Exodus 30:17-21 – The Laver

After giving the Torah, God commanded the Jewish people to build the Tabernacle. In these verses we learn how the priests needed to wash before they could perform their duties in the Tabernacle.

Exodus 30:17 – 21

Here are the verses that describe how and where the priests were to wash.

Exodus 30

17. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
18. You shall make a basin of copper, and its pedestal also of copper, to wash with; and you shall put it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it.
19. Aaron and his sons shall wash from it their hands and their feet;
20. When they go into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water, and they will not die; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord;
21. So they shall wash their hands and their feet, and they will not die; and it shall be for them a decree forever, for him and for his seed throughout their generations.

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What is a basin?

The Hebrew word used here is kiyor. It is translated as basin, washbasin, or laver.

The basin is a container with faucets near its bottom.

The basin was placed on a pedestal because the faucets must be elevated for the priests to be able to wash from them.

What is it made out of?

The basin was positioned outside of the Tent of Meeting. Therefore, like the outer Altar, it was made of copper.

A later verse tells us the source of this copper:

Exodus 38

8. And he made the basin of copper, and its pedestal of copper, from the mirrors of the women assembling, who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.

The midrash says that Moses did not want to accept these mirrors. The Jewish women in Egypt used the mirrors to beautify themselves and entice their husbands into having relations.

Moses therefore thought the mirrors represented the evil inclination (yetzer hara) and should not have a place in the Tabernacle. God told him to accept them. The women acted properly because they realized the importance of having children despite the Egyptian slavery.

How big was the basin?

No dimensions are stated. Apparently, it could be of any size and hold any amount of water.

The phrase “shall wash” is plural in the Hebrew (v’rachatzu). This implies that more than one priest should be able to wash at the same time.

In fact, the Gemara Zevachim 19b states that the basin needed to be large enough so that 4 priests could wash from it at the same time.

Therefore the basin needed to hold enough water for 4 washings and be big enough so that 4 priests could stand around it at one time.

Where was it placed?

Here’s how the Mishna explains the placement of the basin in the Temple:

Mishna Middot

3:6 The basin was between the entry hall and the altar, a little to the south.

The altar mentioned here is the outer copper altar where offerings were burned.

layout of the Tabernacle
This picture shows the basic layout of the Tabernacle. It does not show the ramp leading up to the Outer Altar. Also, the Laver should be placed a bit lower.

According to Rashi, this placement was also true in the Tabernacle. The reason for the basin to be a bit to the south is so that it’s not directly between the altar and the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

According to R. Sorotzkin, it was placed between the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and the altar, because the priest who was going to either of those places needed to wash his hands and feet. Therefore, it was placed near each of them.

Why is this washing called a decree?

Decree is the translation of the Hebrew word “chok.” Decrees are the category of God’s commandments that do not appear to have a reason.

The washing that the priests must perform is not in order to clean the hands and feet. It is to prepare the priest to perform the divine service. That is why the sages refer to is as “sanctification” and not as washing.

Why did the priests need to wash both hands and feet?

The priests were barefoot when they served in the Temple.

Rabbi Hirsch points out that the hands and feet were the only uncovered parts of the priest’s body. Every other part was clothed with the symbolic garments of the priests.

The water was placed into the basin. That gave the water a holy status.

These uncovered body parts also required gaining a holy status. Pouring the sanctified water from the service vessel elevated the status of the hands and the feet.

How did the priests wash their hands and feet?

The priest would place his right hand over his right foot and wash them at the same time. Then he would repeat that with his left hand and foot.

Why isn’t the basin mentioned earlier with the other vessels?

The vessels placed in the Tabernacle are described earlier in Exodus chapters 25 – 27.

Here’s how the Gemara explains the options when a priest washes his hands and feet:

Gemara Zevachim 20b

Come and hear: He whose hands or feet are unwashed must sanctify them at a service vessel within. If he sanctified [them] in a service vessel without, or in an unconsecrated vessel within; or if he immersed in the water of a pit, and officiated, his service is invalid.

In this passage there is no mention of the basin. That’s because the basin is also a “service vessel.” The water the priest uses for this washing may come from any service vessel.

Rabbi Sorotzkin in his commentary does state that in the first instance, the priest should wash from the basin. But he may use any service vessel.

Also, the basin is not a vessel used as part of the divine service. Rather, it is used only to prepare for serving in the Temple. Therefore, it is described in a separate section of the Torah.

Why is the word “wash” repeated in 3 verses?

According to Daat Mikra the repetition teaches us 3 different ideas.

  • Exodus 30:19 – “wash” teaches what needs to be washed.
  • Exodus 30:20 – “wash” teaches when it is required to wash.
  • Exodus 30:21 – teaches that this washing is a commandment for all generations.

Why is it mentioned two times that they will not die?

The first mention is for going into the Tent of Meeting and the second mention is for approaching the outer altar.

This is “death by the hands of Heaven.” In other words, the earthly court did not execute a priest who served without washing.

According to Daat Mikra, the first mention of death is a warning to Aaron and his sons. The second mention is a warning to Aaron’s descendants for all time.

What does it mean “to burn an offering made by fire”?

Gemara Zevachim 19b-20a

What is the purpose of, “to burn an offering made by fire”?

You might say: This [sanctification] is required only for a service which is indispensable to atonement, but not for a service which is not indispensable to atonement; hence [this clause] informs us otherwise.

The phrase “to burn an offering made by fire” refers to the burning of the limbs on the altar. It is the last step in bringing an offering, but does not affect the acceptance of the offering.

Even if all the priest was going to do was to burn some limbs, he still needed to wash his hands and feet.

A lesson from the basin

The commandment is written “they shall wash with water, and they will not die” but not in the form: “if they enter and they did not wash, then they will die.”

This is to teach us that God does not desire the death of the priest who transgresses. Rather He wants to save the priest from death. Therefore, the verse begins with the action the priest should perform to avoid a penalty. [Daat Mikra]

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A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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