THE PINCHAS SCROLL
“Command the Israelite people and say to them: Be punctilious in presenting to Me at stated times the offerings of food due Me, as offerings by fire of pleasing odor to Me.” (Numbers 28:2)
The holiest spot in any synagogue is the Aron HaKodesh “Holy Ark”, usually on the Eastern wall, where the Torah scrolls are kept. Many synagogues have multiple Torah scrolls. But three are kept in front, read on a regular basis. One scroll is rolled to the weekly Sabbath Torah portion. It is read every Sabbath morning, and if there is a daily service, Sabbath afternoon, and Monday and Thursday mornings. It is only rerolled once at Simchat Torah, where we turn from the end of Deuteronomy to the beginning of Genesis. (Remember the Blockbuster sign – “Be kind, Rewind.”)
A second is the festival scroll. It is rolled from place to place for the special readings on each of the festivals. One of my goals over the years as a rabbi is to find an appointed person to roll these scrolls, although often I have to do it myself. The Torah readings vary greatly during the cycle of festivals.
Then there is a third scroll, often called the Pinchas scroll. It is rolled to the end of this week’s portion. It contains the additional reading, often called the Musaf reading, read from a second scroll. On Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) and each of the festivals we read from this scroll. On festivals we take out two Torahs, the regular reading and the Musaf reading. This Torah is kept rolled at all times to this section. The irony is that over the years, this is usually the first section of the Torah to wear out. When a scribe checks if a Torah scroll is kosher, they usually begin with this section.
What is in this section? It contains all the special animal offerings brought to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. There were two daily offerings and special additional offerings for the Sabbath, Rosh Hodesh, and each festival. Often the Rabbis of the Talmudic age would learn some profound details from each of these offerings. For example, on the first day of Sukkot there were 13 bullocks offered, the second day 12, the third day 11, until the seventh day when there were 7. That is 70 bullocks altogether over the seven-day festival, symbolizing the 70 nations of the earth. When the Temple was standing, we would bring an offering for each nation of the world on Sukkot.
The Temple is no longer standing and animal sacrifices stopped long ago. So why do we still read this section? In the Reform Movement they have removed it. On the other hand, in Orthodox Judaism there is an additional Amida (standing prayer) called Musaf where they pray for the reestablishment of these offerings. The traditional wording asks God to bring us back to our Holy Temple, where we will once again offer these various offerings. Most the Orthodox Jews I know say this prayer, but I do not know many who truly desire the rebuilding of the Temple and the reintroduction of these animal sacrifices. But today there is a special yeshiva in Jerusalem to train priests (kohenim) in all the arcane laws of these offerings, being prepared in case the Temple is rebuilt.
In Conservative synagogues such as the ones where I have served, we do read the offerings and pray the Musaf service. But we have changed the wording. Instead of praying for the reestablishment of animal sacrifices, we say “there are fathers used to offer the following sacrifices.” It is a small change in wording that reflects a huge change in theology. We recall the past, but we do not seek to reestablish the past. Orthodox rabbis have totally rejected this change in wording.
Personally, I find something powerful about remembering the past while moving beyond the past. Last week I mentioned how the great philosopher Maimonides saw animal offerings as a concession to the needs of the people in ancient times. Our ideas about worshipping God have evolved. Nonetheless, we still keep a Pinchas scroll of the Torah in our Holy Ark, ready to read about these animal offerings.