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.

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