Friday, February 15, 2008

Tetzaveh: eternal pomegranates

Parashat Tetzaveh continues the theme of last week’s reading: the building and operation of the mishkan.

A substantial part of it deals with the design of the priests’ vestments, which seem very elaborate for the portable sanctuary of a people wandering in the desert. Many scholars believe that the bulk of the description comes from a much later period and may describe the vestments worn by priests in the First Temple.

This is partially supported by the absence of information that would seem essential even though there is a wealth of detail about other things. That there is a hereditary priesthood seems to be taken for granted, and the text names items, such as the ephod, that are never defined. Probably everyone knew what they were.

The parashah begins with the description of the ner tamid. Although we most often call this an “eternal light,” that is clearly not the meaning that the Torah intends: in verse 27:21, it states plainly that the light is to burn from evening to morning, in other words, when light would be needed.

The idea of burning the light, or lights, 24 hours a day seems to date only from the Second Temple period. Whether this is the direct predecessor of the ner tamid now found in every synagogue is a matter of dispute. Although it is generally believed that a light came to be burned in the synagogue following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the historical location for it was on the western side of the sanctuary.

The transfer to a location over the Ark, on the eastern wall, may reflect the influence of Christian church architecture during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Although one strain of Jewish thought automatically rejects any practice that imitates Christian churches, Jews in those communities in Europe that extended a measure of civil rights to them were often participants in general culture, and it was not unusual for synagogues to be designed by Christian architects, or for synagogues to commission music from Christian composers.

Furthermore, the forms of Jewish and Christian worship developed side by side; they have common sources and influenced each other. For example, our practice of having two readings from Scripture—Torah and Prophets (haftarah)—has an exact parallel in Christian worship where it is typical to have either one reading from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) and one from the New Testament, or one from a Gospel and one from an Epistle.

This is even more striking when we read about the priests’ vestments, since components of priests’ vestments in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches follow the description quite closely.

In Judaism, where there has been no active priesthood for more than 1,900 years, elements of the priests’ dress, including a sort of robe and a breastplate, are found on the Torah scroll. In some synagogues there is a Torah breastplate designed exactly like the one described here, including the 12 gemstones; several years ago I was the reader for this passage in one such synagogue.

And our Torah ornaments are called rimmonim, “pomegranates,” after the decoration prescribed for the hem of the priest’s robe, and often have bells, also prescribed. One of our Hebrew textbooks defines rimmonim as “Torah ornaments,” but I like to tell students the original meaning and give credit for it on tests. I also tell them that in modern Hebrew rimmonim can denote hand grenades—“pineapples” in American slang.

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