Rashbam: Uproot and Interpret (Tzav)

Leviticus 7:18 tells us that when the priest slaughters a well-being sacrifice (zevach shlamim), “if it shall be eaten…on the third day, it shall not be acceptable; it shall not count for the one who offered it.”

The verse before taught that the priest has two days to eat his share of the offering, but by the third day whatever is left must be completely burnt. Within the plain sense of the instructions, everything seems clear – don’t eat the offering on the third day.

However, a problem emerges when we think about the logistics of when a sacrifice is deemed accepted. At root, the person who brings the offering is the one who suffers the consequence of a ritual gone wrong when the priest misbehaves several days later. That doesn’t seem fair.

Indeed, the sages of the 3rd century CE midrash Sifra also seem to think that the plain-sense reading (Rashbam’s beloved pshat approach) leads to an unfair situation, and so they take the verse out of context. Here’s Rashbam’s take on what they do to the verse:

IF IT SHALL BE EATEN: The rabbis uprooted this verse from its plain meaning and explained it as referring to someone who, while performing [in an appropriate manner] one of the four sacrificial duties – while slaughtering, or bringing the blood [to the altar], or collecting [the blood] or sprinkling [the blood] – thought that he would eat the sacrificial meat on the third day. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

Rashbam makes it quite clear that the midrash does not align with his own program of strict contextual interpretation – “uprooting the verse from its plain meaning” is quite the charge of interpretive deviance. However, he does not give another interpretation, so we are left holding the tension. Is this Rashbam’s preferred interpretation, uprooting or no? Or does he simply not have a better way to resolve the textual problem?

I happen to love uprooting verses from their plain meaning, replanting a tree far from its forest and seeing how it grows differently with different companions or different nutrients. Obviously this isn’t Rashbam’s approach. But since he (grudgingly?) includes such an interpretation, I’ll take that as permission to offer an exercise here for anyone who might enjoy a very non-literal way to read Torah.

Choose a verse at random from the first book of Torah, Genesis/Bereishit. Choose a verse at random from Exodus/Shemot, as well as Leviticus/Vayikra, Numbers/Bamidbar, and Deuteronomy/Devarim. Uprooted and replanted together, what lessons or insights or guidance do you discern in this new text you’ve just created?

Here’s what happened for me:

Gen. 33:4 – Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.
Ex. 2:20 – He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.”
Lev. 23:9 – And YHVH spoke unto Moses saying:
Num. 5:10 – And each shall retain his sacred donations: each priest shall keep what is given to him.
Deut. 11:30 – Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah—near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.

I see that the first two verses highlight relationship, hospitality, and generosity. That theme comes up in the verse from Numbers as well. The verse from Leviticus evokes divine revelation, which Martin Buber would approvingly note appears in an I-Thou relationship among any two beings. Up to this point, I would take this collection as a reminder to do the hard and joyous work of investing in relationship and in doing so recognize God’s presence within the network of loving connection.

The last verse adds something special – it is talking about the two mountains upon which the blessings and curses will be pronounced. So in the context of relationship and divine communication, I realize that the work goes beyond our interpersonal efforts, and points to the ultimate paradox of unifying curse and blessing, of bringing into harmonious relationship our selfish and altruistic impulses, of knowing God as “maker of weal and creator of woe” (Isaiah 45:7).

If you do this exercise, let me know what you come up with!

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.