Tetzaveh: Clothed in Three Reminders and a Warning

High priest vestments

During Moses’ first forty days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai, God expands the Israelite religion by giving Moses the plans for a portable tent-sanctuary, and calling for hereditary priests.1 Moses’ brother Aaron will become the first high priest, and his four sons will serve as priests under him. Before saying anything about the ordination or the duties of the priests, God describes the vestments of the high priest in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10).

“And you shall make sacred clothing for Aaron, your brother, for magnificence and for beauty.” (Exodus/Shemot 28: 2)

The garments God plans for Aaron are as magnificent and beautiful as the robes of an emperor. But they also contain reminders that the high priest is a holy human being, completely dedicated to God—and a device that lets everyone hear where he is.

Reminder stones on the shoulders

The first reminders God describes in this week’s Torah portion are two dark blue stones attached to the shoulder straps of the tabard the high priest will wear over his robe. (This tabard, called an eifod (אֵפֺד), consists of two rectangular pieces of cloth made with gold, deep blue, red violet, and crimson yarns. One piece covers the chest and one piece covers the back. The pieces are connected with wide straps over the shoulders, and ties at the sides.)

“And you will take two lapis lazuli stones and you will engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the second stone … you will make them encircled with gold settings. And you will put the two stones on the shoulder straps of the eifod as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron will carry their names before God on his two shoulder straps for remembrance.” (Exodus 28:9-12)

The names of the twelve “sons of Israel” are the names of the twelve tribes of Israelites. These stones will remind Aaron that he must represent all the Israelites in his service to God. According to Rashi, the stones are also a reminder to God; their purpose is: “so that the Holy One, blessed be He, will see the names of the tribes written before Him and He will remember their righteousness.”2

Reminder stones on the pocket

The next reminder is on a large square pocket called a choshen (חֺשֶׁן), which will be attachedwith gold rings tothe front of the eifod.3 Twelve different precious stones will be set into the front panel of the choshen, one stone for each tribe.

“Aaron will carry the names of the sons of Israel on the choshen of judgment, over his heart, when he comes into the holy place, to remember them before God constantly.” (Exodus 28:29)

By keeping the twelve stones over his heart, Aaron will be symbolically keeping all twelve tribes in his thoughts and feelings. (The ancient Israelites  considered the heart the seat of the mind as well as the emotions.) According to 18th-century rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. the twelve stones would also serve to remind all the Israelites that although God chose Aaron as the high priest, they were not rejected; God loves them, too.4

Reminder medallion on the forehead

The high priest will also wear a gold medallion on his forehead, in front of his turban.5

“You will make a flower of pure gold, and you will engrave on it [like] the engraving on a seal: Holy to God.” (Exodus 28:36)

This medallion will label the high priest as consecrated to God. The words on his forehead will also remind him of his role on behalf of the Israelites.

“And it will be on his forehead constantly, to win favor for them before God.” (Exodus 28:38)

One interpretation in the Talmud is that the words on the gold medallion propitiate God when the high priest accidentally makes an impure offering on the altar.6 It also reminds the high priest that everything he does must be dedicated to God. To make sure he remembers, he is supposed to touch the gold medallion on his forehead from time to time.7 Like the choshen, the high priest must wear the medallion “constantly”, i.e. whenever he is in the sanctuary. Without it, he cannot serve as a high priest.

Warning bells on the hem

Under his eifod and choshen, the high priest will wear a me-il (מְעִיל), a long sleeveless tunic that is reserved for priests and royalty in the Hebrew Bible.

“You will make a me-il of the eifod, entirely deep blue. …  And you will make on its hem pomegranates of deep blue and red-violet and crimson, all around its hem. And pa-amonim of gold among them, all around: a pa-amon and a pomegranate, a pa-amon and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.” (Exodus 28:33-34)

pa-amon (פַּעֲמוֹן) = a small bell. (Plural: pa-amonim, פַּעֲמוֹנִים)

Gold pa-amon found in Roman sewer under Jerusalem’s old city

According to the Talmud, there were either 72 or 36 gold bells with clappers, and both these bells and the woolen pomegranates dangled down from the hem.8 Pomegranates were a common decorative motif; their many seeds made the fruits symbols of fertility. But what are the bells for?

“And Aaron will wear [the me-il] to wait on God, and its sound will be heard when he comes into to the holy place before God and when he goes out, so he will not die.” (Exodus 28: 35)

 The Torah does not specify whether the holy place is the whole sacred enclosure, or the tent-sanctuary inside it, or the Holy of Holies (the back room inside the tent). The Torah also does not specify who must hear the bells ringing.

Both Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) and Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, 1255-1340) wrote that the sound of the bells must be heard by God and any ministering angels present inside the Holy of Holies. (After the death of Moses, only the high priest was allowed to come into the Holies of Holies, the locus of God’s presence on earth, and he would only enter once a year, on Yom Kippur. According to one Talmud tractate, the clappers were hung inside the bells only on that day.9)

The tinkling of the bells, these commentators explained, was a polite way both to ask God for entry, and to ask the angels to leave before the high priest came in. Without this courteous warning, he might be killed as an intruder by either an angel or the Torah’s anthropomorphic God.

On the other hand, Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya noted, the high priest must wear only linen when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, according to the Torah portion Acharei Mot in Leviticus.10 So the gold bells between the wool pomegranate bobbles must chime their warning while he is still in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting—as if he were standing outside a door and ringing the bell. Then the high priest changes clothes before entering.

According to this scenario, God and the ministering angels in the Holy of Holies must need a lot of advance notice. In Leviticus, after the high priest changes into his pure white linen garments on Yom Kippur, he places lots on two goats, slaughters one of the goats and his own bull at the altar, collects the blood of each, scoops glowing coals into his fire-pan, and walks back into the tent, where he picks up two handfuls of incense before he steps behind the curtain.11

The tinkling of bells on the high priest’s hem might also serve as a warning to the other priests that their boss is approaching. Even on an ordinary day, he might want to be alone inside the tent-sanctuary.

In addition, whenever the Israelites standing in the courtyard outside the tent heard the bells, they would be reassured to know that their high priest was on the job, atoning for their misdeeds and keeping God happy.

But merely wearing a robe with bells sewn around the bottom is not enough, regardless of who is listening,. After all, the bells will chime only when the high priest is walking. If his is standing still, or tiptoeing carefully in and out of the sanctuary, the sound will be too faint to hear. He has to stride in and out.

Perhaps the instruction about the bells means that in order to do the highest service to God, one must not be timid. One must enter the sacred space of prayer, or any other spiritual practice, boldly and openly. Let the sound of your practice be heard. Other people will either join you gladly, or back away to avoid confrontation—which are both good outcomes.

Besides striding into your religious practice, it is also helpful to keep reminders of how you intend to use your religion for the good. It would be impractical to wear stones with the names of all the “tribes” in your world, but you might find another way to remind yourself that you intend to be their ally and emissary.

It would also be impractical to wear a gold plate engraved “Holy to God” on your forehead, but you might find another reminder that every action you take matters, and you can make your deeds worthy of a good God. Some Jews wear a kippah (also called a yarmulke) for this purpose. What would work for you?

  1. See last week’s post, Terumah: Insecurity.
  2. Inside the pocket the high priest keeps the urim and tumim, two objects used for determining God’s answers to simple questions. See my post Tetzaveh: Divining.
  3. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, a.k.a. Rashi, on Exodus 28:12, translated by www.sefaria.org. This interpretation is also implied in the earlier text of Shemot Rabbah and in 16th-century commentary by Ovadiah Sforno.
  4. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, on Exodus 28:29.
  5. See my post Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 77a-81b and Zevachim 22b-23b, 45b, and 82a.
  7. Rashi, based on Talmud Bavli, Yoma 7b.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 88b.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 44b.
  10. Leviticus 6:2-4, 6:13-14.
  11. Leviticus 6:5-13.

Tetzaveh & Vayigash: Testifying to Divine Providence

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Illustration from Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, 1894

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.

Repost: Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, which concludes God’s request for a tent sanctuary so God can dwell among the Israelites.  Tetzaveh also describes the special garments the priests will wear as they perform their roles at the sanctuary.

Approach to Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Special garments are also a feature of the book of Esther, which Jews read every year during the holiday of Purim.  In most of the world, Purim falls this year on the evening of Monday, March 9, and the day of March 10.  But in Jerusalem and ancient walled cities, we celebrate “Shushan Purim” the evening of Tuesday, March 10, and the day of March 11.  This is the first time in my life I will be able to celebrate Shushan Purim.  I plan to join a group of women reading Megillat Esther, the biblical book behind this holiday, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem!

Next year in this blog I hope to compare the costuming in the book of Esther and the Torah portion Tetzaveh.  But this year I wanted to repost my essay on the curious phrase “Tent of Meeting” which first appears in the portion Tetzaveh.  Why does God call for a tent-sanctuary that will be the place for scheduled meetings?

The question spoke to me after I visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and looked at artifacts from other ancient places where people went to meet with their gods.  So I spent some time rewriting my 2014 post.  You can find the improved version here: Tetzaveh: Meeting Room.

Standing stone from Hazor temple, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The standard floor plan for shrines and temples in the Ancient Near East had a large front room and a smaller, holier room in the back where the god was present.  This is the plan of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, which is divided into a larger front chamber where the priests tend the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar; and a smaller back chamber, the Holy of Holies where the ark stood.

A Canaanite temple and a small shrine archaeologists discovered in Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee/Kinneret, follow the same basic plan.  Both were built during the 15th to 13th century B.C.E.  The temple’s back chamber or Holy of Holies contained a statue of the storm god and a standing stone or massebah carved with a horned sun disk.

One of the religious innovations in the Torah is the prohibition against making or worshiping either a god statue or a standing stone.  The God of Israel must not be represented with a carved image, and the people must not worship any other gods.

From a shrine in Hazor, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The smaller shrine in Hazor from the same period had only one room, and a shallow niche in the back wall for the holiest objects.  The niche was lined with standing stones, including a central stone carved with two hands and a moon symbol.  In front of the standing stones stood a table for offerings and a statue of someone wearing the symbol of the moon god Sin.  This shrine was a place to meet the moon god.

In the second book of Samuel, which is set in the 10th century B.C.E., the temple that King Solomon builds in Jerusalem follows the same pattern as the Canaanite shrines and the Tent of Meeting described in Exodus.  The temple’s Holy of Holies contains not only the ark, but also two carved winged figures based on the two figures on the lid of the ark in the Tent of Meeting.  These pairs of winged figures are not considered idols in the Torah, perhaps because God only manifests in the empty space above the ark.  (See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Holy of Holies, 8th century B.C.E. shrine in Arad, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Given the biblical history of furnishing the Holy of Holies, I was not surprised to learn that when archaeologists unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. fortress of Arad they found a shrine with a standing stone inside its Holy of Holies—even though Arad was in the kingdom of Judah, where the God of Israel was worshiped.  For the people of Arad, the standing stone meant that God was present in their shrine, their own “Tent of Meeting”.

Eight centuries later, the people of Judah were building the first synagogues even before the Romans razed the temple in Jerusalem.  These synagogues were buildings where people could encounter God through prayer and study instead of through offerings on the altar.  The Israel Museum has restored part of the interior of an early synagogue built in Susiya, near Hebron.

Susiya Synagogue, Israel Museum

Its sacred enclosed space had three niches in the back wall, which held a Torah scroll flanked by two menorahs.  It is no coincidence that a Torah scroll inside its ark is reminiscent of the stone tablets of commandments inside the ark that stood in the Tent of Meeting’s Holy of Holies.

How different is the shrine in Arad, with its standing stone, from the synagogue in Susiya, with its ark?

Today Jews still come to synagogues to encounter God through communal prayer at appointed times.  The holiest place inside a synagogue is still the ark containing the Torah scroll.

It must be human nature to want an appointed place to meet God.  Perhaps that is why I am going to the Western Wall on Shushan Purim.

Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead

Garments of High Priest

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Some of the unique items the high priest wears, such as his sky-blue robe, add to his awe-inspiring appearance.1  Others items described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command”), have an additional purpose; for example, the high priest wears a gem-studded choshen on his breast, and uses it to consult God with yes or no questions.2

Another item that only the high priest wears is a tzitz tied to his forehead.

And you shall make a tzitz of pure gold, and you shall engrave on it with engraving like a chotam: “Holy to God”.  You shall put it on a cord of sky-blue.  And it shall be on the turban; at the front of the turban it shall be.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:36-37)

tzitz (צִיץ) = a flower.  (Plural: either tzitz or tzitztim (צִצִּים).  From the root verb tzutz (צוּץ) = bloom.3  Another word from the same root is tzitzit (צִיצִּת) = tassel, fringe, or lock of hair.)

chotam (חֺתָם) = cylindrical seal or signet ring, carved to impress a design on damp clay that serves as the wearer’s signature.  (From the root verb chatam (חתם) = to affix a seal, to confirm, to close up securely.)

The noun tzitz appears 16 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first three times, tzitz refers to the gold engraved object the high priest wears on his forehead.4  The word tzitz next appears when God orders a demonstration to prove who deserves authority over the Israelites.  If the leader of each of the twelve tribes leaves his wooden staff inside the tent-sanctuary overnight, God will make the staff of the winner sprout buds.  In the morning:

Hey!  The staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had budded, and it had brought forth buds, and it had bloomed tzitz, and it had produced almonds.  (Numbers/Bamidbar 17:23)

In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, a tzitz is a flower.  In King Solomon’s temple, tzitzim are carved into wood panels for ornamentation.5   In five places where the word tzitz appears, humans are compared to wildflowers that quickly wilt and die.6  When Isaiah rails against rich drunkards, he describes their heads as crowned with wilted flowers.7

But the high priest’s head is crowned with a flower made out of gold.  The Torah assumes that this object, as well as the high priesthood, will continue indefinitely, passing from one man to the next.

The gold tzitz must have a flat surface where the words “Holy to God” are engraved, as well as two small holes for attaching the blue cord, but otherwise the design is a matter of speculation.  Flavius Josephus, describing the sacred items stored in a Roman treasury after the sack of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., wrote that around the high priest’s headdress was:

Hyoscyamus albus

… a golden crown polished, of three rows, one above another; out of which arose a cup of gold, which resembled the herb which we call ‘saccharis,’ but those Greeks that are skillful in botany call it ‘hyoscyamus.’  … a flower that may seem to resemble that of the poppy.  Of this was a crown made … [it] did not cover the forehead, but it was covered with a ‘golden plate,’ which had inscribed upon it the name of God in sacred characters.8

Several centuries later the rabbis of the Talmud described the tzitz as a kind of smooth plate of gold, and its width is two fingerbreadths, and it encircles the forehead from ear to ear.”  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosei added: “I saw it in the Caesar’s treasury in the city of Rome and Sacred to God was written on one line.”9

Whether the gold object tied to the high priest’s forehead is an engraved band with a gold flower rising up from it, or a flower-shaped gold medallion with engraving in the center, it is more than a symbol.  This week’s Torah portion continues:

And it shall be on the forehead of Aaron, and Aaron shall lift off any transgression from the holy things which the Israelites make holy, from all their holy gifts.  And it shall be on his forehead perpetually, for their acceptance before God.  (Exodus 28:38)

Just by wearing the tzitz on his forehead, the high priest compensates for any accidental ritual impurity in the people’s offerings to God at the altar.

How?  The words “Holy to God” are a double reminder.  The Israelites seeing it would remember that the whole purpose of their ritual sacrifices is to make themselves holy—i.e., to dedicate themselves to God above all other purposes.  This dedication must be their core identity; thus the words are engraved into the gold medallion the way an identity seal is carved.

The words on the tzitz also remind God to treat the people as sacred.  “Holy to God”, according to Rabbi Elie Munk, “relays a message of Divine love by proclaiming Israel as a nation consecrated to God.  Yet, it is also a reminder of Israel’s permanent duty to strive every closer to the ideal of holiness.  The Tzitz expresses both Divine love and Israel’s moral obligations.”10


The high priest’s tzitz could be viewed narrowly as a magical object designed to ensure conformity to God’s rules about ritual purity.  Or it could be viewed as an aesthetic object inspiring a feeling of spiritual elevation.

But Munk points out that love and moral obligations are more important than conformity or spirituality.  What good is a religious object if we are not kind and helpful to our fellow human beings?

So the built-in symbolism of the tzitz matters after all.  Gold is the most precious metal in the Torah, reserved for the most sacred items in the sanctuary.  A flower is one of God’s most beautiful creations, and also one of the most evanescent.  Yet after a flower wilts, its fruit becomes the source of seeds for new life.

The word for “God” engraved on the gold flower is the four-letter name of God, a possible permutation of the verb “to be” or “to become”.  (See my post Beshellach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.)  And the words “Holy to God” are to be carved in relief on the tzitz, like the symbol of identity carved on a chotam, a seal.  Thus the identity of God is confirmed and secured.

The flower and God’s name both remind us that our universe is always becoming.  Flowers wilt, but the spirit of God goes on creating as seeds fall and new plants bloom.

May we all walk through life as if we wear an invisible tzitz, dedicating ourselves to life despite death, to change rather than stagnation, to growth instead of destruction.  And may we all be kind to each another on the path of becoming.

(An earlier version of this post was published in February, 2011.)

  1. Exodus 28:31. The sky-blue dye is techelet; see my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)
  2. Exodus 28:30. The choshen is a stiff rectangular pocket attached with gold rings and blue cords to the front of the high priest’s tabard (eifod).  On the outside front surface, over his chest, the choshen bears twelve precious stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Inside the pocket of the choshen are the urim and tummim, used to divine God’s answers to yes/no questions.  (See Judges 20:27-28, 1 Samuel 23:9-12, 1 Samuel 30:7-8.)
  3. Out of nine occurrences of the verb tzutz in the Hebrew Bible, all but one clearly refer to budding or blooming. The questionable reference is in Song of Songs 2:9, in which the woman describes her male beloved as “This one, standing behind our wall, gazing through the windows, meitzitz through the lattices.”  Meitzitz ((מֵצִײץ is usually translated as “peering” rather than “blooming”.  But this is the poem that says the beloved woman’s teeth are “like a flock of sheep climbing up from the washing pool” and her forehead is “like a slice of pomegranate”.  (Songs 4:2-3)  Maybe her lover is “blooming” through the lattices, like an eager flowering vine.
  4. Exodus 28:36 and 39:30, Leviticus 8:9.
  5. 1 Kings 6:18, 6:29, 6:32, 6:35.
  6. Isaiah 40:6, 40:7, 40:8; Psalm 103:15; Job 14:2.
  7. Isaiah 28:1, 28:4. Tzitz also appears in Jeremiah 48:9.
  8. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baltimore, 1835, book III, chapter VII, p. 71.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 63b, in the William Davidson Talmud, Koren Noe Edition, sefaria.org/Shabbat.63a?lang=bi.
  10. Rabbi Eli Munk (20th-century), The Call of the Torah: Shemos, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publictions, Ltd., Brooklyn, 2001, p. 405.

Terumah: Tree of Light

In February the almond trees bloom in Israel.  They are the first trees to wake up from winter dormancy, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.

Moses receives detailed instructions from God Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), for making a tent-sanctuary and each holy item inside it.  God describes the lampstand or menorah in terms of an almond tree.

You shall make a menorah of pure gold.  Of hammered work you shall make the menorah; its seat and its shaft, its bowls, its kaftorim, and its blossoms shall be from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:31)

menorah (מְנֺרַה) = lampstand supporting bowls of oil with wicks.

Almond drupes

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר), plural kaftorim (כַּפְתֺּרִים) = knobs, drupes (fruits with pits, such as peaches, plums, and almonds), capitals of columns resembling almond drupes; natives of Crete.

Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than six feet. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) says it was eighteen handbreadths, just over five feet.  At that height, the high priest could easily reach the seven oil lamps on top to refill the bowls and trim and light the wicks.1

(The Arch of Titus in Rome, carved in 82 C.E., bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying away a menorah somewhat shorter than they are.)

The overall shape of the menorah, according to this week’s Torah portion, is like a flat or espaliered tree with a central trunk and three branches on each side.  The branches and the central shaft all terminate in oil lamps, so there are seven lamps across the top:

And you shall make seven lamps on it … of pure gold.  (Exodus 25:37-38)

And [it shall have] six shafts going out from its sides: three shafts of the menorah on one side and three shafts of the menorah on the second side.  Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the shafts going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it—for the six branches going out from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:32-35)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = being made like almonds.  (From one of the two root verbs spelled shakad, שָׁקַד.)

Menorah model at Temple Mount Institute

Each oil lamp consists of a bowl that looks like an almond blossom sitting on top of an almond drupe.  (Unlike a peach, the fleshy part of an almond drupe is a relatively thin covering over the pit, which has an almond seed or nut inside.)  The central shaft of the menorah has the same decorative motif at each of the three junctions where shafts branch out, with the central shaft continuing up from the flower-bowl shape.  At the top of the central shaft the fourth almond flower-bowl is open and serves as the middle lamp.

Lexicons classify meshukadim as a form of the verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = made like an almond, as opposed to the identically spelled verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = watched for, was vigilant, was alert.  Another passage in the Hebrew Bible uses the identical spelling and pronunciation of the two shakad root verbs as a prophetic pun.

And the word of God happened to me, saying: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”  And I said: “A shoot of a shakeid I see.”  And God said to me: “You do well to see it.  Because I am shokeid over my word, to do it.”

shakeid (שָׁקֵד) = almond, almond tree.

shokeid (שֺׁקֵד) = being vigilant, watchful, alert.

The Hebrew Bible also describes God as watchfully attentive to the Israelites, for good or bad.2  Elsewhere in the Bible, the verb shakad that means being vigilant is used to describe people watching for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching for humans to leave their towns and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake at night.5


Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly.  The menorah in the sanctuary is the size of a human for practical reasons—but perhaps also because it is humankind’s job to receive and spread enlightenment.

It may be shaped like a tree in recollection of in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad in the garden of Eden.  After all, enlightenment is a spark of insight that blooms into new knowledge.

Why is the design of the menorah taken from the almond tree?  I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “being made like almonds” and “from those who are vigilant, watchful, awake, alert”.  Almond trees flower before any other useful tree.  They wake up and bloom when it is still winter.  Similarly, enlightenment can bloom even in the winter of our souls—but only if we keep watch for it, if we stay alert to any sign of holiness.

We can be shokeid, vigilant, by serving as our own high priests, tending the lamps of our own inner menorah.  We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making habitual assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions.  Yet when we do pay close attention to our own minds, to the people we encounter, and to the teachings we receive, we create our own menorah and find our own enlightenment.

(I published an earlier version of this essay on January 30, 2011)

  1. Aaron, the first high priest, has the duty of tending the lamps.  See Exodus 30:7-8, Leviticus 24:3-4, Numbers 8:1-2.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, 127:1, Job 21:32.

Tetzaveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Outdoor altar at First Temple

Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:

* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and

* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”):

And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices …  (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7) 

miketar (מִקְטַּר) = letting smoke rise; scenting with smoke. (A form of the verb ketar, קִטּר  = burned incense.)

ketoret  (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)

vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)

In the Wilderness

The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai.  The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.

Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days. The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.

The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,

God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night.  (Exodus 13:21)

After God’s tent-dwelling is completed, the book of Exodus ends with:

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and there was fire in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

During the Babylonian Exile

Israelites continue to use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God until the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. (The Bible also mentions a few individual prayers, but does not portray Levites as singing psalms until the time of the second temple.)

The Israelites deported to Babylon were not sure what to do.  Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar?  Or should they use another approach?

Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.

           God, I called You. Hurry to me!

                        Listen to my voice when I call to You!

            May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,

                        Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering.  (Psalm 141:1-2)

After the Second Temple

After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. This type of worship continued until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.

After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:

             My lord, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Psalm 51:17)

However, Psalm 51 ends:

            May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

                        That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,

                        Rising-offerings and complete offerings.  (Psalm 51:20)

Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.”  According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.

Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.

Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:

            Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.

                        You dug open a pair of ears for me!

                        Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.

            That is when I said:

                        Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

            I want to do what You want, my God,

                        And Your teaching is inside my guts.

            I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

                        Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.


I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.

Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to any type of smoke.  And these days, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.

But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.

I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32.  My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting.  And, God willing, I can continue to improve.

May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.

            Oh God, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)         

1  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal sacrifices.

2  The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer.  Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you.  Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.

King Solomon

One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:

As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens.  (1 Kings 8:54)

3   This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.


Haftarat Tetzaveh—Ezekiel: The Meaning of Humiliation

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 43:10-27.

This week’s haftarah begins when God tells the prophet Ezekiel:

You, son of humankind, describe the House to the household of Israel, veyikalmu because of their sins, and they will measure off its plan. And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan …(Ezekiel 43:10-11)

veyikalmu (וְיִכָּלְמוּ) = and they will be humiliated, embarrassed, publicly disgraced. (From the root k-l-m, כּלם, sometimes translated as “ashamed” but actually referring to public humiliation regardless of actual guilt or innocence.)

nikhlemu (נִכְלְמוּ) = they are humiliated, etc.

“The House” refers to a building for the God of Israel: Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple to replace the one that King Solomon erected and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon razed when he destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

Temple sizes
Temple sizes

The two clauses about being humiliated are difficult to interpret, since in the first one God predicts the Israelites will be humiliated, and in the second one God says “if they are humiliated”. According to the standards of the sixth century B.C.E., there is no question that the Israelites of Judah have been publicly humiliated by the time of this prophecy, dated to the fourteenth year after the fall of Jerusalem.

The kingdom of Judah had been a vassal state of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, paying annual tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar but managing its internal affairs as an independent country. Then King Yehoyachim of Judah rebelled, and the Babylonian army besieged his capital, Jerusalem. His son Yehoyachin (a.k.a. Jeconiah) surrendered in 597 B.C.E. and saved the city. Nebuchadnezzar deported him and about 3,000 of Jerusalem’s leading citizens—including Ezekiel—to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar installed Yehoyachin’s uncle Zedekiah as Judah’s king, and Judah resumed its status as a Babylonian vassal state.

The Flight of the Prisoners, by James J.J. Tissot, 1886 (capture of Jerusalem in 587)

The Israelites remaining in Judah still had their own king, and a temple for their own god. But eight years later Zedekiah rebelled (after making a secret treaty with Egypt), and the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again. This time the siege ended in the capture of Jerusalem, the execution of Judah’s last king, and the destruction of the capital and its temple—in other words, the complete humiliation of Judah.

What caused this humiliation? One might blame Nebuchadnezzar for his determination to expand his empire, or King Zedekiah for foolishly rebelling, or even Egypt for marching toward Judah at Zedekiah’s instigation, then succumbing to the Babylonian army before they reached Jerusalem.

But in the passage above, God says twice that the humiliation of the Israelites happened because of their own sins—and God is not referring to their kings’ rebellions against Babylon.

This week’s haftarah comes in the middle of Ezekiel’s fifth and final vision. This vision begins when a divine guide wafts Ezekiel to Jerusalem and shows him around a new and larger temple, measuring everything as he goes. Then the glory of God appears, and God tells Ezekiel:

Son of humankind, [this is] the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. But the house of Israel must not again defile My holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their prostitution [with other gods] and with their kings’ lifeless idols in their shrines. (Ezekiel 43:7)

The sin of the Israelites is building shrines for idols and other gods—and in the worst possible place.

When they placed their thresholds next to My threshold and their doorposts beside My doorposts, [with only] the wall between Me and them, and they defiled My holy name with their taboo actions, then I consumed them in My anger. (Ezekiel 43:8)

God decided to destroy Jerusalem and its temple because of the people’s apostasy, and used the Babylonian army to do it.

Jeremiah, who was still prophesying in Jerusalem when Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon, also said that God arranged the destruction of Jerusalem, using Nebuchadnezzar as a tool. According to both prophets, God decides which army wins in every battle involving Israelites. (See my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.) Nebuchadnezzar, naturally, did not know that the God of Israel was using him to punish the Israelites.

Today this prophetic point of view seems parochial and narrow-minded. Even if God did micro-manage every battle and siege, why should all of God’s plans be about rewarding or punishing the Israelites? What about all the other peoples in the world?

Nabu, from temple at Kalah
Nabu, from temple at Kalah

Other peoples had their own, albeit inferior, gods. For example, the chief gods of the Neo-Babylonian Empire were Nabu and Marduk. The Bible maintains that the God of Israel was more powerful than all other gods, and that God chose the Israelites to be “His” people and commanded them not to worship any other gods. The Torah often compares this exclusive relationship between the God of Israel and the Israelites to a marriage in which the Israelites let down God by failing to be monogamous.

Monotheism, the idea that there is only one god in the universe, only creeps into the Bible in a few of the many books written during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. The book of Ezekiel, however, sticks to the older point of view that the God of Israel is the most powerful god, not the only god.  Therefore the book of Ezekiel is Judeo-centric; God interferes in the world primarily to reward or (more often) punish the Israelites.

And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan——its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan, and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings; And write it down before their eyes so they will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)


For those of us who have a more monotheistic or universal idea of God, I propose a radical rereading of Ezekiel 43:11:

And if nikhlamta because of everything that you have done, discover for yourself the design of the House and its plan—

If you feel your life is unsatisfactory, even humiliating, and suspect it is because you have done something wrong, then think of your life as a temple for God’s presence.

—its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan,

Where in your life do you exit from the presence of God? Where do you enter it? What is your overall plan for living with God?

and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings;

What principles do you follow as if they are divine decrees? What teachings help you to approach God?

And write it down before your own eyes so you will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

And undertake a practice, such as prayer or study, that will keep reminding you of your plan for living in God’s presence and the principles you are following. Then make it your life.

Tetzaveh: The Clothes Make the Man

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

You shall make garments of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. And you, you shall speak to all the wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make the garments of Aaron lekadsho, to perform as a priest for Me. (Exodus/Shemot 28:2-3)Kohein Gadol 1

kodesh (קֹדֶשׁ) = holiness; a holy thing, person, place, or day.

lekadsho (לְקַדְּשׁוֹ) = to make him holy, to consecrate him.

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = honor, magnificence.

tifaret (תִּפְאָרֶת) = beauty, magnificence.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“you shall command”), God tells Moses how to set up the institution of priesthood for the Israelites’ new religion. Before giving instructions on how to ordain Aaron and his sons, God describes their costumes.

These are not merely fine clothes, but holy garments.  In the Torah, something is holy when it is set apart for the worship of God. Priests must wear their vestments whenever they are on duty, and only when they are on duty.

The passage translated above says that Aaron’s holy garments will make him holy, too. Even if his heart were completely dedicated, he would not be holy without the garments.

Aaron, as high priest, must also wear these garments for kavod and tifaret.  I can understand why special clothing confers honor; it indicates the wearer’s authority.  In our society, doctors wear white lab coats, police officers wear uniforms and badges, and rabbis wear caps (kippot or yarmulkes) and prayer shawls (tallitot)—at least when they are on duty.

But the high priest of the Israelites must also wear special clothing for tifaret, for beauty or magnificence.

This is the first appearance in the Torah of the word tifaret in any of its forms. (Alternate spellings pronounced tiferet and tifarah occur later in the Bible.) Sometimes the word means “beauty” or even “beautification”, as when God threatens to strip all the jewelry and other ornamentations off the vain women of Zion (Isaiah 3:18). Sometimes it means “magnificence” or “distinction”, as when the general Barak says he will only go to war against Sisera if the prophetess Devorah comes with him, and Devorah replies:

Is that so?  I will go with you.  However, the way you are going, it will not be for your own tifaret; because God will hand over Sisera to the hand of a woman. (Judges 4:9)

Both meanings of tifaret apply to the vestments of the high priest; they are beautiful to behold, and they make the priest look so magnificent that the beholder assumes he is a superior being.kohein gadol 2

The high priest and his assistant priests wear the same first two layers of clothing:  undyed linen breeches (underpants), and long linen tunics over the breeches. The high priest wears a sky-blue robe over his tunic.

All the priests wear the same sash to hold their tunics (and for the high priest, his robe) together at the waist: a strip of linen embroidered with sky-blue, purple, and crimson wool, just like the curtains hanging at the doorways into the outer courtyard and the sanctuary of the mikdash (“holy place”).  (See my post Terumah: Under Cover.)  And all the priests wear turbans wound around their heads, though the high priest’s turban is a different shape.

The high priest gets additional costume items. The hem of his robe has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates. (See my post Tetzaveh: The Sound of Ringing.)  Over his robe he wears an eifod (an over-tunic of two squares of material fastened by straps at the shoulders and waist) with a gem on each shoulder strap. Over the front of the eifod hangs a choshen (a square pocket) with gold embroidery and twelve gems on the front. And tied to the high priest’s forehead, in front of his turban, is a tzitz (an engraved flower-shaped gold plate).  (See my post Tetzaveh: Holy Flower.)

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in The Particulars of Rapture that the appearance of the high priest is all-important; the man merely animates the glorious costume as it carries out the rituals in the courtyard and the sanctuary. She also pointed out the double meaning of the Hebrew word for “garments”.

You shall make begadim of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. (Exodus 28:2)

begadim (בְּגָדִים) = garments, clothing. (The singular form, beged (בֶּגֶד), means “garment”, but is spelled the same way as beged (בֶּגֶד) = faithlessness, fraud, deception.)

Like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a person can deceive others by wearing clothes that do not match his true identity or his inner self. A high priest wearing a dazzling holy costume might have an unworthy personality.

Prayer leader in tallit
Prayer leader in tallit

Today, people often project their expectations on the person in uniform or the person with the title or degree. Doctors in their white lab coats, with their MD degrees, may or may not be the perfect diagnosticians that patients assume they are.  The person who wears a kippa (cap or yarmulke) and a tallit (prayer shawl) as he or she leads services, and has received ordination as a rabbi, may or may not be as saintly as congregants assume.

For the high priest of the Israelites, the clothes did make the man.  All people needed to do was watch the gorgeously bedecked priest carrying out the ritual of the moment, and the sheer beauty of it inspired them to religious worship.

For a congregational rabbi today, the longest and most gorgeous tallit is not enough. The rabbi must also inspire congregants with his or her d’var Torah (“word of Torah”, or sermon).  And a rabbi today is expected to set an example of ethical behavior, and to provide pastoral counseling.  A rabbi’s soul really does matter more than the rabbi’s clothing.

This makes a rabbi more like Moses, who wears ordinary clothing as he speaks with God and leads the Israelites.  At least his clothing is never mentioned in the Torah, except for the shoes he removes at the burning bush, and the veil he wears after his face acquires an unearthly radiance. The materials or colors of Moses’ shoes and veil are not specified.

In the Torah, the religion of the Israelites is established with both Aaron and Moses, and continues with both a high priest to conduct religious rituals and a king and/or prophet to provide guidance.

Maybe we need both an Aaron and a Moses today, as well. My own congregation has a number of people who are skilled at leading services. (And we wear the right garments when we do so!)  Yet a large number of our congregants want some of our services to be led by an official, ordained rabbi.  The title “rabbi” is as reassuring to them as the MD after my doctor’s name is to me.

And sometimes an Aaron is not enough; we need inspiration from a Moses, from a person with deep soul, whether or not that person has a title or a uniform.  But finding the person with the deep soul is harder.  You can’t just look for a man in a blue robe with a gold plate on his forehead.


Tetzaveh: Meeting Room

Who will meet in the “Tent of Meeting”?

Moses receives instructions for making a portable tent-sanctuary for God in last week’s portion, Terumah.  This week’s portion, Tetzaveh (“you shall command”), is the first one to call the sanctuary the ohel mo-eid, the “Tent of Meeting”—an expression that appears 137 times in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy.

This week’s portion is also the first to reveal who will meet at or inside the tent.  But in its first appearance, the phrase “Tent of Meeting” is merely a location.  God tells Moses:

And you, you shall command the children of Israel, so they will take for you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, to make the lamp go up regularly.  In the ohel mo-eid, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony [in the ark], Aaron and his sons shall set it up from evening until morning before God.  [This is] a decree forever for the generations from the children of Israel. (Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21)

ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent.

mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = appointed place for meeting with God; appointed time (usually for a religious festival).  (From the root ya-ad, יָעַד = appoint a time or place.)

ohel mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting (i.e. the tent appointed for meeting with God).

The ohel mo-eid is the portable tent-sanctuary God described to Moses in last week’s Torah portion, a two-chamber tent with a dividing curtain screening off the Holy of Holies from the larger front chamber.1  The menorah whose lamps the priests must fill is inside the tent’s front chamber.

The portion Tetzaveh then describes the vestments to be made for the new priests, followed by the ritual for ordaining them.  First Moses must assemble Aaron and his four sons, a bull and two rams, three kinds of bread, and the new priestly garments.

Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the ohel mo-eid and you shall wash them in water.  (Exodus 29:4)

Both the basin for the priests’ ritual washing and the altar for burnt offerings are located outside the Tent of Meeting, in front of the entrance.

And you shall bring the bull to the front of the ohel mo-eid, and Aaron and his sons shall lean their hands on the head of the bull.  And you shall slaughter the bull before God, at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid.  (Exodus 29:10-11)

After washing and dressing Aaron and his sons, Moses must make the first offerings on the new altar, and sprinkle some of the blood on both the altar and the five men.After Moses has made all the offerings, the remaining bread and the remaining meat from the second ram go to the men being ordained.

And Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram, and the bread that is in the basket, at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid.  (Exodus 29:32)

The whole process, from washing to eating, must be carried out in front of the Tent of Meeting, and must be repeated every day for a total of seven days in order to sanctify both the priests and the altar.  After that, the priests will make daily offerings, which are briefly listed.  With the last one, an evening offering of a lamb, God finally mentions why the portable sanctuary is called the “Tent of Meeting”.

[It is] a perpetual rising-offering3 for your generations at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid, in front of God, where iva-eid with you, to speak to you there.  (Exodus 29:42)

iva-eid (אִוָּעֵד) = I shall meet, I shall arrange meeting(s).  (Also from the root ya-ad.)

The “you” in this sentence is plural.  The next sentence declares that the ohel mo-eid will be the locus or focus where all the Israelites can meet God.

Veno-adeti there for the Children of Israel, and it will be sanctified by my glory.  (Exodus 29:43)

veno-adeti (וְנֹעַדְתִּי) = And I will arrange meeting(s).  (Also from the root ya-ad.)

The Torah does not explain what kind of meeting or meetings will occur between God and the Israelites.  But God does say:

And I will dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel and I will be their god.  (Exodus 29:45)

Pillar of cloud, from Collectie Nederland

Maybe the Israelites have a meeting with God whenever they see the pillar of cloud and fire that rests over the Tent of Meeting when they are encamped.4  Or when they brings offerings to the courtyard in front of the tent and watch while the priests perform the ritual actions to send them up to God.  Or maybe living so close to the Tent of Meeting is enough for the Israelites to meet God.

The Torah portion then describes the incense altar, and God adds:

And you shall place it in front of the dividing curtain that is in front of the Ark of the Testimony, in front of the atonement-cover that is over the testimony, where iva-eid with you.  (Exodus 30:6)

This time “you” is singular.  Only Moses, to whom God is speaking, will meet with God inside the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies, in front of the atonement-cover on the ark.

Thus the innermost chamber the Tent of Meeting is the appointed place where Moses and God meet, while the tent as a whole is the focus for meetings between rest of the people and the God who dwells in their midst.


Before there is a Tent of Meeting, people in the Torah never know where God might speak to them.  God’s voice might come in a dream, or from a stranger who turns out to be not human after all, or from a burning bush.  But in this week’s Torah portion Moses learns that God has designated the Tent of Meeting as the appointed place.  God still speaks to Moses at odd moments, but a formal meeting takes place inside or in front of the tent.

When the Israelites have finished making all the items for the Tent of Meeting and Moses assembles it for the first time, God fills the tent with the divine manifestations of cloud and glory (or impressiveness).

And Moses was not able to enter the ohel mo-eid because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of God filled the sanctuary.  (Exodus 40:35)

The presence of God is too strong for the meeting to take place!  So the book of Leviticus/Vayikra begins with God summoning Moses and speaking to him from the Tent of Meeting, as if God has changed the divine frequency in order to meet the appointment with Moses.


Many people today believe they have an appointed place to meet with God: their synagogue or church or mosque or temple.  Some religions still claim that God gives direct instructions to their leaders.  And all too many people believe that the “real” God can only be found in their religion’s sacred places.

I pray that someday people will notice the glory of God outside their own exclusive Tent of Meeting, and the divine will dwell in the midst of everyone on earth.

  1. Exodus 26:31-33.
  2. See my posts Tzav: Oil and Blood and Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.
  3. olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering.  (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up into smoke, which rises to the heavens.
  4. Exodus 40:36-38, Numbers 9:15-17.

Tetzaveh: Divining

What should I do?

Usually human beings carry on with their habitual behavior, but sometimes we have to make a deliberate decision.  And we do not know whether a particular choice will lead to good or evil, or to happiness or disaster.  If only we knew ahead of time!

The longing for foreknowledge has been with us for millennia.  Most cultures have had their own methods of divination, of gaining knowledge that is normally outside the human realm.

High priest’s vestments, artist unknown

In the Hebrew Bible, leaders and kings ask the high priest to consult the urim and tumim tucked into his breast-pouch. These mysterious items are introduced in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command”), but we do not learn their purpose until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when God tells Moses what Joshua must do after Moses has died. Since Joshua, unlike Moses, cannot hear God directly, he must ask the high priest for divination when he needs to decide whether to go out to battle:

He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, and ask him for the ruling of the urim before God. (Numbers 27:21)

urim (אוּרִים) = firelight? illumination?

But the book of Joshua never refers to the urim. The only time the Torah says someone actually consults them is in the first book of Samuel:

And Saul inquired of God, but God did not answer him, either with dreams or with urim or with prophets.  (1 Samuel 28:6)

Several other times in that book both Saul and David “inquire of God” in the presence of a priest, and when David receive yes/no answers, we can assume the answers are indicated by the urim.  But no description is given.

This week’s Torah portion describes everything else the high priest wears, from his headband to his underpants. Over his sky-blue robe, the priest must wear an eifod, a kind of tabard with shoulder-straps and sewn-in ties at the waist.  A chosen, a square pouch, will hang from the shoulder-straps of the eifod, secured on the high priest’s breast.  This breast-pouch will be folded at the bottom, and twelve gems will be set into the front.  Each gem will be engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel.

And into the breast-pouch of the law you will place the urim and the tumim; and they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God, and Aaron will carry the law of  the children of Israel over his heart before God constantly.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:30)

tumim (תֻּמִּים) = ? (a noun probably based on the adjective tamim, תָּמִים = whole, flawless, blameless.)

Obviously a high priest could not carry firelight and wholeness in a pouch on his chest; the names of the actual items are symbolic.  But what do they mean?  Throughout the book of Isaiah, urim means “fires” or “firelight”, not an object worn by a high priest.  In Ezekiel, ur is a destroying fire.  Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, the word urim refers to the item worn by the high priest.

Traditional commentary says the word urim means light, illumination, clarity, because it has the same root letters as the word or = light. Some modern language scholars speculate that urim is derived from nei-arim (נֵאָרִים) = cursed, inflicted with a curs. In that case, urim and tumim would mean “cursed” and “blameless”. In other words, one object indicates a bad outcome and the other indicates a good one.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) suggested that the two words urim and tummim were written on a single piece of parchment, and the high priest would look down through the open top of his breast-pouch to see which word was facing up.

In the Talmud tractate Yoma 73b, the rabbis seem to use the phrase “urim and tumim” interchangeably with the phrase “breast-pouch of the law”.   Some speculated that the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the urim and tumim, and the letters lit up or moved around to create an oracular message.  Others said that the urim and tumim caused the stones on the front of the breast-pouch to light up, and the message could be deciphered from the pattern of flashing lights.  The important thing was that both the person with the question and the high priest had to direct their minds toward God.


Some passages in the Torah appear to forbid using any kind of divination, along with any other kind of magic.  For example:

No one must be found among you who sacrifices his son or his daughter in the fire, or who reads omens, a cloud-conjurer or a diviner, or a sorcerer; or a charm-binder, or a medium who consults ghosts or a medium who possesses a familiar spirit, or who questions the dead.  For anyone who does these is an abomination of God, and on account of these abominations, God, your god, is dispossessing them before you.  You shall be whole with God, your god.   (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:10-13)

Here Moses is banning all the divination practices of the people surrounding the Israelites.  In other places, the Torah approves of a few practices for getting a bit of divine knowledge.

The two most common ways that God shares foreknowledge with humans is through dreams, and through communication with prophets.  In the absence of dreams or prophetic utterances, a person can take the initiative by casting lots, or by consulting the high priest’s urim and tumim.


When this week’s Torah portion introduces the urim and tumim, it says “they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God”—like the gems representing twelve tribes of Israel.  Maybe the primary purpose of the urim and tumim is not to enable divination, but to keep light and wholeness in the high priest’s awareness whenever he approaches God.

Even today, people who want to make the right decision resort to dubious divination methods.  Instead of reading omens in entrails or conjuring clouds, they flip a coin, or buy something from a New Age shop, or consult a medium who channels the spirit of a dead person.  It is hard to accept that we cannot have foreknowledge, only good guesses.

Yet we can answer the question “What should I do?” without knowing the outcome of our choice.  And when our intuitions are not clear, we can use approaches similar to the kind of “divination” the Torah approves of.  Dreams still help by connecting us with hidden parts of ourselves that are connected with the divine.  And we can improve our conscious thought by keeping certain ideas in our awareness, carrying them upon our hearts like high priests.   We can consciously stay in touch with urim, the light shed by the fire of our passions; tumim, the continual effort to complete ourselves and become whole; and on the outside, the gemstones of our own tribes, our own families, friends, and communities.