What does it mean to be a priest in the Hebrew Bible? One clue is the ordination ritual.
My own ordination as a maggid, a Jewish preacher and storyteller, included telling a story. Ordination as a rabbi through the ALEPH program includes giving a divrei Torah (“words of Torah”, corresponding to a sermon in the Christian tradition). In both cases written documents are signed, and the final step is the laying on of hands (smikhah) transmitting authority from the teacher to the student.1
The first priests of the Israelites undergo an entirely different initiation experience in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”). The primary job of biblical priests is to process various animal and grain offerings according to all the rules in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Priests also enforce the rules on ritual purity;2 diagnose the skin disease of tzara-at;3 recite a blessing formula over the community;4; tend the menorah (lampstand) and other holy items inside the sanctuary;5 and look impressive while on duty.6 No wonder the ordination of the first priests focuses on purification, blood, and clothing.
First, in front of all the Israelites, Moses bathes Aaron and his four sons in water.7 Water and the blood of animal offerings are purifying agents in the Torah. Next Moses dresses Aaron in all the garments of the high priest, ending with the gold forehead ornament engraved “Holy to God”.8
Next Moses picks up the anointing oil. In the Hebrew Bible, only priests and kings are anointed before they take up their duties.
Then Moses took the anointing oil, and he anointed the sanctuary and everything that was in it, vayekadeish them. And he sprinkled some of it seven times on the altar, and all its tools, and the basin and its stand, lekadesham. And he poured out some of the anointing oil on the head of Aaron, and he anointed him lekadeshu. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:10-12)
vayekadeish (וְַיקַדֵּשׁ) = and he made holy, and he sanctified. (In the Hebrew Bible, kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ = holy) means set apart for God rather than for ordinary use. See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.)
lekadesham (לְקַדְּשָׁם) = to made them holy.
lekadeshu (לְקַדְּשׁוּ) = to make him holy.
Moses uses the same oil to make Aaron and all the objects related to the sanctuary holy.9 While the temple stood in Jerusalem, priesthood was hereditary and new priests, when they came of age, were anointed to consecrate them for serving God.
After the anointing, Moses finally dresses Aaron’s four sons in their assistant priest garments. (Some commentary assumes that they put on their own linen breeches after the bathing, so they did not spend the entire time nude.)
Then Moses slaughters three animal offerings: a bull as a chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, a ram as an olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, and a second ram as a milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering. (See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2 on these three types of offerings.)
And he presented the bull of the reparation-offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the bull of the reparation-offering. And Moshe slaughtered it. and he took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar all around with his finger, and he made reparation for the altar. And he poured out the blood onto the foundation of the altar, and vayekadeish it for atonement. (Leviticus 8:14-15)
The five men who are being ordained transfer some of their spirit or identity to the bull by laying their hands on its head. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.) Then Moses cuts its throat and puts blood on the four corners of the altar, which are shaped like animal horns, as well as on its foundation. According to Rashi, this blood not only makes the altar ritually pure, but also changes its status from ordinary to holy, so it can be used from then on to make reparations for people’s errors and atone for their crimes against God.10
Moses slaughters the first ram as an olah and burns up the whole animal into smoke; the God-character in the sky appreciates the fragrance.11 Then he slaughters the second ram as a milu-im, an ordination offering. Just as he daubed bull’s blood on the horns of the altar, Moses daubs ram’s blood on the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of the five men being ordained, before he splashes the rest on the altar.12
Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar, and he sprinkled on Aaron, on his clothes, on his sons, and on the clothes of his sons with him. Vayekadeish Aaron and his clothes and his sons and the clothes of his sons with him. (Leviticus 8:30)
The anointing oil is for consecration; the blood is for ritual purification. Having completed both, Moses tells Aaron and his sons to spend seven days and nights at the entrance of the sanctuary. On the eighth day, the new priests will officially inaugurate the altar, and their own service, with seven animal offerings and a grain offering. (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.)
Why does Moses apply oil and blood not only to the five men he is ordaining, but also to their clothing and the altar?
Sacrificing an animal is the primary means of worshiping God in the most of the Hebrew Bible. Once the priests are ordained, the Israelites bring their animals to the altar to be slaughtered. The priests collect and splash the blood, butcher the animals, lift up animal parts, burn, roast, and remove waste. Both the priests and the altar are intermediaries between the people and God.
When I reread this week’s Torah portion I felt sorry for the priests in the bible. Their honor is merely hereditary, and their contribution to the welfare of the Israelites consists in following the rules. They do not volunteer creative work, like Betzaleil and the artisans who craft all the items for the tent-sanctuary. They do not make plans and decisions, like the kings and their generals and aides. They do not have visions and hear God’s voice, like the prophets.
The priests also do not get to tell stories, like a maggid. They do not get to explain words of Torah, like a rabbi. They learn the Torah only in order to follow and teach the rules about offerings, impurity, diseases, and temple protocol. No wonder the ordination of the first priests includes multiple applications of blood from animal offerings in order to effect ritual purity.
Nevertheless, the Israelites depend on the labor of the priests so they can worship God in the only way they know. Today, may we all honor those who follow the rules and keep things running just as much as we honor inspired artists, leaders, and prophets.
- For more on smikhah see last week’s post, Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.
- The many examples include Leviticus 12 and 15, and Numbers 5 and 6:9-20.
- Leviticus 13:1-14:57.
- Numbers 6:22-27.
- Exodus 27:20-21, Numbers 8:1-3.
- Priests are not allowed to serve at the altar or inside the sanctuary unless they have unblemished bodies (Leviticus 21:16-23 and 21:18-20). They must also be wearing their garments made of white linen and expensive dyes, and when the high priest officiates he wears a gold tabard with gems and a gold plate on his forehead (Exodus 28). The high priest may not dishevel his hair or rip his garments—the usual signs of mourning—even when his closest family members die (Leviticus 21:10-12).
- Leviticus 8:6.
- Leviticus 8:7-9. For more information, see my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.
- But God’s instructions to Moses in Exodus 29:7 only mention pouring oil on Aaron’s head, not on the sanctuary or the altar.
- Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) explained that Moses chata, made reparation, not because anyone had missed the mark, but simply to purify the altar so as to convert it from an ordinary state to a holy state.
- Leviticus 8:18-21.
- Leviticus 8:22-24.