By Rabbi Jonah Rank
I don’t know if the Queen of England disposes of her own waste. Nor can I envision her emptying the contents of an indoor disposal bin into a larger receptacle outside Buckingham Palace.
Moreover, I doubt that Queen Elizabeth II drives a rubbish removal service vehicle to transport the royal precinct’s trash down to a landfill. But, if video evidence of all this were to surface, I would try to get the British crown trending on social media.
As Tzav, this week’s Torah portion, demonstrates — an ancient Israelite elite served their people and their Lord by taking out the trash.
Descendants of the first Israelite High Priest, the kohanim (‘priests’) acted as a cleaning service. In Leviticus 6:4, while describing the ashes that remain on the altar designated for the olah (i.e., the ‘whole-burnt’ sacrifice), God commands Moses to ensure the priest on-duty “will remove his clothes and wear other clothes and bring the ashes to outside the camp — at a pure place.”
Whereas Jewish clergy serving large institutions rarely handle the trash, Leviticus deems sacred the sanitation work of the kohanim. In the late 12th century, Maimonides read the verse above and declared picking up the ash “one service among the many services of priesthood” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Temidin UMussafin 2:10). The medieval philosopher went on to interpret the verse closely, stipulating that the priest wearing “’other’ [clothes] doesn’t bespeak casual clothes — just something ‘less’ uppity than the primary [priestly] garb” (ibid.). In his mind, the ‘other’ clothes that the priest would don for these ashen duties would still be some holy uniform.
In one attack, however, against Maimonides’ supposed sanctifying of the priestly ash trash service, the Turkish Rabbi Yehudah Rosanes (1657–1727), in his Mishneh LaMelekh (responding to Maimonides’ previously cited passage), called out Maimonides for what appears to be some hypocrisy.
In fact, Maimonides does backtrack, clearly stating “removing that [ash] to the ‘outside’ is not a [sacred] service” (ibid. 2:14). Whereas a reader like Rabbi Avraham ben David, writing in 12th century France, pithily distinguished as two totally separate activities picking up ashes and disposing ashes (commenting on ibid., 2:15) — Rabbi Yosef Karo, in 16th century Safed, understood ash lifting and ash removing as two linked activities (as explained in his Kesef Mishnah on ibid., 2:10). Still, traditional scholars defending Maimonides’ generous classification of ash pickup as holy service have long found themselves unable to defend Maimonides’ mixing of these messages.
Truly though, whether Maimonides was of two opinions on the matter does not matter. What we must ask is: What could have made ash disposal holy?
The priestly imagination that steers Leviticus is obsessed with the idea of dirtiness. British anthropologist. Mary Douglas considers “dirt … a relative idea” (“Purity and Danger,” ARK Edition, 1984, p. 37). “Shoes,” she illustrates, “are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table … ” (ibid.). The act of distinguishing where something belongs or does not belong is sacred priestly work. This is why Leviticus deals with purity and impurity, proper sacrifices and improper sacrifices, yeses and nos, and the beliefs of what renders Israelites civilized or uncivilized.
So, for a fleeting but impactful moment, Maimonides entertained a message buried in the Torah: leaders who define culture, by determining what is or isn’t appropriate, must both protect what we need and dispose of that which we no longer need. The priests — the ritual artisans of ancient Israelite life — serve as the mechanics of the altar, its customer service agents, its chefs and its cleaning crew.
Kohanim make the sacrifices happen. And every sacrifice leaves behind residue. (Even the wholly burnt olah leaves ashes.) Because the kohanim cause the ashes, kohanim must remove the ashes.
On the one hand, ash removal work is beneath the kohanim. They exchange their professional garb for something with less oomph.
On the other hand, who could do this job better than kohanim? Kohanim didn’t just know every sacred nook of the tabernacle where the altar was housed and every holy cranny of the encampment where the Israelites rested. The kohanim apparently even knew how to travel, as per Leviticus 6:4, “outside the camp” and still find “a pure place.”
Incidentally, the kohanim were a people to whom God apportioned no land, a clan who knew their way outside the main domestic territory of the Israelites, a family who lived off of the generosity of donations, and a team who cleaned holy spaces and disposed trash for other users.
Not all — but a good amount — of the responsibilities and economic profile of kohanim mirror those of many blue-collar workers employed by many synagogues today. Without such vital laborers as our custodians, many synagogues would not be operating. Many dues-paying synagogue members have much more in common with the Queen of England than with the kohanim of old.
When prosperity or privilege distances many Jews from the effects of wastefulness, let us accept responsibility for what we create and discard well what we don’t need.
And if we need partners in priestly work, let us not disparage our institutions’ kohanim.
Rabbi Jonah Rank is the director of the Shul School at Kehilat HaNahar in New Hope. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.