The Law of the Sacrifices

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Law of the Sacrifices

By Rav Michael Hattin


Sefer Vayikra is without doubt the least appreciated book of the Chumash. Many of us are stirred by the inspiring narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, marveling at their strength of spirit in overcoming all manner of adversity while intrigued by their personal and familial struggles that seem to us so painfully familiar. We therefore readily identify with Sefer Bereishit even while we may object to some of the seemingly poor choices made by its protagonists.

Most of us also trumpet the story of the oppression in Egypt and the exodus, reveling in the knowledge that the birth of the Israelite nation was Divinely precipitated by the first human rights struggle in recorded history. The oppressive Pharaoh, vile, self-serving and vain, strikes us as a fitting archetype for all of the modern-day despots and dictators who enthusiastically follow in his footsteps. In the account of the god king's downfall at the hands of the God of Israel, we can yet hear His thundering demands that leaders and laymen alike take an active role in promoting and constructing a better and more just world.

As for Sefer Bemidbar, its narratives about journey and passage, tracing the perilous route from the arid wastelands of the Sinai to the Promised Land of milk and honey, are both awesome as well as inspiring. The book's description of the agonizing process by which people may overcome the paralytic slave mentality in order to freely and confidently embrace their destiny, strikes us as both disquieting but also hopeful. What man cannot but identify with the noble struggle of the people of Israel to effect self-transformation?

And concerning Sefer Devarim, the repetition of the Torah's laws as well as Moshe's reminisces of Israel's trials and triumphs, it can succeed in securing its place in our hearts based upon its literary merits alone. In soaring language often bordering on the superlative, the book weaves its nuanced tapestry, now exhorting, now cautioning and now inspiring, but never tedious or irrelevant. Episodes are vividly recounted with the benefit of hindsight, judgment is colorfully passed on earlier indiscretions, as Moshe gently but firmly presses the people of Israel to remain true to their calling.


But Sefer Vayikra is something else entirely. Its single-minded fixations with cult and custom, sacrifices and ceremonial, ritual defilement and the notion of the holy, all strike us as old-fashioned and atavistic, vestiges of a archaic past thankfully left behind in the wake of the Temple's destruction almost two thousand years ago. We can scarcely begin to relate to its painstaking and formalized descriptions of sacrificial modes of worship or else its scrupulous attentions to disqualifying conditions that make entry into the Mishkan forbidden. If these contrivances be its enshrined conventions of expressing devotion to God, then they appear to us spiritually savvy moderns to be teetering precariously on the brink of primitiveness and irrelevancy!

With the cessation of the sacrificial service and the subsequent end of the related practices concerning tuma and tahara (ritual unfitness and fitness, respectively) so long ago, the Rabbis early on were forced to formulate alternative approaches to the matter. In consequence of the Roman conquest and the dissolution of the Jewish state, it was no longer possible to ascend with one's offering to the Temple at Jerusalem and to follow the ministrations of the Kohanim as they received and presented it upon the altar. The holy house lay in ruins, its magnificent precincts now dust and ashes, its venerated altar stones overturned and shattered. Nothing remained of God's house but a persistent memory of its grand dimensions and the echo of the kohanim's footsteps, now committed to writing and incorporated into various tractates of the Mishna.


Thus it was that the text took the place of the holy precincts, the inscribed words became the mode of worship, and recitation of rites was replaced by patient and thoughtful study. Remarkably, not only were the ancient traditions preserved in this fashion but they were given new meaning and immediacy as a result. The sacrificial service could paradoxically now be evaluated with greater clarity, for as long as the acts were ascendant, the thoughtful interpretation of those very acts was in all probability correspondingly regarded as less significant. Who needed to understand the intellectual or spiritual profundity of a sin-offering for as long as the selected animal could be impressively brought to the altar and transformed into wisps of smoke upon its fiery summit? What need was there to ponder the deeper meaning of corpse defilement when its provisions were lived and experienced as daily realities?

But when all of these things were suddenly taken away, wrenched from our bosom by cruel and arrogant overlords, there was nothing left for us to grasp but the Torah's eternal text and the recollection of the rites. No enemy could seize the holy words or else the thoughts that now took on supreme significance, for these intangible things required no material vehicles for their preservation or transmission. If need be, they could be preserved in the sanctuary of the human mind, committed to memory and recited by heart. And with the painful absence of the physical Temple and cessation of the sacrificial service, inspiration would have to be sought and found elsewhere. As the Rabbis poignantly put it:

...Rabbi Yochanan says: as for the Sages who are occupied with the laws of the Temple service, it is as if the Temple was rebuilt in their days. Resh Lakish remarked: what is meant by the verse: "This is the law (ha-Torah) for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering, the dedication offering and the peace offering" (Vayikra 7:37)? It indicates that whoever studies Torah, it is as if they have sacrificed the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Rava demurred. If so, he said, then the text should have said "This is the law – the burnt offering, the meal offering, etc" (omitting the preposition to imply equivalence). Rather, said Rava, whosoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering or the guilt offering...Said Rabbi Yitzchak: what is meant by the verse: "this is the law (ha-Torah) of the sin offering (Vayikra 6:18)...this is the law (ha-Torah) of the guilt offering (Vayikra 7:1)...etc?" Rather, whoever is occupied with the study of the sin offering, it is as he has offered a sin offering; and whoever is occupied with the study of the guilt offering, it is as if he has offered a guilt offering! (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Menachot 110a).

The above selection from the Rabbis may be taken as representative. In it, the 3rd century CE Eretz Yisrael sage Rabbi Yochanan addresses the new reality. He indicates that even in the absence of a Temple and a sacrificial service, it is still possible to experience something of their import by studying their associated laws. Rabbi Yitzchak, at the end of the selection, concurs, and applies the principle specifically to the role of the sacrifices in securing atonement. How could one make amends for the commission of indiscretions that would, in Temple times, have necessitated the presentation of a particular offering? The answer given, again, is that by undertaking the STUDY of those very matters, one may yet approximate the act of offering the sacrifice itself.

The intermediate view, that of Resh Lakish, is perhaps most novel, for he entirely eschews any need for direct substitution of the specific text for the defunct deed. Simply studying Torah, any Torah, can take the place of the departed cult and presumably accomplish the same objectives as offering the sacrifices at the Temple altar. And 4th century Babylonian sage Rava, of course, goes even further, for he claims that study of Torah does not take the place of the sacrifices but actually renders them completely unnecessary. One who studies Torah need not concern himself with matters of burnt offerings and guilt offerings, for real and meaningful atonement can be achieved by more cerebral and spiritual pursuits. The study of the Torah effects expiation.


In the end, it would seem, the views of Resh Lakish and Rava were too far-reaching for the tradition to adopt as normative. How could one dispense with any direct study of the Temple ritual itself, content to be occupied with other more relevant areas of the Torah in their stead? And in fairness, it must be said that the Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud, including Resh Lakish and Rava themselves, were anything but uninvolved in the profound study of the sacrificial cult and its myriad details. One full order of the Mishna is devoted to these laws, and numerous volumes of the Talmud painstakingly discuss them! Every aspect of the service is scrutinized, every feature examined. Sages far removed in time and space from Jerusalem's fabled hilltops and the Temple's broken ramparts discussed the laws of sacrifice with a reverent and rare intensity as well as an immediacy that would easily put us to shame.

Thus it was that the 16th century code of law the Shulchan Arukh, authored by Rav Yosef Karo, preserved the ancient ardor for a shrine and for a service both long extinct. Commenting in the very first chapter of that monumental work, a chapter in which he sets down the daily devotions from the moment a person awakes in the morning, he relates:

(3) It is appropriate for all those who are imbued with fear of heaven to be upset and anxious concerning the destruction of the Holy Temple. (4) It is better to recite less supplications but with sincerity and concentration than to recite more but bereft of these things. (5) It is a good practice to recite the chapters concerning the Akeda, the manna and the Ten Utterances, as well as the sections concerning the burnt offering, the meal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering...(7) After reciting the section of the burnt offering, he should say: "May it be Your will that this recitation be accepted as if I had sacrificed a burnt offering..."


But at the same time, the concrete absence of these things ironically affords us a rare opportunity. We may study these matters from an abstract and conceptual perspective (for nothing else of them remains) and extract meaningful insight from the effort. We may plumb the texts for implications that perhaps even eluded the ancient practitioners of these matters. We may thoughtfully reflect on the significance of details that survive only as cherished words and phrases. Only a profound meditation on the TEXTS themselves could have produced the following Mishnaic observation:

Concerning the animal offering, the verse refers to it as a "sweet-smelling savor" (Vayikra 1:9, 13). And so too concerning the bird offering, the verse refers to it as a "sweet-smelling savor" (1:17). And so too concerning the meal offering, the verse refers to it as a "sweet-smelling savor" (2:2, 9). This comes to teach you that whether one does much or else does little, the main thing is to focus one's heart towards heaven in sincerity (Tractate Zevachim 110a).

The narrow concern of the above Mishna may be in fact only the sacrificial service. It notes how the Torah refers to each type of voluntary sacrificial category – whether presented from animals, birds or grain – as a "sweet-smelling savor". Now presumably, the monetary value of one's sacrifice voluntarily presented is a direct function of one's financial means. The wealthy can afford to bring large or small cattle, the less endowed can only afford to present birds, and those suffering from poverty can ill afford anything but a simple offering of grain. But, remarkably, the Torah describes all of these sacrifices with the same potent phrase signifying Divine favor and acceptance – they are all regarded as a sweet-smelling savor to God and are all received in love. But here the Mishna introduces a new idea behind which must be lurking a TEXTUAL question: why would the Torah necessarily assume that meager gifts are just as accepted as grand ones? Does it not stand to reason that a more expensive presentation to God should in fact find greater favor in His eyes than one that is of a lesser grade?

Rather, posits the Mishna, the real gauge of a sacrifice's worth is not a function of financial assets but rather of sincerity. A small sacrifice brought with love and proper intent, when circumstances preclude the presentation of anything larger, is just as meaningful and just as beloved before God. And it surely follows that even a luxurious offering presented with self-serving insincerity cannot match the modest sacrifice of the earnest worshipper.

But now, the matter is taken even further, for the Shulchan Arukh quoted above adapts the principle to prayer as well: "It is better to recite less supplications but with sincerity and concentration, than to recite more but bereft of these things". And the later authorities, coming full circle, then adapt it to the study of Torah itself! If one is burdened with cares and can therefore devote only a small amount of time to the study of Torah, but one carries out that study with diligence and concentration and with a spirit of sincerity, then that study is as precious in God's eyes as the accomplishments of the more gifted scholars who have time on their side (see Shulchan Arukh 1:4 and Mishna Berura note 12).

One could, of course, apply the principle even more broadly, for any endeavor undertaken with proper concentration and intent is more valuable than one undertaken without those motivations. And that is exactly the point of the discussion. The sacrificial service may strike some of us as outdated and bizarre, its overly detailed provisions anachronistic and strange, but to reject the study of these matters wholesale is misguided in the extreme. Our tradition remembers the Temple service fondly, and the experience of the Divine associated with its hallowed spaces inspires us even today to seek God's presence in the temple of our hearts. To dismiss the sacrificial service is therefore to forfeit a treasured memory of closeness and communion; it is to give up a precious desire for atonement both personal as well as national; it is to fail to utter a silent prayer for the strength to overcome self-alienation and estrangement. But it is also to forego the opportunity for more profound enlightenment, for there is so much insight to be gleaned from even a seemingly superfluous textual anomaly. May all of our own efforts in the study of these matters be regarded also as a "sweet-smelling savor" to God, and may they be undertaken with sincerity and with love.

Shabbat Shalom