Tags: Amidah, incense, prayer, Psalm 141, Psalm 40, Psalm 51, smoke
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
Tags: haftarah, Prophet Ezekiel, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
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 Tetzavveh (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.
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 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 did not even know 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?
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.
Tags: Exodus, high priest, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion
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)
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, Tetzavveh (“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)
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 Tetzavveh: 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 Tetzavveh: 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.
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.
Tags: Exodus, God, holy place, religion, Shemot, torah portion
The term ohel mo-eid, “Tent of Meeting”, occurs 135 times in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; twice in Deuteronomy; and eleven more times in the Bible. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You shall command”), in which God continues to give instructions to Moses on constructing a sanctuary and ordaining priests to serve there. The portion begins:
And you, you shall command the children of Israel, so they shall 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 curtain that is over the eidut, Aaron and his sons shall prepare it …(Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21)
ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent
mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = appointed place for meeting with God; appointed time (usually for a religious festival)
ohel mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting (i.e. the tent appointed for meeting with God)
eidut (הָעֵדֻת) = reminder; God’s written testimony (i.e. the two stone tablets placed inside the ark)
The term ohel mo-eid refers to at least two different tents in the book of Exodus/Shemot. Before Moses and the Israelites construct the sanctuary, Moses’ own tent is the Tent of Meeting. Once the sanctuary is assembled, the term “Tent of Meeting” usually refers to the tent that contains the menorah, the bread table, the incense altar, and the Holy of Holies, a curtained enclosure for the ark. In the passage above, the menorah is to be placed inside the ohel mo-eid, in front of the curtain hiding the ark.
Only priests are supposed to enter the tent, the ohel mo-eid, when it is assembled. The unroofed courtyard in front of the ohel mo-eid will contain the altar for roasting or burning up various animal offerings. All the Israelites can enter the courtyard (or at least all the men; the Torah is silent about the women).
When Moses is told how to ordain Aaron and his sons as the first priests for the Israelites, God’s instructions emphasize the importance of rituals performed in front of the entrance of the ohel mo-eid. That is where the future priests will immerse themselves in water, and where they will press their hands against the head of the bull that Moses will slaughter to dedicate them to God.
Then you shall slaughter the bull in front of God at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid. (Exodus 29:11)
Being in front of the Tent of Meeting is equated with being in front of God—because the Tent of Meeting is the appointed place where God will meet with the high priests.
Later in the Torah portion, God’s instructions call for two lambs to be completely burned up into smoke at the altar every day, one in the morning and one at twilight;
It will be a regular rising-offering, for their generations, at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid, in front of God, where I will have an appointment with you, to speak to you there. And I will have an appointment there with the children of Israel, and it will be made holy through My glory. (Exodus 29:42-3)
Imagine having an appointed place to meet with God!
Before there is a Tent of Meeting, the men in the Torah never know where God might speak to them. God’s voice might come from a stranger who turns out to be not human after all, or in a dream, or through a burning bush. But in this week’s Torah portion, while Moses is spending 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, he learns that God has designated the Tent of Meeting as the place where God will speak to Moses and manifest to the Israelites. God adds:
I will make holy the ohel mo-eid and the altar, and I will make holy Aaron and his sons to be priests to Me. And I will dwell amidst the children of Israel and be their god. (Exodus 29:44-45)
Yet even after the ohel mo-eid is built later in the book of Exodus, and consecrated by a dazzling and deadly display of divine fire in the book of Leviticus, the Israelites in the Torah keep on alternating between accepting and rejecting their god.
When the people can see the sanctuary in the center of their camp, with the pillar of divine cloud and fire hanging over it, and remember God’s fire consecrating the Tent of Meeting, why would they continue to complain about God, flout God’s rules, and even worship another god?
Imagine that if you wanted to find God, you could just go to the executive meeting room in the headquarters of your ethnic group. God would hold private meetings there with those few who had appointments. But God would manifest a visible presence to anyone who came to the door—something that looked like fire or cloud, but was definitely unearthly.
Would you believe God was present in the executive meeting room? Would you live in awe of the god who came to the meeting room? Would you strive to follow its rules of behavior? Or would you inquire about the gods of other ethnic groups, and wonder whether there was a more ethereal and universal god?
The Israelites in the Torah never deny that there is a god who chooses to be their god and dwell in their Tent of Meeting. They only waver in their allegiance to this god. Maybe they are not always sure this particular god is the best god for them. After all, in the book of Exodus, the god of Israel does not claim to be the only god in the world, just the most powerful one. I can imagine an Israelite longing for another god, one that is less temperamental and destructive, more patient and forgiving.
The idea that there is only one God for the whole world is implied in the creation stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis, but then it disappears from the Torah. True monotheism creeps into the Hebrew bible gradually, beginning with the book of Deuteronomy.
Today no religion would claim that their god has an executive meeting room at the religion’s headquarters. Yet in Israel, people of different religions are still fighting for ownership over sacred places. And some religions still claim that God gives direct instructions to their own equivalent of the Israelite high priest. And there are all too many religious people who believe that the “real” God is their god.
Yet I know that some people keep their own religion’s channels of connection with God, without assigning God exclusively to their own religion’s executive meeting room. I hope that someday all people will let God out of their own Tent of Meeting.
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, to happiness or disaster. If only we knew ahead of time! The longing for foreknowledge has been with us for millennia. Each culture has had its own methods of divination, of gaining knowledge that is normally outside the human realm, in the realm of the divine. And each culture has dealt with the desire for divination in a different way.
Some parts of 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)
In this case, 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. Occasionally a person can take the initiative by casting lots, or by consulting a mysterious object or pair of objects worn by the high priest: the urim and tummim hidden within the high priest’s breast-pouch.
These items are first introduced in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (You shall command), in which God tells Moses everything the high priest shall wear. 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 tummim; 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)
urim = firelight
tummim = wholeness, flawlessness, completion
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 a misspelling of arrim = curses, so urim and tummim are “cursed and blameless”—in other words, one means bad and the other means good.
The Torah never says what the Urim and Tummim looked like, or what material they were made out of. The books of Exodus/Shemot and Leviticus/Vayikra merely mention their existence and their location inside the breast-pouch. In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, we get our first clue that their purpose is oracular. God tells Moses that when Joshua succeeds him as the leader of the Israelites, Joshua (who cannot hear God directly) should 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)
The Torah does not say how the high priest will do this. And the book of Joshua never refers to the Urim or Tummim. 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 with an eifod, and when David receive yes/no answers, we can assume the answers are indicated by the Urim and Tummim. But no description is given.
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 Tummim” interchangeably with the phrase “Breast-pouch of the Law”. Some speculate that the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the Urim and Tummim, and the letters lit up or moved around to create an oracular message. Others say the Urim and Tummim 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.
When the Torah first introduces the Urim and Tummim, in this week’s Torah portion, 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 Tummim 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; tummim, 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.
(This blog was first posted on February 23, 2010.)
A gold bell and a pomegranate, a gold bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe, all around. And it must be on Aharon (for him) to wait on (God) , and its sound will be heard when he comes into to the sacred space before God and when he goes out, and then he will not die. (Exodus/Shemot 28:34-35)
pa-amon = a bell, something that strikes.
The high priest’s costume, as prescribed in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You will command”), is elaborate, splendid, and magical, from the golden forehead-piece engraved with the words meaning “Holy for God”, all the way down to the hem of the long blue robe, on which are sewn alternating bells of gold and pomegranates of blue, purple, and red wool. The mere sight of the high priest in this magnificent garb would inspire the community with the proper awe and reverence. And wearing these unique objects would remind the high priest that he is dedicated to continuous service of God, and must act accordingly.
But not just any set of grand clothes and accessories will do. Each item prescribed for the high priest can have other meanings and functions. When I reread the Torah portion this week, I was fascinated by the bells, the only item that is intended to be heard as well as seen.
Why are bells required on Aaron’s hem? The Torah says only that their sound must be heard when he goes in and out of the sacred space. It does not specify who must hear the ringing.
One theory is that the other priests must hear, so they will know when the high priest is in the sanctuary, and they can leave him in privacy until he comes out again. According to Rabbi Elie Munk, the high priest needed to be alone in this area to serve God properly.
According to 19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, the whole community needed to hear the high priest approaching and departing from God’s presence, so they would be heartened and reassured to know he was once again acting on their behalf.
Another theory is that God must hear the bells ring. The verse in the Torah implies that the ringing somehow protects the high priest from death in the presence of God. Devotees of other religions rang bells in order to ward off unfriendly spirits, so the ancient Israelites might have associated bells with magical protection against dangerous gods. If one reads the Torah literally, God comes across as an anthropomorphic character who is easily angered and inflicts deadly plagues on thousands without a second thought. Yet this God is the one who tells Moses how the high priest’s gear must be made, including the detail about the bells around the hem. Maybe the sound of bells is intended to remind God that whatever personal shortcomings the high priest has, his life is nevertheless important to the community.
Rashi said that the high priest would die if he entered the Sanctuary without wearing every one of the holy items specified, including the bells. Serving God is serious business, and the priests had to follow all the rules; any lapse was punishable by death.
But I think the verse does not threaten death for omitting any one of a long list of required items. I think the death threat specifies that the sound of the bells around the high priest’s hem must be heard, or else.
This means that merely wearing a robe with bells sewn around the bottom is not enough. After all, the bells will chime only when the high priest is walking. The word for bell, pa-amon, comes from the same root as the word pa-am, which means knocking, beating, striking, or striding. If the high priest stands still, the bells will not be heard. If he tiptoes carefully in and out of the sanctuary, the sound will be too faint to hear. He has to stride in and out for the ringing to be heard.
Perhaps the instruction about the sound of 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. Make your service to the divine a part of your regular life, so that you can stride right in. Otherwise, your impulse to reach toward God will fade and die.
(This blog was first posted on February 7, 2011.)
You will make a flower of pure gold, and you will engrave on it a relief carving like a seal: Holy to God. You will place it upon a cord of sky-blue and it will be upon the turban; in front of the face of the turban it will be. (Exodus/Shemot 28:36-7)
tzitz = a flower, blossoms, buds; a sprouting, a visible protrusion, a glint; a “plate” tied to the high priest’s turban.
Last week’s instructions for making the menorah (lamp-stand) for the inner sanctum included ornamentation with almond flowers shaped out of gold. This week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you will command”), gives instructions for the elaborate ritual garments of the priests. The high priest wears several unique items, including a tzitz tied to the front of his turban.
The noun tzitz and its plural, tzitzim, appear only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible. The first three times, tzitz refers to whatever is on the front of the high priest Aaron’s turban (Exodus 28:36 and 39:30, Leviticus 8:9). The next appearance of tzitz probably means “blossoms”:
On the next day, Moses came into the Tent of the Covenant, and behold, the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted; and it produced sprouts, and it blossomed “tzitz”, and it bore almonds. (Numbers/Bamidbar 17:23)
After that, tzitz clearly refers to buds or flowers. The four appearances of the plural, tzitzim, in the description of the temple King Solomon built (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32, 35) all refer to ornamental motifs carved into wood. Some interior walls have wood-carvings of gourd-shapes and bud-cases of “tzitzim”, while other walls and two pairs of doors have wood-carvings of cherubim, palm-tree ornaments, and bud-cases of “tzitztim”. And when the word tzitz appears in the poetry of prophets, it means “flowers”. For example: All flesh is grass/ and all its loyalty is like “tzitz” of the field … Grass withers, “tzitz” fall/ but the word of our God lives forever. (Isaiah/Yeshayahu 40:6, 8)
So why do many translations call the tzitz on the high priest’s forehead a “plate”? Probably because of the way Flavius Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian who settled in Rome and wrote in Greek) described the high priest’s turban he saw after the sack of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Josephus wrote that the turban was encircled with a gold crown that resembled a poppy flower, except that over the forehead there was a “golden plate” inscribed with the name of God.
Whatever the headdress from the Second Temple looked like, the instructions God gives Moses in Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, seem to call for a gold medallion that is shaped like a flower. The words “Holy to God” (using the most sacred four-letter name of God—see my blog from October 2010, “Lech Lecha: Names of God” ) are to be carved in relief on the gold flower, like the symbol of identity carved on a seal or signet ring.
This is a powerful symbol. Medieval commentary viewed the tzitz as a constant atonement for the unavoidable impurity of animal sacrifices to God, but I believe it means more than that. It reminds the high priest wearing it, and everyone who sees him, and perhaps even God (c.f. 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk), that the purpose of the Israelite people is to be “holy”, i.e. to set themselves aside for God, dedicate themselves to God. This dedication must be their core identity; thus the words are engraved into the gold flower-medallion the way an identity seal is carved.
Furthermore, in the Torah gold is the most precious metal, reserved for the most sacred items in the sanctuary. A flower is both a beautiful creation delighting our eyes, and the source of seeds for new life. The word for “God” engraved on the gold flower is the four-letter name of God, a permutation of the verb “to be” or “to become”. The shape of a flower and the letters of God’s name both speak of becoming. We bring flowers for the dead not only to honor them with beauty, but to open our own hearts to the hope for new life. Flowers fall, as Isaiah says; but the spirit of God goes on creating, and plants that blossom go on to bear fruit.
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. May we all do the holy work of consciously becoming and creating.