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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

Blood, Smoke and Tzav

This Dvar Torah was written by Hannah Blount for Parshat Tzav, 3 April 2020.

As many of us are stuck at home in self isolation with very little to do, we find ourselves seeking out previously unthinkable sources of entertainment. Out of nowhere, doing the ‘recommended readings’ of your uni subject and getting a Disney Plus subscription seem like a good idea even though a few weeks ago they were inconceivable actions. Suddenly, the Torah has a certain appeal… it’s a chunky enough book that could certainly kill a few hours, and it is full of colourful stories; deception, death, romance, and intrigue. So if you are wondering whether Parshat Tzav is a good entertainer in our quarantine times, I am here to tell you that no, it is absolutely not.

Tzav sits in Leviticus, by far the worst of all five books due to the lack of sex appeal involved in outlining every tiny detail of halachic life to the newly centralised Jewish people. The one good thing about Leviticus is this Wikipedia search result:

"Leviticus" redirects here. For the Christian metal band, see Leviticus (band).

Incredible content.


According to my very good friend, Tzav describes how God (via Moses in a very Mouth of Sauron-esque manner) instructs the kohenim in their sacrificial duties. There is some meat involved, some veins, fat, eating meals, fire and purified people. Classique. 

I recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and although her books barely scrape by the Bechdel Test I will continue to adore every word she writes. The Secret History is about a group of elite Ancient Greek college students in Vermont who fall down a rabbit hole of murder and deception. Without spoiling too much, their demise is catalysed by an obsession with understanding the Ancient Greeks in all their dark, cultish mystery; how they thought, how they worshipped, and how they sacrificed. 

The idea of ancient civilisations and their sacrificial practice is an alluring enigma, evident by all the stories we create about their occult rituals from The Secret History to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. What did it feel like to communicate to the Gods through fire and blood? Did the ancients emote like we do? Or did they access a level of being so dedicated to higher powers that sacrifice felt empowering and spiritual; a feeling we can no longer achieve with our modern squeamishness? Answering these questions lead to multiple deaths in Donna Tartt’s novel, so I cannot recommend further investigation.

I think it is interesting to think about Judaism and Jewish peoplehood as an ancient entity. Yes, we have undergone many radical modernisations such as the Rabbinical Revolution, the creation of the Diaspora, the Haskalah and political Zionism. But parshot like Tzav remind us that the roots of our tradition are steeped in an ancient way of life, an ancient way of relating to Gods and power and life and death. Amusingly, whilst we have entirely gotten rid of these carnal, barbarian practices, we continue to read the Torah as the ultimate source of guidance which has not been altered since these ancient times. We pray now as individuals, sit in comfortable synagogues, practice the hygiene of kashrut, but we continue to connect to a bloodthirsty, cultish people and their savage rituals. 

Perhaps my language seems negative, but I adore this murky part of our Jewish history; the wildling group of desert dwelling humans who created a belief system that held fast for thousands of years. It is a part of Judaism that is never really mentioned; we choose to focus instead on a clean and whitewashed version of patriarchs and matriarchs setting precedents for good, Jewish behaviour. Ancient history is relevant and powerful because it has the ability to derail modern narratives that attempt to rewrite human experience. 

We are lucky to have the Torah and dull parshot like Tzav, because we can understand Judaism and our people’s history as a rich patchwork of ideas and traditions that have built upon each other from ancient roots to modern sensibilities. 

Shabbat Shalom!


Hannah is an arts student, acrobat and unapologetic activist.

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