The Secrets of the Sacrifices

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





The Secrets of the Sacrifices

by Rav Zvi Shimon



            In our age of satellite and computer technology, many find it difficult to relate to the idea of sacrifices. Since the destruction of the temple we no longer worship God through the offering of sacrifices but rather through prayer. While the words of the prayers reveal their meaning and content, the ideas behind the different sacrifices remain concealed. Parashat Vayikra lists the different types of sacrifices and the manner in which they are offered, but never reveals the meaning behind them. It describes man's desire to offer a sacrifice: "When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord" (Leviticus 1:2). The offering of sacrifices is presented as a given. The Torah assumes that the reader is familiar with the motivations for offering sacrifices. Since the Torah only delineates the laws of each type of sacrifice we must ask, why are there different types of sacrifices and what ideas do they express?


            Parashat Vayikra begins with a verse describing God's speaking to Moses: "The Lord called to Moses and spoke..." (1:1). The next appearance of such a verse is in chapter 4: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying..." (4:1). It can be deduced from this that chapters one through three were said together but chapter four was spoken by God separately. The first three chapters deal with the burnt offering, meal offering and peace offering respectively. Chapters four and five deal with the different sin offerings and guilt offerings. What distinguishes between these two groups? Why were they said separately? The major distinction between these two groups are the circumstances surrounding the offering of the sacrifice. In the first group (the burnt offering, meal offering and peace offering), the sacrifice is brought voluntarily: "When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord" (Leviticus 1:2). Man initiates the bringing of an offering. By contrast, the sin and guilt offerings of chapters four and five are not voluntary but rather obligatory. They must be brought under certain circumstances that are delineated by the Torah. The Torah first describes the voluntary sacrifices in one communication from God and only afterwards treats the obligatory ones in a separate communication.


            As stated, there are three types of sacrifices which may be brought voluntarily, the burnt offering, meal offering and peace offering. The Torah lists several possibilities for each type of sacrifice. For example, a burnt offering may either come from cattle, sheep, or birds.


            The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechiel Michael, Eastern Europe, 1809-1879) points to the difference in the wording used by the Torah in the introduction of a new category, and the wording used in delineating the sub-divisions of each category. A new subject or category is introduced with the word 'Ki' - (WHEN). The sub-divisions of the general category or law will always be introduced with the word 'Im' - (IF). (Examples are numerous, see Exodus chapters 21,22 and Leviticus 2:4-7). Using this linguistic rule, we can identify the subject heading of our chapter and its sub-divisions. The word "when" appears in verse two and introduces the sacrifices: "WHEN any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock". Verse 3 then presents the first sub-division of the category introduced by verse 2: "IF his offering is a burnt offering...". The remainder of the first chapter describes the different types of burnt offerings: "IF his offering for a burnt offering is from the flock..."(1:10) and "IF his offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds..."(1:14). The word "if" in these verses designates the sub-categories of the burnt offering.


            If the burnt offering is a sub-category of verse 2 what is its counterpart? What is the alternative to the burnt offering in verse 3. Rabbi Hoffman (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Germany, 1843-1921), using the linguistic principal formulated by the Malbim, concludes that the peace offering of chapter 3, "And IF his offering be a sacrifice of peace offering".(3:1), is the counterpart of the burnt offering. The word if which introduces the peace offering in chapter 3 parallels the if which introduces the burnt offering, "IF his offering is a burnt offering..."(1:3). To summarize, verse 2 introduces the category of voluntary sacrifices which divide into two sub-categories, the burnt offering of chapter 1 and the peace offering of chapter 3.


            What requires elaboration, according to this interpretation, is the function of chapter 2. If chapters 1 and 3 are actually connected, why does chapter two, which deals with the meal offering, appear between them? Rabbi Hoffman answers that the meal offering is connected to the burnt offering and the Torah brings it in chapter two as an appendage to the burnt offering. The meal offering is not one of the sub-divisions of the category introduced in verse two. However it appears where it does because of the connection between it and the burnt offering. The nature of this connection will be explained later. First we must understand the meaning and relationship between the burnt and peace offerings. What makes them the two prototypes of the voluntary sacrifice?


            As stated earlier, the meaning of the sacrifices is not revealed by the Torah. The offerer, in the times of the Temple, knew the meaning behind the sacrifices. We, however, can only deduce from the laws of the different sacrifices, what each of them expressed. By comparing the laws of the burnt and peace offerings we will attempt to discover what they represent. As you read the two following texts note the differences between the laws of the burnt and peace offerings.


"The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:


When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.


If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish.  He shall         bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the Lord.  He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him.  The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into sections.  The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and lay out wood upon the fire; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall lay out the sections, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar.  Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord." (Leviticus 1:1-9)


"If his offering is a peace offering -


If he offers of the herd, whether a male or a female, he shall bring before the Lord one without blemish.  He shall lay his hand upon the head of his offering and slaughter it at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.  He shall then present from the peace offering, as an offering by fire to the Lord, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is about the entrails; the two kidneys and the fat that is on them, that is at the loins; and the protuberance on       the liver, which he shall remove with the kidneys.  Aaron's sons shall turn these into smoke on the altar, with the burnt offering which is upon the wood that is on the fire, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord."(3:1-5)


The following are some of the major differences between the burnt and peace offerings:


1. The burnt offering is brought only from male animals while the peace offering may be either male or female.


2. The burnt offering atones while the peace offering does not.


3. In a burnt offering the whole animal is burned on the altar. In a peace offering only the fat of the entrails, the kidneys and their fat, and the protuberance on the liver are offered. The breast of the animal and its right thigh are given to the 'kohanim' (7:31,32), and the remaining flesh of the animal is eaten by the offerer of the sacrifice (7:15).


4. The peace offering is considered a 'Lechem Isheh,' a food offering ("The priest shall turn these into smoke on the altar as food..." 3:11) while the burnt offering is not.


I) The Burnt Offering


            In attempting to reveal the meaning of the different sacrifices, the first insight available to us is the name of the sacrifice. "Burnt offering" is the English translation for the Hebrew word olah. The English translation of the word olah is more of an interpretation than a translation. It does not relate to the original Hebrew meaning of the word, olah, but rather offers an English name based on the laws of the sacrifice, namely, its being completely burned on the altar. The commentators offer several explanations for the name olah. One possibility is that it stems from the word 'avela,' a wrongdoing. The burnt offering atones for wrongdoing perpetrated by the offerer. The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) offers a conceptually similar explanation but based on a different etymology:


"That which is offered to atone for [sinful thoughts] which ARISE in the mind of the offerer is called an olah - a burnt offering." (Ibn Ezra 1:4)


            The Ibn Ezra's interpretation is based on one of the explanations offered by our sages for the atonement accomplished by the burnt offering (see Vayikra Rabba 7:3, compare Rashi 1:4). In contrast to the sin offering which is offered for sinful deeds, the burnt offering atones for sinful thoughts. According to this explanation, sin does not only pertain to the realm of action but also to the realm of thought. A "misthought," like a misdeed, requires atonement. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the name olah stems from the root 'Alah' - to rise (as in the word 'Aliya'). It relates to the sinful thoughts "arising" in the mind of the offerer.


            However, the Ibn Ezra, himself, apparently found this explanation to be unsatisfactory, since he later offers a different explanation of the word olah. It indeed stems from the Hebrew root which means to rise. However it doesn't relate to that for which the burnt offering atones, namely sinful thoughts, but rather describes the process by which the sacrifice is offered. As stated, the olah is the only sacrifice which is completely burned on the altar. Neither the 'kohanim' nor the offerer receive any part of it. As such it is called an olah, literally, a sacrifice which rises.


II)The Peace Offering


            The Hebrew name for this sacrifice is 'zevach SHELAMIM.' The commentators offer different explanations of the etymology of this name. According to the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) the source of the name is the word 'Le-shalem,' to pay. The shelamim is brought in fulfillment of vows, and as such is a 'tashlumin,' a payment of a debt. Some modern scholars suggest, in a similar vein, that the shelamim is an offering of thanks, a "repayment" for the good bestowed upon the offerer by God. However this interpretation is difficult since there are numerous examples of this offering being brought in times of affliction, as a request for salvation (see Judges 20:26; 21:4;...).  The Ibn Ezra (see short commentary to Exodus 29:28) raises a different possibility. He suggests that the name shelamim stems from the word 'shalem' - perfect, complete. Thus, the name of the sacrifice describes the spiritual state of the offerer. In contrast to the sin offering which is brought due to a misdeed, the shelamim is brought by a perfect soul unperturbed by sin. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) ,citing our sages, offers a third interpretation:


"shelamim - They are so called because they bring peace into the world. Another explanation is: they are called shelamim because through them there is peace (harmony and lack of envy) to the altar, to the priests and to the owners (since all these receive a portion)"(3:1).


            We stated that the peace offering has the unique quality of being divided between the altar - God, the kohen and the offerer of the sacrifice. This sharing represents harmony and peace between the parties involved. This interpretation is the source for the translation of shelamim as peace offering. This translation is a fine example of a translation which by necessity must be an interpretation.


            In summary, the commentators offer three possible etymologies of the word shelamim, either from the verb 'le-shalem' - to pay, or from the word 'shalem' - complete, or from the word 'shalom' - peace.


            While we might now be able to understand the meaning of the names of the sacrifices, we are yet to grasp their inner significance. How are they the two prototypes of the voluntary sacrifices? What does the offerer of these sacrifices wish to express?


            The major difference between the olah and the shelamim is the fact that the olah is offered totally to God while the shelamim is shared by all the parties involved. This difference is the key to understanding the significance of these sacrifices. The olah stresses the gap between God and man. The olah is burned on the altar and RISES to the heavens. Man has no part in it; he can not partake of it. It belongs to the divine. We noted that one of the differences between the sacrifices is that the olah atones for man's imperfections. Man's faults and shortcomings distance him from the almighty. He senses his many faults and weaknesses and realizes his minuteness when standing before God. He approaches God in total submission, with a sense of awe and fear. The olah represents the worship of God 'Be-Yir'a' - with awe and fear.


            The shelamim, by contrast, represent closeness between man and God. It is a banquet, a shared meal in which God, the kohen and the offerer of the sacrifice each partake of part of the animal. Man, the finite, sits with the infinite and eats, as it were, at the same table. The Torah gives expression to this aspect of the sacrifice by calling it a 'Lechem Isheh,' a food offering (see 3:11). The shelamim can be viewed as the food of God since man also partakes of it in a special feast. Man can achieve this sense of closeness with God only when he is in an elevated spiritual state. When man is 'shalem' - complete and perfect, he is worthy of sitting at God's table. Moreover, it is through man's cleaving to God that he achieves this state of perfection. The shelamim represents the worship of God 'Be-Ahava' - with love.


            Verse two, ("When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord") introduces the emotions in man's worship of God. God with awe and fear as well as with yearning and love. The Torah informs us that one who desires to bring a sacrifice has two basic possibilities available, a sacrifice expressing fear and submission or a sacrifice expressing love and attachment.


            We can now return to the obvious question arising from this analysis. What is the explanation for the placement of the meal offering in chapter two. If chapters one and three are connected and represent the two types of emotion in the worship of God, why does the meal offering of chapter two, appear between them?


            The Malbim (beginning of chapter two) points out that chapter two begins with the word 'Ki' - (when), signaling the beginning of a new topic:


"And when an individual presents a meal offering to God..." (2:1).


            The difference between the 'mincha' - the meal offering and the olah and shelamim is clear. The mincha is not an animal sacrifice but rather brought from flour. However the Malbim also points out that the chapter begins with the letter 'vav' - "And". As evidenced by the word Ki - (when), the meal offering is a new topic, and yet the letter 'vav' - (And), establishes a connection between the meal offering and the burnt offering of chapter one. This connection is not unique to our parasha. There are several instances in the Bible where the burnt and meal offerings appear connected (see Leviticus 9:17; 23:37; Joshua 22:23; Judges 13:23). How are these sacrifices related? The olah expresses God's ownership of our lives and man's complete submission to His will. The whole animal, symbolizing the totality of life, is offered onto the altar. The mincha, similarly expresses God's ownership of all man's material belongings. The flour, the major component of the mincha, is the basic food ingredient on which man subsists. It symbolizes the material world. By offering a mincha man gives expression to his awareness that the wealth which he has acquired is given to him by God. Therefore, although the mincha is not an animal sacrifice, the Torah mentions it in connection with the olah due to the similarities in the ideas which they express.


            The first three chapters of Leviticus deal with the voluntary sacrifices, the olah, mincha and zevach shelamim. The following chapters deal with obligatory sacrifices, the sin and guilt offerings. The precedence of the voluntary sacrifices, according to our sages, shows that they are more desirable than the obligatory sacrifices. What about the order within the voluntary sacrifices themselves? Why does the olah precede the shelamim?


            The Torah first describes the olah to teach us that the fear and awe of God are primary in man's relationship with God. An appreciation of the greatness and omnipotence of God is the first step in knowing God. One who loves God without fearing Him becomes attached to God without a proper regard for his greatness. One of the differences between the olah and the shelamim is that the olah may be brought only from male animals while the shelamim may be either male or female. This difference perhaps testifies to the primacy of the olah offering. From a financial perspective the male is viewed as more valuable (see Leviticus chapter 27). The requirement of a male animal in the olah indicates its importance and supremacy over other sacrifices. We must obviously, both fear and love God. However, the fear and awe of God generated by the olah are the foundation for the love of God expressed by the shelamim.