The Ancient World, the Korbanot, and the Rambam

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






The Ancient World, the Korbanot, and the Rambam


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha begins a new book – Sefer Vayikra.  However, our book, all of which is presented while Benei Yisrael remained encamped at Har Sinai – commences where the Sefer Shemot left off.  The Mishkan had been assembled on the first day of the first month of the second year from Yetziat Mitzrayim, Exodus and Moshe was not able to enter the Ohel Moed “because the [Divine] cloud dwelled upon it and Hashem’s glory filled the Mishkan” (Shemot 40:35).  It is addressing that point that the Third Book of the Torah opens with: “He called to Moshe, Hashem spoke to him from the Ohel Moed” (Lev. 1:1).  Since Moshe was unable to proceed – just as he was unable to enter the cloud over Har Sinai until Hashem summoned him (Shemot 24:15) – Hashem “called” to him, presumably summoning him to enter the Tent.  This was the case before the dedication of the Mishkan and Moshe’s first official entry. Afterwards, Moshe entered the Tent when he deemed it necessary (and Aharon for the daily priestly service), as stated in Bamidbar 7:89: “When Moshe would come to the Ohel Moed to speak with Him (Hashem), he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the kaporet….” When the situation called for it, Moshe and Aharon entered the Ohel Moed without being summoned (Vayikra 9:23).


Sefer Vayikra's first seven chapters contain the majority of the Torah’s legislation that prescribe the protocol and procedures of the sacrificial service.  This is a logical continuation from Sefer Shemot, which concluded with the completion of the Mishkan's construction, and left instructions regarding the Mishkan, namely, consecration of the priests and dedication of the structure, required sacrifices, which must be performed according to specific regulations. Priestly consecration and Mishkan dedication will then be described in Chapters 8-9 respectively.


What is the purpose of the sacrifice?  In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban, derived from K.R.V., which as a verb, denotes “coming close” or “to bring forth.” In the latter sense the word is used in the secular realm for presenting a gift to a king (Shoftim 3:17-18; Mal. 1:8). As such, the korban is a gift designated to be presented to God. Similar usage is found in the contemporaneous languages of neighboring nations. The motives for offering sacrifices run the gamut of religious feelings from a desire to glorify Hashem, to somehow merit His favor, the expression of gratitude, or as an accompaniment to repentance and a hope to repair or restore a proper relationship with Him.


In the Ancient Near East, before the giving of the Torah, there was a long-accepted and deeply ingrained form of worship in people’s religious conceptions. People believed that gods, like all living beings, required nourishment. Therefore, they burnt a sacrificial animal, sending smoke upwards to the heavens as food.  As they felt deeply dependent upon the gods for their well-being, people felt responsible to provide them with sustenance.


How do these ideas relate to the Torah's presentation of korbanot?  Clearly, they were repugnant to the Jewish conception of a single, omnipotent and independent God who created the heavens and earth, and was not dependent on human sacrifices for sustenance.  However, the Torah chose to register its protests against ancient beliefs not by rejecting the sacrificial service entirely, but by maintaining many of its external formalities while modifying it and transforming it to reflect basic principles of the Torah’s philosophy.  This was an approach first articulated by the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed:


It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; the nature of man will not allow him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make (the Israelites) a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6) by means of the knowledge of God. Cf.: “Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God” (ibid. 5:39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; cf.: “and to serve Him with all your heart” (ibid. 11:13); “and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Ex. 23:25); “and you shall serve Him” (Deut. 13:5). But the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in temples containing images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of Go-d, as displayed in the whole creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these modes of worship; for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally clings to that which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these rituals to continue: He transferred to His service that which had formerly served worship of created beings, and things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; cf.: “and they shall make unto Me a sanctuary” (Ex. 25:8); to have the altar erected to His name; cf.: “An altar of earth thou shall make unto Me” (Ibid., 20:21); to offer the sacrifices to Him; cf.: “If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord” (Lev. 1:2), to bow down to Him and to burn incense before Him. he has forbidden us to do any of these things to any other beings.  (Guide 3:32)


Not satisfied with this explanation, Maimondes proceeded to explain certain details of the sacrificial service:


……that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. Cf. “behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us?” (Ex. 8:22) and “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34)….Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animal in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu (India) up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered. In order to eradicate these false principles, the Torah commands us to offer sacrifices of only three kinds: “You shall bring your offering of the cattle, the herd and of the flock” (Lev. 1:2). Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles, which are diametrically opposed.  (Guide 3:46)


The Rambam's words drew heavy criticism from later commentators, who felt that he was advocating the abolition of the sacrificial service entirely[i].  We shall not delve into the intricacies of their disagreement; instead, we shall concentrate on several of the significant differences between the ancient cults and the Torah's presentation of the laws of korbanot to demonstrate the glaring differences between the ancient sacrificial cults and the Torah's purposeful presentation of the laws of the korbanot.


First, we too often gloss over the uniqueness that the laws of the sacrifices are available for us to read.  Our ability to open Sefer Vayikra and study its intricacies, or even hear it recited weekly, was simply not an option for the members of other peoples.  In ancient societies, the knowledge of temple rituals was invariably the exclusive possession of the priesthood, and they were zealously guarded by its members. Not only did the priests not teach the details to the laity, the latter were often prohibited from becoming informed, sometimes even banned from looking at documents containing ritual instructions. Not so among the Jewish people, where one of the primary purposes of the Kohanim and the Leviim were public teachers of Torah.  While non-Kohanim could not become Kohanim, the laws of the korbanot were public knowledge, available and accessible to everyone. The possibility that the priesthood would become an aristocracy, as often was the case in other societies, was much lessened.  The proliferation of knowledge effectually demystified the ritual side of Judaism, forged a bond between the Kohanim and the people and the Mishkan, and provided a framework of some measure of accountability on the part of the Kohanim to the people for their offerings (the failure of this system, as exemplified at the beginning of Sefer Shmuel, deserves further elaboration ). 


The Torah's democratic impulse is not limited to knowledge of the sacrificial protocol, but is expanded to the participation of the laity in the service as well.  Contrary to widespread practice, the Torah permits a non-Kohen to slaughter of the sacrificial animal. The Torah also permits the non-Kohen to perform a number of other procedures attached to the sacrifice, including skinning and sectioning the animal, washing certain parts, and, as regards a mincha offering, mixing the flour and oil and engaging in the baking, as the Torah indicates.  Sefer Vayikra does not mention a Kohen until after the animal is slaughtered. That procedure is performed near the altar, “before Hashem,” presumably by the individual bringing the sacrifice. Of course, the donors may defer to the expert priests; but, by allowing non-priests into the sanctuary precincts to observe and participate, albeit to a limited extent, the Torah promoted familiarity with the Mishkan and prevented its  control by a few.


A different innovation, more theological in scope, concerns two types of sin offerings that provide atonement, the chatat and asham. These sacrifices basically address unintentional transgressions (with an exception in each case of a category that relates to one’s fellowman). Unlike other ancient societies, no korban can ever atone for an intentional sin.  The effect on the individual is enormous.  Without the recourse of a sacrifice to cleanse one's slate, people is forced face his actions and accept their consequences.  This alone serves as a deterrent to sin.  Similarly, by placing intentional transgressions beyond the atonement power of sacrifices, a person was more aware of the importance of unintentional transgressions. They promoted concern for an individual’s underlying orientation and subconscious promptings, elements of behavior that had been widely ignored previously. Striving not to transgress even unintentionally facilitates “internal purity,” greatly refining the nation. Similarly, when monetary restitution was called for, sacrifices could not exonerate an individual from payment. This reinforced the Torah teaching that man’s service of God, no matter how devout, cannot substitute for a proper relationship with one’s fellow man. The prophets are most emphatic on this point, declaring sacrificial worship valueless when it is not accompanied by concern for human welfare and social justice.  (The sacrifices also included options of offering birds – turtledoves or pigeons, male or female – and in some cases merely a measure of flour – for those who could not afford standard sacrifices.) This counteracted what became an institutional an elitism regarding ritual service in many societies.


The Torah employed the institution of sacrifices to reinforce many of its values as well as help an individual get closer to G-d. In the continuous absence of this system these past two millennia there have been various views concerning the proper approach to the Torah’s intentions and the future. Chazal promoted study of the details of the korbanot and the service, declaring it as equivalent to the act itself.  As well, they understood heartfelt prayer to be a substitute for sacrifices. Rabbi Eleazar stated: “Prayer is greater than sacrifices” (BT Ber. 32b).   However we may offer korbanot in the future, let us pray that the opportunity arises soon.

[i] The most famous of critiques came from the Ramban, in his commentary to Vayikra 1:9:His statements are preposterous. They “heal the great hurt superficially”* (i.e. provide a shallow answer to a difficult problem), and render “the table of the Lord disgusting” by limiting its use to placate the wicked and the foolish. But the Torah states that they (the sacrifices) are “food of the offering made by fire for a sweet savor” (and thus have an intrinsic value and not the mere polemical role of abolishing distorted conceptions). Furthermore, this will not cure the perverse Egyptian concept but will rather enhance it. The wicked Egyptians worshipped Aries and Taurus (ram and bull) because they ascribed to these animals special powers, and therefore did not eat them. Now if they are offered up as sacrifices to God, this would bestow the highest honor and distinction, and this is what they actually do…. In order to counteract that distorted idea it would be more proper to eat to one’s delight the very animals they consider forbidden and abominable (i.e. neither offer them up on the altar nor sprinkle their blood on it, but merely consume the animals holy to them, denying their sacredness and divine power).

… Behold, when Noah and his three sons came out of the ark—there were no Chaldeans or Egyptians in the world—he offered up sacrifices which pleased God as the Torah states “And the Lord smelled the sweet savor” (Gen. 8:21), and as a result He said in his heart, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake”. Similarly: “And Hevel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and the fat parts thereof. And the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offerings” (Gen. 4:4), although at that time there was no trace of idolatry in the world…Moreover, the sacrifices are described as: “My sacrifice, my bread for my offering made by fire, for a sweet savor to me” (Num. 28:2). It is unthinkable that they lack any benefit or purpose other than the elimination of idolatry from its foolish followers.


A more acceptable rationale is the one set out as follows: Seeing that human conduct is expressed in thought, speech and action, God instituted that a person who has committed a transgression and offers a sacrifice, shall place his hands on it—symbolizing the deed, make a confession—as a reminder of the misused power of speech, and burn with fire the bowels and kidneys—which are the organs of thought and lust, and the legs—symbol of the human hands and feet, instruments which serve man in all his activities. And the blood shall be sprinkled on the altar—representing his life-blood. All this should make him realize that having sinned against God with his body and soul, he would deserve to have his blood spilled and his body burned. However, God in his infinite mercy, accepts this substitute for an atonement, and its blood in lieu of his, its main organs in place of his, the portions (of the sacrifice eaten by the priests) so as to sustain the teachers of the Torah that they may pray for him. Accordingly, the daily sacrifice is offered up because of the masses who are constantly caught up in the web of sin. This explanation is plausible and appeals to the mind even as the expositions of the Aggada. However, in the context of (mystical) truth, the sacrifices contain hidden mysteries…