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The second half of the Book of Exodus--whose reading we concluded last week--was taken up primarily with the details of the Sanctuary's construction; in Exodus' concluding verses, we read how the Sanctuary was erected and the Divine Presence came to dwell in it. Thus the Sanctuary commenced its function as the "Tent of Meeting" between God and man: the place that is the focus of man's endeavour to serve his Creator, and where God communicated to man and made His presence felt within a humanly-constructed dwelling.

In the Parshah of Vayikra, which opens the book of Leviticus, God speaks to Moses from the Tent of Meeting and begins His communication of the laws governing the bringing of the korbanot, the animal and meal offerings that are the central feature of the service performed in the Sanctuary.

Because the idea of animal sacrifice is so abhorrent to our modern sensibilities and yet it is still such a central motif of our Torah readings, I thought we’d focus on the theme of animal sacrifice exclusively this week. I’ve tried to find answers for the most popular questions that have come up during our Parsha of the Week classes over the past 12 years.

In the Hebrew original, the Torah uses the word “korban” — this is what we translate into “sacrifice” or “offering.” Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch regrets the absence of a better German translation — a complaint equally applicable to English. A korban, he writes, neither involves giving up something of value as implied by “sacrifice,” nor is it a gift as implied by “offering.”

The root of the word korban is “karov,” a Hebrew word meaning to approach, to come close. A person is “MaKriv” (bringing close) a korban. He doesn’t “sacrifice” it or “offer” it, he brings it close – and this is not just a matter of semantics. “The MaKriv,” says Rabbi Hirsch, “desires that something of himself should come into closer relationship with God.”

NOTE: My teacher and friend, Channa Sargon called me after I posted this blog. Channa is a Hebrew linguist and she provided some enlightenment about the root word KRV (Kaf, Reish, Vet). Karov, she tells me means sacrifice. But the root word KRV is also the word pronounced KRAV which means battle or struggle. The inference here is that we achieve closeness to God through struggle – through battling through our own hametz (this is what Channa calls our “issues”) and emerging closer to the Almighty.

The History of Korbanot

In ancient times, a major component of Jewish ritual was the offering of korbanot. An entire order of the Talmud (Kodashim, that is, Holy Things) is devoted to the subject. More than 100 of the 613 Commandments as enumerated by Rambam specifically address issues related to korbanot.

The word "korbanot" is usually translated as "sacrifices" or "offerings"; however, both of these terms suggest a loss of something or a giving up of something, and although that is certainly a part of the ritual, that is not at all the literal meaning of the Hebrew word. The word korbanot comes from the root Kuf-Reish-Beit, which means "to draw near," and indicates the primary purpose of offerings: to draw us near to God.

Parts of the rituals involved in the offering of korbanot were performed exclusively by the kohanim (priests). These rituals were only performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The procedures could not be performed by anyone else, and could not be performed in any other place. Because the Temple no longer exists, we can no longer offer korbanot.

There are three basic concepts underlying korbanot: giving, substitution and coming closer.

The first is the aspect of giving. A korban requires the renunciation of something that belongs to the person making the offering. Thus, sacrifices are made from domestic animals, not wild animals (because wild animals do not belong to anyone). Likewise, offerings of food are ordinarily in the form of flour or meal, which requires substantial work to prepare.

Another important concept is the element of substitution. The idea is that the thing being offered is a substitute for the person making the offering, and the things that are done to the offering are things that should have been done to the person offering. The offering is in some sense "punished" in place of the offerer. It is interesting to note that whenever the subject of korbanot is addressed in the Torah, the name of God used is the four-letter name (yav-hay-vav-hay) indicating God's mercy.

The third important concept is the idea coming closer. The essence of sacrifice is to bring a person closer to God.

Purposes of Korbanot

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of korbanot is not simply to obtain forgiveness from sin. Although many korbanot have the effect of expiating sins, there are many other purposes for bringing korbanot, and the expiatory effect is often incidental, and is subject to significant limitations.

The purposes of korbanot are much the same as the purposes of prayer: we bring korbanot to praise God, to become closer to Him, to express thanks to God, love or gratitude. We bring korbanot to celebrate holidays and festivals. Others are used to cleanse a person of ritual impurity (which does not necessarily have anything to do with sin: childbirth causes such impurity, but is certainly not a sin). And yes, many korbanot, like many prayers, are brought for purposes of atonement.

The atoning aspect of korbanot is limited. For the most part, korbanot only expiate unintentional sins, that is, sins committed because a person forgot that this thing was a sin. No atonement is needed for violations committed under duress or through lack of knowledge, and for the most part, korbanot cannot atone for a malicious, deliberate sin. In addition, korbanot have no expiating effect unless the person making the offering sincerely repents his or her actions before making the offering, and makes restitution to any person who was harmed by the violation.

Types of Korbanot

There are many different types of korbanot, and the laws related to them are detailed and complicated. This section will merely introduce some of the major types of korbanot, their names and their characteristics. There are many subtypes within these classifications, and some other types that do not fit neatly into these categories.

Olah: Burnt Offering

Perhaps the best-known class of offerings is the burnt offering. It was the oldest and commonest sacrifice, and represented submission to God's will. The Hebrew word for burnt offering is olah, from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hei, meaning ascension. It is the same root as the word aliyah, which is used to describe moving to Israel or ascending to the podium to say a blessing over the Torah. An olah is completely burnt on the outer altar; no part of it is eaten by anyone. Because the offering represents complete submission to God's will, the entire offering is given to God (i.e., it cannot be used after it is burnt). It expresses a desire to commune with God, and expiates sins incidentally in the process (because how can you commune with God if you are tainted with sins?). An olah could be made from cattle, sheep, goats, or even birds, depending on the offerer's means.

Zebach Sh'lamim: Peace Offering

A peace offering is an offering expressing thanks or gratitude to God for His bounties and mercies. The Hebrew term for this type of offering is zebach sh'lamim (or sometimes just sh'lamim), which is related to the word shalom, meaning "peace" or "whole." A representative portion of the offering is burnt on the altar, a portion is given to the kohanim, and the rest is eaten by the offerer and his family; thus, everyone gets a part of this offering. This category of offerings includes thanksgiving-offerings (in Hebrew, Todah, which was obligatory for survivors of life-threatening crises), free will-offerings, and offerings made after fulfillment of a vow. Note that this class of offerings has nothing to do with sin; in fact, the Talmud states that in the age of the messiah (when there is no more sin), this will be the only class of offering that is brought to the Temple.

Chatat: Sin Offering

A sin offering is an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It is an expression of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with God. The Hebrew term for this type of offering is chatat, from the word chayt, meaning "missing the mark." A chatat could only be offered for unintentional sins committed through carelessness, not for intentional, malicious sins. The size of the offering varied according to the nature of the sin and the financial means of the sinner. Some chatatot are individual and some are communal. Communal offerings represent the interdependence of the community, and the fact that we are all responsible for each others' sins. A few special chatatot could not be eaten, but for the most part, for the average person's personal sin, the chatat was eaten by the kohanim.

Asham: Guilt Offering

A guilt offering is an offering to atone for sins of stealing things from the altar, for when you are not sure whether you have committed a sin or what sin you have committed, or for breach of trust. The Hebrew word for a guilt offering is asham. When there was doubt as to whether a person committed a sin, the person would make an asham, rather than a chatat, because bringing a chatat would constitute admission of the sin, and the person would have to be punished for it. If a person brought an asham and later discovered that he had in fact committed the sin, he would have to bring a chatat at that time. An asham was eaten by the kohanim.

Food and Drink Offerings

A meal offering (minchah) represented the devotion of the fruits of man's work to God, because it was not a natural product, but something created through man's effort. A representative piece of the offering was burnt on the fire of the altar, but the rest was eaten by the kohanim.

So now to the questions.

How can we come to terms with the idea of animal sacrifice?

One thought is that animal sacrifice was not part of the Divine plan until after the episode of the Golden Calf. Then it became clear that we needed tangible ways of connecting to God and, in the ancient world, sacrifice was how it was done, The Torah limits sacrifices: No human sacrifice was allowed; only certain animals could be offered; and it was only done by trained people and at a set location.

For the most part, the practice of sacrifice stopped in the year 70 C.E., when the Roman army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where sacrifices were offered. The practice was briefly resumed during the Jewish War of 132-135 C.E., but was ended permanently after that war was lost. There were also a few communities that continued sacrifices for a while after that time.

We stopped offering sacrifices because we do not have a proper place to offer them. The Torah specifically commands us not to offer sacrifices wherever we feel like it; we are only permitted to offer sacrifices in the place that God has chosen for that purpose. It would be a sin to offer sacrifices in any other place, akin to stealing candles and wine to observe Shabbat.

The last place appointed by God for this purpose was the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple has been destroyed and a mosque has been erected in the place where it stood. Until God provides us with another place, we cannot offer sacrifices. There was at one time an opinion that in the absence of an assigned place, we could offer sacrifices anywhere. Based on that opinion, certain communities made their own sacrificial places. However, the majority ultimately ruled against this practice, and all sacrifice ceased.

Isn't sacrifice cruelty to animals?

Animal sacrifice is no crueler than slaughtering animals for food. In fact, the procedure for slaughtering livestock for sacrificial purposes is the same as the procedure used for slaughtering animals for food, a procedure that is designed to be as quick and painless as possible.

How do Jews obtain forgiveness without sacrifices?

Forgiveness is obtained through repentance, prayer and tzedakah (charity or other good deeds).

In Jewish practice, prayer has taken the place of sacrifices. In accordance with the words of Hosea, we render instead of bullocks the offering of our lips (Hosea 14:3). While dedicating the Temple, King Solomon also indicated that prayer can be used to obtain forgiveness (I Kings 8:46-50). Our prayer services are in many ways designed to parallel the sacrificial practices. For example, we have an extra service on Shabbat, to parallel the extra Shabbat offering.

It is important to note that in Judaism, sacrifice was never the exclusive means of obtaining forgiveness, and was not in and of itself sufficient to obtain forgiveness, and in certain circumstances was not even effective to obtain forgiveness.

Although animal sacrifice is one means of obtaining forgiveness, there are non-animal offerings as well, and there are other means for obtaining forgiveness that do not involve sacrifices at all. The Biblical book of Jonah tells of an entire community condemned to destruction that was forgiven when they simply repented and fasted, without ever offering any sacrifice, blood or otherwise.

Nehama Leibowitz explains that the sacrifices are a "positive means of promoting communion with the Divine" and "a symbol and expression of a person's desire to purify himself and become reconciled with God."

In his famous book Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides argues that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve God without feeling different from all the other peoples surrounding them. Slowly, Maimonides says, the people learned that "the sacrificial service is not the primary objective of the commandments but that prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to God." Agreeing with the early Rabbis, Maimonides emphasizes that the superiority of prayer is that "it can be offered everywhere and by every person."

According to Rabbi Morris Adler, “Prayer is the heart…of significant living… Prayer is a step on which we rise from the self we are to the self we wish to be. Prayer affirms the hope that no reality can crush, the aspiration that can never acknowledge defeat… Prayer seeks the power to do wisely, to act generously, to live helpfully… Prayer is the search for silence amidst noise… Prayer takes us beyond the self… Our prayers are answered…when we are challenged to be what we can be.

Our present-day korbanot consists of tzedakah and the following of mitzvoth (commandments). Studying Torah and attending prayer services also move us to the closer connection with God that we so desire.

Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must put forth the effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we must put forth the effort to study Torah and attend worship services.

As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. Sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

Isn’t a blood sacrifice necessary to obtain forgiveness?

The passage that people ordinarily cite for the notion that blood is required is Leviticus 17:11: "For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul." But the passage that this verse comes from is not about atonement; it is about dietary laws, and the passage says only that blood is used to obtain atonement; not that blood is the only means for obtaining atonement. Leviticus 17:10-12 could be paraphrased as "Don't eat blood, because blood is used in atonement rituals; therefore, don't eat blood."

Were sacrifices a symbol of the saviour to come?

Not according to Judaism. Quite the contrary, some would say that the original institution of sacrifice had more to do with Judaism's past than with its future. Rambam suggested that the entire sacrificial cult in Judaism was ordained as an accommodation of man's primitive desires.

Sacrifice is an ancient and universal human expression of religion. Greeks and Romans and Canaanites and Egyptians all offered sacrifices to their gods. Sacrifice existed among the Hebrews long before the giving of the Torah. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices; Noah and his sons offered sacrifices, and so forth. When the laws of sacrifice were given to the Children of Israel in the Torah, the pre-existence of a system of sacrificial offering was understood, and sacrificial terminology was used without any explanation. The Torah, rather than creating the institution of sacrifice, carefully limited the practice, permitting it only in certain places, at certain times, in certain manners, by certain people, and for certain purposes. Rambam suggests that these limitations were designed to wean a primitive people away from the debased rites of their idolatrous neighbours.

Why is salt included in all sacrifices?

According to the Ramban, the obligation to include salt in all offerings has the following symbolism. Salt can be destructive or it may be constructive. It may be destructive, for it prevents plants growing (plants growing in a salt marsh suffer from severe shortages of water). It may be constructive, as in the preservation of food. The Covenant of Salt (2:13) teaches that the offerings preserve Israel, if performed correctly and with the right intentions. If the service is not performed that way, but abused, it brings destruction and exile.

Why not discard this part of the Torah – after all sacrifice is simply not relevant today.

Nearly 2000 years have passed since the last turtledove's blood was wrung against the altar walls, and we are still forced to acknowledge that, interesting as they may be, these verses are simply not relevant to us today. And while we may find its details somewhat disturbing, one thing is certain for all of us--we would never remove these passages from the Torah. 

Jewish civilization, in its wisdom, knows that certain systems may need to be creatively encountered, but should never be discarded. From our limited human perspective, we are unable to know why the Divine Mind might have bothered to detail so explicitly the elements of a flour offering.

Yet we do know that we cannot strike it from the record any more than we should carelessly watch (or contribute) to the extinction of a tropical flower that has no apparent function--not because it might some day cure cancer, but because it is not ours to strike.

Connection to our Lives

Mesirut nefesh – According to the Rebbe, the Hebrew term for self-sacrifice -- means both "giving of life" and "giving of will." Self-sacrifice is not just the willingness to die for one's beliefs; it is the way in which one lives for them. It is the willingness to sacrifice one's "self" -- one's desires, one's preconceptions, one's most basic inclinations.

So let’s bring it in to today – to March 25th, 2020 where we are all self-isolating to protect ourselves and our neighbours from COVID-19. What is the message we can take from Vayikra – and its specificity about animal sacrifice. What is the connection?

Well for one thing, we know that the virus likely started in animals and infected human beings. This strikes me as relevant to Vayikra – our relationship to animals is intertwined and complicated. Some animals – dogs and cats for instance, are our pets, and we love them like family members. Some animals we mark for consumption and we disguise their carnage in neat grocery store packages that have little resemblance to the animals they once were. This is the only way we can make eating them a rational, palatable act. In ancient times we sacrificed animals to atone for our sins. When this practice ended and was replaced by prayer, we continued to consume animals to satisfy our appetites and taste buds. Which is apparently how the CORONA-19 virus jumped from an innocuous animal virus to a deadly human one. So, is there a message in there for us? Should we consider ceasing the eating of animals? Not because we are in danger of contracting diseases through animals, but more because it is a barbaric and morally outrageous thing to do. When you think of the meat and chicken industries that feed our appetite for the flesh of various animals, it is an appalling reality – that we actually breed animals in order to eat them.

Sacrificing animals was purportedly to bring us closer to God. Once we stopped sacrificing animals, we gained closeness to the Almighty through prayer; our rabbis in their wisdom found a way for us to connect to God that didn’t involve the taking of an animal’s life. Is there a message here for us? As we sit in our homes, isolated from our families and our communities, perhaps a deep look into Vayikra can provide us with a wake-up call. Maybe we don’t need to eat meat to sustain ourselves. Given the fact that we can survive on non-animal sources of protein, shouldn’t we at least try?


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