Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Holy, Not Just Clean (Tzav)

The Torah Text

In Parashat Tzav, the priests receive instructions for various sacrifices. Leviticus 6:18-20 begins to detail how the priests should handle the chatat (sin) offering.

“Speak to Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the sin offering: the sin offering shall be slaughtered before YHVH, at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered: it is most holy. The priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in the sacred precinct, in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. Anything that touches its flesh shall become holy; and if any of its blood is spattered upon a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place.”

What does it mean by “a holy place”?

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

 הוא חצר אהל מועד כי יש הפרש בין קדוש וטהור

Exodus 6:20 [IN A HOLY PLACE]. The reference is to the courtyard of the tent of meeting, for there is a difference between holy and clean. (Translation Strickman and Silver)

Reflections for the Path

Ibn Ezra clarifies that “holy” refers to a specific place, namely the Tent of Meeting and various places within it. Even though the biblical text uses a non-definitive phrase – “a holy place” – there really is only one destination that refers to.

He contrasts “holy” with “clean” (tahor – also translated as “pure”). There are two spectrums operating within Leviticus: (1) kodesh/holy – chol/mundane; and (2) tahor/pure – tamei/impure. Holiness resides within the Tent of Meeting as God’s presence rests on the Ark within it. People and objects can be in a state of ritual cleanliness/purity or not, but anything that intersects with the holy place needs to be tahor, clean.

Perhaps we might understand “holy” as a state beyond our control, which we aspire to achieve. And “clean/pure” refers to a state that we can control. When we work to purify our thoughts, actions, habits, and relationships, we make ourselves available to holiness, even if we cannot always control when we enter that mysterious place.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.