Removing the Ashes

Removing the Ashes

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Tzav – פרשת צו

March 19, 2022 – טז אדר שני תשפב

This essay is sponsored by Marlene & Armand Lerner in memory of Rabbi Dr. Philip M. Weinberger Z”L.

Removing the Ashes

Sacrificial carcasses were burned daily atop the Holy Temple’s outer altar. The accumulated ashes could not be allowed indefinitely to occupy the altar top’s limited surface area. Scripture mandates a sanitation procedure.  “And the priest shall wear his linen garb and linen breeches he shall wear on his body, and he shall take away the ashes that the fire consumes from the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar (Leviticus 6:3).”  The housekeeping ritual of “lifting the ashes” (Terumat Ha-Deshen) was the first act of the daily Temple service (Mishnah Tamid 1:4).   Only a small volume of ashes was taken off the altar each morning. It was placed on the floor of the Temple Courtyard a few paces east of the altar’s ramp.  The vast bulk of ashes atop the altar was not removed daily, but rather at irregular intervals when its continued presence interfered with the ability of the priests to perform their duties and to maneuver around the pyre.  “And he shall take off his clothes and wear other clothes and take out the ashes beyond the camp to a clean place (Leviticus 6:4).”  The sages debated whether this more burdensome task of “removing the ashes” (Hotza’at Ha-Deshen) was truly a Temple service worthy of being reckoned as a commandment. Alternatively, Leviticus 6:4 might be considered merely a practical description of how the altar should be cleared when necessary.   The sages wondered why the Torah commanded the priests to perform a purely symbolic act of housekeeping that lacked any other utility.  As noted by Torah Temimah, the entire process of ash removal could have been done in one stage by an Israelite using a long rake. Yerushalmi posits a moral lesson embedded in the commandment of Terumat Ha-Deshen. No human being should glorify himself in the house of the King of Kings (Yerushalmi Shabbat 12c).  It was very tempting for the priestly class to see itself as an exalted ecclesiastical aristocracy.  This aloof and arrogant attitude had disastrous social consequences for the Jewish people, especially during the Second Temple era.  Because of the commandment that the priests sully themselves in the dirty work of ash removal, they would understand that their special status was nothing more than a privileged opportunity to participate in the Divine service.   While the purpose of lifting the ashes may have been to teach the priests humility, it was nonetheless an official act of Temple service that called for more than a modicum of dignity.  The same priestly vestments worn during the more glorified aspects of the service were to be worn during the lifting of the ashes.  Only during the more onerous task of removing the ashes outside the Temple complex did the priest don less expensive garments. In addition, the ashes were to be placed gently beside the altar and not heaved in the manner by which garbage is disposed (Temurah 34a).   As I observed in a recent essay (“Incense and Wealth,” 2/11/22), Temple officials initially assumed that few priests would be interested in performing ash removal.  Aside from being an inglorious task, it also necessitated waking up well before dawn.  Nearly all tasks of the daily Temple service were assigned by lottery, given the far greater number of available priests than the number of tasks to perform.  It was felt that a lottery to assign Terumat Ha-Deshen would only further reduce the pool of applicants, as priests would be disinclined to lose sleep for the mere possibility of being so assigned. Instead, whoever volunteered to lift the ashes was given that opportunity.  If multiple priests volunteered, the task was assigned to the winner of a footrace up the altar ramp.  On two occasions the athletic competition ended badly.  Once, a priest pushed his competitor off the ramp, breaking the victim’s leg (Mishnah Yoma 2:1).  On another occasion, the loser grabbed a knife and in murderous rage plunged it into the heart of his competitor (Tosefta Yoma 1:12).  After these tragic episodes, Temple officials abolished the footrace and instituted a lottery for Terumat Ha-Deshen.   Terumat Ha-Deshen is only one example of a wider phenomenon in Judaism. The level of desirability for a given honorific role in the public religious service does not remain static. In some instances, as in the case of Terumat Ha-Deshen, a task presumed to be held in low esteem turns out to be highly sought after. In other instances, an honorific role initially thought to be extraordinarily meritorious is later overlooked and given to people of comparatively low rank.   In the Talmudic period, the Maftir Aliyah was considered a lesser honor (Megillah 24a). The Talmud explains that the only reason that the person called upon to read the Haftorah is also given a short Torah portion to read is that synagogue attendees need to be kept from erroneously concluding that the honor of the Books of the Prophets is equal to that of the Torah (Megillah 23a). The rabbis questioned whether Maftir is reckoned as an official Aliyah in the formal counting of Aliyot. While the Talmud does not issue a ruling, the practice on Sabbaths and holidays is to read the required number of Aliyot in advance of calling up the Maftir. Another indicator of the relative inferiority of Maftir was the practice of calling upon minor children to read Maftir, but not doing so for the statutorily required Aliyot. In the Tannatiic period, the doctors of the liturgy tried to entice people to accept Maftir by tying that “honor” to other, more sought after, liturgical responsibilities: The person given Maftir would also serve as precentor and lead the congregation in the recitation of Shema, Musaf, and the priestly benediction (Mishnah Megillah 4:5).   In more recent times, however, Maftir/Haftorah has become a highly coveted honor. Some are willing to pay exorbitant sums to purchase Maftir at synagogue auctions. This is especially true for Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, the Haftorah on Shabbat Shuvah, and the readings of the Arba Parshiyot before Purim and Passover. There is a basis in Midrashic and halakhic literature for a mourner during the twelve months after the death of a parent, or for the appropriate relative on the yahrzeit, to request the honor of reading Maftir/Haftorah as a means of elevating in the hereafter the soul of his deceased loved one (Shu”t Rivash 115; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 376:4). Yet Maftir somehow became the Aliyah of choice for all lifecycle occasions. A groom celebrating his Aufruf, or a young man at his Bar Mitzvah, is typically called up for Maftir. Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt was perplexed how it came to be that people who by dint of such a celebratory occasion were halakhically entitled to an Aliyah would choose instead to receive the least important of Aliyot (Rivvevot Ephraim 8:422).   Trending in the opposite direction is Gelilah, the task of rolling together the Torah scroll and wrapping it in its mantle following the public reading and its display to the congregation (Hagbah). The Talmud states that the person who performs Gelilah receives heavenly reward equivalent to the sum total of the rewards received by all other participants in the Torah reading (Megillah 32a). Tur noted that Gelilah was usually given to the most-saintly member of the congregation or auctioned for a high price (Tur Orach Chaim 147).  Contemporary practice, however, is decidedly different. Gelilah is generally regarded as the least prestigious of Torah honors, given to minors or those insufficiently skilled Judaically to receive an Aliyah.   These shifts in popular sentiment can be explained. Some people crave the spotlight and the opportunity to showcase their religious or physical prowess. In an earlier era, before the advent of the professional Torah reader, receiving an Aliyah meant that such recipient literally read from the Torah scroll. Once it became common for Aliyah recipients to do no more than recite blessings, however, the Haftorah became much more appealing in terms of displaying one’s liturgical prowess. Reading a chapter-long selection from the Prophets with trope affords the honoree a far greater opportunity to do so than does his merely intoning the very short blessings before and after an Aliyah, whilst in-between those short-lived events the shul’s rabbi or ritual director does the actual reading from the Torah scroll. And, despite whatever the Talmud might say about the spiritual rewards associated with Gelilah, most people want a speaking part in the service. Alternatively, for those with limited Hebraic proficiency, the desire to show their strength is manifested by their performing Hagbah with a Torah of significant weight (and being ultra-careful not to drop it). Being offered Gelilah by the sexton can be considered demeaning or beneath one's dignity.   The ultimate lesson of Terumat Ha-Deshen is that one should be grateful for any opportunity to serve God, regardless of the nature of the service or how our co-religionists might value (or under-value) a specific ceremony or ritual.   As the poet Thomas Gray wrote, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” The purpose of public religious services is not to glorify the participants; it is to glorify God.