Parshat Tetzaveh: Moses is Missing…Really?

Parshat Tetzaveh: Moses is Missing…Really?

David Nekrutman is the Executive Director of  Ohr Torah Stone’ Hertog Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC).  

The observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld has made audiences laugh for decades. His take and comic delivery on human behavior has even caused an existential crisis for many who buy donut holes. “Millions of people eat donut holes, but what are they? You can’t sell people a hole,” he fervently insists. “A hole does not exist! Words have meanings!”

Although Pentateuch in Judaism is called the Five Books of Moses, one will notice that in this week’s Torah portion Moses’ name is absent from it. In his commentary on the Torah, Ba’al Haturim, Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher (1269-1340) addresses this issue:

The name Moses is not mentioned in this sidra (Torah portion), a phenomenon that does not occur elsewhere in Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), for from Moses’ birth [and onward], there is no sidra in which he is not mentioned. The reason [he is not mentioned in this sidra] is because he said to God, “And now if You would forgive their sin [Golden Calf] – but if not, erase me from Your Book that you have written (Exodus 32:32). The curse of a sage will always be fulfilled even when it was given conditionally. And so, [Moses’ curse] was fulfilled [by his name being erased from this sidra].

The absence of Moses from the parsha – and why this particular Torah portion was selected for its omission – is the subject of many Jewish commentators’ writings. But it’s not that Moses is missing in the Torah portion. In fact, all the verses in Parshat Tetzaveh that say “you” is referring to Moses as God speaks to him – it’s just that his name is not mentioned. No one is bothered when Moses’ name is not mentioned in the Deuteronomic readings of Ekev, Re’eh, Shofetim, or Ki-Tetze, and his name is only mentioned once in the previous Torah portion of Terumah. Shouldn’t a Torah portion at least have Moses’ name mentioned twice?

It seems that the minimum standard to satisfy our need to mention Moses’ name is at least one time in a parsha. Why not extend Parshat Tetzaveh to include the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa, which begins with “God spoke to Moses” – problem solved! Moses’ name is missing from the Torah portion because someone decided that Parshat Tetzaveh ends where it ends. Have we not bought into the “donut hole” of the Missing Moses by creating all this commentary where none is needed?

There is no question that at the time of Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher, there was a firm tradition of 53 parshiyot[1] as part of our annual reading of the Torah. However, there was no official list at the time of the Talmud as to which Torah texts would be part of a weekly Torah portion.

The obligation to publicly read the Torah on Shabbat, Mondays, Thursdays, the holidays, and on the New Moon is sourced in the Jerusalem Talmud[2]  and a Beraita (non-canonical Mishnah) in the Babylonian Talmud.[3] Both Moses and Ezra are credited for the enactment.[4] In Talmudic times, Jews living in Israel would complete reading of the Torah every three and half years[5] while Babylonian Jews completed it every year.[6] It seems that some Jewish communities kept the “triennial cycle” even during Rambam’s time.[7] In the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, he writes that there were two synagogues in the Cairo area:

The number of Jewish inhabitants is about 7,000. Two large synagogues are there, one belonging to the men of the land of Israel and one belonging to the men of the land of Babylon. The synagogue of the men of the land of Israel is called Kenisat-al-Schamiyyin, and the synagogue of the men of Babylon is called Kenisat-al-Irakiyyin. Their usage with regard to the portions and sections of the Law is not alike; for the men of Babylon are accustomed to read a portion every week, as is done in Spain, and is our custom, and to finish the Law each year; whilst the men of Palestine do not do so, but divide each portion into three sections and finish the Law at the end of three years. The two communities, however, have an established custom to unite and pray together on the day of the Rejoicing of the Law (Simchat Torah), and on the day of the Giving of the Law (Shavuot)[8]

While the Mishnah[9] references special Sabbath and holiday readings such as Shekalim, Zachor, etc…, there was no official list as to which Torah texts are to be read each Shabbat. It is the Rambam who provides the first complete list of all 53 parshiyot along with their Haftorot.[10] In my discussion with Rachamim Sar Shalom,[11] who has written extensively on this subject, he believes that the list of parshiyot and the texts to be included in these weekly portions were developed sometime during mid Geonic period (589-1038CE). Proof of this theory is based upon Rabbi Amram Gaon’s (810-875CE) prayer book since he provides certain parshiyot regulations such as the custom to read Parshat Tzav prior to Passover and Parshat Devraim to be read before Tisha B’Av. However, Sar Shalom argues that Torah text included in each parsha as presented to us today in our current Chumashim is much later date (probably 17th or 18th centuries).

The point is that what we know as a parsha today took centuries of development within Judaism. Furthermore, I found that Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) considered Parshat Terumah and Parshat Tetzaveh as one long parsha,[12] which means Hashem did not take out Moses from Parshat Tetzaveh, but rather, it was the “canonizers” of our weekly Torah portions who omitted him.

My use of the Seinfeld’s donut joke was simply a strategy for you to read this Parshat Hashvua tidbit all the way to the end and provide insight into the development of our parshiyot today. In no way am I putting myself on the level of Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher. It is clear from his commentary that his Parshat Tetzaveh mesorah (tradition) was a stand-alone parsha not associated with the previous one. The point Rabbi Asher is making is the power of a sage’s curses as sourced in Talmud,[13] where Rabbi Avahu said: The curse of a scholar, even with a condition, will always come true (although the condition was not met). This is proven from an incident where Eli the Priest told Samuel that he should be cursed if he conceals anything from him. And although Samuel told him everything, Eli’s curse was fulfilled when Samuel’s sons did not follow in his ways.

For Rabbi Asher, there is no textual evidence that Moses’ curse was fulfilled when he uttered the words “erase me from Your Book that you have written.” Since his birth, Moses is in every book. To demonstrate the power of words and fulfill what the Talmudic dictum, the “canonizers” brilliantly created a parsha without the mention of Moses’ name. They created a real donut hole.


[1] Today, we have 54 Parshiyot

[2] Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Megillah 4:1

[3] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Kama 82a

[4] Tractate Sofrim 10:1

[5] There is a debate as to how many sedarim there are in a triennial cycle and whether a triennial cycle is 3 years or 3 1/2 years. In the Mikraot Gedolot edition the total number of Sedarim is 154. The Midrash of the opening to Esther Rabbah mentions 155, Bamidbar Rabbah at the beginning of Parshat Korach mentions 175.

[6] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 29b

[7] Rambam Laws of Prayer and Priestly Blessing 13:1 (Rambam does say the common custom is completing the Torah cycle in one year)

[8] Marcus Nathan Adler, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text, Translation and Commentary, Vol. 1 (Philipp Feldheim Incorporated, 1907) 70.

[9] Mishnah Megillah 3:4-6

[10] Rambam Sefer Ahava Order of Prayers

[11] Rachamim Dar Shalom (2020) Division of Parshiyot interviewed by David Nekrutman, 27/2

[12] Chaim Yosef David Azulai Devash Lefi 80:3

[13] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 11a

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