impression is that fear is at the heart of these
ceremonies. When you personally drag an animal to be slaughtered to the priests, you are directly complicit
in an act of violence against that blameless beast, and you are accepting the idea that God wants this act of
violence to take place. Any God who demands such an act of violence is a God to be feared, not
MS: Feared and loved,
Sigmund! There is nothing wrong with fearing God – after all, He created the universe and everything in it.
We should, as a consequence, respect and fear Him. We need awe. I could even argue that we should obey all
His commandments whether they made sense or not. There is, however, an internal logic in His universe and His
commandments do make sense.
SAS: I disagree. I think the
demand to kill animals in ritual fashion is a way of entrenching slaughter as a holy act. And the message
from this is that slaughter is pleasing to God. Any universal overlord who enjoys slaughter and sees purpose
in it is not to be trusted for He will quite possibly sanction human slaughter when the need arises. And,
indeed, that is exactly the kind of God we find in the Torah. When His people need land, He is quite willing
to let them slaughter to do so!
MS: No killing sanctioned in
the bible is gratuitous. Yes, life is a hard and brutal business. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be life! But
there are always restraints placed upon all ritual actions. Like the prohibition on eating
SAS: Well, thank goodness for
MS: It might seem obvious to
you that this is a wrong thing to do, but not all peoples have thought so. The Sabeans ate blood, for
example, because they thought it was a type of spirit food and could help them foresee future events. We
Jews, however, have always been repelled by this practice.
SAS: Yes, kosher dietary laws
are most careful in this regard. Explain to me how this prohibition is understood by believing, observant
MS: Well, as I understand it,
we have several reasons for the ban. The first is to distance ourselves from the idolatrous view that by
eating blood we partake of some mystical spiritual force that gives us mystical powers. Secondly, blood
belongs to God and is reserved for the altar. In other words, blood is the essence of life and therefore it
is God’s, not ours. That is why it is written, “For the life is in the blood.” And finally, eating blood
upsets the mood of the eater – he becomes cannibalistic in spirit.
SAS: From today’s perspective
I would add that blood is a potent broth containing proteins and millions of cells. You guys were protecting
yourselves against possible infection by parasitic organisms. Your instincts were right. I notice, though,
that many cultures still enjoy eating blood. Some people are very fond of their blood puddings. It sounds
very dodgy to me, although they cook them till the impurities are all steamed out.
MS: Blood pudding? That’s
insane! But seeing we are now more in agreement on matters, I’d like to finish our chat by pointing out
something about the portion which you might appreciate – the peace offering. The person who made such an
offering would receive comfort for matters afflicting his soul. This brought great spiritual and
psychological benefits, and an enhanced love of God. So your comment about sacrifices implying only a fearful
relationship with God does not hold.
SAS: Fear today and gone
tomorrow! I think these people rode a rollercoaster of emotion depending on their reading of God’s moods and
their own. Sacrifice of living beings is a primitive idea, and so is the idea of pleasing a non-existent
deity. But, yes, the idea of a peace offering – or offering of wellbeing – is gentler than some of the
others. It’s just a pity that the poor animal got no peace. He got death instead.
MS: Ah, my impression of an
accord was an illusion!
SAS: Goodbye, my
friend. Shabbat shalom!
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The Myth of a Zionist Conspiracy Grows after World
Before the outbreak of World War I Palestine was
part of the Ottoman Empire. Jews made up only 12% of the population. During the war Britain became committed
to the Zionist cause as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 indicates. From the British point of view, Zionists
represented potentially dependable allies in an area of strategic importance, Palestine being close to the
Suez Canal. The Balfour Declaration also expressed “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”. This statement
of support gave Zionism a long-awaited moral boost.
On December 9, 1917 British troops captured
Jerusalem from the Turks. An armistice was concluded with Turkey on 31 October 1918. Palestine fell under
British rule and the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed.
The Jewish right to a national home in Palestine was
recognized although the rights of other sectors of the population were also recognized. Provision was made
for Jewish immigration to Palestine and a significant wave of immigration took place between 1919 and 1923.
The Arabs in Palestine, who made up 88% of the population, refused to participate in institutions created in
terms of the ruling British Mandate. There was to be no joint consultation and administration between Jewish
and Arab communities.
Zionism’s advance in Palestine sent alarm bells
ringing throughout Europe amongst people influenced by a newfangled form of anti-Semitism. The Blood Libel
was the prevailing anti-Jewish conspiracy theory of pre-modern Europe; now the myth of a global Jewish
conspiracy raised its head.
The new conspiracy theory regarding Jews owed a good
deal to a literary hoax, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, that appeared in the West in 1920 after its
initial publication in Russia in 1905 (see Week 26’s history section). A number of myths arose from that
fraudulent text. These took wing as a result of the text’s flagrantly anti-Gentile tone, and its purported
program of action. There is no doubt that the Protocols were not
written by Jews, but by people who wanted it widely believed that the wild falsities in the Protocols were
practised by Jews.
A popular belief arose in Germany and Austria that
the German and Austrian defeat in World War 1 was brought about by Jewish and Communist traitors working on
behalf of foreign interests. This “stabbing in the back” myth was widely believed even though German Jews
served their country with distinction in the war. Records show that 100,000 of 550,000 German Jews fought in
the war, with 12,000 losing their lives and 35,000 decorated for their
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia also sent shock
waves throughout Europe. Because a number of prominent
communists were of Jewish lineage – Trotsky, for example, and Bela Kun in Hungary – there was a belief that
Jews were largely behind a push to overthrow the established order in Europe. The Protocols explicitly
referred to the need to destabilise the existing order, so many were prepared to believe that the Jews were
plotting social revolution behind the scenes.
Thirdly, the belief arose in Germany, Austria and
Hungary that the Jews had helped to engineer the war to bring Europe to its knees financially and
politically. Along with this belief went the view that Jews had exploited the war to enrich themselves and
had helped to prolong it so they could lead the Bolshevik Revolution and push towards a world revolution.
Anti-Semites spread the rumour that Jews controlled the finances of the reparation process and were enriching
Another anti-Semitic argument was that foreign Jews
had dominated peace negotiations after World War 1 and had succeeded in dividing Germans and Hungarians by
It was also claimed that Jews were intentionally
weakening the pure Aryan bloodline by promoting intermarriage, sexual freedom and
By the time Hitler came to power in 1933,
anti-Semitism in the Reich was rife and the climate was ripe for the anti-Semitic decrees by the National
Socialists that were to follow with such devastating effect.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
BEN: It’s horrifying how this
new libel arose to replace the blood libel.
DAD: Well, it didn’t supplant
it; it just elbowed it to one side and took centre stage. Yes, the idea of a global conspiracy theory
involving the Jews became very powerful and still is.
CHAYA: It’s extraordinary how
many people still believe that the Protocols are real and the whole thing wasn’t dreamt up by a hate-filled
scaremonger. I have read bits of the Protocols and they are such patent nonsense. To think that any serious
group of Jews could have sat down to discuss such plans logically is beyond the scope of
DAD: Not the belief of those
who hate Jews and who are always looking for reasons to support their prejudices. The Protocols had been
published and looked plausible to those willing to be gullible instead of critically astute. Latter-day
anti-Semites are no less uncritical and no less prejudiced and so they believe totally that the Protocols are
BEN: And what about people’s
gullibility regarding alleged Jewish complicity in the war? All over the world, people must think that Jews
have no morals and are hell bent on global control at any cost.
CHAYA: That’s exactly what
many do think. We’re the global bogeymen so in their eyes we’d sacrifice every virtue in the universe and in
our bible to get what we want – domination for ourselves and our religion.
BEN: Even at the expense of
starting a war that would kill thousands of our fellow Jews from Germany, let alone from other countries that
would be implicated?
DAD: Most people wouldn’t put it past the mythical, rich, powerful Jews that
supposedly control all the world’s most powerful institutions. Such legendary demons would think nothing of
giving up their own people’s lives for a greater long-term cause.
CHAYA: Yes, that’s how
conspiracy theorists think, Ben. They assume that the plotters would do anything, literally, to accomplish
their ambitions. They think we wouldn’t apply precepts like “Thou shalt not kill” when it came to non-Jews.
The fictional Jewish conspirators, perpetuated by Protocols of The Elders of Zion, have been elevated to the
level of master terrorists.
BEN: But there must come a
point when people see the truth. I mean, it’s obvious that there are many centres of political power in the
world. The very idea of global domination by any group of people is laughable.
DAD: Religion and politics
share the same delusion, Ben. When we can no longer see what is happening, we assume that much, much more is
happening somewhere else – either in heaven or in some evil star chamber that nobody has ever actually
BEN: So people’s fantasies
about power and control become the reality?
DAD: In effect, yes. And when
a book like the Protocols comes along, people seize on it as proof that their fantasies are real. The virtual
world of the imagination suddenly meshes with the real world. The real world ceases to be real. We become
embroiled in a matrix of layered facts and fantasies.
CHAYA: The problem is, when
anti-Semitism is framed like this there’s no way out, is there? Jews will always be suspected of committing
numerous vile, treacherous acts against everybody not supporting their supposed agenda. And where evidence
exists to refute false claims, it will simply be passed off as a clever part of the supposed
DAD: Yes. What we must hope
for, and strive for, is a world in which a substratum of reason and sense will emerge when the maps of
fantasy pasted onto our mental topography can be peeled away.
CHAYA: I think that is
unlikely to happen.
BEN: But if it doesn’t, we
are going to be the universal scapegoats forever.
DAD: Ben and Chaya, welcome
to the world of Judaism!
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· He should be reincarnated as a chandelier – by day he should hang and by night he
· The greatest goal is to look for a goal.
· Why should you be anxious about a world that is not yours? (The Sassover
· When wine goes in, secrets come out.
· The rich may go down and the poor up – but they still don’t end up
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Maimonides (1135- 1204)
He identified the 613 commandments and codified the Talmud into a logical code from a
maze of conflicting statements. He wrote the Guide for the
Perplexed which was the outstanding Jewish theological philosophical book of the Middle Ages and
influenced Christian theologians. He was essentially rational in
his outlook and tried to reconcile the ideas of Judaism and Aristotle. He has been a man of great influence
through the whole Western World.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for coming together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week
with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.