The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10
The Priesthood

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Our portion is mostly devoted to the call of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, the garments they were to wear when serving in the Sanctuary, and the instructions for their inauguration into this unique service.

Just as God chose Moses to receive and teach the Torah, so He chose Aaron - Moses' brother, his senior, and a prophet in his own right - to serve in His chosen sanctuary, and to be the progenitor of all later Israelite priests.

Contrary to contemporary notions of egalitarianism, membership of the Israelite priesthood was hereditary. The greatest merit, righteousness, Torah wisdom and purity could not make a Jew eligible to be a priest - a "Cohen", (plural: Cohanim) - unless his father and father's fathers had been valid Cohanim with impeccable patrilineal descent tracing back to Aaron, the first High Priest. (The Cohanim are permitted to marry women who are not daughters of Cohanim, and as long as the Cohen's wife is not defined as an improper woman or otherwise disqualified in Torah terms, his sons from her would be eligible to serve in the Temple.)

The Cohanim have two main functions:

1. They are charged with offering the blood and meat of the animal sacrifices and conducting all the other Temple services except for the singing and most of the ceremonial guard duties (which are in the hands of members of the tribe of Levy - the Levites). The Temple services are very onerous, requiring intense mental concentration as well as a variety of practical skills. The priests bear responsibility for bringing atonement for penitent sinners and for the entire community.

2. The Cohanim have the responsibility of teaching Torah to the people.

To enable the Cohanim to discharge these duties without having the burden of earning their living as well, the Torah laid down a variety of gifts that the rest of the people are obliged to give them for their basic maintenance and that of their families. These included certain sacrificial portions and other portions of meat and tithes ("Terumah") from crops for their food, and fleece of sheep for their clothing.

The Cohanim are not permitted to serve in the Temple or even eat their tithes - their very food - except when in a state of ritual purity in accordance with Torah law, which required constant ablutions in water as well as keeping their distance from things that ordinary people do not even think about. For example, it would be enough for a Cohen to have momentary physical contact with someone else that had been in the same building as a dead body (e.g. in a hospital), or to sit on his wife's chair or bed or touch her garment during her menstrual period, to make him ritually impure until he underwent the necessary procedure of purification in each case.

In Temple times, the entire priesthood was divided into twenty-four priestly watches, each of which took charge of the Temple services for an entire week in rotation. This meant that most Cohanim served in the Temple for only two weeks in the year and on the main festivals. For the rest of the time they lived dispersed throughout the Land of Israel. Each of the priests was responsible for visiting the local farms in order to collect their tithes and other priestly gifts. This brought them in constant contact with the people, to whom it was their responsibility to teach the Torah.

What can the Gentile learn from the Israelite priesthood?

Many Jewish communities until today include members who have a tradition from their fathers that they are Cohanim and who are honored as such (e.g. by being called first to the public reading of the Torah, although the system of priestly tithes is mostly in suspension today as we do not have the means of purification from defilement from the dead). Some maintain that certain genes are shared by all Cohanim, but only when Messiah comes and builds the coming Temple in Jerusalem will the true descendants of Aaron be known for certain.


These true descendants of Aaron alone will be entrusted with the conduct of the Temple services, and all others, whether Israelites or Gentiles, will be excluded from this by decree of the Torah. It is noteworthy that in strict practical terms, the Gentile today may have more to learn from the Cohen about sacrifices than the Jew who is not a Cohen. This is because Torah law forbids the Jew from offering any animal sacrifice either in Jerusalem or anywhere else, while it permits the Gentile to offer a burnt offering in any suitable place anywhere in the world (Maimonides, Laws of Sacrificial Procedure 19:16). With God's help, this will be discussed at greater length in our commentary on the first portion of Leviticus.


Of greater practical relevance to the majority of people today is the role of the Cohen as teacher of Torah. This requires him to separate himself from the surrounding mundane world of self-indulgence, parties and entertainment in order to maintain the seriousness, devotion, purity and mental clarity that are necessary in order to study, understand and expound upon God's Law.

Unlike the Temple services, the study and teaching of Torah are certainly not restricted to Cohanim. Every Israelite is obliged to study the 613 Commandments in all their ramifications to the best of his ability. Likewise every Gentile is obliged to know the Seven Universal Commandments, and every Gentile lover of HaShem surely wants to broaden and deepen his or her understanding of God's Torah for the Nations to the greatest possible extent. For both Jews and Gentiles, only assiduous study can produce worthy teachers, who are vitally needed for the transmission and dissemination of the Torah.

In simpler times, outstanding Torah scholars and teachers earned their livings as workers, farmers, craftsmen and the like, and would have recoiled from the thought of receiving a stipend for their studies (although Torah judges are entitled to due compensation for the time they devote to legal cases). However, the sophistication and complexity of the modern world results in most people being required to undergo lengthy training for highly specialized and demanding work consuming the best of their waking hours. This makes it very difficult for the majority of adults to devote themselves to sustained Torah study to the level necessary to be capable of teaching others.

In the modern age of specialization, the Jewish people and the Gentile Nations are in need of full-time and part-time professional Torah teachers and disseminators of the Torah who are financially able to devote themselves to their calling through receiving the support of their communities, just as the Temple Cohanim received their maintenance from the surrounding farmers.

Thus Rabbis of the necessary caliber require very many years of intensive study in order to acquire the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to understand how Torah law relates to many complex issues in contemporary life. In the majority of cases, candidates for the rabbinate can finance their studies only through support from others.

Similarly, the service of HaShem by the Gentile Nations requires not only the pursuit of the study and practice of the Seven Universal Commandments by all people, but also trained, competent professionals who can conduct classes for children, teenagers and adults, conduct worship and life-cycle events (birth and naming, coming of age, marriage and divorce, illness, death), counseling, public speaking, public relations and outreach online, in print, TV and radio etc.

The only way that Jewish and Gentile groups and communities can ensure that they will receive the Torah teaching, guidance and leadership they vitally need is through paying the necessary price for Torah professionalism and expertise, just as they pay for it in medicine, law, business, education and science. "If there is no flour, there is no Torah" (Avot 3:17).

The Priestly Garments

Only the High Priest when serving in the Temple wore the glorious gold, blue, scarlet, purple, bejeweled vestments described in our present Torah portion. This is because of the unique role which the Torah accords to the High Priest in securing atonement for Israel and the whole world, and every detail of each of his garments, worn for the glory of God, is replete with deep morals and lessons.

But all the other priests without exception wore the identical simple white linen trousers, tunics, belts and hats described in Exodus chapter 28 verses 40 and 42 when serving in the Temple. There was no place there for gorgeous arrays of human finery of diverse kinds that magnify the wearers each according to his level in some hierarchy. In the Temple of HaShem, only the High Priest, His chosen minister, wears the golden vestments for His glory; all the other Cohanim have the simplest uniforms as His humble servants.

This teaches that the Cohen was not intended to live a life of magnificent luxury and splendor but one of simple, humble service and devotion to the study and practice of God's Torah.

No-one but the son of a Cohen can be a Cohen. But everyone in the world, Gentile or Israelite, can try to emulate the true Cohen's calling of simplicity, humility and devotion in the service of HaShem.




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