By Israel Drazin
Many Bible commentators noted that the biblical portion Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) is the only biblical portion from the beginning of Exodus to the end of the five books of Moses that does not mention Moses. Many explanations for this phenomenon have been offered. The Vilna Gaon, for example, suggested that the name is absent because this portion is usually read in synagogues during the week when Moses died, 7 Adar. Jacob ben Asher, known as Baal HaTurim, suggested that God deleted the name because Moses had said in 32:32, when he pleaded with God to forgive the Israelite’s misdeed, “If not blot me out of the book that you have written,” and as the Babylonian Talmud states in Makkot 11a, statements by pious people are carried out even if they are conditional.
This discussion is based on a wrong premise. It supposes that God divided the Pentateuch into 54 biblical portions so that part of the Torah can be read on each Shabbat, including leap years when a month is added to the Jewish calendar, so that the Torah is read in its entirety in synagogues and studied at home each year. Actually God did not do so. The division of the Torah portions was developed by humans. In the early days, two customs arose. Jews in Israel read the entire Torah in a three year cycle. Its break-down resulted in Moses’ name being absent from many portions. The Babylonian Jews developed a single-year cycle. Not all Jews agreed with the Babylonian break-down. For example, the Babylonian Jews started the last portion of Genesis, Vayechi, with a verse that the Masorites who established the correct wording of the Torah, among other matters related to the Torah, felt was not the beginning of a section and placed no space before it as they generally did for new paragraphs.
This portion and quite a few others have many details about the tabernacle, how it should be constructed, what sacrifices may be brought, and how the animals should be sacrificed. There are two ways of looking at this. The majority see this as extolling the importance of the tabernacle and its sacrifices. Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) took the opposite approach in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:24 and 41. Quoting the prophets, Maimonides wrote that the biblical approach is that God really does not want or need sacrifices. The Torah “allows” the ancient practices but restricts them in many ways so that ultimately the people will realize that the practices are wrong. Thus the many details about the tabernacle and sacrifices in the Torah are restrictions. You can do it, but not in the lavish manner the pagans do it, but only in the ways that the Torah mentions.
The Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) offered unusual thought-provoking Bible interpretations on Exodus 28 and 29 in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning). Exodus 28 describes the elevation of Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. Ehrlich points out that the Israelites at the time comprised twelve tribes who were jealous of each other and who from time to time warred against each other, as in Judges 20. The priesthood and tabernacle, besides its religious function, served as a unifying force. People from all the tribes used it and they came to it for holidays. Aaron wore the names of the twelve on his chest in the order of the ancestor’s birth to avoid jealousy and so that the people would know that he, like a father, carried his love of all near his heart and made no distinction between them.
Exodus 29 states that “Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the” sacrifice. Ehrlich asks: What is the significance of the laying of hands, a practice that continued for other sacrifices? The laying on of hands has several significances in society. Lovers lay hands on one another. People greet one another by shaking hands. Shaking hands seals bargains in business. It is a sign of joining and connection. When a man lays his hand on the head of a sacrificial animal, “it is as if he makes himself and his offering a single entity. And when he sacrifices the other, it is as if he sacrifices himself (dedicates himself to God). Therefore, (the law dictates) ‘he lays his hand, not his son, servant, or agent.’” This explains why the Israelites laid hands on the Levites in Numbers 8:10 and Moses laying hands on Joshua in Numbers 27:18 so that the later becomes like the former.
Chapter 29 states that the blood of the offering was to be placed on the priests’ right ear, the thumb of their right hand, and the great toe of their right foot (29:20). It is clear that the right side was chosen because since antiquity the right side has been considered more important than the left, but why the ear, thumb, and big toe? Ehrlich explains that these were considered important parts of the body. The ear of a slave wanting to remain in slavery has his ear bored (Exodus 21:7), and captives in wars had their thumbs cut off to embarrass them (Judges 1: 6 and 7), and the big toe is like the thumb