By: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Rabbi of congregation ‘
‘ in Vienna, Austria.
A while ago we suffered a near catastrophe at home; my daughter was heating some oil on the stove, preparing to fry something, when the oil caught fire. Flames shot up from the pan and the kitchen filled with heavy, choking smoke. With great presence of mind she wet a towel and placed it over the pan and called me; to get the pan out of the room and onto the balcony to reduce the smoke production seemed a priority, so I carried it outside as carefully as I could. In the process a small amount of the hot oil slopped over the side and through my trousers onto my leg, which hurt. Even with good wound ointment the blister which emerged and later broke took almost three weeks to heal.
It could, of course, have been much worse, but when I read about the lamps in the tabernacle and the pure olive oil they burned I now look at the practice rather differently. I have always considered that ritual infrastructure has to be practical and not just decorative – what use is a reading desk so beautifully made but the wrong height, or lovely synagogue lamps that make it impossible to read the siddur, or high ceilings that produce poor acoustics? Too many modern synagogues have been designed to impress but are not necessarily ‘fit for purpose’. But in these chapters of Exodus we learn a lot about what was needed and where it should be positioned.
For me it is not important whether the Menorah is made of beautiful gold and how many pomegranates it has on the arms – important is that it is stable! The priests who have to keep the
filled so that it can burn at least through the night would presumably have to climb up some step or stand on something that didn’t wobble and pour the oil through tubes into the already-burning holders. These priests were dressed in finest linen – we know from the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) that the wicks for lamps in the Temple were later made from their cast-off underclothing, which at least means the stuff was truly flammable; they had been personally anointed with the purest olive oil, with no impurities. In short, they were dressed without much in the way of protection – in the most flammable combination possible – and yet their job involved approaching burning lamps of olive oil to tend them, and coming close to fires of glowing incense, and raking the glowing ashes of cremated bulls and rams off the altar! No modern inspector of ‘Health and Safety’ would tolerate such proceedings, and the fates of Nadav and Avihu, who suffer ‘early burn-out’ in their careers, becomes suddenly much more comprehensible – as do the constant warnings to follow the rules strictly, as ‘otherwise you may die.’ This is no empty threat.
And now when I read of burning oil being used as a weapon against enemies besieging a town and attempting to climb the walls, I have a little more of an inkling what that must have meant to those who got even a splash of the stuff, in a time when there were no antibiotics or salves.
The high priest had some complex clothing to wear as he exercised his duties – many of the hard-to-translate terms seem to involve bands which tie back his hair and any loose flaps of tunic – after all, one would not want to wear a loose
with fringes when working around open flames. The other priests, the four sons, have simple linen tunics or ponchoes but no leather aprons, no gloves, no protective or fireproof layers of clothing. Their task, says God, is ‘
‘ – ‘to be priests for Me’. This is no trifling vocation. Later on, in the time of the Second Temple, there would be rotas, specialisations, clear rules as to how young and how old and how physically fit the Kohanim had to be to undertake their duties. Here in Exodus, however, we read of one man and his four sons of unknown age, with no training and no experience, who are catapulted into their new and very responsible roles.
Forget those old copperplate engravings of priests officiating with pomp and circumstance. Just read the text of these chapters carefully, and just think how YOU would handle some of these duties if you were there; how YOU would watch over the flickering lamps in a tent in the windy desert, how YOU would drag a struggling animal (with horns!) onto a low platform to kill it with a small knife… and be grateful for modern synagogues and their comforts!