T-tzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10
X marks the spot
February 12, 2011

Today’s talk is entitled “X marks the spot.”
It is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is today. The connection is leadership and legitimacy.

Today, we read how the priests were installed; how they received the spirit--the commission from God; the legitimacy of their power..

Moses connected to God at Mount Sinai. The spirit was transferred from God to Moses.

In today’s portion, Moses is commanded to transmit that connection to Aaron and his sons---to make them priests. We are speaking of an heriditary priesthood. The ceremony which we read about was to happen only once.

The connection is transmitted through several media:


I am working from Aryeh Kaplan’s translation. Moses is to speak to the people “wise of heart” to whom God granted “the spirit of wisdom” and request them to make the garments.

The spirit is transferred from God to the people with wisdom and from them to Aaron by means of clothing.

Aaron and his sons are taken to the door of the Communion Tent and immersed in a Mikva. Kaplan cites sources stating that the Mikva was a specially constructed pool containing 80 gallons of watr.

The vestments are placed on Aaron.

At the beginning of today’s portion, we read how pure olive oil was to be used for lamps which were burn in God’s presence in the Communion Tent from evening to morning.

Pure olive oil is part of the ordination ceremony.

After the turban is put on Aaron’s head, pure olive oil was poured on Aaron’s head.

Now comes the fun. According to Rashi, the oil was poured on the head and between Aaron’s eyebrows. He connected the two areas of oil with his fingers in the shape of an X.

Nachmanides says the oil was put where tephillin would be and drawn into the shape of the Greek letter Chi.

The oil was only placed on Aaron.

Two unblemished animals are sacrificed. Their life-force is transferred to Aaron and his sons. The blood of the animals is dabbed on the right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe of Aaron and his sons.

Gersonides related the blood on the ear to “We shall hear” and the blood on the thumb and toe to “We shall do”

Blood is also sprinkled on their garments.

The body parts of the animals are placed in the hands of Aaron and their sons. They wave the body parts. Finally, the body parts are burned. Aaron and his sons eat parts of the roasted animals.

Only Aaron and his sons can eat of these animals. The common people cannot. Aaron and his sons gain atonement by eating the sacrificed animals.

The ordination ceremony lasts seven days.

The priesthood is heriditary. No further ordination ceremonies. The succeeding generations of priests receive their power by putting on Aaron’s garments.

The priesthood ended with the Destruction of the Temple. However, the idea of transmitting the tradition through our clergy continues.

I consulted with a Conservative rabbi who had Reconstructionist ordination, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Chabad rabbi.

The Conservative rabbi with Reconstructionist ordination explained that the priests also had teaching duties. Along side the priests was a long tradition of rabbis. After the Destruction of the Temple, the priests went out of business. What they did is lost to history.

However, rabbis continued teach. To enhance their authority and legitimacy, the rabbis claimed lineage from Moses.

For example, Pirke Avot, at the beginning of the first chapter states:

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They (the men of the Great Assembly) said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, develop many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.”

There developed the concept of smichah, where rabbi’s transmitted their authority to the next generation of rabbis. Originally, this authority came from the Great Assembly or Sanhedrin, which ended in Roman times. The classic image is the ordaining rabbi to lay his hands on the newe rabbi.

However, the concept of smicha continues to the present.

The Chabad rabbi explained that “Smicha today means that you did not take the mantel of ‘Rabbi’ on our own, but rather it was given to you by someone else, and also that you have the basic level of knowledge to serve others.”

He said that “you cannot be a real Rabbi, or what’s call a Rav (or Dayan in Europe)--meaning decide on halachic matters . . . unless you spent a significant amount of time apprenticing with another Rav.”

The JTS rebbincal student emailed several of her colleagues.
She received this description of the ordination ceremony at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

"In front of a congregation of family and friends, each new rabbi goes in front of the opened ark. The president of the College blesses each new rabbi privately by placing his hands ofn the student’s head and shoulders and whispers a blessing. If the student has a family member who is a rabbi or cantor, that family member can also give a blessing before the opened ark The student’s family and friends stand while that student is being blessed."

A respondents from Reconstructionist Rabbincal College said that RRC does not do “smicha” in the sense of passing down the tradition. However, each member of the graduating class has the option of putting on his or her own tallit or having it placed by a classmate. Most of the graduates choose to have a classmate do it with the symbolic effect of getting smicha from your peers.

The Conservative rabbi who was ordained at RRC said that while his graduation had no laying of the hands. Then he pointed to his diploma. It has the signatures of all members of the faculty, suggesting that his authority as rabbi derived from the wisdom of his teachers.