When fifteenth century Rabbi Israel Isserlein wrote his authoritative explication of Jewish law according to the customs and practices of Austrian Jews, he settled on the title “Terumat Ha-Deshen.” The title refers to the scriptural requirement (Leviticus 6:3) of removing the ashes from the sacrificial altar, completing the sacrificial service of the previous day. The Hebrew word “deshen” has the numerical equivalent of 354 and Rabbi Isserlein presented his statement of Jewish law in the form of 354 responsa.
What is remarkable about Terumat Ha-Deshen is not so much how the words became the title of an important source of Jewish law but how the priestly ritual of Terumat Ha-Deshen had to be performed. According to the Torah, the priest who removes the ashes had to wear his linen garments and linen pants (ibid.). These were but two of the eight priestly garments yet, according to Nahmanides, used to represent the priest’s entire outfit. In other words, the act of removing sacrificial residue required the full and formal priestly regalia.
Why that should be so seems baffling. The removal of ashes is a menial and dirty task. It would appear far more reasonable and appropriate for the chore to be performed in work clothes. Save the nice clothes for important functions. According to Don Isaac Abarbanel, the unexpected requirement for the priest to wear his priestly clothes rather than other clothes is intended to make a point. No work is too trivial when it comes to serving higher purposes. And serving higher purposes requires one’s finest.
This point is often lost today. Part of the problem lies in the fact that fewer people today can identify any higher purposes, let alone aspire to achieve them. Another part of the problem lies in the popular depreciation of formality in all things, including dress. So Abarbanel’s comments are counter-cultural. But though counter-cultural they are no less important. In fact, they are even more important. Minor tasks in the pursuit of major goals are not trivial at all.