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Shamai Leibowitz





Moses’ Name Is Erased from Tetzaveh





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Shamai Leibowitz





Moses’ Name Is Erased from Tetzaveh








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Moses’ Name Is Erased from Tetzaveh

Moses issues an ultimatum to God: “If you don’t forgive Israel, erase me from Your book” (Exodus 32:32). God forgives Israel but erases Moses from the Torah portion of Tetzaveh anyway because the curse of a Torah scholar always comes true. Here is the story of how this medieval midrash came about, and how it developed into the modern myth that Tetzaveh is the only portion after Moses’ birth that is missing his name.


Moses’ Name Is Erased from Tetzaveh

Kennicott Bible, 1476, fol. 51r. Bodleian Library, Oxford University

The divine command to build the Tabernacle begins with the standard opening for legal revelations:

שמות כה:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כה:ב דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל...
Exod 25:1 YHWH spoke to Moses saying: 25:2 Speak to the children of Israel…

This opening covers a series of commands (Exodus 25:2–30:10), to “make” (root: ע.ש.ה) the ark, menorah, the Tabernacle structure, the priestly vestments, and other items. When the Torah was divided liturgically into weekly readings, this section dealing with the Tabernacle commands was divided into two Torah portions, Terumah and Tetzaveh. The latter begins with the command to have the Israelites keep the Tabernacle supplied with oil for perpetual light:

שמות כז:כ וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד.
Exodus 27:20 And you shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

We know from the opening a few chapters earlier that YHWH is here speaking to Moses,[1] so the absence of his name is not surprising. But because this begins a new Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exod 27:20–30:10) that is read on its own, the command comes without context, inspiring traditional commentators to offer homiletical interpretations of the absence of Moses’ name.

A Punishment for Moses’ Sin

In his commentary on the Torah, R. Elazar of Worms (1176–1238)[2] suggests that Moses’ name was omitted from the opening verse of Tetzaveh, and indeed from the entire Torah portion, which describes the priestly garments, because Moses was downgraded from a kohen (priest) to a Levite for refusing YHWH’s command at the Burning Bush to go to Egypt and speak to Pharaoh. As the Babylonian Talmud states:

בבלי זבחים קב. "ויחר אף יי במשה" (שמותד:יד)—ר' יהושע בן קרחה אומר: "כל חרון אף שבתור הנאמר בו רושם וזה לא נאמר בו רושם."
b. Zevachim 102a “The LORD became angry with Moses” (Exod 4:14)—Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha said: “With every mention of [YHWH’s] fierce anger in the Torah there is the mention of a lasting effect, but here there is no mention of a lasting effect.”
אמר ר שמעון בן יוחי: "אף זה נאמר בו רושם, שנאמר (שמות ד:יד): 'הלא אהרן אחיך הלוי', והלא כהן הוא? אלא אני אמרתי אתה כהן והוא לוי, ועכשיו הוא כהן ואתה לוי."
R. Shimon ben Yochai said: “Here too there is a lasting effect. It says (Exod 4:14): ‘There is your brother Aaron the Levite.’ Wasn’t he [Aaron] a priest? Rather [what God was saying was]: ‘I had said originally that you (Moses) would be a priest and he (Aaron) would be a Levite. Now, he will be a priest and you will be a Levite!’”[3]

R. Elazar of Worms applies this midrash to explain why Moses’ name is missing from Tetzaveh:

רוקח על התורה שמות כז:כ "ואתה תצוה": למה לא התחיל וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר [אלא] ואתה תצוה? אלא לפי שהיה למשה להיות כהן ואהרן לוי, וכשסירב לילך בשליחותו של הקב"ה, נעשה לוי, לכך לא הוזכר משה כלל בזאת הפרשה יש כאן בגדי כהונה.
Rokeach Exod 27:20 “And you shall instruct”: Why doesn’t [this parashah] begin with “the LORD spoke to Moses, saying…” but rather with “You shall further instruct”? Because originally Moses was supposed to be appointed a priest and Aaron was supposed to be a Levite, and when Moses resisted God’s mission [to represent the Israelites to Pharaoh], he became [just] a Levite. Therefore Moses is not mentioned at all in this parashah in which the priestly garments are discussed.[4]

This is the earliest explanation for Moses’ missing name.

R. Dan Ashkenazi: “Erase Me from Your Book”

In the 13th century, R. Dan ben Joseph Ashkenazi[5]—the last name is a title given to him by the Sephardic community, since he moved from Germany to Spain—suggested that Moses’ absence from Tetzaveh resulted from his ultimatum to God during the episode of the Golden Calf:

שמות לב:לב וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם, וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ.
Exod 32:32 “Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written!”[6]

His gloss is recorded in the commentary on the Torah attributed to R. Asher ben Yehiel (Rosh, c. 1250 – c. 1327):

רא"ש שמות כז:כא תמצא בכל הסדרים אשר בתורה משנולד משה עד משנה תורה שהוא נזכר מלבד זה הסדר, ותימא הוא.
Rosh Exod 27:21 You will find that in all the weekly portions in the Torah, from the birth of Moses until Deuteronomy, that he [Moses] is mentioned, except for this portion [=Tetzaveh], and this is puzzling.

Rosh then quotes the explanation he learned from R. Dan:

ושמעתי מפי הר"ר דן אשכנזי ז"ל לפי שמשה אמר לפני הקב"ה על מחילת העגל דבר רע "וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ", ואמרו חז"ל (בבלי מכות יא.): "קללת חכם - אפילו על תנאי היא באה."
And I heard from the late Rabbi Dan Ashkenazi that this is because Moses said something bad before God [when asking] for forgiveness for the Golden Calf: “But if not, erase me from the book which You have written!” And the Rabbis said (b. Makkot 11a), “The curse of a Torah scholar, even when it’s only conditioned [on some other occurrence that doesn’t take place], comes true.”

In other words, even though God does forgive the Israelites, the very fact that Moses “cursed himself” by saying that God should erase him from God’s book forces the hand of fate. Moses must thus be “erased” no matter what. Thus, R. Dan explains, Moses’ erasure from one Torah portion was a minimal fulfillment of the curse:

אמר הקב"ה: אעשה לך לפנים משורת הדין, אמחה אותך מן הספר אשר כתבתי, כלומר מסדר "ואתה תצוה" שכתבתי לפני "כי תשא", וזו היא הקללה שעשתה רושם, שלא נקרא שם שמו. ובשביל כך לא נזכר משה בזה הסדר.
God said: I will be lenient with you, Moses, I will erase you [only] from one book that I wrote, i.e. from the Torah portion of VeAtta Tetzaveh which I wrote just before [the Torah portion of] Ki Tisa. And this is the practical effect of the curse, that his name is not mentioned there. And for this reason, Moses’ name does not appear in this portion.

The choice of Tetzaveh is part of the midrash, since it is the “book” (=portion) that God had just written before the Golden Calf story. Moses’ name, which had, according to this, once been in that portion, was now being erased. A later commentator, R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (Aderet, 1843–1905), adds a further reason, based on gematria (numerology):

ורמז לכך " מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ": "אשר" בגימטריה "תצוה", דהיינו, מחני נא מפרשת תצוה.
A hint to this is “erase me from Your book which (asher) You have written.” Asher in numerology (1+300+200=501) is the same as Tetzaveh (400+90+6+5=501). So it can be read “erase me from Tetzaveh.”[7]

R. Dan may also be taking R. Elazar of Worm’s view for granted, that since Tetzaveh is about the priestly garments, and Moses lost the priesthood, it is the most appropriate parashah from which to remove his name.

Spanish Scholars Follow in his Footsteps

R. Dan Ashkenazi’s explanation, that Moses was removed from Tetzaveh as a minimal fulfillment of his threat, was influential among medieval Spanish exegetes, including R. Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (c. 1255 – c. 1340),[8] and the Zohar, a 13th century kabbalistic work composed in Spain:

זוהר במדבר פנחס מאן לן רב ממשה דאמר (שמות לב:לב) " וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ " ואמר לצורך, ואף על גב דקודשא בריך הוא עביד רעותיה, עם כל דא לא אשתזיב מעונשא - והא אתמר דלא אדכר בפרשת ואתה תצוה ואתמחי מתמן, והא אוקמוה.
Zohar Num Pinchas Whom do we have greater than Moses, who said (Exod 32:32): “If not, please erase me from Your book that You have written.” And he said this from necessity. Yet although the blessed Holy One did what [Moses] wished, even so, he was not saved from punishment; as has been said, he is not mentioned in the portion of VeAtta Tetzaveh, but was erased from there. This has already been established.[9]

The Tur’s Exaggeration

R. Jacob ben Asher (c. 1270 – c. 1340), the son of Rosh (quoted above), who is most famous for his halakhic compendium known as the Tur[10] (or Baʿal HaTurim) wrote two commentaries on the Torah. The first is a long commentary that summarizes selections from previous exegetes, in the same style as his halakhic work. The second is a short commentary, originally meant as an introduction or companion to the long commentary, that is a collection of “appetizers” (פרפראות).

These are symbolical references in the Torah text, often using gematria (numerical value) and acronyms, as well as references to all other occurrences of particular words elsewhere in the Bible.[11] Unlike the long commentary, which remained obscure, the short commentary was very popular, and has been published in many versions of the Rabbinic Bible (Mikraʾot Gedolot).

In this short commentary,[12] Ba’al HaTurim includes R. Dan’s explanation, but he makes the exaggerated claim that Tetzaveh is the only Torah portion in the Pentateuch after Moses’ birth in which the name Moses is not mentioned:

בעל הטורים על התורה, פרשת תצוה לא הזכיר משה בזה הסדר, מה שאין כן בכל החומש, שמשעה שנולד משה אין סדר שלא הוזכר בה. והטעם משום שאמר "מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ", וקללת חכם – אפילו על תנאי באה, ונתקיים בזה.
Tur, Short Commentary, Tetzaveh The name “Moses” is not mentioned in this sedra, which is not the case in all of the Pentateuch, for from the time Moses is born, there is no Torah portion in which he is not mentioned. And the reason is that Moses said, “erase me from Your book that you wrote” (Exodus 32:32). And (b. Makkot 21a) “the curse of a Torah scholar, even when it’s only conditioned - comes true.”[13]

Why it’s an Exaggeration

Moses’ name, however, is also missing from five Torah portions in Deuteronomy: Eikev, Re’eh, Shoftim, Ki Teitzei, and Nitzavim. This is hardly surprising because Moses often speaks in the first-person in Deuteronomy.

The Tur may have been writing sloppily here, meaning to convey just what his father and R. Dan said, implicitly excluding Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, his statement is factually incorrect.

This was noted by R. Baruch ben Elkanah, in his 1752 commentary on the Tur, playfully called עיטור ביכורים Ittur Bikkurim, “Adornment of First Fruits”[14]:

לא ידעתי מה שכתב "מה שאין כן בכל החומש וכו' אין סדר שלא הוזכר בה וכו'" – ועינינו הרואות שגם בפרשת עקב, ופרשת ראה, ופרשת שופטים – לא הוזכר שם משה. ושאלתי לחכמים ואין מגיד לי.
I don’t understand how he wrote “which is not the case in all of the chumash [Pentateuch] etc. [in which] there is no portion in which [Moses] is not mentioned.” But we can see with our own eyes that also in Parashat Eikev, and in Parashat Re’eh, and in Parashat Shoftim – Moses is not mentioned.[15] I asked wise people, and no one had an answer for me.[16]

R. Baruch then suggests that Deuteronomy may be exceptional:

ואפשר שייתכן לומר דממשנה תורה לא איירי כי משה היה המדבר כל הספר ההוא.
And maybe it’s possible to say that [the omissions in] Deuteronomy don’t count since Moses is the one talking throughout that book.[17]

Not wanting to dismiss the Tur’s words as being inexact, R. Baruch throws up his hands—in classic rabbinic fashion—by wishing that Divine wisdom will shed light on this unsolved mystery:

ומיהו בוודאי גם שם לא דבר רֵק הוא, ואם רֵק הוא מכם בפרט ממני, וה' יאיר עיני במאור תורתו.
However, even there “it is not an empty word” (Deut 32:47) really, even if it is empty [=elusive] “for you”—specifically for me. So may God enlighten my eyes with the light of His Torah.[18]

In contrast, R. Elijah David Rabinowitz-Teomim, who had a copy of the Rosh’s commentary (attributed to Rosh, to be exact), suggests that this must be what his son, the Tur, meant to say:

ומלשון הרא"ש שהבאתי לעיל ("משנולד משה עד משנה תורה") נראה דאין משנה תורה בכלל זה, דשם הוא מדבר בעדו.
And from the language of the Rosh that I quoted above (“from when Moses was born until Deuteronomy”) it would seem that Deuteronomy is not included, for there [Moses] is speaking in the first person.

The Homiletical Myth in Modern Times

The Tur’s exaggerated claim was canonized, and created a homiletical myth that appears ubiquitously in modern Jewish discourse.

Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), a biblical scholar and teacher par excellence— and my great aunt whose classes were always fascinating—observes in her insightful book Studies in Shemot (Exodus):

But one feature is unusual. Many commentators have drawn attention to the fact that this chapter is the only one in the last four books of the Torah in which Moses’ name is not explicitly mentioned.[19]

Similarly, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948–2020), the former chief rabbi of Great Britain and award-winning, prolific author, writes:

The sedra of Tetzaveh, as commentators have noted, has one unusual feature: it is the only sedra from the beginning of Shemot to the end of Devarim that does not contain the name of Moses. Several interpretations have been offered…[20]

Finally, the scholars of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Publication Society who edited the Etz Hayim Chumash also state:

This parashah is the only one in the last four books of the Torah in which the name of Moses does not appear. Noting this literary curiosity, some commentators explain it.[21]

Other rabbis have made this same mistake.[22] Apparently, they either took R. Jacob at his word—whether he meant it that way or not—or the myth has become so entrenched that more recent scholars do not even check its accuracy or its source.

A Teachable Moment – Errare humanum est

As a traditional Latin saying begins: “Errare humanum est”; to err is human. Every human being can make mistakes. What is striking, though, is that an erroneous statement made more than 700 years ago—which can so easily be disproven—has been repeated and reprinted all the way through the 21st century.

This is, in large part, due to the staunch opposition of the rabbinical world to examine texts critically, and to acknowledge that great people make mistakes. The takeaway here is that we must watch out for mythic facts, and should always fact-check, again and again. We must not rely blindly on information, even if it is found in ancient texts or stated by revered sages and teachers.


February 27, 2024


Last Updated

April 5, 2024


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Shamai Leibowitz is an adjunct professor of Hebrew at a language school for the government, military and private sector. He earned a law degree (LL.B.) from Bar Ilan University and an LL.M. from American University Washington College of Law.