Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes

(This blog was first posted on March 22, 2010.)

And Aharon and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the bull of the purification offering.  And Moshe slaughtered it. and took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar all around with his finger, and he purified the altar.  And he poured out the blood on the foundation of the altar, and he made it holy for atonement.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:14-15)

And Aharon and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram.  And Moshe slaughtered it, and took some of its blood and put it on the rim of Aharon’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and the thumb of his right foot (i.e. his right big toe).  Then he brought near the sons of Aharon, and Moshe put some of the blood on the rims of their right ears, the thumbs of their right hands, and the thumbs of their right feet.  Then he dashed (the rest of) the blood on the altar, all around.  (Leviticus 8:22-24)

In Exodus, God tells Moses how to ordain the first priests, his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons.  In Leviticus, in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Command), Moses performs the ordination ritual.  The ritual involves elaborate costumes, consecration with oil, three sacrificial animals, purification with blood, and finally seven days spent at the entrance to the Holy of Holies.

During this ritual, whenever Moses anoints the future priests with oil, or purifies them with blood, he also sprinkles the oil or blood on the altar where future animal sacrifices will be burned.  Thus the priests are identified with the altar.

The main function of both the priests and the altar is to facilitate animal sacrifices.  Animal sacrifices are the primary means of worshiping God in the five books of Moses.  (Prayer, according to Jewish tradition, is introduced by Hannah in the first book of Samuel.)  Once the priests are ordained in this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite people bring their animals to the altar in front of the sanctuary, and there the priests officiate over the slaughter and over the burning of certain parts to create a fragrance pleasing to God.  Thus both the priests and the altar are intermediaries between the people and God.

Moses consecrates all five future priests by sprinkling them with anointing oil (as well as pouring some on Aaron’s head).  He sprinkles the same oil on the altar and the tools that will be used there.  But the distribution of the blood of purification is more elaborate.  The altar gets bull’s blood on the “horns” at its four corners, then at its foundation.  The blood of a ram is dashed all around the altar.  The men get ram’s blood on their right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes.

Is there any connection between where Moses puts blood on the altar, and where he puts it on Aaron and his sons?

Many commentators say that daubing blood on the future priests’ extremities, from top to toe, symbolically purifies their entire bodies.  On this theory, applying blood to the altar’s top extremities and bottom foundation symbolically purifies the entire altar.

But why those particular extremities?  Rabbi R.S. Hirsch wrote that the ear stands for hearing and understanding, the hand for creative work, and the foot for striving to advance — all of which are expected of a community’s spiritual leaders.

Why does Moses apply the blood to the right ear, hand, and foot, rather than to the left?  The Torah associates the right hand with power.  Probably this association extends to the whole right side.  (Later, kabbalists associated the right side with active energy, and the left with restraint and judgment.)

The altar for animal sacrifices has neither ears nor hands, but Moses applies blood to its four horns and its foundation.  The Torah sometimes uses the word for “horn”, keren, as a metaphor for a ray of light, or as a symbol of strength and power.  The “horns” protruding from the top corners of the altar are probably a reminder of the horns of the cattle, sheep, and goats sacrificed there.  But they also might stand for the altar’s connection with the divine, evoking the idea of powerful rays of light pointing up toward the heavens.

Moses also poured the blood of purification on the ground at the foundation, or footing, of the altar.  Both the priests and the altar must be pure where they reach toward heaven, and also where they have their feet on the ground.  Only then can they be holy intermediaries between God and the people.

Kabbalists take note: Leviticus 8:15 uses the word yesod for the base of the altar.  Yesod means “foundation”, but it is also one of the ten sefirot in kabbalah, the ten aspects of divine action in our world.  The sefirah of yesod is associated with the ego, and also with creative, generative power.  On the human body, it corresponds metaphorically with the sexual organs.

The Hebrew word for  “foot”, regel, is sometimes used in the Torah as a polite synonym for a man’s sexual organ.  In this Torah portion, Moses daubs blood on the future priests’ big toes on their right feet.

Do our own symbolic altars, where we sacrifice some of our animal aspects, need to be purified at the level of sex and ego?  Does our own service to the divine, our own inner priesthood, also need to be purified at the level of yesod?


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