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Parshat Tzav: Quality, quantity, intention

Nissan 5783 | March 2023

We no longer have the Temple or sacrifices, but the Torah laws on these topics can teach us principles that are still relevant to our avodat Hashem (service of God) by informing vital aspects of prayer, Torah study, and mitzvah observance. One such lesson is the principle of “echad hamarbeh, v’echad hamam’it, u’bilvad sheyikhaven libo la’shamayim” “whether one does more or one does less – it’s of foremost importance to direct one’s heart to the Heavens.”

This principle pops up in several contexts within the Torah’s description of sacrificial offerings. Parshat Vayikra outlines two categories of offerings: voluntary (nedava) offerings such as olah (burnt-offering), mincha (meal-offering), and shelamim (peace-offering), and mandatory offerings such as chatat (sin-offering) and asham (guilt-offering).[1] There’s a hierarchy within each category. Someone who volunteers to bring an olah can choose to bring their offering from cattle (more expensive), flocks (sheep or goat, slightly less expensive), or birds (relatively inexpensive).[2] The Torah calls each of these an olah, and each is described as a ray’akh nikhoakh – a pleasing aroma. In Parshat Vayikra the olah is juxtaposed to the mincha, a considerably less expensive offering that is made from fine flour.[3] Parshat Tzav also groups the olah and mincha together in the category of “kodesh kedashim,” holy of holies, along with the chatat and asham offerings.[4] And, like the olah, the minchah offering of a kohen (priest) is described as “kalil,” entirely burnt on the altar.[5]

A person who brings shelamim (an offering that is split between the altar, Kohanim, and the offerer, the bulk going to the latter) can also decide how much to spend – choosing either cattle or flocks.[6]

We might expect to find a sliding scale with voluntary offerings, when a person can decide exactly what they want to offer and how much money to spend on it. What’s surprising is that there’s also a sliding scale for some mandatory chatat offerings brought to atone for and purify oneself after committing certain transgressions. In Chapter 5 the Torah describes what the sages refer to as korban oleh v’yored, a chatat offering whose value is determined based on one’s economic situation. Different people bring this offering to spiritually cleanse themselves, but even if they committed the same wrong, they bring different offerings. A wealthy person brings cattle, a person of more modest means brings sheep or goat, a poor person brings a bird, and the most destitute bring a mincha.[7] Although such a sliding scale is not always an option, here we have another case where the Torah allows a person to adapt the medium they use to get closer to God in accordance with their financial means.

These cases taught the sages the important principle of “echad hamarbeh, v’echad ha’mam’it…,” “whether one does more or one does less – it’s of foremost importance to direct one’s heart to the Heavens.” In other words, quality over quantity.[8] While we would be suspicious of the quality of a smaller, inexpensive gift given by a wealthy person, the option is there so a poor person also has a way to get closer to their Creator. Moreover, the sages expound that the unusual usage of the word “nefesh” (life or person) in the verse “a nefesh who offers a mincha offering to the Lord” is used to teach that God considers a poor person who brings this meager offering “as if they have offered their life before Me [on the altar].”[9] Furthermore, there are various types of mincha offerings so that a person can express their desire to draw nearer to God through their choice of a particular offering and its preparation, even though it is not expressed through the financial value of the offering.[10] It’s the thought that counts, like someone who bakes a cake instead of buying a gift; you can tell it comes from the heart.

Chazal applied this principle to other areas such as Torah study. While there’s a clear obligation to study Torah, the Torah does not specify how much a person must learn. On the one hand, one must preoccupy themselves with these Divine words “when you lie down and when you get up.” The sages explained this to mean that one can fulfill their minimal obligation to study Torah by reciting Kriyat Shema at night (arvit) and in the morning (shacharit), daily. On the other hand, the verse also mentions “when you sit in your home and when you travel on the way,” indicating that this study must be all-encompassing – everywhere, everytime.[11]

Some sages were well aware that the world could not endure if everyone dedicated their entire existence to Torah study, so it’s an impractical bar to set.[12] Therefore, there’s also a scale among those that go beyond the minimal obligation of Torah study. Some are more successful, due to greater intelligence or ability to concentrate, and some are less successful. Here too the sages determine “echad hamarbeh v’echad hamam’it…” “whether one does more or one does less – it’s of foremost importance to direct one’s heart to the Heavens.”[13] In other words, each of us should do the best that we can, because the value or quality of our actions is (also) determined by our intentions.

Similarly, Shulchan Aruch states that when praying, “a small amount of supplication with intention is better than a large amount without intention.”[14] Commentaries on Shulchan Aruch offer various reasons for this statement. Some explain that if a person has trouble concentrating it is better to abridge their prayers so that they retain the quality. Others teach that there may be various reasons to cut one’s prayers short, but these reasons are only justified if they are for the sake of Heaven (for example, to dedicate more time to Torah study).[15] Later rabbinic authorities clarified that one should ideally invest both in quantity and in quality whenever possible.[16]

The Torah has high expectations of us; we are adjured to serve God wholly – with our money (me’odeinu), heart (le’vaveinu), and soul (nafsheinu). Yet the Torah also knows that there will always be people who are “richer” and people who are “poorer,” we don’t all start from the same place and some people have an advantage in certain areas. Some of us come from wealthier families or are financially successful, some are less so. Some of us have high aptitude for Torah study, concentration, endurance – some less. Some of us find it easier to pray at length with devotion, others have different strengths.

So the Torah primarily asks for our hearts and intentions – in the way we fulfill mitzvot designed to bring us closer to our Creator and the mindset that guides us as we choose the appropriate amount to invest. In certain cases the quantity may be relaxed, but in exchange we are asked to look inward and to honestly assess why we are investing less of ourselves. We must ensure the quality of our actions, checking that our hearts are in the right place – directed to the Heavens

[1] Vayikra Chapters 1-5

[2] Vayikra Chapter 1

[3] Vayikra Chapter 2

[4] Vayikra 6:1

[5] Vayikra 6:15-16 compared to Shmuel I 7:9

[6] Vayikra Chapter 3

[7] Vayikra 12:1-8, 14:21-32

[8] Mishna Menachot 13:11, TB Menachot 110a

[9] TB Menachot 104b

[10] ibid

[11] Devarim 6:4-9. For example, TB Nedarim 8a compared to Kedushin 30a.

[12] TB Berakhot 35b

[13] For example: TB Berakhot 5b, 17a, and Rishonim ad loc.

[14] Orach Chaim 1:4

[15] Both explanations are brought in Taz ibid 3.

[16] For example: Yalkut Yosef Hilkhot Hashkamat HaBoker 1:20.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.