Tsav (Lev. 6:1 – 8:36) – Sacrifices and Ritual Purity

© 2017 S.H Parker

Last week (sedrah Vayikra, Lev. 1:1 – 5:26) we learned the five kinds of korbanot (sacrifices, lit. “drawing near”) and what is used for each offering. Note that korbanot are mostly expiatory – cleansing.

This week we learn exactly how to do them and then we read about the installation ceremony for the priests.

Scintillating stuff…. And, odd as it may sound, relevant to us today.

The first thing to note is what the priesthood is all about. The function of priests is to supervise the korbanot process, to keep wood and fire on the altar, to clean up the ashes and to place offerings on the fire (last week, we learned that the slaughter, when the offering is of the flock or of the herd, is actually done by offering person; the only korban slaughtered by a priest is the tamid, the daily offering on behalf of the people).

Priests have no income, no money, they don't even own their vestments. They get a portion of most korbanot in order that they not starve to death. Priests are pure servants.

This changes after Josiah's reforms (it is under Josiah that all ritual sacrifices are confined to a single, central temple and the priesthood is restricted to Aaronids). Starting around this time, in the absence of an indigenous political leadership (not long after Josiah, Judah lost its political independence, leaving a power vacuum into which the priests promptly stepped), priests fashioned themselves the only intermediary to god, and sacrifices and priestly divination, the only method of communication.

All of these details, these endless details, from the last third of Shmot to the first quarter of Bamidbar, close to half the Torah, is because of this, this expiatory function, ritual cleanliness, that the korbanot effect.


In ancient societies, the god is assumed to be present in the temple/tabernacle. Compare this to the contemporary idea that we can force god's presence by various mystical rites or by (magical) rituals.

But the god could be driven out, made to withdraw from the temple/tabernacle … by impurity (that’s why it’s called “ritual” impurity). Impurity does this, forces god out of the temple and out of the nation and, thus, god's favor is removed too. To peoples both ancient and modern, this is genuinely frightening.

This is why priests became a national necessity. The priests keep the tabernacle "clean," "pure," so that the god would not abandon his people. That's how and why this is so important.

So, tell me ... what causes ritual impurity?

As we go forward, reading further in Leviticus especially, "impurity" will seem to revolve around what today we might call "personal hygiene." Sources of impurity that will be mentioned – at length - include tzaraath, touching a corpse, flows/niddah, etc. - certainly modern orthodox Jews concentrate on this. And even the less orthodox think that this is what “ritual (im)purity” is all about.

But last week’s reading makes it clear that these are not the important causes of impurity. Unintentional sins (manslaughter is one that occupies a lot of Torah-oid thought, as does oath-taking-without-fulfilling and, in fact, oath-taking in general) and sins for which restitution is possible (theft, for example) are the important cause of impurity. Intentional sins, not mentioned in last week’s sedrah, murder, idolatry, tale-bearing are a whole different level of impurity, impurity that the guilt offering (often mis-rendered as “sin offering”)  cannot kaper, wipe away. And impurity, as we will see with tzaraath, is seen to be contagious. (To be entirely fair, it is also mentioned, more than once, in this week’s reading, that kedushah, holiness, is communicable.)

Torah tells us why these sins are contamination-causing (Bamidbar (Num.) 5:6): “When a man or a woman commits any of the sins people commit, it is a trespass against Adonai ....”

This is a mighty lesson that orthodoxy - Jewish, Christian, Muslim - no longer remembers - בְּצֶלֶם (“in the image” of God). As my teachers taught: you show your love for god in how you treat god's creation....

“Ritual impurity” is treating your fellow creatures poorly. “Ritual purity,” obviously, is menschligkeit