Weekly Parashah Articles


The Weekly Torah portion Vayikra is mostly worshipper-oriented, whereas Tzav instructs priests who offered sacrifices, serving in the tabernacle. The priest is described as a person who guided the process of sacrificial activity.

Vayikra informs us about two types of sacrifices (voluntary and mandatory). Tzav in its turn describes two types of priestly functions.

The First Function

When someone offered a burnt offering, the priest had to clean the altar from the ashes of the sacrifice,

‘The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.

‘Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. Lev 6:10-11 [1]

In this case the priest had the dirtiest job which would probably deserve to be included in Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs TV Series. To perform this unpleasant duty the priest would put his linen garments and “clean up after the sinner.” The priest, in fact, played a role of a hospital attendant whose duties may include cleaning after disabled patients.

Why were not Levites charged with this kind of job? We may answer this question in light of so-called “Sin Transfer Theory.”

In short, according to this view all sinners while offering sacrifices would transfer their sins into the sanctuary, and the High Priest would cleanse the sanctuary along with all the people once a year.

Critics of this theory assert that such a process would defile the sanctuary. In order to respond to the critics, I will give an illustration. Let us imagine a newly-built contemporary hospital whose operating theater costs dozens of millions of dollars. Let us also imagine a special opening ceremony of this hospital when the manager performs the ribbon-cutting. This manager cuts the ribbon and solemnly announces, “we will not perform surgery on patients here because of their blood. It will spoil our beautiful operating theater that is why I order to keep the theater locked, neat, and clean.” Will everybody shout “hooray?” Will investors be happy? Will people need this hospital at all? The answer is very obvious.

The Bible tells us that the sanctuary was defiled not when the blood was brought inside, but on the contrary, when it was idling and when sinners were not bringing sins there. This state of idling is called defilement in the Bible.

The priests who served in the sanctuary were nor specially privileged people. They performed the job which was, in fact, very difficult and dirty, flaying carcasses, carrying the blood, and cleaning up after that! I specifically focus on these details because sometimes people believe that the priests in Israel were white-collar workers and the Levites were blue-collar workmen. But according to Tzav, we see that it was not the case. Both priests and Levites were supposed to perform duties which sometimes were very unpleasant.

The Second Function

In chapter six of the book of Leviticus we read,

“Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy.

‘The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Lev 6:25

The phrase “It is most holy” (kodesh kodeshim) refers to the sin offering. In other verses kodesh kodeshim may refer to the inner sanctuary or the most holy place.

What was the priest supposed to do with this kind of sacrifices? In the quoted text we read, he “shall eat it.”

According to the Jewish tradition and the Torah this meet was boiled without salt.

Some theologians assert that offering sin sacrifices Israelites were providing food for the priests. However, it can hardly be accepted since this food was not tasty. On the contrary, it was unappetizing tasteless meal which unlikely made anyone happy. If you still have doubts, you may try boiled unsalted mutton.

There was an important reason why God commanded to cook the meat of sin offerings this way: there had to be a distinct border between the sanctuary service and a barbeque party (yet this happened in 1 Sam. 2).

Again, we see that the priestly ministry was not attractive from a human standpoint. How such a meal could be pleasant? Nevertheless, we see that God used a Semitic paradox here. He harmonized inharmonious things: unpalatable meat was called kodesh kodeshim and served for humans’ atonement.


Alexander Bolotnikov, PhD

[1] Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. www.Lockman.org unless other translation is indicated.