Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin Courtesy

Inspired by the weekly Torah portion of Vayikra *(Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26), read this Shabbat.

It's one of the toughest subjects for modern people to relate to. We are talking about the various types of animal and other sacrifices, called Korbanot in Hebrew, described in the Torah in the book of Leviticus and instructed by God to be brought to and offered up in the newly constructed Tabernacle, the Mishkan. The Torah states a variety of reasons for the bringing of a sacrificial offering that are mentioned in this Torah portion, each having its own subportion in the overall larger Torah portion:

1. Burnt offerings of cattle; 2. Burnt offerings of smaller animals; 3. Burnt offerings of birds; 4. The meal offering; 5. The baked offering; 6.The pan offering; 7. The deep fried offering; 8. The first grain offering; 9. peace offerings of cattle; 10. Peace offerings of sheep; 11. Peace offerings of goats; 12. Sin offerings for the High Priest; 13. Sin offerings for the community; 14. Sin offerings for the king; 15. Sin offerings for commoners; 16. Sheep as a sin offering; 17. The adjustable guilt offering; 18. The meal offering for guilt; 19. The misappropriation sacrifice; 20. The offering for questionable guilt; 21. Offerings for dishonesty. (from The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.)

These subjects and topics are so alien to us if we are not that well-acquainted with serious Torah study, and very far removed from everyone's everyday lives even if they are Torah scholars. Some kind of introduction is needed to this subject of sacrificial offerings that will give us a glimmer of understanding into the deeper meaning of a subject that is so far removed from our daily lives and existence.

So here goes:

Offering up animal sacrifices was always a big part of ancient civilizations and it still is in many parts of the world that still maintains customs that go back thousands of years. Horrifically, animal sacrifices were not the only thing that ancient civilizations did, they also practiced human and child sacrifices. For example, the ancient Carthaginians, the arch-enemies of the Romans, practiced wide-spread child sacrifices to appease their pagan gods. Likewise when the Spanish Conquistadors came to the Americas they discovered that native inhabitants such as the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru practiced human sacrifices, sometimes by cutting out the hearts of living victims and roasting them on altars. These are the horrible human sacrifices that were practiced in many parts of the world.

Therefore the emphasis of the Torah on animal sacrifices only is a great advance away from barbarism. But it goes much further than that. The purpose of the sacrifices is to bring the Children of Israel closer to God. That is what the root word of Korban (sacrifice) means, to bring CLOSER. There is a debate between two great rabbis as to the meaning and purpose of the sacrifices.

Maimonides (1138-1204) says that by bringing a sacrifice a person would think to themselves that "there, but for the grace of God go I" meaning that a person would bring a sacrifice as a "substitute" for their own wrongdoing and when seeing the sacrifice slaughtered and burnt on the altar it would shake up that person and make them remorseful for the sin that they had done and realize that they could have been the one paying the ultimate price but instead it is substituted by animal sacrifices. On the other hand

Nachmanides (1194-1270) says that while that is true, we also see that sacrifices serve not only a utilitarian purpose of sending a "wake up call" to the donor of the sacrifice, but there is also a much higher, deeper, sublime and historically earlier reason for sacrifices. From the time of the creation of man, human beings have been moved to donate sacrifices to God in thanksgiving and devotion to a higher purpose expressing a deeper connection to God that they symbolize.

There are therefore various ways of looking at the Torah's sacrifices, both technical and symbolic. It would be beyond the scope of a short introductory essay to delve into all the technicalities of the sacrifices. There are entire yeshivas that are dedicated to studying this subject of "Kodshim", Holy Sacrifices, in great depth. The most famous of which is the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It takes the finest and sharpest minds to truly appreciate and known what the sacrifices are and how they are offered and it's taken very seriously because with the coming of the Third Jewish Temple the sacrifices will be reinstated and there will be a need to know how to do the Temple Service (Avoda) and what the Priests, the Kohanim, should do as part of their job to know how to sacrifice animals and do the other functions of sacrifices.

Here are a few snippets of insights into the more symbolic and mystical aspects of the sacrifices as taught by the Zohar (Volume IV, Soncino Press):

"R. Jose asked: 'Why should there be three kinds of burnt-offering -- from the herd, from the flock, and from the fowl? Why is not one sufficient? The reason is that if a man can afford he brings an ox, and if he cannot afford an ox, he brings a sheep, and if he cannot afford a sheep he brings a fowl; for God does not demand of a man more than he can perform.'" And as elaborated further: "Why does the text begin with the burnt-offering (Olah)? Because it is an atonement for sins committed by thought, which is the first step in any sin. A wealthy man must bring an ox for his burnt-offering, for he is highly opinionated, and thus his sinful thought is more offensive. A man of average means, being less arrogant, brings a sheep; a poor man, who is humble of spirit, brings a turtledove." (Volume 2. Tzenah Urenah. Mesorah Publications.)

What a wonderful lesson this is to mankind, that God does not care about the sacrifice per se, but about what each person can afford to bring. There is a principle in Judaism of "lefum tza'ara agra" -- "according to the sacrifice is the reward" (from Ethics of the Fathers 5:26) that it all depends of what you are capable of and what you are able to do since not all people have the same strengths and weaknesses. God will judge the rich man on his level and the poor man on his level, as not all are required to bring identical sacrifices.

Zohar, continuing: "...Now the offering of a poor man is highly esteemed before God, because he brings two offerings: one the actual sacrifice, and the other his own flesh and blood, because, though he has nothing to eat himself, he yet brings an offering. A poor man can bring a little flour and make atonement; for just as his own flesh and blood were burning with hunger, so the flour is heated with the oil smeared on it. Here, too, we learn that any man may bring an offering on a baking-pan or a frying-pan because it is heated in the same way as he heated his flesh and blood with his evil passions and set all his limbs on fire. The essence of the offering is that it is analogous to the sin, and that a man should offer to God his desires and passions, for this is more acceptable than all. Blessed are the righteous that they bring this offering every day. Yet, the actual offering is better, because it brings blessings on all worlds."

Here we see the deep sincerity and contrition required of the one coming to make the offering. And now we look back at history and realize that we do not have a Tabernacle and we do not have the First or the Second Jewish Temples to perform all these holy spiritual functions because as the Prophets taught God does not want sacrifices from people who are just going through the motions. It makes no sense as they did during the times of the First Temple to offering sacrfices in the temple yet committing the three cardinal sins of idol worship, sexual immorality and murder (Avoda Zara, Gillui Arayot, Shefichut Damaim), or as they did during the times of the Second Temple when the Jews committed the worse sin of Sinas Chinam, hating each other for no reason. And that was why, according to the Talmud, the two prior temples were destroyed.

Now we may be tempted to think that we are too "advanced" for such things as the sacrifices for atonements? But the truth is we are in a more vulnerable situation without the Tabernacle and Temple to offer our sacrifices because in place of the sacrifices God instead inflicts the punishments directly on us without the mediation that sacrifices would offer. This idea is expounded by the Jewish Sages, so that one should not be surprised that there are "innocent" victims of illnesses, famines, diseases, wars and accidents because among those are people whom God is punishing directly who otherwise might have been able to save themselves had they been able to offer up sacrifices in their stead. Quite a scary thought, to say the least!

*Vayikra means: "And He called out" from Leviticus 1:1 "And He called out to Moses and God spoke to him..."

Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at: izakrudomin@gmail.com