Lecture 199: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (VI) – The Covenant at the Foot of Mount Sinai (III)
In this shiur, we will discuss one particular element of the covenant made at the foot of Mount Sinai – the sprinkling of the blood. This act takes place twice over the course of the making of the covenant: once on the altar and once on the people. We will explore the various meanings assigned to these acts within the framework of the making of the covenant, and we will also try to clarify precisely upon whom the blood was sprinkled.
The Sprinkling of Blood
I. The Order of Events and its Significance
The sprinkling of the blood is what established the covenant expressing the connection and the mutual obligation between God and the people of Israel. While sprinkling the blood on the people, Moshe said, "Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you concerning all these words" (Shemot 24:8). Thus, the blood itself is called "blood of the covenant."
After the young men of Israel offered sacrifices, Moshe divided the blood into two halves. Half of the blood Moshe put into the basins, with the objective of sprinkling the blood on the people at a later point; the other half he sprinkled on the altar. After sprinkling the blood on the altar, Moshe took the book of the covenant and read from it in the hearing of the people, who thereafter responded, "All that the Lord has said will we do and obey" (ibid. 7).
After the oxen were sacrificed and after the people accepted responsibility and obligation, Moshe sprinkled the first half of the blood, which had been in the basins, upon the people.
In addition to the division of the blood into two and its sprinkling first on the altar and afterwards on the people, it is interesting to note that between the two sprinklings, the people hear the words of the book of the covenant and commit themselves to fulfill them; only then is the blood sprinkled on the people.
The Seforno writes in his commentary (v. 6, s.v. vachatzi ha-dam zarak al ha-mizbe'ach 6):
He made the altar God's agent for making the covenant, and thus it received half the blood, and the second half was sprinkled on the people entering into a covenant with Him.
The Seforno's formulation is very interesting. Two parties entered into a covenant, God on one side and the people of Israel on the other, while the substance of the covenant was written in the "book of the covenant." The practical expression of the acceptance of the covenant was the offering of the burnt-offerings and the peace-offerings to God and the sprinkling of the blood both on the altar and on the people.
The altar represented, as it were, God's side in the covenant, as the Seforno says: "He made the altar God's agent for making the covenant." The making of a covenant reached full practical expression through the sprinkling of the blood on each of the parties to the covenant, the altar representing God.
The Chizkuni writes:
When [Moshe] saw that they accepted [the Torah] upon themselves, he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, as it is stated: "And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it on the people." He said to them: You are now tied, looped, and held fast [by the covenant]. Tomorrow, come and accept upon yourselves all of the commandments. (v. 7)
Thus, the very sprinkling of the blood on the people tied them to the altar and joined them to God.
B. The Sprinkling of the Blood and its Significance as the Making of the Covenant
The Chizkuni (v. 8, s.v. hine dam ha-brit) explains the issue of the making of a covenant:
[The blood] was divided into halves, as this is the manner of people entering into a covenant, as it is stated: "When they cut the calf in two and passed between its sections" (Yirmeya 34:18). The reason that he did not make a covenant between the sections of the animals, as we find with Avraham (Bereishit 15:17), was to inform them that He would punish them with [their] blood if they fail to fulfill the condition. Similarly, it says: "And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge My covenant" (Vayikra 26:25).
The Chizkuni draws our attention to the fact that it was a common practice among those entering into a covenant to divide something into two halves.
The Chizkuni cites a proof from the book of Yirmeya. In the days of Tzidkiyahu, during the time of the Babylonian siege, there were Hebrew slaves in Judea who had sold themselves to their Jewish masters for six years because of economic hardship. However, the slave owners did not set them free in the seventh year, but rather turned them into perpetual slaves. The king urged the slave owners to free their Hebrew slaves and made a covenant with them in the Temple. In order to establish the covenant, they cut a calf into two and told the people of Judea to pass between the sections in order to accept the covenant with an oath; should they not fulfill the covenant properly, their fate would be like the fate of the bisected calf.
All this notwithstanding, the covenant did not help, and when the siege was lifted, the owners re-enslaved their former slaves. The prophet mentions the passing between the sections of the calf in his rebuke:
And I will give the men that have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me when they cut the calf in two and passed between its sections. (34:18)
These words suggest an explanation of the practice: Those entering into a covenant would take an oath that should they fail to keep the covenant they would end up like the cut-up calf.
Menachem Bula cites S. D. Luzzatto, who explains that the symbolism of the cutting of the calf is that just as the two sections had once been a single whole and the one section would feel the ailments in the second section when the calf was alive, the two parties who are now entering into a covenant should be like one body during their lifetimes, nothing separating between them but death.
R. Yosef Albo (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:45) writes similarly about the symbolic value of cutting the body of an animal and dividing it into two:
The reason for this action in the making of a covenant is that the making of a covenant involves a bond between the two people making the covenant… to the point that the two of them are like one body, and each of them watches over the other as he watches over himself.
Therefore, they would cut an animal into two and pass between the sections, as a sign that just as the two sections comprised one body while the animal was alive, and each section felt the pain of the other, to the point that when one section suffered an illness or injury, the other section would feel the illness or injury, and nothing but death separated between these two sections; so too the two people entering into a covenant should be like one body while they are alive, and nothing but death should separate between them. From here it follows that when one feels that some injury or pain is headed to the other party to the covenant, he should press himself to save him, just as he would endanger himself to save himself.
R. Yosef Albo explains that this way of making a covenant expresses the connection and love between the two parties, to the point that the two are like a single body. Just as each section of the animal feels connected to the other, so too the two parties to a covenant should feel as if they share a single body, and each one should feel the pain and injury of his partner, and even endanger himself in order to save him.
The Chizkuni refers also to the covenant between the pieces, in which Avraham was commanded:
“Take Me a heifer three years old, and a goat three years old, and a ram three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he took to Him all these and divided them in the midst, and laid each half against the other; but the birds he divided not. (Bereishit 15:9-10)
The covenant itself is described as follows:
And it came to pass that when the sun went down and it was dark – behold, a smoking furnace and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. (ibid. v. 17)
The reason that Moshe did not make a similar covenant between the sections of the offerings was that he wished to inform Israel that a significant aspect of the covenant is God's promise that should the people not uphold the covenant, they would be punished with blood, as is stated explicitly at the end of Vayikra.
We must emphasize the fact that the covenant in our case is not completely similar to these other covenants, as the sacrifice itself is not cut in half and no one passes between the sections. Nevertheless, the division of the blood into two parts and sprinkling it on the altar and on the people alludes to the practice commonly followed by two parties entering into a covenant.
Chazal had a different understanding of the matter. They learn from the covenant that the people of Israel entered into the covenant by way of a process that included circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of blood:
Rabbi says: "As you" means as your forefathers: As your forefathers entered into the covenant only by circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of the blood, so shall they enter the covenant only by circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of the blood… It is right concerning circumcision, for it is written (Yehoshua 5:8): "For all the people that came out were circumcised"… As to the sprinkling of the blood, it is written: "And he sent the young men of the children of Israel" [who offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace offerings]. But from where do we derive immersion? It is written: "And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it on the people" - and there can be no sprinkling without immersion. (Keritut 9a)
What we have here then is a model not only for a covenant between God and the people of Israel, but for a covenant with several specific elements: circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of blood. Chazal learn from here the procedure for joining the people of Israel for all generations; indeed, these are the actions that are required of a prospective proselyte in order to become a Jew.
Onkelos translates the verse about the sprinkling of blood on the altar (v.6) as follows:
And half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.
In contrast, he translates the verse about the other sprinkling, "And he sprinkled it on the people" (v. 8), as follows:
And he sprinkled [the blood] on the altar to atone for the people.
In other words, both halves of the blood were sprinkled on the altar – the first half was sprinkled on the altar for the altar itself, whereas the second half was sprinkled on the altar in order to atone for the people.
C. Sprinkling Blood on the People – Eating from God's table?
Luzzatto in his commentary assigns a different meaning to the sprinkling of the blood:
That blood should have been sprinkled entirely on the altar, as it is the bread of the Lord. But God commanded that half of it be sprinkled on the people in a loving manner because they had accepted the Torah. It is as if they were eating from God's table. This eating is a festive meal for the covenant which God made with them to be their God and to take them as His people, as long as they do those things that He commands them to do. Similarly, all those who enter into covenants of friendship eat a festive meal together. (Shemot 24:8)
According to this understanding, what we have here is a festive meal in which the children of Israel participate. In principle, all the blood should have been sprinkled on the altar, but God commanded that half the blood should be sprinkled on the people. The sprinkling on the people has symbolic meaning; it is as if Israel were "eating from God's table," the eating being the festive meal associated with the making of a covenant.
On Whom was the Blood Sprinkled?
A. On the Elders who Represented all the People
The Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary:
After [Moshe] read in the hearing of the elders and they accepted it upon themselves, he then took the half of the blood that remained and sprinkled it on the people, they being the elders, because they stood for all of Israel. As it says regarding the ox brought for ignorance of the community: "And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands," as they stand for all of Israel. And this sprinkling was like: "And he sprinkled on Aharon and on his garments," and it was called blood of the covenant. (Shemot 24:7-8)
According to the Ibn Ezra, the sprinkling (zerika) of the blood here was similar to the sprinkling (haza'a) of the blood on Aharon and on his priestly garments when he was initiated into the service on the eighth day of consecration along with the consecration of the Mishkan. Here, the blood was sprinkled on the elders who represented all of Israel.
B. "On The People" - For The People
In his short commentary, the Ibn Ezra cites another position:
"And others say that "on the people" means "for the people," just like "and he shall atone for the people" (Bamidbar 17:12).
The difficulty underlying the Ibn Ezra's words may be a technical, physical one: How could Moshe have sprinkled blood simultaneously on such a large number of people? The Ibn Ezra cites the view of "others," who says that the meaning here is not that Moshe physically sprinkled blood on all the people, but rather that the sprinkling was done for all the people, just as a sacrifice can atone for the entire people.
C. "On The People" – On the Pillars that Represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel
The Abravanel asks:
But how could [Moshe] have sprinkled that blood on all the great number of people who were there? Some of the commentators think that he sprinkled the blood only on the elders, as they are called "the people." But I think that he sprinkled half of the blood on the altar of God and half on the pillars that corresponded to the tribes of Israel. Because of this it says that he sprinkled it on the people, as the pillars point to the people.
The Abarbanel rejects the opinion of the "others" cited by the Ibn Ezra. The solution that he himself proposes is very interesting, although there is not even an allusion to it in the verses. The verse seems to be talking about the sprinkling of half of the blood on the people themselves, while Abravanel, apparently to cope with the aforementioned difficulty, suggests that the blood was actually sprinkled on the pillars that represent the tribes of Israel.
According to this explanation, half of the blood was sprinkled on the altar, as is stated explicitly in the verse. For this purpose, the altar represents God – one party to the covenant – while the pillars represent the tribes of Israel. Therefore, sprinkling half of the blood on the altar and half on the pillars gives full expression to the making of the covenant by the two parties.
D. "On the People" – On the Garments of the People of Israel as Testimony to their Entry into a Covenant with God
Rabbeinu Hananel suggests yet another possible understanding in his commentary to our passage:
"And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it on the people." He sprinkled the blood on them in order that they should enter into a covenant with the Holy One, blessed be He, with blood. That blood stain on their clothing Scripture calls adi, as it was an ornament (adi) for them and a great honor, and it served as testimony (edut) and as a sign that they had entered into a covenant with the Holy One, blessed be He.
Therefore, when they sinned with the [golden] calf, and broke the covenant, He said to them: Remove your ornament from you – that is, that they should remove from themselves their garments, which were an ornament for them. And this is what it says: "And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments" (Shemot 33:6) – those ornaments on which was sprinkled the blood of the covenant which was testimony and a sign between them and the Holy One, blessed be He.
And why did the Holy One, blessed be He, make a covenant of blood with them? He alluded to them that if you will fulfill the Torah, it will be well, but if not, I hereby proscribe you for death and excision. (Shemot 24:8)
Rabbeinu Hananel does not relate to the difficulty raised above; he understands that the blood was indeed sprinkled on all the people. The novelty in his position is that the blood was not sprinkled directly on the people's bodies, but rather on their clothes. The stain on their clothes was called "adi," ornament, because it was an ornament and a great honor for the people of Israel. The blood stain on their garments served as testimony and as a sign that they had entered into a covenant with God. Following the sin with the golden calf, the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments - that is, they removed their clothing on which the blood of the covenant had been sprinkled.
Rabbeinu Hananel explains that the covenant was made with blood as an allusion from God that if the people of Israel fail to fulfill the covenant, God will decree for them death and excision.
According to this, in addition to the novel idea that the blood was sprinkled on the people's clothing, there is also a novel interpretation of the meaning of the sprinkling of the blood. This covenant left a mark on the garments of the people of Israel; they went about with a blood stain on their clothing, as testimony to the covenant. This testimony was removed from them in the wake of the sin of the calf.
This commentary highlights the impact that the covenant had on the entire people, each individual wearing a garment that constantly reminded him of the covenant. Since the sin of the golden calf involved a breach of the covenant, it necessitated that these garments be removed.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 Da'at Mikra commentary, Yirmeya ad loc., note 20.
 We find a similar idea in connection with peace-offerings: "Peace-offerings, everyone being at peace with it – the blood and the fats for the altar, the breast and the thigh for the priests, and the [rest of the] meat for the owners" (Sifra Vayikra, dibbura denedava, 13). Peace-offerings increase peace in the world, as they create a sort of common meal enjoyed by the altar, the priests, and the owners.