Parashat Tzav

Ears, Thumbs, And Toes

The ceremony installing the priests teaches the importance of consecrating the entire body for sacred service.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Traditionally, the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) was known as Torat Kohanim, "the Teachings of the Priests." Its contents are directed to people who would be ministering in the Temple in Jerusalem, and its topics pertain to priestly sacrifice, ritual and purity.

Yet, our tradition also holds that the eternal task of the Jewish People is to mold ourselves into a nation of priests, a holy people. In doing so, the standards that apply to a 'kohen' (priest) in the Beit Ha-Mikdash (the Temple) are essential tools for elevating our own spiritual and ritual status as well. The same guidance that the Torah provided the '' at his task can ennoble and uplift the serious Jew of today as well.

In seeking to fulfill our divine mission, we turn to the very book that trained God's servants in antiquity as well. At the outset of our commitment to become a nation of priests, we can look with special benefit to the ordination of the 'kohanim' (priests) into their sacred service.

An Elaborate Ceremony

high priest's breast plate

That installation took place amidst elaborate ceremony. The 'kohanim' washed themselves to become ritually pure, and then donned special clothing to demarcate themselves for their activity in the Temple. Anointed with a special oil, the 'kohanim' sacrificed a sin offering to atone for their own shortcomings and errors before attempting to intercede for the atonement of the people.

After sacrificing the ram of burnt offering, Moses took some blood from the ram of ordination, and "put it on the ridge of Aaron's right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot." He then repeated that same ritual for each of Aaron's sons. Finally, the remains of the animal were boiled and consumed by the newly-ordained 'kohanim.'

That same ritual was repeated throughout seven complete days of celebration. Why was blood applied to those particular extremities--the right thumb, toe and ear? An ancient commentator, Philo (1st Century Egypt), perceived that, "The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life." Thus, Philo reads specific meaning into each of the three body parts by analyzing the special function of each part in terms of their human use.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.

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