Shabbat Hagadol and Parshat Tzav

In the word mokdah: the first letter, the mem, is traditionally written smaller than all the other letters. Why?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Towards redemption

In non leap years (as this year 5775 is), Shabbat Hagadol – the Great Shabbat, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach – invariably coincides with Parashat Tzav. Shabbat Hagadol derives its name “from the great miracle that was performed thereon” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 430:1).

The Tosafot (Shabbat 87b, s.v. ve-oto yom chamishi ba-Shabbat hayah) collates various Midrashim to define what this great miracle was: On the 10th of Nisan, which was a Shabbat, each Jewish family in Egypt took a lamb – which was the Egyptian god! – and slaughtered it publicly, while their erstwhile enslavers watched in impotent fury, powerless to prevent the newly-liberated slaves from showing their contempt for their idolatrous religion.

Parashat Tzav begins by defining the laws of the Olah, variously translated as “elevation-offering” or “burnt-offering”. The Olah is unique among animal sacrifices in that none of the meat is eaten, all of it being burnt on the Altar. (The Kohen does, however, receive the animal’s hide.)

The first Olah recorded in the Torah is the sacrifice offered by Yitro (Jethro) upon joining the nation of Israel (Exodus 18:12). Subsequently G-d commanded the Olah as part of the ritual of inaugurating Aaron and his sons as Kohanim (Exodus 29:18 and 25), and during the erection of the Tabernacle (40:29). Both of these were one-time-only occurrences.

The first Olah which was to be a permanent feature of the sacrificial ritual was the Tamid, variously translated as perpetual-sacrifice or continual-offering, commanded immediately after the inauguration-ritual of Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:38-46). Parashat Tzav opens by defining the details of how the Olah Tamid was to be offered:

“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the Olah: This is the Olah which is to be on the conflagration on the Altar throughout the night until the morning, and it shall keep the fire of the Altar burning” (Leviticus 6:1-2).

The Torah here uses the word מוקדה (mokdah), which we have translated here as “conflagration”. This is the only time throughout the Tanach that this word occurs; it is the feminine form of moked, which word appears only twice throughout the Tanach (Isaiah 33:14 and Psalms 102:4).

The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) says, in his commentary to Leviticus 6:2, that the words moked and mokdah are two different nouns (maybe to dispel the mistaken notion that the heh at the end of mokdah is genitive, i.e. “…the Olah which is to be on its moked…”).

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) traces the word מוקד to the root יקד meaning “to burn, to be on fire”; hence moked (masculine) or mokdah (feminine, in our parashah), “the place in which the fire burns” (Sefer HaShorashim, entry יקד).

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) sees in the Olah an allusion to our exile and eventual redemption. The Altar represents the exile in which we are oppressed and in which the suffering atones for us; the conflagration which burns throughout the night until the morning represents G-d’s fury which will burn for all the tortures that the nations of the world have inflicted upon us the sufferings in the long night of exile; the morning represents the morning of redemption; and the Olah represents our aliyah (ascent) to the Land of Israel at the end of exile.

Now there is a peculiarity in the word mokdah: the first letter, the mem, is traditionally written smaller than all the other letters (in Masoretic nomenclature, mem ze’irah); thus it appears in every Sefer Torah and every printed Chumash.

What is the reason for this shrunken mem? – I suggest the following answer:

There is only one other mem ze’irah in the Torah – the first mem in the word mamrim (rebels): “You have been rebels against Hashem from the day that I knew you” (Deuteronomy 9:24).

This appears in the context of Moshe’s farewell speech to his beloved people, in the course of which he reminds them off all that they had gone through together over forty years in the Sinai Desert – the bad memories and the good – and warns them against sinning in the future and encourages them with G-d’s promises that they will eternally remain His nation.

Moshe spares no words in castigating them for their past sins: “In Taberah and in Massah and in Kibroth-Hattaavah you infuriated Hashem, and when Hashem sent you from Kadesh-Barnea, saying: Ascend and inherit the Land which I have given to you – then you rebelled against the decree of Hashem your G-d; you neither believed Him nor listened to His voice. You have been rebels against Hashem from the day that I knew you” (Deuteronomy 9:22-24).

Commenting on Deuteronomy 9:24, the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) says, “This verse begin with a mem [numerical value 40] and ends with a mem to indicate that all 40 years that you were in the desert you were rebels”.

Nevertheless, though Moshe castigated the Children of Israel for their rebelliousness, and began and ended this verse with the mem to signify that throughout 40 years they rebelled – the Torah writes the first mem smaller than all the other letters, signifying that their rebelliousness was minimal.

The Torah holds the Children of Israel to a super-humanly high standard, so it is little wonder that we oft-times fall short. Hence even when castigating us as rebels, the Torah drops a subtle hint: Keep it in perspective! The mem is minimised, because your rebelliousness wasn’t really all that terrible!

And now we return to the minimised mem in the word mokdah, the place of the conflagration whereupon the sacrifices are burnt. Let us cite the precise words of the Ohr ha-Chayim: “‘On the conflagration on the Altar’ – these allude to two different details which categorise us: the first, that we are children of the Torah, which does not apply to any other nation; and the second, that we are persecuted and impoverished in exile”.

I suggest that the minimised mem is equally applicable to both aspects. It applies to the nation of Israel, “for you are smallest of all the nations” (Deuteronomy 7:7). And it applies to the persecution and impoverishment of exile – because long and bitter though our exile has been, it is not measureless, neither in time nor in harshness. It is central to Judaism that one day G-d will yet bring us back from exile, and that in spite of the most vicious of persecutions, the nation of Israel will never be destroyed, despite the best efforts of some of the world’s most efficient, vicious, and scientifically-advanced nations.

In warning us of what will befall us if we betray G-d, He tells us that “I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you; your Land will be desolate and your cities will be destroyed” (Leviticus 26:33).

And the corollary is that when the time for redemption comes, the Land of Israel will once again flourish and bloom – as has indeed happened over the past couple of generations for the first time since the Roman conquest.

The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the word va-harikoti (which we have translated here as “and I will unsheathe”) appears only twice in the Tanach. The other time is in Malachi’s prophetic vision of the redemption: “Bring all the tithe to the store-house, and let there be food in My House; and now test Me in this, says Hashem, Lord of Legions, if I will not open the windows of the Heavens for you, va-harikoti, and I will pour out for you blessing beyond anything you need” (Malachi 3:10).

Malachi’s prophetic vision is the Haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol. It contrasts Israel’s faithlessness of previous generations with the new reality of the time of redemption. According to the Ba’al ha-Turim, the word va-harikoti, appearing only these two times throughout the Tanach, emphasises this contrast.

Malachi was the final prophet; and the final prophet’s final exhortation begins: “Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel…” (Malachi 3:22).

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) comments: “With these words the prophet sealed [his prophecy], and this is the final prophecy, after which no prophet or seer will prophesy until the time of the End [of Days]. So he informed them that from now on they should not hope or expect to understand the Word of Hashem through prophecy; they should only ‘remember the Torah of Moshe’, to do everything that is written in it, and it will command them what to do”.

With these thoughts, then, the final prophet ever guides us for the coming millennia – the subsequent four centuries of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, the Roman destruction and exile, the next 2,000 years of homeless wandering and persecutions, and the final return to the Land of Israel which has begun in the last couple of generations.

And these are the thoughts with which, on this final Shabbat before Pesach, our Sages lead us into the Festival which celebrates the first redemption.