Introduction to the Torah
Torah is a Hebrew word that means “teaching.”
The Torah, the primary body of God’s first revelation to Moses, consists of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
The Tanakh contains the Written Torah as the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which begin and anchor the Jewish Canon of Sacred Scripture. Jews use Torah to refer to the Written Torah only, or to the Written Torah and the Oral Torah taken together.
Some Jews speak simply of “Torah,” as in, “Torah says.” However, Hebrew always uses the definite article, ha-torah, “the” Torah, even when saying be-sefer ha-torah, “in the book of the Torah.” Emphasis on the definite article elevates the Torah of Moses above lesser teachings.
Jewish tradition is that Moses received the Oral Torah and the Written Torah on Mt. Sinai. There is also an ancient tradition that the Torah existed in heaven even before the world was created. Catholic tradition holds that God foreknew everything even before he created the universe and in that sense supports the Jewish tradition.
Some rabbis go farther. Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, a second generation Palestinian Amora, believed that the Torah preceded the world by two thousand years and was written in black fire on white fire. This is more problematic because we believe with Genesis that God created the world from nothing. Not from open space. From nothing! There was also no time before the Creation. God could of course have created a special space and time for this Torah alone, but for what purpose? As long as the Torah existed in God’s mind, he had no need to “read” it as a man would to refresh his memory.
A Summary of the Torah
In the Book of Deuteronomy the Ten Commandments Deut 5:6-21 are followed by the Shma command Deut 6:5 as if it were a summary. Jewish tradition holds that the Shma summarizes all of the Ten Commandments, which in turn summarize all 613 mitzvot.
The Shma says: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” Deut 6:4-9.
St. Matthew quotes Rabbi Yeshua, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:37-40.
St. Mark quotes Rabbi Yeshua, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” Mk 12:29-31.
Rabbi Paul told us: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” Rom 13:9.
The words God uses in his inspired writings clearly show that the Shma is the master commandment, which summarizes the Ten Commandments, which summarize the 613 mitzvot. A mitzvah is not a command. The mi in front of the root tzavoh, command, makes it passive, t’rumah, a gift from the heart. Singing holy songs with the family on a Friday evening to celebrate the Sabbath is a mitzvah, but not commanded. However, metzaveh is active, a real command. So God commanded us, “All the commandment [kol ha-mitzvah] which I command [anokhi metzaveh] you this day you shall be careful to do.” “All” sets us up to see the plural mitzvot, but God gives us the singular mitzvah, suggesting that ha-mitzvah, “the good work,” is the kol ha-mitzvah that contains within it all of the mitzvot. So our Father certainly considered the mitzvot commandments for Israel. It also suggests integral observance of the Mosaic Law.
When quoting Rabbi Yeshua on the Shma, Sts. Matthew and Mark both use the Greek word entole, the most common of the Greek words meaning commandment, which emphasizes the authority of the one commanding. St. Matthew: “This is the great and first commandment [entole].… On these two commandments [entolais] depend all the law and the prophets.” St. Mark: “There is no other commandment [entole] greater than these.” The Greek word entalma, by contrast, also a religious commandment, emphasizes the thing commanded.
We see this emphasis on the one commanding especially in Leviticus. “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” Lev 19:18.
The Ten Commandments
God called the Ten Commandments in Hebrew aseret hadevarim. Devarim comes from the Hebrew root dbr (dalet-bet-raish), meaning “word,” “speak,” or “thing.” So these statements could be called the Ten Declarations, or the Ten Sayings, or the Ten Statements, or the Ten Words.
Why would our Father describe what clearly are commands in a word suggesting that they are merely good works? He knew that his Son would one day summarize them, and he intended to write this into the Torah from the beginning. And so we find the Shma, the summit and summary of all the Torah, described with the powerful Greek word entole. Below it the Ten Commandments are aseret hadevarim, Ten Declarations. And below them the 613 commands are called mitzvot, good works.
This is because Rabbi Yeshua’s two great commands were written upon our hearts Mt 22:37-40. He told us to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison Mt 25:35-36. But some of us have a gift for serving food and drink, others for tailoring clothes, etc. These exact actions will not save us; they are mitzvot. The entole, the great commandment, is to love with all our heart. Everything else radiates from it.
The rabbis understood this in the days of the Mashiakh. A scribe asked Rabbi Yeshua which was the first and greatest commandment. He answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” Mk 12:29-31. The scribe replied, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” Mk 12:32-33. Rabbi Yeshua’s summary of the Torah was the summary of the Torah that had already been accepted by Mosaic Judaism.
Continues in Catholic Tradition
How does the Church understand the Ten Commandments today? Pope Benedict XVI declares, “As we have seen, [the Decalogue given on Mount Sinai] is by no means abolished by the Sermon on the Mount, nor is it reduced to an ‘old law,’ but it is simply developed further in a way that allows its full depth and grandeur to shine forth in all its purity.”1
The Holy Father went even further. “The Decalogue is not, as we have seen, some burden imposed upon man from the outside. It is a revelation of the essence of God himself—to the extent that we are capable of receiving it—and hence it is an exegesis of the truth of our being.”2
Dr. Matthew Levering’s book, Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple, summarizes St. Thomas Aquinas by observing that, “The Mosaic Law is ordered to one end: communion or ‘friendship’ with God”3 Levering, for St. Thomas, adds, “The Mosaic Law, in a real sense … is still observed by Christians”4 Levering continues, “Aquinas’s account of salvation is built around the idea that Christians, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, share in the redemptive acts of their Head (Christ). Christians share, and all human beings potentially share, in Christ’s fulfillment of all aspects of the Mosaic Law”5 “It is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” Rom 11:18.
Like the seven simple laws our Father had given to Noah, the Ten Commandments that he gave to Moses prepared his children for the Messiah’s arrival. They were ready for some basic principles that would prepare them for all of the situations that might arise in their lives, even if they were not yet ready for their full application.
God first gave us the Ten Commandments as spoken words. “And God spoke all these words, saying …” Ex 20:1. Rabbi Yeshua also taught according to the sacred tradition of oral rabbinic teaching. During his public ministry he never wrote down any teaching for us, and he never commanded His shlikhim to write down anything.
The Ten Commandments were “written with the finger of God” Ex 31:18. God intended that they stand out among the rest. “And Moses turned, and went down from the mountain with the two tables of the covenant in his hands, tables that were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other were they written” Ex 32:15. Jewish tradition says that they were carved all the way through the stone tablets, so that the letter shapes were visible from either side, but both sides read correctly, neither side appeared mirror-reversed. In this we see prefigured Pentecost. “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” Acts 2:5-6.
The Torah refers on more than ten occasions to the “tables of stone,” but nowhere to how many commandments were on each tablet. Jewish tradition describes them this way. On the first tablet were the commandments teaching us how to love God. First, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” Ex 20:2. Jews understand it as the commandment to worship God. Second, “You shall have no other gods before me” Ex 20:3-6. Third, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” Ex 20:7. Fourth, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” Ex 20:8-11. Fifth, “Honor your father and your mother” Ex 20:12. We are to respect all who have authority over us, our Father in heaven most of all, but also parents and teachers.
On the second tablet were the commandments teaching us how to love one another. Sixth, “You shall not kill” Ex 20:13. Seventh, “You shall not commit adultery” Ex 20:14. Eighth, “You shall not steal” Ex 20:15. Ninth, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” Ex 20:16. Tenth, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” Ex 20:17.
In the light of Rabbi Yeshua’s public revelation, St. Augustine saw the prohibition against idolatry as part of the larger precept to adore one God, and him alone, making the first two commandments into one. St. Augustine then divided the final precept against concupiscence into two parts, using the sequence in Deuteronomy rather than Exodus, to reflect Rabbi Yeshua’s emphasis on interior holiness:6 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” Mt 23:27.
Holy Mother Church also reflected Rabbi Yeshua’s emphasis on interior purification by recognizing lust and envy as separate capital sins.
For a thousand years, all Christians worldwide accepted St. Augustine’s enumeration § 2066. Then, during the 1500s, a new group of sola Scriptura believers, as part of their rejection of Church authority, reverted to the Jewish way of counting. They tinkered with that as well, using as their first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” Ex 20:3 which was the Jews’ Second Commandment. The sola Scriptura believers took as their Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” Ex 20:4.
Because Jews and sola Scriptura believers number the commandments differently, they sometimes imagine that the Catholic Church has “left out” something. Only the summaries are different. Jews, Catholics and sola Scriptura believers all recognize the entire text of Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21 as the Ten Commandments. The Catholic Church understands them this way:
“The first three concern love of God” § 2067; 2083.
The First Commandment: § 2084-2141 You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve. To highlight its prominence, our Father re-stated the Shma as the first-born, the bekhor, of the Ten Commandments. This first commandment is the foundation for the other nine. God created us to know, love and serve him. If we do, we will be happy with him in the life to come. This commandment shows his passionate love for us. He is jealous, a faithful bridegroom protecting his betrothed. He was preparing to give himself entirely to us on a wooden cross, and he was preparing us to give ourselves entirely to him in the New and Eternal Covenant.
The Second Commandment: § 2042-2167 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. The ancient rabbis taught that a name carries within it the character of the one who bears it. Our Father revealed His name to us: YHWH, “I Am.” When we invoke the sacred name, God is with us. Our Father said in Mishna Pirke Abot 3:2 (Ethics of the Fathers), “If two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shkhina is in their midst.” His Son, the Shkhina made flesh, echoed, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” Mt 18:20. The Hebrew word lashav, “In vain,” is related to shoah, “disaster.” Where God’s name is taken in vain, disaster follows.
The Third Commandment: § 2168-2195 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. The Hebrew word zakhor, “remember,” means more than recalling the past. It brings what is remembered into the present. On the seventh day God ceased, shabat. He called that day kadosh, holy. On Mt. Sinai, he invited his children, his image and likeness, to be with him at least one day a week. He told them, “And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always” Ex 25:30, preparing us for the arrival of his Mashiakh. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” Jn 6:53-54. In the New and Eternal Covenant, Rabbi Yeshua commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me” Lk 22:19.
Love One Another
“… And the other seven love of neighbor.”
The Fourth Commandment: § 2196-2257 Honor your father and your mother. The Hebrew ka-bed, “honor,” derives from the root kbd, impressive or important. When man and woman become one flesh and bring forth a child their relationship is ordained by God. In this we learn deep respect for our earthly parents, and for our Father and Blessed Mother in heaven. Pope Benedict XVI adds: “The commandment is addressed to sons and it speaks of parents. It thus strengthens the relationship between generations and the community of the family as an order willed and protected by God. It speaks of the land and of the stable continuance of life in the land.”7
The Fifth Commandment: § 2258-2330 You shall not kill. The Hebrew word ratsakh refers only to murder, never to civil justice or war. Our Father’s image and likeness is infinitely precious. God is the author of life. He alone has authority to give life and take it. But there is more. The Mishna, Pirke Abot (Ethics of the Fathers). Cf. Jas 3:5, taught, “The evil tongue kills three persons: the one who speaks, the one who is spoken about, and the one who listens.” The Mashiakh would himself teach from this passage. “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” Mt 5:21-22.
The Sixth Commandment: § 2331-2400 You shall not commit adultery. “Therefore a man … cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Torah taught that adultery makes a man an atheist: “The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight, saying, ‘No eye will see me’” Job 24:15. This denies our Father, who “sees in secret” Mt 6:4.
The Seventh Commandment: § 2401-2463 You shall not steal. Our Father originally entrusted the earth and all it offers us to the common stewardship of mankind. However, men divided the earth’s goods among one another so that each man could meet his family’s basic needs. The Hebrew word ganav, “steal,” means taking what is not licitly under our stewardship, but also interior disposition to deceive the rightful steward as well as oneself.
Rabbi Yeshua would one day teach this passage in its full sense. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.… seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” Mt 6:25-33. He told us, therefore, “You received without pay, give without pay” Mt 10:8.
The Eighth Commandment: § 2464-2513 You shall not bear false witness. It prohibits lying, but there is more. The Hebrew word for truth, emet, is composed of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet— to teach us that truth is the first, the last, and everything in between. God is truth. In Jewish tradition, Emet is a name for God. Rabbi Yeshua is emet. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” Rev 22:13.
Rabbi Yeshua would one day tell us, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, … Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” Mt 5:33-37. We are to be so transparent, so honest, that when we simply say “yes” or “no,” it will be instantly accepted even in the most serious circumstances.
The Ninth Commandment: § 2514-2533 You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. The Hebrew root khmd, “covet,” means lust. We find the same word among the Proverbs: “Do not desire [takh] her beauty in your heart” Prov 6:25. Our Father’s command was lo takhmod, do not lust. It connects the original sin of pride from our first mother’s lust for the fruit that was nekhmad lemareh with Rabbi Yeshua’s complete teaching, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” Mt 5:27-28. Lust, one of the seven capital sins, comes primarily through our eyes.
The Tenth Commandment: § 2534-2557 You shall not covet your neighbor’s property. An extension of the Seventh, it requires justice in interior disposition. The Mashiakh’s lesson about the man who looks at a woman lustfully also applies to property. Envy also is one of the seven capital sins.
God spoke these words in thunder. “Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die’” Ex 20:18-19.
The 613 Mitzvot
The Oral Torah Helped the Rabbis
Our Father designed the material universe with extreme precision to support human life. He designed our moral universe with the same precision. He gave Moses the Oral Torah first. Moses wrote the Written Torah under our Father’s inspiration as notes from his wider comprehension of the original revelation.8
The Oral Torah passed from father to son during the Old Testament centuries, transmitted entirely by word-of-mouth. Our Father knew that teaching the Law orally kept fathers close to their sons, students close to their teachers. The ancient rabbis considered teachers, not books, the best conveyors of the Jewish tradition. For that reason, Jewish tradition has always held the Oral Torah more authoritative even than the Written Torah, which retains the words our Father gave but not always their complete understanding. The Oral Torah itself taught, “Be more careful in the observance of the words of the Scribes than in the words of the Torah.”
For example, the ancient Israelites found in the Written Torah, “boughs of leafy trees” Lev 23:40. But many kinds of trees are leafy. The father or teacher would explain why they were myrtle trees. Much of the early Oral Torah concerned the meaning of words. As time passed, more questions arose. The ancient Israelites saw the commandment, “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work” Ex 20:10. The sages of each generation tried to give these traditions shape through a certain amount of generalization and abstraction.
This is why, from the time of Moses, after the rabbi read the Written Torah in the synagogue, he gave a sermon to explain that particular passage from the wider understanding of the Oral Torah. That tradition continues in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. After the Scripture readings the priest gives a homily explaining the readings to the congregation from the wider understanding of Catholic Sacred Tradition as taught by the popes.
Understand God’s Will for Man
The sages broadly agreed that there were 613 mitzvot. Across the centuries, the rabbis have tried to organize them into systematic lists that would be more coherent.
There were lively discussions over how to list them. Should every command by God to an individual be counted, or only His commands to the whole people Israel? Should a command by God to be carried out only once be included, or only commands to be followed at all times? Should a single verse containing multiple prohibitions be counted a single command, or should each prohibition be counted as a separate command? Differences of opinion remain, but Maimonides’ list of the 613 mitzvot is the most widely accepted among Jews today.
But even Maimonides’ list is not recognized as a code of Jewish law. Whole bookshelves groan under the weight of the codes used by the Orthodox rabbinate. This constant study, this effort to penetrate the heavy tomes and look directly into God’s heart, as he looks into our hearts, has always directly connected every observant Jew to him.
Our Father’s magnificent gift of the Torah was first and foremost a legal system. His children of the covenant were to rely on the most erudite scholars of law, not on their hearts. When they went astray He sent prophets. Dr. Lawrence Feingold tells us, “A prophet is someone who speaks with divine authority, through a fullness of knowledge that does not have a human origin, but comes from divine illumination.”9 The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, yet no prophet had authority to make a legal ruling, to permit what had been traditionally prohibited or prohibit what had been permitted. Torah was given to man as a complete body of law with authority over even the most minute detail of an Israelite’s life.
We see this in Samuel’s prophecy to Saul, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” 1 Sam 15:22. And in King David’s prophecy, “For you take no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” Ps 51:16-17.
Our Father was preparing His flock, but they were not to stop sacrificing.
God did on occasion give legal judgment through prophecy. When the daughters of Zelophehad appealed to Moses for a portion of their inheritance in the absence of direct male heirs, Moses presented their case to God, who ruled, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right; you shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them” Num 27:7. The difference is, God intended that Moses apply this legal ruling.
This is why Jeremiah’s prophecy—“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” Jer 31:31-33. —was so radical, yet so Jewish in its essence: This constant tension between letter and spirit is Isra-el, struggle with God, and the aliyat hadorot, ascent of the generations, toward Mt. Sinai or Jerusalem.
A Hierarchy of Laws
The Shma reconciled the Torah as a system of laws with God’s law written on our hearts. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” All 613 mitzvot were given to lead the people Israel to love God. The Jewish tradition adds that God’s will is spiritual but that because of our human limits he gave it in a workable form of 248 positive and 365 negative mitzvot.
Pope Benedict XVI tells us that, “Within the Torah itself, there are quite different levels of authority”10 He explains that the Torah prescribes both casuistic law and apodictic law.11 Casuistic, or case, law includes specific rules for such issues as body injury for people or animals, recompense for theft, etc. The rabbis could change these casuistic laws when they no longer served God’s larger purpose in enacting them. The Torah allowed slavery Lev 25:44; Jewish law no longer does. The Torah required remission of debts every seven years Deut 15:1; modern Jewish law does not. The Torah commanded a man to marry the childless wife of his deceased brother Deut 25:5; Jewish marriage law no longer does.
Apodictic, or absolute, law comes from God. It does not consider cases, but consists of principles by which the rabbis continuously re-evaluate the rules. The highest of these principles are the Shma and the Decalogue, which remain obligatory for Christians Mt 22:37. § 201-202; 2068. LG § 24.
Direct Line of Living Authority
The Torah: From Life
Jewish scribes who hand copy Torah scrolls are extremely careful to preserve the exact sequence of Hebrew letters, one at a time, not adding or subtracting even a single letter. The Torah scroll in every synagogue is an exact copy of an exact copy of an exact copy … of the Torah that God inspired Moses to write down by hand, a pre-figure of the apostolic succession.
Every Torah scroll is made from living creatures. The parchment is lambskin, ritually prescribed sinews hold the pages together, and plants provide the ink. The Torah itself is called torat khayim, Living Torah, because it is always alive, always new, always relevant and contemporary, and because it governs all aspects of living. Our Father told us, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life [torat khayim], that you and your descendants may live,” and “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life [torat khayim], that one may avoid the snares of death.”
The Aaronic Priesthood
God began the priesthood from the very dawn of man with Adam, and then through Abel and Cain. Sacrifice recognizes that God gives us all we have, and acknowledges our debt by giving something back to Him. He continued with Melchizedek, the priest who gave Abram “bread and wine” and blessed him.
God raised the priesthood higher by instituting the Aaronic priesthood through Moses, who had stood in His presence. As soon as the Tabernacle was finished, our Father directed Moses, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests.”
As part of the preparation, Aaron had to become a pre-figure of the Messiah. “It shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.”
And this is how Aaron was consecrated. Our Father told Moses,
- You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water. And you shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the coat and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and belt him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod; and you shall set the turban on his head, and put the holy crown upon the turban. And you shall take the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him. Then you shall bring his sons, and put coats on them, and you shall belt them with sashes and bind caps on them; and the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual statute. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons. Ex 29:4-9.
The priesthood was strictly for Aaron and his sons. “If any one else comes near, he shall be put to death” Num 3:10.
Laying on of Hands
Our Father commanded, starting with Joshua, that the laying on of hands would consecrate the Aaronic priests. “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; cause him to stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight” Num 27:18. The elder ordained the younger man only when he was certain that the younger man knew the halakha.
Hebrew continued to be a wonderful teaching language. This laying on of hands is called smikha. It comes from the same Hebrew root smkh as the well-known Jewish description of God somekh noflim, supporter of the fallen. Every priest is a supporter of our fallen race.
The Tribe of Levi
Abraham had proven himself worthy by being prepared to sacrifice his son, making all Israel a kingdom of priests. “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” Ex 19:6. But the Israelites had made the golden calf. Since they were not a holy nation, they could not be a kingdom of priests.
- Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him Ex 32:26. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” .And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day” Ex 32:26-29.
The Lord said to Moses, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall perform duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the Tabernacle; they shall have charge of all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and attend to the duties for the people of Israel as they minister at the Tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel” Num 3:6-9.
“At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance” Deut 10:8-9.
The Tzitzit (Fringes or Tassels)
Our Father, in the Shma, commanded His people Israel to wear the tzitzit, fringes or tassels on the talit. He told Moses, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue” Num 15:38.
The thread was to be a very precise shade of blue, in Hebrew tekhelet. The Gemara, Menahot 43b, tells us, “Tekhelet resembles [the color of] the sea, and the sea the sky, and the sky the throne of glory,” a beautiful reflection on the firmament, “water there,” with its connection to “water here,” and an echo of God above, with his image and likeness below. Tekhelet was said to come from a snail or mollusk called chilazon, which had a special sac of this blue body fluid.
Tzitzit are attached to the talit by eight strands of white and blue thread and five knots. After a knot the blue thread is wrapped seven times. Then after another knot the blue thread is wrapped eight times. After another knot the blue thread is wrapped eleven times. Finally the blue thread is wrapped thirteen times, and there is a last knot. In gematria the total of the first two wrappings is fifteen, corresponding to the numeric total of the letters yod, ten, and hay, five. Eleven corresponds to the numeric total of vav, six, and hay, five. These add up to Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay, the name of God. The Hebrew letters in the word ekhad, one, add up to thirteen. The talit with its tzitzit is the message of the Shma: “The Lord our God is one Lord” Deut 6:4.
The Animal Sacrifices
Our Father had shown his power over the Egyptian gods in the ten plagues, but his children, deeply conditioned to idols during centuries of slavery, could not cast them aside. After Aaron made a golden bull calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, our Father resolved to reverse their conditioning. He commanded the Israelites to sacrifice and eat the animals that the Egyptians venerated as gods but never sacrificed, and he declared unclean, and therefore prohibited the sacrifice of, animals the Egyptians sacrificed.
The Written Torah devotes far more mitzvot to sacrifices and offerings than to any other aspect of daily life. Thousands of cattle, sheep and goats, day after day, the sacrifices!
God’s Dwelling Among Us
The Hebrew word for “tabernacle” is mishkan, from the root shkhn, dwell. The same root gives us Shkhina. The Shkhina dwelled in the mishkan. The mishkan was the dwelling-place for the Shkhina. It brings to the Catholic mind God’s visit to dwell with man on earth, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” Jn 1:14 and God’s call for us to dwell eternally with him, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men” Rev 21:3.
The Altar of Sacrifice
“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” Ex 25:8-9.
The outer area was a court, about eighty-seven by one hundred seventy-five feet, with an opening on the east wall.12 A person entering the court would immediately come to the altar of sacrifice. “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners” Ex 27:1-2.
The altar of sacrifice was about seven-and-a-half feet square and four-and-a-half feet high. Its great fire burned constantly, immolating the daily sacrifices and producing large streams of animal blood.
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” Ex 40:34.
Acacia trees still grow in Israel’s arid desert regions, reminding us of the Mashiakh ’s Final Sacrifice there. The story of salvation lives in its very earth and sky.
A Lamb for God
The sacrifice of a lamb, as opposed to any other animal, was important. The lamb did not resist, run away, or even cry out. Isaiah had foretold that the Lamb of God would do the same: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” Is 53:7.
Each year at Passover, Jewish men had to bring their lambs to the Temple and give them to an ordained Temple priest for sacrifice. There had to be an interior sacrifice. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” Hos 6:6. Rabbi Yeshua three times asked Kefa in Aramaic, ahavtani, “Do you love me?” Jn 21:15, 16, 17. He allowed Kefa to replace his triple denial with a triple affirmation that he did indeed love the Sacrificed Lamb.
The family then placed the beloved lamb into the hands of the priest. The priest then placed it in a wooden structure that looked like a large hand with five wooden “fingers” and pushed the fingers together to close them around the lamb. When we give something to God we place it in his hands. The Mashiakh’s last words on the cross were, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Lk 23:46.
The priest and the head of the family then prayed together that God would accept the blood of the innocent lamb for the sins of that family for the entire year, just as the Lamb of God shed his Blood to redeem the sins of all his human family. The Catholic priest says, “Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
The head of household then cut the lamb’s throat with a sharp bronze knife while the priest caught the lamb’s blood in a large bronze bowl. The priest then made seven complete trips around the altar, sprinkling the blood from the lamb on each of the four “horns.” Then he took the lamb’s body and placed it on the altar and started the ritual fire.
With a big fire and a small lamb, the sacrifice was completely consumed. The smoke rose from the altar. If the wind blew the smoke away and dispersed it, the priest told the family that its offer was rejected, and that it should repent and come back the following year. But if the smoke drifted straight up, ascending higher and higher until it disappeared from view, the priest told the family that God had accepted the sacrifice. Then the family went home singing a merry tune.
The Lord said to Moses, “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing. And you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet” Ex 30:18-19.
The laver was used by the priests before they entered the Holy Place. King David wrote, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go about Thy altar, O Lord” Ps 26:6. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the extraordinary form quotes this passage directly from St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. In the ordinary form the priest says inaudibly, “Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin” Ps 51:2.
The laver was also a reflection of the mikva, and a foreshadow of baptism.
The Tabernacle interior was about forty-five feet long, fifteen feet wide, and fifteen feet high. It consisted of two chambers separated by a magnificent curtain, or veil.
The Holy Place
The larger chamber, about thirty by fifteen feet, was open only to the Aaronic priests. In it was a golden seven-lamp menorah, or candelabra, the chamber’s only light as the Tabernacle had no windows. There was also the table of showbread, twelve loaves baked fresh each Sabbath and then eaten the following week by the priests. “And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always” Ex 25:30. “Do this in remembrance of me” Lk 22:19. Finally there was a golden altar of incense where pure frankincense was continually offered. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” Ps 141:2.
Today we think of the showbread as a pre-figure of the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle.
The Holy of Holies
The inner chamber, kodesh hakodashim, the Holy of Holies, was a perfect fifteen foot cube. “The [new Jerusalem] lies foursquare … its length and breadth and height are equal” Rev 21:16.
In it was the Ark of the Covenant. The top of the ark was the mercy seat, a solid gold plate with the figures of two solid gold cherubim, their wings meeting at the center. Above the mercy seat, between the two cherubim, was a brilliant light, the Shkhina, the shining glory of God. “From above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you” Ex 25:22. When the priest saw that light, he took a huge cup of blood and sprinkled it toward the light until it was empty. Jewish tradition holds that not one drop of the blood of sacrifice ever touched the mercy seat or the cherubim; it all went into the bright light of God’s glory.
The Lord’s Prayer
God taught Moses the first Lord’s Prayer. By descending in a cloud, God clothed himself and Moses together in a talit, overshadowing Moses as the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Lk 1:35 and the Father glorified Rabbi Yeshua Mt 17:5.
“And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, keeping merciful love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshiped. Ex 34:5-8.
Rabbi Yokhanan, a contemporary of Rabbi Yeshua, wrote, “Were it not written in Scripture it would be impossible to say it. This passage teaches that God wrapped himself [in a talit] like a shliah tsibur [one leading the congregation in prayer], and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said, ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them perform before me this order [of prayer] and I shall forgive them.’”
This first Lord’s Prayer begins, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious,” which is itself Trinitarian. Its original Hebrew includes, “Vayaavor Elohim al panav [God passed in front of his face]. Vayikra [and he called], ‘Adonai Elohim el rakhum [merciful God] vekhanun [and forgiving] erekh apaiim [patient and humble] verav khesed ve’emet [full of grace and truth].’” This phrase, erekh apaiim arrests our attention. Did Moses bow down before the living Yeshua a thousand years before the Incarnation? Rabbi Yeshua was “gentle and lowly in heart.” Mt 11:29.
Mercy is rakhamim, from the same root rkhm as rekhem, womb, a place of mercy. Verav khesed ve’emet means “full of grace and truth.” St. John describes Rabbi Yeshua using exactly these words. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” Jn 1:14.
Rabbi Yeshua also wore a talit and taught us how to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” Mt 6:9-13.
“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” Ex 34:29. The original Hebrew for “the skin of his face shone” was karan or panav. Karan (shone) or (skin) panav (his face). St. Jerome knew that karnaim are rays of light and that the Septuagint translated karan as dedoxastai (began to glow).”
The word karan literally means something that rises above a surface. Its plural, karnaim, is used mostly for sunrays or horns, but also in the ancient Temple for the kohen’s fingers as he gives the congregation Moses’ blessing: “The LORD bless you and keep you: The LORD make his face to shine [ya ʾer panav] upon you, and be gracious to you: The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” Num 6:24-26.13
St. Jerome saw Moses reading the Word of God before the whole people of Israel as the personification of Old Testament authority and power, one sent by God to teach the people Israel. He knew that Moses’ radiance pre-figured Rabbi Yeshua’s transfiguration. He knew too the similarity between karan and keren, a horn. Horns have been a Hebrew sign of authority and power since the Old Testament days. We see horns on the Tabernacle altar. “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it” Ex 27:1-2. “Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year; with the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations; it is most holy to the Lord” Ex 30:10. “God brings them out of Egypt; they have as it were the horns of the wild ox” Num 23:22. And so St. Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate Bible, translated karan as cornuta, horns.
The Church understands that authority and power came from Moses’ head.
Moses’ radiance pre-figured a much greater radiance to come. “[Rabbi Yeshua] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” Mt 17:2. Rabbi Yeshua’s transfiguration itself pre-figured his glorified body which He would serve the shlikhim at the Last Supper and all Catholics at Holy Communion. Moses’ radiance, Rabbi Yeshua’s transfiguration, and Holy Communion all share the Sistine image: God reaching out to man.
The pre-figure was complete even to a betrayal that would shake the earth itself.
God had commanded Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you” Ex 3:14. Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice” Ex 4:1. God promised Moses miraculous signs.
“Korah … rose up before Moses” Num 16:1-2. With Dathan and Abiram, Korah told Moses, “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” Num 16:3.
All around the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, “The ground under them split asunder; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men that belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” Num 16:31-33.
The sword is St. Michael’s weapon in the spiritual war between the yetzer tov the forces of God, and the yetzer ra, the forces of Satan who brought our exile from Eden. “[God] drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” Gen 3:24.
Our Father gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai, also called khorev (often transliterated Horeb) from the same Hebrew root khrv as kherev, sword. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” Heb 4:12. The Torah would be a sword dividing good and evil.
His Son told us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” Mt 10:34. Rabbi Yeshua’s listeners understood his phrase but a sword as the Torah, the kherev received on khorev, dividing good and evil.
He meant it. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” Mt 10:35-38.
He even gave us a vivid image. “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Mt 25:31-33.