OzTorah: Torah reading – Tzav



A ner tamid hanging over the ark in a synagogue.

The sidra tells us that the fire on the altar shall be left to burn continuously and must never be allowed to go out (Lev. 6:6).

There is a comparison between the fire and the human being. King David said in the Psalms (27:4) that he yearned to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of his life. He said a similar thing at the end of the famous Psalm 23. The fire should be in the sanctuary continuously; the believer should be blessed to be present there every moment of every day.

But there is a problem with the verse from Psalm 27. It speaks of dwelling in the Temple but also of coming to visit – “to frequent His holy place”. Which is more important – to dwell in the sanctuary or to visit?

There is an argument in favour of each. To dwell means to be constantly in the Divine Presence. To visit means to be there whenever possible but not all the time. The dweller can take it all for granted; the visitor can enjoy the moment but then move on to other things.

There is a challenge for each. The dweller must learn to see the sanctuary with fresh eyes every day of his life, never letting himself become blasé. The visitor must try to increase the frequency of his visits so that the day will come when he will no longer be a tourist but a resident.


The priest had to change his clothes from time to time, depending on the nature of the task ahead. Sometimes they were utilitarian garments, sometimes impressive regalia (Lev. 6:4).

The rabbis say that this is the origin of the practice of changing into one’s best apparel to mark Shabbat or festivals. In England they used to speak of “Sunday best”, which comes from the same source. How you look suggests what your priorities are: as the saying goes, “Clothes make the man”.

I had a synagogue president once who allocated synagogal honours on the basis of whether the recipient was properly dressed: “We’ll give him an Aliyah”, my president used to say; “He looks tidy enough!’ The president himself wore the official garb that was customary for congregational honorary officers in the London United Synagogue in those days – black jacket, striped trousers, top hat.  He was probably more concerned with decorum than devotion, but in the end it worked out in the way in which it should. An important occasion had to be fittingly marked.

Of course the customs vary according to where you are. In Israel hardly anyone wears a suit and tie on Shabbat and festivals (apart from me – the customs of a lifetime are so hard to abandon), but a clean white shirt, open-necked of course, is taken for granted.

Not only in regard to the person but the house too. Shabbat and chaggim are the time for everything to look festive.


The Book of Vayikra is largely concerned with sacrifices. So important was the sacrificial ritual in the Temple that one wonders how Judaism survived when the sanctuary was destroyed. The question greatly exercised the Talmudic rabbis. The fact is that Temple or no Temple, Judaism did survive. But the rabbis were concerned with a different issue: “now that we have no Temple, how can we obtain atonement?”

The Midrash Tanchuma gave a typical answer:

“While the Temple stood, atonement came through the sacrifices; without the Temple, we have the Torah.”

There are many such statements. How do we replace the sacrifices as a means of atonement? By having a humble spirit (Sanh. 43b). By doing kindly deeds (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5). By modesty within one’s house (Tanchuma). By hospitality (Chag. 27a). By controlling one’s instincts (Sanh. 43b). Some sages felt that we had an even better means of atonement than before: “Charitable deeds are better than all the sacrifices” (Sanh. 49b).

“Atonement” indicates “at-one-ment”. Sacrifices, “korbanot”, from the Hebrew root for coming near, were not the only way to be at one with God. The same result could come from living a good and righteous life.

This does not mean that the sacrifices would be unnecessary when the Temple was rebuilt, but they would have to be accompanied by the sacrifice of the selfishness that gets in the way of a life with God.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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