Old Testament Thought – Exodus: the Book of Redemption – Mishpatim (Laws) – Text and Interpretation: The Case of Abortion

Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law – Jao Zeferino Da Costa (1868)

Exodus 21:22-25

Mishpatim מִּשְׁפָּטִים

          The Torah portion titled Mishpatim (Hebrew for “laws”) fleshes out the “details of the predominantly civil law that was to govern the Israelites such as laws relating to slaves and their release, personal injures and property laws, laws of social responsibility, justice and compassion, and laws relating to Shabbat and the festivals.  It ends with the ratification of the covenant, and Moses ascending the mountain for forty days.” [1]

Text and Interpretation:  The Case of Abortion

          The issue de jour of late is the question of whether various state laws which have recently been passed are in accord with the Constitution of the United States.  The general consensus of opinion seems to be that these recently passed laws are a strategy to bring before the United States Supreme Court a challenge to its precedent in the case of Roe v. Wade which established the right of a woman to obtain an abortion except in very limited circumstances.  Those proposing these state laws seek to “criminalize” abortion in any form and level a criminal penalty on those who perform them on the basis of a theology which concludes that an unborn fetus is a legal person and an abortion of that person is equivalent to homicide. 

          In a recent article in The Conversation Professor Rachel Mikva an associate professor of Jewish Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary stated that, “there is more than one, religious view on abortion” and she then proceeds to examine the Jewish texts on the subject.  Her conclusion is “that the majority of foundational Jewish texts assert that a fetus does not attain the status of personhood until birth.” “And although this passage (Exodus  21:22-25) reinforces the idea that a fetus is not yet a human life, some orthodox authorities allow abortion only when the mother’s life is at risk.”

          Coincidentally in Sacks there is an essay titled “Text and Interpretation: The Case of Abortion”.  The Rabbi’s theme of the essay is summed up in the opening paragraph:

Behind Jewish belief in Torah shebe’al Peh, the “Oral Law” lies a fundamental truth.  The meaning of a text is not given by the text itself.  Between a text and its meaning lies the act of interpretation – and this depends on who is interpreting, in what context, and with what beliefs.

          He goes on to say that without an authoritative tradition of interpretation there would be chaos.  This is what Professor Mikva refers to as the halakha or “Jewish law” which she describes as the result of “a careful reading of biblical and rabbinic teachings.” 

          The Babylonian Talmud demonstrates how this works.  A convert to Judaism went to the great sage Hillel and asked to be converted but only to the Written but not to the Oral Law. The great sage made no protest.  On the first day of instruction Hillel taught him the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, bet, gimmel, daled. On the next day he taught him the same letters in reverse order: daled, gimmel, bet, and aleph.  The convert protested and said that yesterday he had been taught the reverse.  You see said the sage you have to rely on me even to learn the alphabet.  Rely on me when it comes to the Oral Law.”[2]

          As current events clearly show the subject of abortion remains deeply contentious.  The passage cited by Professor Mikva and also by Rabbi Sacks, Exodus 21:22-23, does not deal with abortion per se but the consequences of injuries to a pregnant woman as a result of a fight between two men.  If the woman is accidentally injured and caused to miscarry then the offender must pay damages to the husband or as a court shall determine, but if the woman is killed then there must be a life for a life.[3]

          Rabbi Sacks points out that the Hebrew word ason is commonly translated as “fatal injury” but can also mean “mischief, evil, harm, calamity or disaster.  Jacob uses the word when his sons tell him that Joseph then the viceroy of Egypt has commanded them to bring Benjamin, their youngest brother, back to Egypt with them in order to prove they are not spies. Jacob initially refuses permission lest Benjamin should meet with disaster (ason) and it “send my white head down to the grave in sorrow (Genesis 44:29).[4]

          According to Rabi Sacks one thing is clear from studying the Jewish sages and that is that causing a woman to miscarry and thereby killing the unborn foetus is not a capital offense with regard to halakha. Until birth the foetus (also spelled fetus) does not have the legal status of a person according the sages in the land of Israel. [5]

          And now the plot thickens as the interpretation of the word “ason” by an Alexandrian Jew named Philo was to “play a significant part in the religious development of the history of the West not because it had an impact on Jews but rather on Christians. 

          In commenting on the text in Exodus 21:22-23 Philo used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible which was in Greek.  In explaining the principles of Jewish law to a non-Hebrew reading public, Philo turns to this passage from Exodus and renders it as follows:

But if anyone has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strikes her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he has committed and also he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence.  But if the child which was conceived has assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world.[6]

          Note that the emphasis has shifted from the concern about the extent of the injury to the third party, the woman, to an emphasis on the stage of formation of the foetus and its potential death.  Its death, per Philo, constitutes homicide or foeticide. Philo was using the Septuagint version of the scriptures which translates “ason” not as “calamity,  but rather as “form”.

          The first Christians wrote their texts in Greek rather than Hebrew and they were intensely dependent on the Hebrew Bible.  As the Gnostic Marcion discovered the Church denounced any attempt to remove Christianity completely from the Hebrew Bible as heresy. And, because of the heavy influence of the Greek the early Christian teaching on abortion followed Philo rather than the sages of Israel.  Augustine stated that the key distinction was between embryo informatus and embryo formatus – an unformed and formed foetus. [7] If a foetus was formed [8] then causing its death was murder.  This was the rule taught by Tertullian[9] in the second century which remained so until Pope Sixtus V decreed that abortion at any stage was murder.[10]  His decree was vacated by Gregory XIV in 1866[11] but then reinstated by Pius IX in 1869.[12]

          As both Professor Mikva and Rabbi Sacks conclude while in Jewish law a foetus may not be regarded as a “person” it is a potential person and must be protected.  But the difference between Judaism and Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist Christian theology is that in Judaism abortion is not murder whereas in Catholicism and Fundamentalism it is.

          Rabbi Sacks noted that the difference in theological positions has arisen because of the interpretation of a single word, ason. [13] He notes further that “without tradition, and all the sages meant by “the Oral Law” we would simply not know what a verse means.  Between a text and its meaning stands the act of interpretation.  Without rules to guide us – rules handed down across the generations – we would be in the same position as Hillel’s student, unable even to begin. [14]


[1] Jonathan Sacks, Exodus:  The Book of Redemption, Maggid Books (Jerusalem 2010). This blog entry follows the form and  ideas of Rabbi Sacks essay with some additions and commentary.  It is not meant as an authoritative commentary or the product of original research.  All due credit must go to Rabbi Sacks, and to Professor Rachel Mikva whose comments are used under a license through creative commons. . 

[2] Sacks, page 168.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, page 169, note 3 states that “ The word appears three times in the Jacob-Joseph-Benjamin story (Genesis 42:4, 42:38, 44:29) and twice in the present context (Exodus 21:22,23). These are the only occurrences in the Hebrew Bible.

[5] Ibid, page 169.

[6] Philo, The Special Laws, III: XIX, ed. Leopold Cohn, vol 5:180-182, and as cited in Sacks at page 170.

[7] Augustine, Questiones in Exodum 80. See note 9 of Sacks, page 171.

[8] Forty or Eighty days?  There was disagreement as to the period.

[9]  Sacks, note 10 page 171:  Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul XXXVII: “On the Formation and State of the Embryo.” On the history of Christian attitudes to abortion, see E. Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1906). Some scholars disagree and argue that Tertullian taught that all abortion at whatever stage was murder.

[10]  Effraenatam, of 28 October 1588. 

[11] See  Nicholas Terpstra, Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (Johns Hopkins University Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-8018-9499-2), p. 91

[12] Apostolicae Sedis moderationi

[13] Some sources indicate that there was much more to this than the Septuagint translation of ason . While Catholic bishops claim that the condemnation of all abortion started from the beginning of the Church that position has been refuted by a number of scholars according to some sources.  However, the same sources indicate that the earliest Church legislation condemned abortion in all forms, There is a divergence of opinion on this issue. See Wikipedia contributors, “Catholic Church and abortion,” Wikipedia, The Free encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Catholic_Church_and_abortion&oldid=898184309

(accessed May 24, 2019).

[14] Sacks, page 172.

OLD TESTAMENT THOUGHT: The Book of Exodus שְׁמוֹת – Whose Footsteps Do We follow When We Pray?

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141: 2     (Opening Sentence for the Evening Prayer Office in the Book of Common Prayer)                                         

Whose Footsteps Do We Follow When We Pray?

          One afternoon during my tenure as the coordinator for the Daily Offices at our Cathedral I received a telephone call from the Dean’s secretary informing me that there were people waiting in the chapel for Evening Prayer and the assigned officiant had not arrived.  She asked if I would come and lead the service which I did.  In discussing this with a priest friend I realized that in our parish and probably in the whole of the Episcopal Church services are not considered quite right or even valid unless they are led by an officiant either clerical or lay.

The above phrase is the title chosen by Rabbi Sacks[2] for the next topic in his discussion of the readings from the Parasha of Tetzaveh. He begins the discussion by saying that the different roles of priests and prophets represent two different ways of being, two distinct modes of consciousness.   

          A key question in studying Jewish spirituality is “what is the nature of worship in Judaism?”  Does the duty to pray derive from a Biblical command, or from a rabbinic tradition which replaced the ritual sacrifices of the Tabernacle and the Temple with prayers? And, is there an obligation to pray levied upon each individual or is the obligation a communal responsibility which may be fulfilled by a leader?

          During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries two of Judaism’s greatest sages, Maimonides and Nahmanidies debated these questions.  To them it was an important issue which had far reaching implications in understanding the nature of Jewish spirituality. 

Maimonides in his Sefer Ha Mitzvot[3], regarded prayer as a one of the 613 biblical commands[4] of positive duties citing passages in Exodus 23:25 (“And you shall serve the Lord your God”) and Deuteronomy 11:13 (And to serve him with all your heart) interpreting “service of the heart” to mean prayer. According to rabbi Maimonides “…every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer.”

Nahmonides argues to the contrary that prayer is to be regarded as rabbinic, not biblical. And when people prayed during the biblical era they did not do so because they had a duty to do so but rather because they “knew that God, in his kindness, listens to prayer and that prayer was a privilege not an obligation.”  As for the command to serve him with all your heart, it simply means we should “be wholehearted in our service to God”.  And, the primary service to God during the biblical era was the offering of sacrifices at the altar. The institution of prayer as a “religious obligation” was post-biblical. 

The “middle case” in the debate is stated by one R. Yose son of R. Hanina who attributes the beginning of the prayers: morning, afternoon, and evening, as having been instituted by the patriarchs and “instituted to replace the daily sacrifices.”  Morning Prayer was established by Abraham who got up early and went to the place “where he had stood”.  Afternoon prayer was instituted by Isaac who “went out to the field towards evening”.  And, Evening Prayer was instituted by Jacob as he had received a vision at night of a ladder descending from earth to have angels ascending and descending”. [5]

These prayers correspond to the daily sacrifices: the morning and afternoon prayers represent the morning and afternoon offerings. The evening prayer mirrors the completion of the sacrificial process (the burning of the limbs) which was done at night.[6]

Priests and Prophets -Again

          The debate about the nature of prayer is, according to Rabbi Sacks, reminiscent of the different ways in which priests and prophets approached God. 

          The prophets prayed sua sponte that is on their own accord or spontaneously and used words.  They approached God directly and their prayer arose out of the situation of the moment. Examples would include Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah; Jacob’s prayer before his encounter with Esau; Moses prayer asking God to forgive the Israelites after the golden calf; and Hannah’s prayer for a child. No two such prayers are alike.

          Contrast this with the practice of the priests.  With them what was primary was the sacrifice, not the words.  Even though the Levites sang some songs in the Temple worship for the most part priestly worship took place in silence. Actions were precisely regulated and any deviation such as the spontaneous offering of incense by Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, was fraught with danger.[7] A priest was to do “the same thing, in the same place, at the same time, following a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycle”.[8]

          The rabbi sages do not disagree that the priest and the prophets approached prayer differently, but they ask:  which approach are we to follow today?  To which tradition does prayer rightfully belong? And, in Judaism the answer is that both traditions are followed in practice.  The individual congregants pray once silently, and then again out loud thereby blending the two traditions.  This bifurcated process is followed in the morning and afternoon prayers but not in the evening prayers as there were no sacrifices in the evening only the burning of the remains.

Fixed Prayer and Spontaneous Prayer

Another priest friend once told me a story about a Christian unity conference he attended which was also attended by clergy of the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions.  It was his turn to offer the prayer for the group and the Baptist minster, who was a good friend of his, joked “o.k. go ahead and give us one of those “canned prayers” you folks like so much” to which the padre responded with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  The idea of fixed prayers as in the Book of Common Prayer are viewed with suspicion by members of some other Christian traditions as they feel that the reading of a written or fixed prayer is somehow not a genuine prayer.

In Judaism a rabbi named Eliezer made the statement that “if a person makes his prayer fixed (Hebrew, keva) then it is not a genuine prayer.”[9]  Later interpreters of this statement say that he was not speaking of the words we say but the way we say them, and we should not “regard prayer as a burden or read it like one reads a letter.” Others interpret his statement as meaning that we should say a new prayer every day or introduce something new into the eighteen blessings. [10]

There is also a disagreement concerning the obligation of each individual as opposed to the community with regard to prayer.  One side of the argument from an anonymous source holds that as the leader of the prayer is obligated to recite the prayer so each individual is obligated.  However, Rabbi Gamliel holds that: “The leader of prayer exempts the individual members of the congregation.”

The common thread in all these disagreements is “a profound difference of opinion as to which tradition of prayer is primary:  priestly or prophetic. The priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the whole community whereas the “patriarchs and the prophets spoke as individuals, spontaneously as the circumstances required.”

Maimonides and Nahmanidies disagree concerning the nature of the obligation to pray.  And, not only do they disagree about the obligation but about the nature of prayer itself

For Maimonides prayer is a biblical obligation as the patriarchs and the prophets spoke directly to God each in their own way and spontaneously.[11]  For him the heart of prayer is the prophetic experience of the individual in conversation with God.

Nahmanides argues that the patriarchs did not set a binding precedent.[12]  They spoke to God as they were moved to do so and not because there was an obligation to pray. He argues that the primary form of worship during the biblical era was the sacrifices offered by the priests, first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple.  Prayer replaced the sacrifices only after the destruction of the Temple and there was no longer a functioning priesthood.  It was therefore a rabbinic and not a biblical obligation. He further argues that prayer is the collective worship of the Jewish people “a continuation of the pattern set by the Temple service.

In the whole of Jewish history there have been two forms of avoda (service to God):  the priestly and the prophetic.[13] During the biblical era they existed side by side but after the Hebrew Bible reached closure and the Temple was destroyed prayer became the “single form” of communication between heaven and earth. The rabbis were then divided on the genealogy of prayer.  Is it like a sacrifice or the heartfelt pleas of the prophets? The conflict was resolved by combining the two forms as was mentioned earlier. Thus, the worshippers say the prayer silently and then out loud in response to a leader.  Thereby giving deference to both prayer methods handed down through the ages.

Returning to the story about the parishioners “waiting” for an officiant to arrive perhaps we can see in that traces of the priestly tradition of prayer and the argument of Rabbi Gamliel who insisted on a fixed text and promoted the idea that the leader of prayer is “like a priest” whose leadership exempts the individual members of the congregation from their duty to pray.[14] While the Book of Common Prayer seeks to balance the two historical approaches to prayer, as in Judaism, the notion that there must be an “officiant” leading the community in order for the prayer to be valid seemingly remains with us.


[1] This blog entry represents the second in a series which are meant to chronicle a study of the Old Testament books through a Judaic lens so as to more fully understand the interrelation of Judaic customs and practices on New Testament writings. The ideas expressed here originate with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Exodus: The Book of Redemption. 

[2] All quoted material is from Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, pages 225-231.  All credits belong to Rabbi Sacks. 

[3] Book of Commandments ספר המצוות.

[4] Rabbinic tradition has it that 613 commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it does not specify those included in the enumeration. Maimonidesmethodically and artfully crafts a list of 613 commandments in a work that serves as a prolegemenon to the Mishneh Torah, his monumental code of law. (Prolegemenon from the ancient Greek neuter noun: προλεγόμενον (prolegómenon, “that which is said beforehand,”)

[5] Sacks, page 227.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Making of a Strange Fire.  On the eighth day of the opening of the Tabernacle Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu took their thuribles and offered incense even though it had not been requested or commanded by God.  As a result, they were consumed by flame.  The meaning of the story has been debated for centuries.  But the moral is summed up in a sermon by Bishop Edward Salmon in a sermon to a Nashotah House graduating class:  “Be careful when handling holy things”.

[8] Sacks, page 228.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Eighteen Blessings: The Amidah (Hebrew: תפילת העמידה, Tefilat HaAmidah, “The Standing Prayer”), also called the Shemoneh Esreh (שמנה עשרה), is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Observant Jews recite the Amidah at each of three prayer services in a typical weekday: morning, afternoon, and evening. The typical weekday Amidah actually consists of nineteen blessings, though it originally had eighteen (hence the alternative name Shemoneh Esreh, meaning “Eighteen”). The prayer is recited standing with feet firmly together, and preferably while facing Jerusalem. 

[11] Sacks, p. 229.

[12] Ibid.  

[13] Sacks, p. 230.

[14] Sacks, p. 229.

OLD TESTAMENT THOUGHT: The Parasha of Tetzaveh תְּצַוֶּה Exodus 27:20- 30:10


          It is intended that this writing be one in a series which chronicles a study of the books of the Old Testament from a Judaic perspective. Presently my study is being guided by a text written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which examines various readings from the Book of Exodus through a series of essays.[1]  This paper is meant to be in the nature of a report designed to outline my progress in this course of reading.  It is not meant to be a report on original research but rather a summary of the findings of others much more qualified than I.  

Some years ago I read Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy by Bishop John Shelby Spong.[2]  In that book Bishop Spong’s premise is that the New Testament scriptures emerged from a Jewish community and that they must be read along with an intimate knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling along with an understanding of what the Jews call “midrash”. [3] 

At the same time as reading Bishop Spong’s book I was guided by a clergy friend to a new translation of the Pentateuch[4] made by Professor Everett Fox titled The Five Books of Moses.  Professor Fox explains in his preface that one of the main reasons for his translation is to cause the reader to “encounter a text which challenges him or her to rethink what these ancient books are and what they mean …and become an active listener rather than a passive receiver.”  He goes on to say his translation is guided by “…the principle that the Hebrew Bible, like much of the literature of antiquity, was meant to be read aloud, and that consequently it must be translated with careful attention to rhythm and sound.”   That thought seems to reflect the notion that Bible reading is akin to playing music or reciting poetry. And, in my role as a leader of the Daily Offices at my Cathedral  I was able to literally see and hear the scripture as if it were music being played which conveyed a deep underlying meaning in addition to its literal reading.  The reading of the scripture aloud on a daily basis brought out what a musician would call the “inner voices”.  Another way to put it is that the sum of the parts was less than the whole.  There was something coming through that oral reading that was lost in the mere recitation of the literal text in one’s mind.

The same cleric friend who introduced me to Professor Fox also introduced me to Rabbi Lord Sacks.  We have been reading his book [5] and discussing it chapter by chapter each week.  In our discussions we find ourselves relating what we learn from Rabbi Sacks and Professor Fox to our understanding of New Testament thought.  The depth of the New Testament readings has increased immeasurably by our ventures into the Jewish world of the Torah.  Many of the stories relating to Yeshua bar Joseph (Jesus) which seemed  inconsequential in past readings have now taken on new meaning and depth because of the newly acquired knowledge about Jewish history and culture, particularly the culture of the Temple. 

The Structure of the Book and An Introduction to the Jewish Parasha

          In the liturgical Christian churches such as the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and others we read the scriptures throughout the year according to a lectionary which is a list of readings deigned to be read during the Daily Office and at the Eucharistic celebration during the Mass.

 In Judaism the annual cycle of readings is known as the parasha, in Hebrew, פָּרָשָׁה Pārāšâ, meaning portion.  It formally means a section of a biblical book in the Masoretic[6] text of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  The Tanakh is traditionally divided into Torah, or teaching, the five books of Moses, Nev’im, the prophets, and Ketuvim, the writings.  In the Masoretic text parashah sections are designated by various types of spacing between them, as found in Torah scrolls, scrolls of the books of Nev’im or Ketuvim, masoretic codices from the Middle Ages and printed editions of the masoretic text.  The division of the text into parashot for the biblical books is independent of chapter and verse numbers, which are not part of the masoretic tradition. Parashot are not numbered, but some have special names.[7]

Rabbi Lord Sacks has taken these special names and used them like chapter designations. Thus he covers the Parashat utilizing their Hebrew names:  Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshallah, Yitro (Jethro), Mishpatim, Teruma, Tetzaveh, Ki Tissa Vayak-Hel and Pekudei.  Each parasha is divided into four essays which cover the main points of the scripture set out in the parasha.  

For purposes of this writing we will discuss the parasha Tetzaveh which in Hebrew means “You command”.  This phrase makes up the first words of the mandated scripture reading which is from Chapter 27 of the Book of Exodus starting at the 20th verse. Tetzaveh is usually read during the month of Adar in the Hebraic calendar which roughly corresponds to the month of March in the Gregorian calendar.

A helpful beginning would be a recitation of verses from the passage which begins as follows:

You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. . .

Introduction to the Jewish Parasha

          Rabbi Sacks summarizes the substance of this parasha as follows:

 In Tetzaveh, the role of the priests in the service of the Tabernacle takes center stage.  Moses moves to the background in these readings and his brother Aaron is highlighted as the key figure as he becomes the High Priest.  We will be studying the tasks of the priesthood, their robes of office and their consecration, as well as further details about the Tabernacle itself.

…the essays that follow look at what made priests different from other kinds of religious leader, especially the prophet.  The first looks at the priest as the as a symbol of constancy and continuity in Jewish life.  The second looks at the parts priest and prophet played in the development of Jewish prayer.  The third analyzes the relationship between Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest, and the last act in the five-part story about brothers that began in Genesis.  The fourth essay looks at the idea of robes of office and their place in Judaism and other cultures. [8]

Priests and Prophets

            Our study begins with a question.  Why is it that the greatest leader and prophet of the Hebrew people (Moses) is absent from mention in this set of readings?  Our text offers three explanations. 

First, it cites the Vilna Gaon[9] to say that because the time prescribed for reading this portion of scripture usually falls during the week which includes the seventh day of Adar[10], the day of Moses death, his absence from the text is a way of expressing this loss.  

Second, some argue that the commentary of Ba’al Ha Turim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, 1270-1340) relates it to the plea of Moses found in Exodus 32:32 in which he begs God to forgive the Israelites sin in their having made and worshipped the golden calf.  He basically says that if you do not forgive them then “blot me out of the book you have written”.  Therefore Moses absence from these passages is explained by the old adage that “The curse of a sage comes true, even if it was conditional and the condition has not been satisfied”. [11]

And third, some say that the Paneah Raza compiled by R. Isaac ben Judah Halevi takes the position that the reason has to do with the intense anger of God at Moses for continuing to refuse to take up God’s call to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.  After Moses plea in which he asks God to “please send someone else, God tells him that his brother Aaron would accompany him. In his stubborn refusal to “step up” Moses thereby forfeited the role of becoming the first of Israel’s priests which then fell to Aaron, his brother, and therefore this is the reason he is missing from this Parashat.  

Religious Leadership in Judaism

          In Judaism two forms of religious leadership are recognized: the navi and the kohen, the prophet and the priest. The greatest of the prophets is considered to be Moses. The prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc. were known as persons of drama.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel:

 The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions. [12]

The priests were quieter, a political, serving in the Sanctuary rather than the public eye.  But their role was no less important than the prophets in sustaining Israel as a holy nation.

Each group developed its own approach to communicating with the divine and as a result each developed its own unique “culture” which served to further define it.

Rabbi Lord Sacks recounts the differences in the two orders[13].

“The role of the priest was dynastic. It passed from father to son.  The role of the prophet was not dynastic.  Moses’ own sons did not succeed him; Joshua his disciple did.

The task of the priest related to his office.  It was not inherently personal or charismatic.  The prophets by contrast, each imparted their own personality. “No two prophets had the same style.

The priests wore a special uniform; the prophets did not.[14]

There were rules of kavod (honor) due to a Kohen. There are no corresponding rules for honor due to a prophet.  A prophet is honored by being listened to, not by formal protocols of respect.

The priests were removed from the people. They served in the Temple.  They were not allowed to become defiled.  There were restrictions on whom they might marry.  The prophets, by contrast, were usually part of the people.  They might be shepherds like Moses or Amos, or farmers like Elisha.  Until the word or vision came, there was nothing special in their work or social class.

The priest offered up sacrifices in silence. The prophet served God through the spoken word.

They lived in two different modes of time.  The priest functioned in cyclical time- the day (or week or month) that is like yesterday or tomorrow. The prophet lived in covenantal (sometimes inaccurately called linear) time – the today that is radically unlike yesterday or tomorrow.[15] 

The service of the priest never changed; that of the prophet was constantly changing. Another way of putting this is to say the priest worked to sanctify nature, the prophet to respond to history. 

          The differential between priest and prophet becomes even more pronounced upon examination of the key words used to describe each group.[16]   For the koen the key words were kodesh and hol, tahor and tamei; sacred and secular, pure and impure. The key words in the vocabulary of the prophets are tzedek and mishpat, hesed and sahamim; righteousness and justice, kindness and compassion. The key verbs of the koen are lehorot and lehavdil, to instruct and to distinguish.  The key activity of the prophet is to proclaim “the word of the Lord.” The distinction between priestly and prophetic consciousness (torat kohanim and torat nevi’im) is fundamental to Judaism, and I would argue, to Christianity also. The distinction is reflected in the differences between law and narrative

The priest speaks the word of God for all time while the prophet speaks the word of God for his time. The great Hillel[17] stated the famous dictum “What is hateful to you do not do to others. The rest is commentary: go and learn.” [18]  This set up a debate among the sages as to the most important thing:  sacrifice, faith, or ethics.  One sage Ben Zoma argues that there is an all more embracing verse, namely “Hear O Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4) [19].  While Ben Nannas argues that there is a more embracing verse still, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18.) And, Ben Pazzi argues “there is a more embracing verse still:  “Prepare one lamb in the morning and the other towards evening” (Numbers 28:4).[20]  In response a Rabbi attending the debate stood up and declared “the law is in accordance with Ben Pazzi.”. 

Ben Pazzi says Rabbi Lord Sacks is making the fundamental assertion that without the daily service to God, there would be neither Jewish faith nor Jewish ethics.[21]  And, the same could be said for Christian faith and Christian ethics.  And, as we will see in future essays the sacrifices turn into prayer offices after the destruction of the Temple. Thus, the sages argue for the practice of morning and evening prayer, daily. 

          The Jewish sages have over the course of time debated the nature and proper practice of prayer and whether prayer is in effect a substitute for the sacrifices of the priests of ancient Israel or more like the heartfelt pleas of the prophets.  In other words must prayer be formal and communal, or individual and spontaneous?

          According to Rabbi Lord Sacks[22] in modern Judaic practice each prayer is said twice, except the evening prayer. The prayer is said silently as individuals and then out loud as a community.  This practice has become so ingrained that it is done without hesitation and almost without notice.   The explanation is simple.  The first recitation is prophetic and the second priestly.  The prayers are recited informally and personally, then formally and communally. [23]  The liturgical heritage of Judaism  and its influence on developing  Israel into a “holy” nation is thus re asserted each time the prayers are made.  This is much akin to the Eucharistic celebration during the Mass.


          In this part of parasha Tetzaveh Moses steps back and Aaron moves to the fore.  Aaron assumes the role of high priest, the priesthood and the role of the priests thereby take center stage. The role of the priest and the prophet are different yet complimentary in that both are necessary to sustain Israel in its unique role as a “holy nation”.  “For whereas Moses lit the fire in the souls of the Jewish people, Aaron tended the flame and turned it into “an eternal light.” ”[24]


[1] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption published by Maggid Books, Jerusalem in 2010.

[2] Spong, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2016.  The Jewish Encyclopedia defines Midrash as follows: the term “midrash” designates an exegesis which, going more deeply than the mere literal sense, attempts to penetrate into the spirit of the Scriptures, …

[3] Spong at page 3.

[4] The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

[5] Sacks, ibid.

[6] The Masoretic Text (MT or 𝕸) is the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the 24 books of Tanakh for Rabbinic Judaism. It is not the original text (Urtext) of the Hebrew Bible: Urtext has never been found. It was primarily copied, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries of the Common Era (CE).

[7] Taken from the Wikipedia article on Parashah.

[8] Sacks, Covenant and Conversation The Book of Exodus: The Book of Redemption (Jerusalem 2010) 219

[9] The Vila Gaon: lijah ben Solomon Zalman (Hebrew: ר’ אליהו בן שלמה זלמן‎ Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman known as the Vilna Gaon [He is commonly referred to in Hebrew as ha-Gaon he-Chasid mi-Vilna, “the pious genius from Vilnius”. See also Sacks, Covenant and Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption (2010 Jerusalem), 219 citing Dov Eliach, ed. Peninim MiShulhan HaGara al HaTorah (Jerusalem: 1997), 129.

[10] Adar (Hebrew: אֲדָר Adar; from Akkadian adaru) is the sixth month of the civil year and the twelfth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar, roughly corresponding to the month of March in the Gregorian calendar.

[11] Commentary of Ba’al HaTurim to Exodus 27:20 cited by Sacks on page 220.

[12] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York, 1962) page 10.

[13]  Sacks at 221. 

[14][14] Sacks notes that this is why there were prophetesses but no priestesses: this corresponds to the difference between formal office and personal authority. Citing R. Elliyahu Bashi-Doron, Responsa Binyan Av 1:65.

[15] Covenantal Time.  Heschel, at page 26, explains this concept by saying that the prophet participates in the divine pathos.  “An analysis of prophetic utterances shows that the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with divine pathos and a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet’s reflection of, or participation in, the divine pathos.  The typical prophetic state of mind is one of being taken up into the heart of the divine pathos; sympathy is the prophet’s answer to inspiration, correlative to revelation.  See also the Appendix at Heschel p.489 titled : “A Note on the Meaning of Pathos”  which contains the statement that “Pathos … means that which happens to a person or thing; what one has experienced, good or bad; emotion, passion; state, condition. In general, the ancient classical idea of pathos included all conditions of feeling and will in which man is dependent on the outer world.”

[16] Sacks, at page 221.

[17] Hillel was a Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud

[18] Shabbat 31a cited by Sacks page 222.

[19] Commonly known as the “Shema.”

[20][20] Thus the connection with verse 2 of Psalm 141 and its reference to the “evening sacrifice.”  Here the interpreters of the scripture are specifying daily morning and evening sacrifices which in time become daily and morning prayer after the destruction of the Temple. An opening sentence of the evening prayer office in the Book of Common Prayer says: “Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice” B.C.P. page 61 .

[21] Sacks, page 222

[22] See Sacks, at 221. 

[23] Sacks at page 230.

[24] Sacks at page 224.