Parashat Tzav

Sometimes Not Only An Animal Was Sacrificed

Our spiritual leaders must always remember that the sanctity of human life should never supercede devotion to God.

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Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

In the beginning of Parashat Tzav, the first sacrifice introduced is the Korban Olah. We are taught that the fire that burns this sacrifice should not be extinguished, and that the limbs of this sacrifice should burn throughout the night. The kohen, the priest, lifts these ashes ceremoniously and then changes clothes. He then removes the ashes from the altar and carries them outside the encampment.

The question arises in the Talmud of how the kohen is chosen for this task. The Mishnah of Tractate Yom Hakippurim gives a painful but interesting history lesson.

Talmud Yoma 22a

Mishnah: Originally whosoever desired to remove [the ashes from] the altar did so. If they were many, they would run and mount the ramp [of the altar] and he that came first within four cubits obtained the privilege.

If two were even, the officer would say to them [all:] raise the finger! and how many did they put forth? One or two but one did not put forth the thumb in the Temple.

It once happened that two were even as they ran to mount the ramp. One of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw that they incurred danger, they ordained that the ashes of the altar be cleared only by a lottery.

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1. What would be the purpose of having a race to the altar?

2. Why did someone have to get hurt before the practice was halted?

Later on, when commenting on this Mishnaic incident, the Gemara recounts another tragedy which resulted from the Kohanim racing up the platform to retrieve the ashes:

Talmud Yoma 23a

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart.

Rabbi Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall and said: Our brethren of the house of Israel, hear ye! Behold it says: If one be found slain in the land... then thy elders and judges shall come forth... On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple Courts? All the people burst out weeping.

The father of the young man came and found his son still in convulsions.
 

He said: 'May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.'

[His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood. Thus is it also said: Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the Head of Jewish Studies at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City.