Parashat Tzav: The Mishkan and Incest

Parashat Tzav describes the path of anointing Aharon and his sons for their priestly duties in the Mishkan. Aharon and his sons are commanded to keep vigil at the entrance of the Mishkan for seven days:

“ּפֶתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד תֵּשְׁבוּ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-מִשְׁמֶרֶת יְהוָה, וְלֹא תָמוּתוּ: כִּי-כֵן, צֻוֵּיתִי.”

Literally, the Kohanim are commanded to “guard the guard” of God. The double strength required here seems natural in regard of the holiness of the Mishkan. This expression appears again when the Torah describes the encampment of the Levites around the Mishkan in the desert. However this same expression is repeated also in Vayikra 18: 30, regarding the prohibitions of incest, גילוי עריות.

Protected area written on a field signThe association between guarding God’s guard and the laws of incest is at the root of the rabbis’ understanding of סייגים in halakha. This association is introduced in Yevamot 22a where the sages discuss laws intended to keep us at a safe distance from actual incest. The double emphasis on guardianship teaches the rabbis that the Torah itself instructs to take strong precautions regarding incest. Rav Ashi uses a parable to explain these precautions: A guard standing outside an orchard has control over the whole ground. But if the keeper stands guard inside the orchard, he may miss those parts not immediately in front of him. If we want to guard ourselves against incest we need to stand completely outside of their reach. The parable brings to mind an image of the Torah law as something that stands in the middle of a space, surrounded by a guarding fence to keep it safe.

This last picture is the basis for understanding the saying in Avot 1:1 “ועשו סייג לתורה”. We understand that we need rules that distance us from actual behaviors that are prohibited by Torah law.

Does the Torah Need Us to Guard It?

In his book “The Fire and the Cloud: Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading,” Rabbi David Bigman questions the notion that the Mishkan, and similarly the Torah, needs such protection. He wonders: “is God in need of a vigil? Does He need to be guarded?” Moshe himself, according to Rabbi Bigman, would never think to appoint such guards unless he was so instructed. This is why he uses the unusual expression at the end of the passage “so he was commanded:” “כי כן צויתי”. In his explanation Rabbi Bigman points to Moshe’s dilemma regarding the guardianship of the Torah: “On the one hand, they are commanded to set up a “vigil” to ensure the observance of the Torah; on the other hand such moves may be inappropriate, since they assume the Torah is in need of protection.” He cautions today’s rabbis that they should not act as “guardians” and make the Torah untouchable. They should “establish only those halakhic decrees necessary to allow people to observe the commandments while remaining aware that the Torah itself has no need for their protection.”

I believe that this is precisely the dilemma the men of the Great Assembly face in Pirkei Avot. On the one hand, like the Mishkan, the Torah should be the guarded center of our lives. Without its whole Torah and its truth we cannot continue our covenant with God. Thus we should place it in our midst and double the guard around it. But we cannot understand this as a static picture. The men of the great assembly also teach to judge fairly and compassionately. The laws of the Torah cannot be translated directly without human deliberation and caution. Moreover, they teach to raise many students. Does not this equal letting the guard down? Many students have many incompatible ideas; these ideas are in turn passed on; so that the complexity of opinions and situations grows exponentially. How can the Torah be guarded (doubly!) with so many hands in it? But the sages are not deterred. In fact, this is the very tension that keeps their conversation going. How does one both guard the Torah and pass it on from hand to hand through time and space?

We can certainly apply Hillel’s lesson here: “ואידך זיל גמור”. The only way to guard the Torah is to learn it. The only way to keep learning the Same Torah is to keep our guard.

שבת שלום

Dr. Hannah Hashkes serves on the executive board of Beit Hillel. She is a teacher and lecturer in Jewish thought and literature. Her book “Rabbinic Discourse as a System of Knowledge: The Study of Torah is Equal to Them All” (2015) discusses Torah Study and Halakha in terms of contemporary philosophy. Hannah and her husband live in Jerusalem and have four children.

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