Parsha Tsav

Tripartite Division


Mary Douglas was an outstanding anthropologist who compared a very wide range of ancient cultures and religious ceremonies. She detected common themes and patterns. In her book “Leviticus as Literature” she gives an analysis of the third book of the Bible, quite unlike any other analysis I have ever come across.

In particular, she looks at patterns of purity in the ritual sense (not in the cleanliness sense). And she places the sacrificial system of the Torah in a universal context that makes incredible sense. But more than this, she makes use of traditional Jewish commentators such as Ramban, Nachmanides, to support and reinforce her theses.

So, for example there is the well-known association of Noah’s Ark, The tabernacle and Mount Sinai. All of them divided into three sections and significances. Noah lives at the top. Below him are the birds and below them the animals. On Mount Sinai Moses and God are at the top. Aaron, the priests and the elders occupy the middle ground. The mass of the Israelites is at the bottom. Similarly, in the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies is for the High Priest. The Area of the altars and ceremonial service is for the priests. Finally, the courtyard is for the masses.

This describes world order in which there is a system. God and His messenger uniquely on top.
The mechanisms for transmitting and mediating God to the masses, the priesthood and the judiciary are in the middle and the people at the bottom.

The sacrifices in Leviticus provide another tripartite phenomenon. The animals that are sacrificed are divided into three sections. This division is designed not just as a method of killing animals, but rather of transforming the Divine into the human and elevating the human towards the Divine.

The sacrifices are burnt. The smoke rises, so too does the smell. God smelling the sacrifices is the connection between God and humanity. Smell, an invisible faculty is the metaphor. Not that god enjoys smell, but that God wants a relationship and this is the means.

The body parts of the sacrifices are divided into three. The priests place wood over the fire. Then the head and the fats (that may be eaten, not that which cannot). The innards and the legs are washed and go on last. This can be seen in two ways. The first aligns to the ark, Sinai and Tabernacle in the physical sense. The head and meats at the bottom are the people. The fats that separate the bottom from the top are the Priests and the feet at the top are the masses. It is a triangle with the smallest section, washed, purified on the top. The largest, the masses at the bottom.

But it can be seen differently as a spiritual process. The body parts of the sacrifices are an inversion of the Mountain, the Ark and the Tabernacle. Here the head, surely a symbol of God as the ultimate head, is at the bottom and the legs are at the top. But if God is fire, as He is on Sinai, this another way of saying that sacrifices are the way for the masses to get closer to God. The Divine comes down to earth to be closer to His people.

This is a rather specialized way of looking at the text. It allows fir so many additional significant meanings and symbolisms. It illustrates how complex and sophisticated the system, that we think of as rather primitive and barbaric, actually was. And why its grip on the human imagination has lasted so long. There is much more to all this than meets the eye or a superficial reading.