Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Tzav

Parashat Tzav

March 25, 2016

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah continues the extensive discussion of the different sacrifies that God commanded the Israelites, and it is therefore not surprising that sacrifices make an appearance in the haftarah chosen for Parashat Tzav. The haftarah contains a much discussed verse from Jeremiah that seems to imply that the Children of Israel were not originally commanded to offer sacrifices.
“For on the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:22)
A similar sentiment can be found in Amos:
“Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25)
Biblical commentators and scholars have been puzzled by the claim that the Children of Israel were not commanded to offer sacrifies while in the wilderness. Some have claimed that these verses represent a literary strand found in Biblical literature that had a narrow view of what the Children of Israel were commanded at Mount sinai and in the wilderness, while others claim that the negative statement found in Jeremiah 7:22 is not literally true, it is rather only used in order to emphasize the next verse (v. 23):
“But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”
Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (Hungary/United State, 1887-1979), who was the first Satmar Rebbe, addressed the challenges posed by this verse from Jeremiah in his commentary on the Torah, Divrei Yoel. He brought the opinion of Maimonides (Spain/Egypt, 1135-1204) who in his Guide for the Perplexed offered two ways of understanding this verse (III:32, trans. Friedländer).
This passage has been found difficult in the opinion of all those whose words I read or heard; they ask, How can Jeremiah say that God did not command us about burnt-offering and sacrifice, seeing so many precepts refer to sacrifice? The sense of the passage agrees with what I explained to you. Jeremiah says [in the name of God] the primary object of the precepts is this, Know me, and serve no other being; “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). But the commandment that sacrifices shall be brought and that the temple shall be visited has for its object the success of that principle among you; and for its sake I have transferred these modes of worship to my name; idolatry shall thereby be utterly destroyed, and Jewish faith firmly established.
Maimonides then offered a second explanation:
I have another way of explaining this passage with exactly the same result. For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law about the burnt-offering (olah) and sacrifice (zevah). You must not see any difficulty in the Passover which was commanded in Egypt; there was a particular and evident reason for that, as will be explained by me (chap. 46). Besides it was revealed in the land of Egypt; while the laws to which Jeremiah alludes in the above passage are those which were revealed after the departure from Egypt. For this reason it is distinctly added, “in the day that I brought them out from the land of Egypt.”
According to Maimonides, the verse from Jeremiah can be explained in two ways: 1. The true intention of the sacrifical service is not the sacrifices themselves, but rather knowing and serving God; 2. There is an interpretive and textual tradition that not all of the details of the sacrificial service were given to the Children of Israel when they left Egypt.

The Satmar Rebbe then brought the opinion of the commentator Abarbanel (Portugal/Italy, 1437-1508) who offered another explanation. Abarbanel said that in truth, the Children in Israel were not commanded about the sacrificial service at Mount Sinai. It was only after the episode of the Golden Calf that God realized the need to establish for the Children of Israel a more concrete framework of worship.

The Satmar Rebbe concluded by offering a modified version of Abarbanel’s explanation. According to Rabbi Teitelbaum, at Mount Sinai the Children of Israel were taught about the sacrificial service, but they were not commanded about it. He finds support for this understanding in a Talmudic text that describes certain commandments as being given on condition, only if you sin will you then have to observe these commandments. (Avodah Zarah 5a) For the Satmar Rebbe, while the Children of Israel were taught about the sacrifices at Sinai, it was only when they were unable to live a life close to God and Torah that the sacrifices became commandments.

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.