Don Isaac Abravanel, sometimes spelled Abarbanel (1437-1508) was a probing and penetrating Jewish thinker, as well as a prolific
Biblical commentator.Parasha Tzav, Leviticus 6 discusses one aspect of a priest’s daily tasks in the Tabernacle. The
Tabernacle’s priestly sanitation department, let us call it, swept up the altar’s ashes, charred remains
from the previous day’s sacrifices.

“And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches
shall he put upon his flesh. And he shall take up the ashes whereto the
fire has consumed the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them
beside the altar.”

Abravanel explores how and when the priests went about this task, where they deposited the collected
altar’s ashes, as well as the theological implications thereof. Put differently, what does “and he put
them beside the altar” teach Bible students here?

Strangely, Abravanel observes, our chapter seems vague about the drop off place of the altar’s ashes.
That is, our chapter lacks clear-cut direction for priests to place ashes to the east of the altar. ‘East of
the altar’ does, however, appear at the beginning of the Book of Leviticus (chapter 1), in the context of
priests cleaning up the charred remains of burnt, bird offerings: “And he shall take away its crop with
the feathers thereof, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, in the place of the ashes.”

Here is Abravanel’s observation, one that leads Bible students to a fundamental, theological takeaway.
When it came to tidying up burnt, bird offerings (chapter 1), the Torah really did not need to spell out
“on the east part”, and could well have sufficed with a more generic phrase “in the place of the ashes.”
That information would have taught readers what the priests did with altar ashes, albeit in a general
sense. Namely, they were brought to a designated area – and discarded there.

But for Abravanel, “on the east part” imparts much, and is not superfluous. The phrase takes a jab at
paganism. They prostrated themselves to the sun. The Torah, thus, disparages the east, of all the four
directions on a weather vane. “On the east” is a not so veiled dig at idolators that believed the sun to be
a deity; they worshipped the great ball of fire, rising daily out of the east.

In our context, Abravanel conveys that for Judaism, the west holds the most esteem, as evidenced by
the holy of holies situated in the western most chamber of the Temple. In contrast, the east conjures up
the shame of the ancients. Their focus on the east, was for Hebrews, an anathema, a dumping station,
as per Scripture: “East of the altar” was merely a trash bin where priests chucked out unwanted altar
ashes of soiled bird feathers (and all other altar residue).