> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

No Hesitation

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

With the Mishkan completed and the laws of the offerings taught, the final step toward making the Mishkan operational could finally be taken. Now the star of the show, the central performer, would need to be introduced: Moshe is instructed to take his brother Aharon and prepare him to serve as Kohen Gadol, and Aharon's children as kohanim. The chain of succession is established; one day, one of Aharon's children would inherit the exalted position of Kohen Gadol.

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, 'Take Aharon and, along with him, his sons, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bull for the sin offering, and the two rams, and the basket of matzot (unleavened bread); And gather all the congregation together to the door of the Tent of Meeting.' And Moshe did as God commanded him; and the assembly was gathered together to the door of the Tent of Meeting. And Moshe said to the congregation, 'This is the thing which God commanded to be done.' And Moshe brought Aharon and his sons, and washed them with water. And he put on him the coat, and girded him with the girdle, and clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod upon him, and he girded him with the finely done girdle of the ephod, and bound it to him with it. And he put the breastplate on him; also he put on the breastplate the Urim and the Tummim. And he put the mitre upon his head; also upon the mitre, upon its front, he put the golden plate, the holy crown; as God commanded Moshe. And Moshe took the anointing oil, and anointed the Mishkan and all that was in it, and sanctified them. (Vayikra 8:1-10)

How Moshe may have felt about this news seems impossible to discern from the text. In sight of the assembled nation the holy finery to be worn by the Kohen Gadol is placed upon Aharon. Did Moshe feel displaced or rejected? Was he surprised? Was he disappointed? The text is silent. However the Midrash addresses some of these issues:

R. Tanhum taught in the name of R. Judan: All the seven days of consecration Moshe ministered in the office of High Priest, but the Shechinah did not take up its abode through his ministration, (but when Aharon put on the High Priest's robes and ministered, the Shechinah took its abode through his ministrations, as it is said, For to-day the Lord appears to you [Vayikra 9, 4]) [And the glory of God appeared unto all the people...] And when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces [Vayikra 9, 23]. (Vayikra Rabbah 11:6)

For the seven days of consecration Moshe did function as the Kohen Gadol,1 but there seems to have been some sort of problem. Moshe's service did not have the desired impact: the Shechina did not descend. It seems that Moshe was not destined to be a kohen. The Midrash continues and explains why this was so:

R. Samuel b. Nahman said: All the seven days of the [burning] bush, the Holy One, blessed be He, was trying to persuade Moshe to go on His mission to Egypt. This is [indicated by] what is written, 'Also from yesterday, also from the day before, also since You have spoken to your servant (Shmot 4:10), which makes six days; and on the seventh day he said to Him, 'Send, I pray Thee, by the hand of whomever You will send (Shmot 4:13).' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moshe: 'As you live, I shall tie this in thy skirts.' When did He repay him? R. Berekiah gave answers in the name of R. Levi and of R. Helbo. R. Levi said: The [first] seven days of Adar Moshe was offering prayer and supplication that he might enter the Land of Israel, and on the seventh, He said to him: 'You shall not go over this Jordan.' R. Helbo said: All the seven days of consecration Moshe ministered in the office of Kohen Gadol, and he imagined it was his. On the seventh day He said to him: 'It belongs not to you but to your brother Aharon.' This is [indicated by] what is written, "And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moshe called Aharon and his sons and the elders of Israel, and he said unto Aharon…" (Vayikra Rabbah 11:6)

The Midrash parallels the seven days that Moshe served in the Mishkan with the seven days that Moshe stood at the Burning Bush as God cajoled Moshe, trying to convince Moshe to go to Egypt and lead the Jews to liberation. One interesting aspect of this parallel is the fact that the narrative offers no time frame for Moshe's encounter at the Burning Bush. From the text of the Torah, we do not know how long Moshe spent at the Burning Bush. The midrash seems intent on creating this parallel in order to emphasize a deeper thematic connection: when Moshe declines to lead the people little does he know that he has at that moment declined the role of kohen as well.

According to the Midrash, Moshe ministers for seven days only to be told that in fact it is Aharon and his descendants who will serve as kohanim.2 While the text does not reveal Moshe's feelings there are those who believe they can nonetheless discern his emotional state from the text: The Torah has been transmitted with not only letters and words; our tradition also includes Ta'amei haMikra, cantillation symbols or musical instructions (trup) which tell us how to read the text. Among the rarest of these musical notes that accompany the Torah text is the shalshelet. It is used only four times in the Torah, and there are those who believe it indicates hesitation, conflict or ambivalence.3 The shalshelet is found three times prior to this week's parsha:

But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; God's mercy was upon him. And they brought him forth, and set him outside the city. (Bereishit 19:16)

And he said: 'Almighty God, the God of my master Avraham, please send me good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Avraham. (Bereishit 24:12)

But he refused, and said to his master's wife: 'Behold, my master, having me, knows not what is in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand. (Bereishit 39:8)

The fourth appearance of the shalshelet is in this week's parsha:

And he slaughtered [it]; and Moshe took of its blood, and put it upon the tip of Aharon's right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot. (Vayikra 8:23)

The shalshelet, which is a long, drawn-out sound, intuitively suggests hesitation; this intuition is supported by the very first use, which describes Lot's hesitation, and it is in fact found on the word vayitmahmah, which means "he procrastinated" or "he tarried."

However only in the case of Lot is the meaning of this musical instruction clear; only in this case is ambivalence suggested, and it may be more a function of the word, than the sound with which it is sung. In the other cases we have no evidence of hesitation from the text, and it is only the shalshelet which suggests to us any type of ambivalence.4 Nevertheless, many commentaries suggest that the shelshelet is an indication of Moshe's own internal ambivalence, due to his sadness over the loss of the role of kohen. But was Moshe sad? Or did he take pleasure in his brother's success?

On the one hand, we find that Moshe had no interest in a leadership position. He made excuses, he stalled, he argued; Moshe certainly did not jump to seize the opportunity to lead when it was presented to him by God. Why, then, should we suspect that he would be sad or feel anything but relief when he is instructed to cede one aspect of leadership to Aharon? Moshe was certainly not territorial or jealous regarding his relationship with God: when he is told that there are others prophesying in the camp, rather than becoming agitated or apprehensive about the possible loss of his "monopoly" on spirituality, Moshe responds:

And Moshe said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake? If only all God's people were prophets, and that God would endow them with His Spirit!' (Bamidbar 11:29)

If, despite everything we know about Moshe's character, we say that in this particular instance Moshe was saddened by the loss of the priesthood, then the textual evidence of Moshe's hesitation should have been recorded earlier – either when Moshe initially heard the news, or when he first began the procedure of bestowing the priesthood on Aharon. But the shalshelet is found later in the narrative, after the public announcement, after the gathering of the trappings and tools of the Kohen Gadol; only as Moshe slaughtered the sacrifice is the symbol of hesitation attached to the word vayishchat, "And he slaughtered". Why here? Why now?

There are several interesting points that arise precisely because the symbol of hesitation, the shalshelet, is connected with this particular word: First and foremost to consider is the juxtaposition of hesitation with ritual slaughter. One of the most basic laws of shehitah is that the act itself must be carried out in one continuous, uninterrupted movement. Any hesitation renders the slaughtered animal unkosher. Had Moshe physically hesitated as he performed the act of shehitah, he would have rendered the animal unsuitable for service and unfit for consumption (unkosher). Moreover, the claim that Moshe's hopes and expectations were somehow built up by the fact that he was commanded to perform the shehitah seems unlikely; this element of the sacrifice can be performed by any Jewish male, kohen or non-kohen. Why would this particular activity give Moshe pause or induce melancholy?5

According to many rabbinic commentaries, Moshe was in fact a kohen, and he never lost that status.

Moshe and Aharon were among his kohanim, and Shmuel was among those who called upon His Name; they called out to God, and He answered them. (Tehilim 99:6)

Here, Moshe is called a kohen by no less an authority than King David. In fact, the Talmud discusses Moshe's status and suggests that Moshe was Kohen Gadol;6 along these same lines, the Radak explains that Moshe and Aharon were both High Priests.7 Rav Yitzchak of Karlin, in his commentary Keren Orah, opines that Moshe was a Kohen Gadol – and never lost that status: he could have taken up active service at any juncture, as is the prerogative of the Kohen Gadol, over the next forty years.8

Moshe was worthy to be kohen and had the status of kohen; on the other hand, Moshe was busy with other spiritual responsibilities. Unlike Moshe, whose incredible modesty caused him to recoil from the spotlight and from the top position at the pinnacle of influence and attention, Aharon accepted the challenge. Aharon never avoided or shirked leadership; he embraced it, and he became kohen, even though his selection could have been challenged in light of his own failings. People make mistakes; at times, leaders make mistakes, and Aharon is a prime example: when the people sense a crisis or vacuum of leadership, due to Moshe's ostensible "disappearance", Aharon leads the people – directly toward the Golden Calf. For this he will need forgiveness. Moshe prays for his brother, and is so successful that not only is Aharon's life spared, he is catapulted to the position of Kohen Gadol.9

There is only one area in which Aharon seems to have an advantage over his brother Moshe: regarding his children. Aharon's children inherited the priesthood; Moshe's children did not inherit their father's status.10 But it was probably not status or "perks" that concerned Moshe; his main occupation was holiness. If Moshe did feel a twinge of regret, if anything gave him reason to pause and reflect, perhaps it was not the passing of the kehuna to Aharon. The hesitation was not about the slaughter of the animal, but about what came next:

Moshe took of the blood thereof, and put it upon the tip of Aharon's right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot. (Vayikra 8:23)

From head to toe, Aharon would be consumed with holiness. If the shalshelet does indicate some reticence on Moshe's part, some hesitation, perhaps it was for the lost opportunity of complete holiness – and not for himself, but for his children.11

Moshe's children never do make a mark; they are subsumed in the same category as thousands of other students of Moshe. They do not stand out; they enjoy no special status. Aharon's children are like Aharon: they embody holiness, but they also embody leadership. Tragically, these very qualities combine when two of Aharon's sons forge ahead in their quest for greater spirituality, rather than waiting for instruction from Moshe.

Moshe's sons do not take center stage at any point in the narrative. They blend in with the masses; unlike Aharon's sons, they are not leaders – but in their anonymity, they live. We never hear any complaints from Moshe's children, unlike other members of Moshe's family, such as his cousin Korach, who were driven by jealousy and a false sense of entitlement. Moshe's children never express any claims to inherit the right to lead as king or kohen. Perhaps they did inherit one important trait from their father: modesty.

  1. Whether Moshe did, in fact, lose the status of kohen is subject to debate – or even if Moshe had the status of kohen even temporarily. What is certain is that Moshe's children were not kohanim; they were generic members of the tribe of Levi. See Maskil l'David Vayikra 21:22, who suggests that Moshe was not a kohen, yet functioned like a kohen for seven days.
  2. Based on earlier sections in the Torah (for example Shmot chapter 29,30,31,35,39) it is impossible to say that Moshe had no idea that Aharon was meant to be kohen. Perhaps the meaning of the Midrash is that Moshe knew that Aharon would be kohen, while Moshe would remain Kohen Gadol, or vice versa.
  3. Mois A. Navon "The Shalshelet: Mark Of Ambivalence," in Jewish Thought: OU Publications, Vol.4, Num.1 (5755-6) For other opinions, see
  4. For other suggestions regarding the use of the shalshelet see Rabbi Josh Waxman,
  5. See Malbim, Vayikra 8:15; Haamek Davar, Shmot 29:11.
  6. See Talmud Bavli Zevachim 101b-102a: Rav said: Our teacher Moshe was a Kohen Gadol, and received a share of the holy sacrifices, as it is said, 'It was Moshe's portion of the ram of consecration.' An objection is raised: 'But was not Pinhas with them?' Now if this is correct, let them argue, "But was not our teacher Moshe with them?" Perhaps Moshe was different, because he was engaged by the Shechinah, for a master said: Moshe ascended early in the morning and descended early in the morning…. An objection is raised: Elisheva had five joys more than the other daughters of Israel: her brother-in-law [Moshe] was a king, her husband was a Kohen Gadol, her son [Eleazar] was Segan [deputy Kohen Gadol], her grandson [Pinhas] was anointed for battle, and her brother [Nahshon] was the prince of his tribe; yet she was bereaved of her two sons. At all events he teaches, Her brother-in-law was a king: thus he was a king, but not a Kohen Gadol? Rather, we may say that he was also a king.
  7. Radak, Tehilim 99:6.
  8. Keren Orah, Zevachim 101b.
  9. See Kli Yakar Shmot 28:1.
  10. My son Hillel suggested that perhaps this was due to the fact that Moshe's wife Ziporah was not born Jewish – and therefore could not be the mother of a kohen.
  11. See Toldot Yitchak, Vayikra 8:23, also see the Seforno, Bamidbar 16:3.


Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,900

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram