Parshat Tzav continues the discussion and provides a detailed instruction manual of the different procedures for the various different sacrifices, and this would probably make an interesting challenge for our friend Frank Taylor, a highly competent Technical Writer to present the manual in perfect English for any new olim Cohanim when the time comes. The discussion opens with the burnt offering which burnt all night till the morning and importantly stresses the cleaning up process. The Cohen puts on his fitted linen tunic and trousers and separates the ash and places it next to the altar, and then was told to change his clothes and take the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. Despite the detail, this text presents our sages with material for discussion both on a practical level and spiritual significance of the cleaning process.
Firstly the separation or lifting (haramat hadeshen) of the ashes, which was the Cohen’s first task of the day. Every morning the Cohen would lift the ashes with a special shovel, as it would still be hot, and place them at the side of the altar, however there are differences of opinion as to whether this pile was removed daily or only when the pile was high. Interestingly there is a discussion in the Talmud and a view that a disabled Cohen can also take part making them part of the action. R S R Hirsch provides us with a deeper message noting that the cleaning of the altar is the first job to be done at the start of the day. The removal of the ashes reminds us that we declare that we continue our daily service to Hashem, as we did the day before and have done for generations, but begin every day with renewed passion. The separation of the ashes is done in the Cohen’s best clothes but then the Cohen changes to his older clothes to take the ashes outside and then changes back into his best clothes to start the day’s work. This back and forth emphasizes completely shaking off the old day and then starting the new day’s tasks afresh, even though we may be doing exactly the same as yesterday.
On the issue of the Cohen changing his clothes and taking the ash out of the temple area we also find that opinions differ. Ramban and others say he must change his clothes as the work of taking the ash out in bulk is messy work and for this he can even wear daytime non-priestly clothes. Rashi explains that it is not mandatory to change clothes but it is “derech eretz” – respectful, and he brings the Talmud Shabbat 114a which tell us “R Yochanan says from where do we learn that one should change clothes when coming before Hashem – from the verse that tells us that the Cohen changed his clothes and R Yishmael adds the clothes that the servant wears for cooking should be changed before serving his master wine.” From here and other sources we learn of the importance of having clean clothes at prayer time and special clothes for Shabbat. In fact the Art Scroll Chumash even adds in the name of the Maharsha that it is especially important for the women to change their clothes from the cooking clothes they used before Shabbat, but I cannot actually find text that says that in the Maharsha written by R Shmmuel Eidels a well known 16th century commentator on the Talmud. Nevertheless Wikipedia told me that he very much honoured his mother-in-law and took her name Eidel as his surname.
With a good word to all the ladies who have been slaving away to clean for Pesach. I am reminded of my mother z”l, who with three sons did not get much help in the kitchen. She was, without doubt, the chip making champion of the wider family and in those days it was chips well fried in oil. She had a special set of clothes for frying the chips which she happily removed when the job was done.