Sefer Vayikra as the Continuation of Sefer Shemot

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun

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  1. Two continuations to Sefer Shemot


And He called to Moshe and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… (Vayikra 1:1)


The very first verse in Sefer Vayikra lacks a subject; it does not state who it is who calls to Moshe. It is therefore clear that this sefer is a continuation from the end of Sefer Shemot, where we read:


And Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.


Following the final three verses, which describe the “resting” and “taking up” of this cloud, it seems quite logical that the opening of our parasha takes up the narrative from the same point:


And He called to Moshe and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… (Vayikra 1:1)


Indeed, most of the commentators understand the first verse of Vayikra in this way. While Rashi takes a different approach, presenting the verse as the start of a new sefer, the parallels to the Revelation at Sinai would seem to prove the connection between our verse and the end of Sefer Shemot. At the end of Parashat Mishpatim, we read,


And Moshe ascended into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord rested upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day He called to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud. (Shemot 24:15-16)


At Mount Sinai, the Torah states explicitly that the call to Moshe was a direct continuation of the resting of God’s glory on the mountain. However, there the order is different. After “He called to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud,” there is a verse describing how “the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire…” and then “Moshe went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain…” In our case, we are told first that “Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting,” and only afterwards, “And He called to Moshe.”


In any event, the parallel offers convincing support for a connection between the beginning of Sefer Vayikra and the final verses of Sefer Shemot, as interpreted by Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban. This being so, a question immediately presents itself: If Vayikra continues from where Sefer Shemot left off, not only in terms of the narrative but on even on the level of the subject of the sentence, then what is the point of the division into two separate Chumashim?


To my mind, the answer to this question is that Sefer Shemot has two continuations: one is Sefer Vayikra, and the other is Sefer Bamidbar.


Sefer Bamidbar is also a continuation of the final verses of Sefer Shemot – the same verses that seemed like an aside in the account of the cloud covering the Mishkan:


And when the cloud was taken up from over the Mishkan, Bnei Yisrael went onward in all their journeys; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all of the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Shemot 40:36-38)


For this reason the end of Sefer Shemot comes in mid-subject and, indeed, mid-sentence – because this point represents a crossroads.


Here the obvious question is why there are two different continuations to Sefer Shemot. The reason would seem to lie with the differences between Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bamidbar. Sefer Vayikra is the “Torat Kohanim” – the book of guidance for those who serve in the Mishkan – while Sefer Bamidbar addresses the Levi’im and the rest of the tribes of Israel who are encamped around the Mishkan. Vayikra is inwardly-oriented, while Bamidbar is outwardly-oriented. The subjects covered in Sefer Vayikra concern the confines of the Mishkan – matters pertaining to sacrifices, purification, holiness of the individual and of the congregation, and the sanctity of times and of the land. The events described in Sefer Bamidbar concern the nation, who “shall encamp around the Tent of Meeting” (Bamidbar 2:2) – the journey, the sins of the nation and of individuals, and the inheritance of the land. In the language of Kabbalah, we might sum up the difference as “inner light” vs. “surrounding (or ‘all-encompassing’) light.”


Obviously, sanctity requires clear boundaries, as in the command, “Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it” (Shemot 19:23). It entails obligations and statutes that delineate the boundaries of the permitted, the forbidden, and the dangerous. Therefore, Divine service in the Sanctuary is viewed as an expression of profound awe and an all-encompassing obligation that dominates everything.


It therefore comes as a great surprise that the Torah goes to great lengths to grant man areas of freedom in his Divine service, as we shall see below. According to peshat, the commands concerning the various sacrifices set forth in Parashat Tzav were given at Mount Sinai (according to Vayikra 7:38), and thus preceded the units in Parashat Vayikra (“If any man of you brings an offering…” – Vayikra 1:2), which were commanded from the Tent of Meeting. The order is switched in the Torah so as to start the discussion of sacrifices with the free-will aspect of the Divine service, rather than the obligatory daily sacrifices.


  1. Obligation and freedom in the sacrifices


Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them: If any man of you brings a [freewill] offering to the Lord, then of the behema (domesticated animals) – of the herd, and of the flock – shall you bring your offering. (Vayikra 1:2-3)


The list of sacrifices opens not with the obligatory offerings, but rather the freewill offerings, following the same principle as the requirements for the Mishkan listed in Parashat Teruma. There, too, the list does not begin with the half-shekel obligatory tax, which must be brought by every individual as a “ransom for the soul,” but rather with the materials volunteered by the people of their own free will.


This emphasizes the value of freely chosen religious expression and action in relation to obligation. Both in the construction of the Mishkan and in the sacrifices, the Torah starts off by emphasizing freewill gifts. If a person wishes to bring, he may do so; if he does not wish to, he need not.[1]


Only later on, in the second half of Parashat Vayikra, do we find the obligatory sacrifices – the sin offering and the guilt offering. The procedure for a person desiring atonement and the communal sacrifices and obligation of the daily sacrifice come only afterwards, in Parashat Tzav.


Where there is obligation, there is no freedom, and where there is freedom, there is no obligation. Ultimately, the Torah balances these two values in Parashat Pekudei, at the end of Sefer Shemot. Here we find that the obligatory half-shekels collected from the people, with everyone contributing exactly the same amount, were used to fashion the sockets (adanim) that supported the boards of the Mishkan, and the remainder was used to make the hooks for the pillars. Thus, there came into being a framework of obligation within which there was a great expanse of freedom for freewill giving.


In the same way, the foundation of the sacrificial service is the daily sacrifice offered in the morning and in the evening. Around this foundation are all the freewill offerings that reflect individual initiative.


  1. Sacrifices of behema and not chaya


It must be emphasized that the principle of freewill concerns the initiative to offer a sacrifice – as opposed to obligation. However, the laws pertaining to the sacrifices itself are fixed and absolute, and are carried out by the Kohanim. In addition, not every sort of kosher animal that may be eaten can be brought as a sacrifice. It must belong to the category of behemot – cattle, sheep and goats – that is, kosher domestic animals. Wild animals (even kosher ones) cannot be brought, as we learn from the verse, “of the behema (domesticated animals) – of the herd, and of the flock – shall you bring your offering” (Vayikra 1:2).


R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, one of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, explains that God did not want to trouble Bnei Yisrael with having to hunt in order to bring a sacrifice. From this we learn God’s trait of “anvetanut” – self-abnegation. However, it seems that there is another lesson to be learned. Hunting involves an element of cruelty, as hinted to already in the personality of Esav. The hunting of animals living freely in the wild is not a desirable means of sacrifice before God. Chazal go even further than this, interpreting the verse as a prohibition on offering an animal that is a chaya and not a behema – a negative commandment derived from a positive one (Sifra 1:16; Zevachim 34a).


For what purpose do we need all this emphasis?


From Chazal’s words in the Tosefta at the end of Massekhet Zevachim (13:1) we learn that during the period prior to the Mishkan, when sacrifices were offered on bamot, there were also offerings of pure (kosher) chayot (wild animals) that are listed in the Torah as permissible to eat:


The deer, the gazelle, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the addax, and the bison, and the wild sheep. (Devarim 14:5)


Once the Mishkan was built, it was forbidden to sacrifice on bamot and wild animals were not offered on the altar.


One of the interesting discoveries found on Mount Eival, in the filling of the altar, included a collection of burnt bones of animals that had been sacrificed as burnt offerings. All were young males, and most were indeed cattle and sheep, but there were also some fallow deer. In other words, there is evidence of sacrifices of kosher wild animals as burnt offerings – contrary to the command in Sefer Vayikra.


After thinking about this for some years, I reached the following conclusion: It is no coincidence that the bones discovered on Mount Eival were found inside the altar, rather than atop it. It seems that the fallow deer were indeed offered only at an early stage, when all that existed there was a round bama upon a boulder. Apparently, this was a stage when the place was already sanctified, but the altar had not yet been built and the nation had not gathered all together, as commanded in Sefer Devarim (chapter 27). Initially, burnt offerings were sacrificed on a bama, and within this framework, chayot were also offered. Only in the Mishkan, and on the altar in the Temple, was there an explicit command not to offer wild animals, declaring, as it were, that the hunting of wild animals roaming free would no longer be part of the sacrificial service to God.


  1. The burnt offering vs. the sin offering


If his offering is a burnt offering of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the Tent of Meeting, that he may be accepted [or, ‘according to his will’] before the Lord. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. (Vayikra 1:3-4)


The burnt offering is offered in its entirety upon the altar. A question arises concerning the atonement effected by this sacrifice. We know that a sin offering is brought to achieve atonement. What atonement does the burnt offering achieve?


Chazal in Torat Kohanim (Sifra 1:31 and Vayikra Rabba 7:3) offer two explanations:


  1. To atone for positive commandments. If a person failed to perform a positive commandment – for instance, failure to recite Kiddush on Shabbat, as we are commanded to in the Torah, or to honor parents, or to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals) – then he achieves atonement by bringing a burnt offering. Sin offerings, in contrast, are brought in the event of transgression of a negative commandment.


  1. To atone for sinful thoughts. At the beginning of Sefer Iyov, we read about the custom of this righteous man:


And when the days of their feasting were gone about, Iyov sent and sanctified them and rose up early in the morning and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all, for Iyov said, “It may be that my sons have sinned and despised (or ‘blasphemed’) God in their hearts;” thus Iyov did continually. (Iyov 1:5)


“Despising God” is a very grave sin, included as one of the Seven Noahide Laws. The text does not state that Iyov feared that his children might have sinned with their mouths; he fears that they sinned “in their hearts.” From Iyov’s example, we learn that atonement is needed for thoughts of transgression even if they were not realized. While a sin offering makes atonement for a sinful act, it is the burnt offering that atones for a sinful thought.


The latter interpretation is further supported by the fact that in Parashat Shemini, on the day that the Mishkan is set up, Aharon offers a calf as a sin offering to atone for his sin. Aharon is considered responsible for the sin of the golden calf (although his act was unintentional), and he offers a calf as a sin offering, while Bnei Yisrael offer a calf as a burnt offering. Apparently, this was meant to atone for the sinful thought – since, as we know, those who actually sinned were punished right away.


Sinful thoughts weigh heavily on the conscience of many people, and a person can experience great difficulty trying to free himself of them and to live and feel like a free person. In setting forth the laws of a burnt offering “that he may be accepted before the Lord,” the Torah offers a possibility of atonement for such thoughts and liberation from them.


  1. Who slaughters the sacrifice?


And he shall slaughter the bullock before the Lord, and the Kohanim, Aharon’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the Tent of Meeting. (Vayikra 1:5)


The syntax of the sentence suggests that the subject – “he shall slaughter” – is not necessarily a Kohen. Indeed, Chazal derive the law (Mishna Zevachim 3:1; Gemara Zevachim 32a) that “the slaughter may be performed by outsiders [i.e., non-Kohanim], women, slaves, or those who are ritually impure…” It seems natural that the person who brings the offering should place his own hands upon the animal’s head, and also slaughter it – or rely on his wife, his servant, or some other agent acting on his behalf to do so. This being the case, the slaughtering of the animal is obviously not part of the sacrificial service (which is performed by the Kohanim alone); rather, it is service of the people. The Kohanim take the blood and perform their service:


And the Kohanim, Aharon’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the Tent of Meeting.


The actual slaughtering is not part of the sacrificial service because it entails shedding blood. Therefore it is only a means facilitating the sacrifice.


In this manner, the Torah preserves the place of the individual who wishes to offer a sacrifice on his own initiative; it preserves his central role in bringing the sacrifices, placing his hands upon it, and slaughtering it. Only the sprinkling of the blood on the altar is limited to the Kohanim, whose service of God in the Mishkan includes facilitating the offerings of those who bring “of their own free will.”


  1. Laws of sacrifice and the absence of prayer in Sefer Vayikra


And he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. And the sons of Aharon the Kohen shall put fire upon the altar and lay the wood in order upon the fire, and the Kohanim, Aharon’s sons, shall lay the parts – the head and the fat – in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar, but its innards and its legs he shall wash in water, and the Kohen shall burn all on the altar to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor to the Lord. (Vayikra 1:6-9)


Two questions arise as we review these verses:


  1. Why is there no prayer or singing of psalms? There is no mention even of the sounding of the trumpets that accompanied the sacrifices, as we know from Sefer Bamidbar (10:8-10). Where is the prayer and the song, the service of God with the mouth and with heartfelt devotion? Is the entire service of the Mishkan simply a matter of meticulous fulfillment of these instructions? Is it possible that the entire realm of Divine service can depend on detailed, precise execution by the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon? Which brings us to the next question:
  2. Why, in fact, is there a need for such minute, meticulous detail? Why is the precise manner of the offering not left to the Kohanim as an “oral law”? Why does the Torah take such pains to emphasize the tiniest details of how the sacrifice is to be performed?


We will start by addressing the first question, with the hope of gaining insight into the second as well.


  1. Why are there no prayers or psalms in Sefer Vayikra?


Chazal learn from Divrei Ha-Yamim that the singing of psalms was a duty entrusted to the Levi’im, while all the laws pertaining to the service in the Mishkan apply only to the duties of the Kohanim. But why is this not stated explicitly in the Torah? Furthermore, are we to assume that someone who brought a sacrifice utters no prayer at all, that the entire procedure is carried out in silence?


Some scholars have indeed arrived at this conclusion, referring to the Mishkan, as depicted in Sefer Vayikra, as the “silent Sanctuary,” since no prayers or psalms are offered there. The reason for this is supposedly that no prayer could express all that the soul feels while standing before God. Silence always contains more than any speech possibly could, as we learn from the story of Eliyahu:


… and after the wind – an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake – a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still, small voice. (Melakhim I 19:11-12)


For this reason, only the sounding of the trumpets can accompany the sacrifices.


As I understand it, the above explanation is incorrect. Bnei Yisrael offered prayers and song with their sacrifices, as well as before and afterwards, just as they sang at the Yam Suf. The Torah simply makes no note of this.


To demonstrate that this idea is not at all implausible, we might point out that in Sefer Bereishit, although altars are built, there is no mention of any of the laws of sacrifice. Does this mean that in the time of the forefathers there were no burnt offerings, performed in accordance with the relevant laws? It is clear from the story of the akeida that there were rules about building altars and preparing the wood.[2] Clearly, there was an accepted procedure for a burnt offering, and it was clear to both Avraham and Yitzchak what a burnt offering was. Yitzchak, in his sole utterance throughout the entire story, asks his father, “And where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Bereishit 22:7). Yitzchak has seen a burnt offering before, and he knows what it entails. Nevertheless, the narrative focus of Sefer Bereishit offers not a single detail regarding the laws of sacrifices, who offers them, and how.


This would suggest the possibility that in a similar manner, the focus of Sefer Vayikra is the laws of sacrifice, and not song and prayer. The Mishkan was not a “silent Sanctuary.” On the contrary, there was much singing and praise – especially surrounding freewill offerings, in contrast to the obligatory sacrifices. However, it seems that if the prayers offered in the Mishkan had been written in Sefer Vayikra, we would have to recite those same prayers, word for word, to this day, as a Biblically-ordained obligation. Therefore, the prayers are not recorded, so that their formulation would not be binding.


This hypothesis accords with the opinion of the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1-3), who maintains that while prayer is a Biblically-ordained obligation, neither the number of prayers nor their wording is set down in the Torah, but only the concept of prayer in general.


In terms of the Written Law, prayer is free; a person can say to God whatever he wishes to say. For this reason, the Torah does not set down any binding formula, but rather leaves the area of song, praise, and supplication to the free will of the person who comes to offer his sacrifice.


The service of the Kohanim, with the punctilious attention to all its details, should be understood in the manner proposed by the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim (3:32). The Rambam explains that the Torah is extremely strict in its insistence that sacrifices not be offered to God in the manner of the pagan worship rituals, and for this reason the Torah makes no mention of the sacrificial customs that were followed in the time of the forefathers. At the time of the giving of the Torah, Am Yisrael were separated from the customs that had been familiar and accepted up until then, and detailed, strict instructions were given to the Kohanim to offer only in the manner proclaiming that “God is One and His Name is One.”


The Ramban (Vayikra 1:15) disagrees vehemently with the Rambam’s assertion that the laws of the sacrifices were given in order to keep Am Yisrael far removed from pagan worship. Nevertheless, the Ramban seems to lead in a similar direction when he emphasizes (in his commentary on Shemot 22:19) that all the sacrifices in the Torah are offered only to the Name of God (Tetragrammaton); there are no sacrifices to “Elokim,” or to “the most high God (El Elyon),” or to “El Sha-dai” – nor, obviously, to any angels or to any of the holy names known to the forefathers. As the Torah commands explicitly:


He who sacrifices to any god except to the Lord alone – he shall be utterly destroyed. (Shemot 22:19)


The laws concerning the offering of sacrifices are fixed and clear, so that they will be offered only to God and only in the manner that He commands, since “the Lord is One and His Name – One.” At the same time, the realm of prayer, song, and psalms depends of the free will of the person who brings the sacrifice – along with the initiative itself, “of his own will, before the Lord.”


  1. Meal offering vs. burnt offering


While the burnt offering is introduced with the words, “If any man of you brings an offering (adam ki yakriv)…,” the meal offering is introduced, “And if a soul brings an offering (ve-nefesh ki takriv)…” Chazal point out the difference and explain its significance: The expression, “If any man of you brings an offering,” with reference to a freewill offering, comes to teach that not only Bnei Yisrael can bring a burnt offering to God; any man– even a non-Jew – can bring a freewill burnt offering to the Mishkan or to the Temple (Nazir 62a). Although the next word of the verse is “of you” (mikem), suggesting, according to peshat, that the person who brings the sacrifice must be of Am Yisrael, Chazal maintain that the Torah means “any man who recognizes God’s covenant with Israel.”[3]


Among the zealots and the Qumran sects at the end of the Second Temple Period, the accepted interpretation was “only a man of Israel,” and among these groups there was fierce opposition to the idea of non-Jews bringing offerings to the Temple.[4] Chazal formulated their rule in opposition to this view, which they viewed as a decisive factor in the destruction of the Temple (Gittin 56a). They taught that freewill offerings can be accepted even from non-Jews who wish to sacrifice to God – even the Roman Caesar himself, especially for the sake of peaceful relations with the rulers. 


At the beginning of the unit on meal offerings, the Torah emphasizes, “If a soul offers a sacrifice…” Rashi comments:


The term “soul” is not mentioned in connection with any of the other freewill offerings (burnt offerings and peace offerings), but only in connection with the meal offering. What sort of person would usually bring a meal offering? Someone who was poor. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I consider it as though he had sacrificed his very soul. (Rashi, Vayikra 2:1)


Thus, the meal offering expresses the possibility of someone who lacks the means to bring an animal as a burnt offering to bring a plant-based offering instead. According to Rashi’s interpretation (based on Chazal), the meal offering allows any person to bring an offering and not to suffer exclusion from the Temple solely due to his restricted means. Without this possibility, the entire experience of bringing an offering to God would be available only to those of a certain economic level. Near the end of the parasha, the same idea finds expression in the “ascending and descending sacrifice,” wherein the Torah shows consideration for someone whose “means do not suffice” (Vayikra 14:21, and also Vayikra 5:7-11).


But the idea of the meal offering – and the message of “offering up his soul” – goes deeper than this. The “ascending and descending” offering is a sin offering, and even a burnt offering has an aspect of atonement to it (as explained at the outset). The meal offering, on the other hand, has no element of atonement. When a person brings a burnt offering, the sacrifice comes in place of his own life, like the ram offered by Avraham as a replacement for his son. But if a poor person brings a meal offering, the destitution of his soul itself achieves atonement. His pain and suffering, the humiliation and embarrassment of his situation, are atonement in and of themselves. The sacrifice itself has no aspect of “deficiency” and no element of “atonement.”


  1. A meal offering baked in the oven


And if you bring a sacrifice of meal offering baked in the oven, it shall be unleavened cakes of fine flour mingled with oil or unleavened wafers anointed with oil. And if your sacrifice is a meal offering baked in a pan, it shall be of fine flour unleavened, mingled with oil. You shall part it in pieces, and pour oil on it; it is a meal offering. And if your sacrifice is a meal offering baked in a frying pan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil. And you shall bring the meal offering that is made of these things to the Lord, and when it is presented to the Kohen, he shall bring it to the altar. And the Kohen shall take from the meal offering its memorial part and shall burn it on the altar; it is an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor to the Lord. (Vayikra 2:4-9)


Someone who lacks the means to bring an animal as a burnt offering can still bring a “royal sacrifice” in the form of an offering of fine flour with oil and frankincense. However, the Torah allows for different types of meal offerings: one might bring fine flour mixed with oil; he might bring it baked in the oven, or in a flat frying pan, or deep-fried in a deeper pan.


The royal gift to God is brought in whatever manner is suited to the person bringing it; there are many possibilities for preparing it. The meal offering is truly prepared by and belongs to the “soul” who brings it. Only the service involving the altar is performed by the Kohanim. Just as the slaughter of a burnt offering may be performed by someone who is not a Kohen, so the meal offering is prepared by the person who brings it, and the Kohanim take over only at the stage of offering it upon the altar.


Thus, the Torah offers broad possibilities for choice and free-will offering in serving God, allowing every person to express his own desire to stand before God and to offer sacrifices to Him.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  The coercion of a person “until he says, ‘I wish to,’” mentioned in connection with sacrifices (Sifra 1:26), applies only to the burnt offering that is mixed up with other sacrifices.

[2]  For instance, we find in Bereishit 22:3 that Avraham “broke up the wood for the burnt offering.”

[3]  In the Sifra (1:11), the exceptions to this rule are those who accept another religion, declaring themselves outside of the covenant. See Bekhor Shor and Chizkuni on verse 2.

[4] See A. Kimrun, Megillat Midbar YehudaHa-Chibburim Ha-Ivri’im, vol. II (Jerusalem, 5773), p. 206.