By Rav Ezra Bick
Chazal call Sefer Vayikra Torat Kohanim the laws of the kohanim. Indeed, the majority of the book deals with the laws of the mikdash, as well as other laws related to the status of the priests and various ramifications thereof. In that sense, Vayikra is a direct and nearly seamless continuation of Sefer Shemot, which ended with Moshe erecting the mishkan and the visible Presence of God descending over it. God has given the mishkan to the Jewish people; now they have to read the instruction manual to know how to use it.
Vayikra opens with a concise list of instructions how to sacrifice the different
types of sacrifices ola, mincha, shelamim, and
chatat. Leaving aside the
mincha, which is an offering from the vegetative world, a cursory
examination of the animal sacrifices reveals that there are two different
climaxes to the sacrificial procedure.
Taking the first section in the parasha as an indicative example (1,
3-9), verse 5, after commanding to slaughter the animal, directs the
kohen to "throw the blood all around on the altar, which is at the
entrance of the Tent of Meeting." The kohen then returns to the animal,
dissects it, and finally (verse 9) we are told that the kohen should burn
(vehiktir) the animal on the altar as an offering which will be
Bringing a sacrifice has two distinct halakhic goals, zrikat hadam (throwing the blood), and hekter eivarim (burning the flesh).
there is an important difference between the two. Zrikat hadam is a necessary
condition for the fulfillment of the obligation that the sacrifice is
representing; in other words, if the blood is not thrown, the korban is
disqualified and another one must be brought. That is not true for the burning of the
flesh on the altar. Specifically,
the blood is associated with the concept of kappara, expiation. This is the basis for the idea, advanced
by the Ramban at the beginning of the parsha, as well as many other commentators
and philosophers, that the blood of the sacrifice represents the life of he who
brings the sacrifice, with the sacrifice taking the vicarious place of the
person. The Torah
I believe it is fair to say that outside of the framework of Masekhet Zevachim
most of us instinctively think of sacrifices as things burnt on an altar. For the same reason, it is natural to
understand the definition of an altar in the same manner a structure
designed for the burning of sacrifices.
Sacrifices described in the Torah outside of the halakhic process Noach
(Bereishit 8,2), Yaakov (46,1), do not mention zrikat
(see also the sacrifice of Manoach, father of Shimshon). And, strikingly, in our parasha, a
subtle but nonetheless distinctive emphasis focuses on the burning of the
flesh. Whereas the blood is
mentioned in the middle of a series of procedures (in verse 5), the burning of
the flesh on the altar is left for last, and is itself characterized with the
summary phrase "ola,
I would like in today
The answer to this question seems today to be so obvious to me, that I hesitate to write a shiur about it. However, I must admit that when I first realized the correct answer, it changed my understanding of korbanot. Since then, I have repeatedly discussed this word with respected scholars, and what I now consider to be the correct interpretation has nearly always surprised them. So I will proceed, and I ask forgiveness for anyone who will find it all simple and obvious.
In all the traditional translations of the Torah into English, both Jewish and non-Jewish, this word was translated as "burn." Practically speaking, that is indeed what the Torah is telling the kohen to do those parts designated for the altar are burnt in fire. The usual word for "burn" in Biblical Hebrew is, of course, saraf, and therefore it is important to understand the specific meaning of the alternative word "hiktir" used in this verse and in every other one describing what is done with the flesh of a sacrifice.
One day, several years ago, I noticed a book on Sefer Vayikra in the library and began to read it. On the first page, the book, which was in English, quoted a verse. I generally need to translate the verse into Hebrew in order to recognize it; but, in this particular case I did not recognize the verse at all. Luckily, there was a reference note, and, after looking it up, I discovered that it was the familiar verse which we are discussing, Vayikra 1,9. The reason why I had not immediately recognized it was because I had never before seen the phrase "turn into smoke" in this context. A quick bit of research led me to the discovery that most of the newer Jewish translations of the Torah translate hiktir as "turn into smoke," which is the starting point for our discussion today.
a reverse question: Why does the Torah not write that the kohen
the flesh? I think that a short
reflection indicates why that would be inappropriate. Meat of a korban
that has been "left over" (nottar)
beyond the allotted time is "burnt" vehanottar
yisaref. You would never say that nottar
should be niktar. The reason is that lisrof
refers to a negative action you burn something to get rid of it. L
So what does the word haktara actually mean? The new translations are based on the belief that the root KTR means smoke. This is, in fact, true in Aramaic, where smoke is called kutra. In modern Hebrew, kitor means steam, which is a sort of smoke. In ancient Hebrew, ketoret is incense, something burnt in order to make a fragrant smell.
So, I think it is correct to state that the word does actually mean, "to turn to smoke." That is, it does mean to burn, but in the positive sense of transformation by fire and not in the negative sense of elimination by fire. There is a result of the burning which is productive smoke, rather than merely a negative one destruction.
is another use of the verb l
appears to me that if sacrificing an animal is characterized as "turning the
flesh into smoke," the inner meaning of this action is "turning the physical
into the spiritual." The physics of gasses and combustion aside, for the
Biblical and rabbinic mind, smoke is a symbol of the spiritual. This is clear from the very word used in
philosophical Hebrew to indicate the spiritual "ruach,"
which is the same word as "wind." (This reflects the use of the Greek word
for the same purpose, and is carried on in the English "spirit" as well.) In the
verse under discussion, this is clearly indicated by the concluding phrase
a little bit, the significance of this process can be explained as follows. The central problem of relationship
between Man and God is the infinite gap that exists between them, between the
perfect and decadent, between the absolute and the relative, between the
eternally Divine and the temporally mundane. This problem does not exist in
polytheistic paganism, where the gods are part of nature and freely cavort with
humans, but appears to be unbridgeable in Judaism. One answer is given by God in parashat
Yitro, where God descends and speaks to the Jewish people and God emphasizes
the revolutionary nature of that occasion when he immediately afterwards has
Moshe point out to the Jews that "You have seen that I have spoken to you
from the heavens" (Shemot 20,18).
Communication, ultimately in both directions, bridges the gap. The gap, however, remains, and the
question is whether real influence can take place. I contend that korbanot
is the answer to that question. The
creates an actual metaphysical link by bridging the gap, by actually turning the
physical into the spiritual, or, to use the other metaphor in the verse (and
naturally I agree it is but a metaphor), by using our food (meat) to provide a
kind of nourishment (fragrance) for God (rei
Since a bridge is by definition bi-directional, it should not come as a surprise that various sources see the daily sacrifices as the means whereby sustenance is brought down to the world from God. If the physical can be transformed into the spiritual, then the spiritual can be transformed into the physical; in other words, rain can fall from heaven. But that is already another topic.
I stated at the outset that there are two different foci of a sacrifice, the flesh and the blood. In the opening parshiot of the Vayikra ola, mincha, shelamim the sprinkling of the blood is not emphasized, as we saw. In contrast, when the Torah gets to korban chatat, the sin-offering (chap. 4), zrikat hadam occupies a much more prominent position. Starting with the first chatat (the kohen who sins), the Torah elaborates on the role of the blood.
The anointed kohen shall take from the blood, and shall bring it to the tent of meeting.
The kohen shall dip his finger in the blood, and he shall sprinkle from the blood seven times before God, in front of the curtain of the sacred.
The kohen shall place from the blood on the corners of the incense altar before God, which is in the tent of meeting, and he shall spill all the (rest of the) blood at the base of the sacrifice-altar, which is at the opening of the tent of meeting. (4,5-7).
is repeated, in various degrees of elaboration, for all the different chataot. While there is haktara
of the fats in the case of some of the chataot
well, this is stated simply at the end, without the usual mention of "ishe
or the phrase "rei
All of its fat shall be burnt ("turned into smoke") on the altar, and the kohen shall atone for him from his sin, and it shall be forgiven him. (4,26)
a rule, every mention of ola,
includes the phrase "ishe
one case, this is even more emphasized.
At the end of the chataot,
describing the individual
the exclusion of the chatat
and from rei
I have no good explanation for this exception. A possible approach could be based on the comment of the Netziv to 4,28 and 4,31, where he explains that the goat is psychologically more expiative, leading to a more general atonement of the total personality (based on a gemara in Sota 32b). I leave this to you to work out.