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A D’var Torah for Tetzaveh

This Torah portion consists of the ordination of Aaron and his descendants as priests, vast descriptions of the vestments that the priest should wear, and the law of the half-shekel temple tax. This segment was probably rewritten in King Josiah’s time, and again during the exile, and again upon the return to conform to what the priests were wearing at that time. Nothing in this parasha of direct relevance to Judaism, even to traditional Jewish practice, survived the destruction of the Temple, though Jews have chosen to dress the Torah in a mimicry of the priestly vestments. (Some segments of the reading are important in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition as the basis for the vestments of bishops, and for the implicit idea that bishops can ordain priests.) As far as I know, Apple Computer has not announced a device called the “E-phod” which will allow users to connect to God via the Internet for the expiation of sin.

How can we revalue the ancient traditions concerning the priesthood? To answer this, we need to know which priestly rituals survived the destruction of the Second Temple. Of all the priestly duties, only two have survived the destruction of the temple: the priestly blessing, and pidyon ha-ben, the “redeeming of the firstborn.” We have adapted the priestly blessing well and creatively, inspiring others to adopt our customs. While pidyon ha-ben is less tractable, I propose a creative approach.

The priestly blessing of old was transferred to home ritual as the parental blessing over children. In the synagogue, there are variations as to its ritual use. The ceremony of priestly blessing is traditionally performed daily in Israel (except in Galilee), and among most Sephardi Jews worldwide, during the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah. On Sabbath and festivals, it is also recited during the repetition of the Musaf prayer. On Yom Kippur, the ceremony is performed during the Ne’ilah service as well. On other fast days it is performed at Mincha, if said in the late afternoon.

In the Diaspora in Ashkenazic Orthodox communities, the ceremony is performed only on Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. German communities perform it at both Shacharit and Musaf, while on Yom Kippur it is performed at Ne’ilah as well. Eastern European congregations only perform it at Musaf. On Simchat Torah, some communities recite it during Musaf, and others during Shacharit, to enable Cohanim to participate in the custom of drinking alcohol during the Torah reading between Shacharit and Musaf. On weekdays and Shabbat, in Ashkenazic diaspora communities, the blessing is not recited by Cohanim. Instead, it is recited only by the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) or a chazzan (cantor), after the Modim prayer, towards the end of the Amidah, without any special chant or gestures.

In Conservative Judaism, the majority of congregations do not perform the priestly blessing ceremony, but some do. In some American Conservative congregations that perform the ceremony, a bat cohen (daughter of a priest) can perform it as well.

Orthodox Judaism requires male cohanim, in continuity with the requirements of the Temple. The Masorti movement in Israel, and some Conservative congregations in North America, require male cohanim as well, and retain other restrictions on cohanim. In Reconstructionist and other liberal congregations, the concept of the priesthood has been abandoned, along with other caste and gender distinctions. Thus, this blessing is usually omitted or simply read by the hazzan. Where Jews omit the Musaf service, if they choose to include the priestly blessing, it is usually appended to the end of the Shacharit Amidah. The adaptation of the priestly blessing has taken on a mutual flavor in some communities, who have the custom of spreading their tallitot over each other and blessing each other as equals. This revaluation respects the tradition.

More problematic is pidyon haben:

In the traditional ceremony, the father who is not a Cohen or Levi brings the son at the age of one month to the Cohen and recites a formula. The father responds to ritual questions, indicating that this is the Israelite mother’s firstborn son, that she has no previous miscarriage, and the birth was vaginal and not caesarean, and he has come to redeem him as commanded in the Torah. The Cohen asks the father which he would rather have, the child or the five silver shekels which he must pay. The father states that he prefers the child to the money, then recites blessings that translate as:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot, and instructed us regarding the redemption of a child.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

He hands over five silver coins (or coin or bullion of at least 117 grams silver). The Cohen holds the coins over the child and declares that the redemption price is received and accepted in place in the child. He then blesses the child with the parental and priestly blessing and returns him to the custody of his family. Because there is uncertainty 2000 years after the Temple’s destruction as to who is really a cohen, the cohen either donates the money to tzedakah or returns it to the parents.

The ceremony traditionally takes place amidst a minyan of 10 men. The child is sometimes presented on a silver tray, surrounded by jewelry lent for the occasion by women in attendance. The event is accompanied by a meal, and guests in some places are given cloves of garlic and cubes of sugar to take home which have been placed on the tray with the baby; these strongly-flavored foods can be used to flavor a large quantity of food which will in some sense extend the mitzvah of participation in the ceremony to all who eat them. In 1993 The Conservative Movement rejected the idea of a ceremony for a first born female.

My instinctual reaction to the traditional version of this ceremony is: feh! Its original power depends on social and religious hierarchies and values which are foreign to most contemporary Jews. But beyond this initial response, we can ask: What can we recognize about this event that is important and worth noting? How can we adapt the ritual in such a way that the ancient rite is respected and yet it is not offensive?

A firstborn child marks the beginning of a new generation, and as such should be marked. And the idea remains powerful that a family would in principle desire to devote its best and dearest to a life of service of the community. Both of these needs can be met by a simple ceremony which respects the tradition’s core values as we now understand them, marking the beginning of a new generation. An adapted version of the ceremony might look like this:

When the child is one month old or the final adoption papers are valid for one month, the parents bring the child before the congregation (or a group of ten friends) just before or just after Shabbat. (Among this group of friends there is likely to be a cohen, or if no cohen, a levi, or if no levi, a firstborn.) One of them asks, “Is this your first child, the start of a new generation amongst the Jewish people? Do you wish to assign this child to lifelong service to the community or wish to redeem him/her?” The parents respond, “I wish to redeem him/her so he/she can be educated by us and decide him/herself how much of him/herself, he/she wishes to dedicate to the value of community service which we hold dear.”

The parents then recite the traditional blessings (adapting them for daughters as well as sons). The designated person then accepts tangible assets worth at least 117 grams of silver which is donated to a social justice cause. Then in true Jewish tradition — everybody shouts mazal tov and eats.

In this way, an adapted pidyon ha-ben/bat ritual can be transformed from an outdated and problematic rite to a newly revalued milestone in the life of a family and a community.

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