Parashat Tzav

Revisiting the Fire Offerings of Israel

Modern commentary and interpretation may ease some discomfort surrounding ancient liturgy.

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Ancient Texts in Prayers

On the other hand, I have a strong preference for retaining the ancient text of our prayers. I love the carefully wrought compression of their classical Hebrew, whose antiquity exudes with holiness and whose uniformity gives expression to Jewish unity. It is the power of creative interpretation that needs to take us beyond the straightjacket of literalism. Words that bear but a single meaning are hard to repeat on a daily basis. Praying in a language not our own helps us transform the words into vessels that carry aloft whatever sentiments and thoughts we care to impute to them.

The question reflects a trend among the current generation of students at JTS [The Jewish Theological Seminary]: an openness to restoring texts and practices dispensed with long ago. In their hunger for the holy, they find spirituality in that which was once discarded because it gave offense or seemed inconvenient. The length of a service is not determined by what we cut, but by how proficiently we can chant what we agree to say. Instead, many a Conservative worship service has been lengthened through cutting! Thus I welcomed the thrust of the question, if not its specificity.

On the spot with a measure of discomfort, I responded that I could live with the reintroduction of the phrase of "v'ishei yisrael". Back in the 1940's, it had been removed because of its concreteness. The image of "fire offerings" is not readily transmutable. But that, in fact, is not the meaning of the term. The word ishei is drawn from last week's parashah [portion], where it appears often: Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 3, 11, as well as from this week's: 6:10, 11.

Unexpectedly, scholarship has come to my rescue. Since my meeting with the students, I have learned from Prof. Jacob Milgrom's endlessly fascinating commentary on Leviticus (The Anchor Bible) that the term has nothing to do with the Hebrew word for fire, esh. It is that derivation that yielded the translation "fire offering", that is a sacrifice burned by the altar's fire. Rather, Milgrom argues that "esh" in this cultic context is to be understood as deriving from either a Ugaritic or Arabic cognate and is best translated as "food gift" (I, 161-2). The Semitic root stresses the ownership of the sacrifice by the worshipper and not what happens to it on the altar. It is the self-deprivation that makes the sacrifice pleasing to God. Hence, the notion of gift.

So what of my messianic compunctions? The berakhah is obviously too central to the amidah to tamper with, which is why the movement never considered dropping it. Nor need we from the perspective of content. The language is malleable enough to temper the messianic thrust. The term devir which in Solomon's Temple designated the Holy of Holies is redefined by the Talmud to mean book, thus signifying the momentous shift from sacred space to sacred book that Judaism effected after the destruction of the Temple (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 24b ).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.