Shiur #17: Vayikra Rabba 3:5 Dream Sequence

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Vayikra Rabba 3:5 continues the previous section’s focus on bird sacrifices, leaving behind altogether the subject of the meal offering. Nevertheless, this section continues to develop one of the main themes of the parasha. Both the meal offering and the bird offering are sacrifices typically given by the poor who could not afford the more expensive animal sacrifices.  The midrash emphasizes that despite their lesser monetary value, God actually values the sacrifices of the poor more than those of the rich, presumably because the poor person has put a larger portion of his resources into the sacrifice.


          The Midrash opens with a discussion of the details of the bird sacrifice:




R. Yochanan said:

An ordinary being, should he smell the odor of [burning] wings, is nauseated thereby,

and you say, “And the priest shall make it smoke upon the altar”(ib.)?!

Why then all this?

Just in order that the altar may be enhanced by the sacrifice of a poor person.


          The midrash’s question here is quite clear. The burning of a bird’s wings, with all their feathers, is disgusting to normal people. Why then does the Torah demand that the entire bird be burned in the olat ha-of (the bird offering)?


          The midrash’s answer, “Just in order that the altar may be enhanced by the sacrifice of a poor person,” is less clear.  The Yefe To’ar, one of the commentators in the Vilna Midrash Rabba, suggests that if one were to remove the wings, the bird would be very small and this would not be a respectable sacrifice. Another explanation is that the midrash does not entertain the possibility of discarding the wings. Rather, the only way to avoid the smell of burning wings would be eliminate the bird offering altogether. If this were to be the case, poor people, who cannot afford larger animal sacrifices, would not be able to bring any animal sacrifices. While ordinary people would see the bird offering with its smell as a disgrace to the altar, actually it enhances the altar, because, as we have seen earlier in the parasha, God loves the offerings of the poor.


The rest of this section consists of a series of three stories. Each story illustrates the great value of the offerings of the poor. Additionally, each of these stories contains a scene in which one of the key characters has a dream. The dream serves to inform that character of an important piece of information regarding the offering of the poor man. The first of these stories reads as follows:


King Agrippas wished to offer up a thousand burnt offerings in one day.

He sent to tell the High Priest: ‘Let no man other than myself offer sacrifices today!’

There came a poor man with two turtle-doves in his hand, and he said to the High Priest: ‘Sacrifice these.’

Said he: ‘The king commanded me, saying, "Let no man other than myself offer sacrifices this day."’

Said he: ‘My lord the High Priest, I catch four [doves] every day; two I offer up, and with the other two I sustain myself. If you do not offer them up, you cut off my means of sustenance.’

The priest took them and offered them up.

In a dream it was revealed to Agrippas: ‘The sacrifice of a poor man preceded yours.’

So he sent to the High Priest, saying: ‘Did I not command you thus: "Let no one but me offer sacrifices this day"?

‘Said [the High Priest] to him: ‘Your Majesty, a poor man came with two turtle-doves in his hand,

and said to me: "I catch four birds every day; I sacrifice two, and from the other two I support myself. If you will not offer them up you will cut off my means of sustenance." Should I not have offered them up?’

Said [King Agrippas] to him: ‘You were right in doing as you did.’


          Before proceeding to the content of the story, let us make a few observations about its form. There are three characters in the story: King Agrippas, the High Priest and the poor man. The story breaks down into the following scenes:


            1)  King Agrippas speaks to the High Priest

            2)  The poor man speaks to the High Priest

            3)  Agrippas’ dream

            4)  Agrippas speaks to the High Priest.


As we can see, Agrippas and the poor man never meet in the story. Only the High Priest speaks to the other two characters. He mediates between the two and their conflicting claims to the altar.


The action opens with King Agrippas.  There were, in fact, two Jewish kings by the name of Agrippas who ruled in the decades preceding the destruction of the second Temple: Agrippas the First, grandson of Herod the Great, who is also known (apparently mistakenly) as Herod Agrippas. He ruled from 41-44 CE.   Agrippas the First had a son, Agrippas the Second, who took power in 44 CE and lived until the end of the first century.


From Agrippas’ actions in the midrash we can learn two things about his attitudes toward sacrifices and the Temple. First, Agrippas decides to offer a thousand sacrifices in a single day. Clearly, when it comes to sacrifices, Agrippas believes that more is better. Next, Agrippas demands that the altar be reserved for him exclusively for one full day in order to accomplish this goal.  Agrippas apparently has the power to do this, but he also thinks that such behavior is appropriate. He thinks that, as king, his sacrifices are more important than those of the common people. Hence, it is acceptable to deny the masses the opportunity to offer sacrifices for a day.


The poor man, in contrast, offers an opposite take on sacrifices. His sacrifices are significant not because they are numerous, but rather because they represent half of his minimal wealth on any given day. Furthermore, his sacrifices are daily sacrifices, rather than occasional ones such as those of Agrippas. Finally, whereas Agrippas appears to have infinite resources, the poor man actually depends on his sacrifices to make a living. It is through the merit of each day’s sacrifice that he is able to catch more birds the next day. The poor man has, as it were, a partnership with God.


The High Priest finds himself in the position of having to judge between these types of sacrifices: a one-time donation of numerically great sacrifices from an important donor, versus a regular, modest sacrifice from a person of humble means. The High Priest defies the king and chooses the poor man. The story could end here, with the High Priest’s choice teaching us about the superiority of the poor man’s sacrifices over the king’s. However, the story continues.  Agrippas finds out about the High Priest’s actions though his dream. The question which the reader must now ask is, how will the king respond to this news. Given his previous attitudes and behavior, we might expect the king to be very angry at the High Priest for violating his order. Yet, when the king finds out about the poor man and his practice, he concedes that the poor man’s sacrifices should be given precedence to his own. The story thus ends with a total victory for the poor man and his approach, with even the king admitting that the poor man’s sacrifice was more important than his own.


The next story similarly contrasts two sacrifices, one of a rich man and one of a poor man:


An ox was once being led to sacrifice,

but would not budge.

A poor man came along with a bundle of endive in his hand.

He held it out towards the ox, which ate it, sneezed, and expelled a needle,

and then allowed itself to be led to sacrifice.

In a dream [a message] was revealed to the owner of the ox:

‘The poor man's sacrifice preceded thee.’


          The story opens with the image of an ox who refuses to be led to the altar to be sacrificed. We do not know at first why the ox refuses to do so. Is this simply the obstinate behavior of a dumb brute? Or does the ox somehow know what awaits him and does not want to go to his death?  These both turn out to be mistaken impressions. A poor man offers the ox some vegetables. The eating of these vegetables somehow causes the ox to spit up a needle. The ox then goes willingly to be sacrificed. We can now understand the ox’s initial refusal to be sacrificed. It is not that he feared death. Quite to the contrary, he sought to be a proper sacrifice to God. The problem is that he had ingested a needle. Had this needle been found inside of him after he was slaughtered, the ox would have been declared a treifa, and unfit for the altar. The ox has no desire to be an invalid sacrifice and hence refuses to budge. Only after he has expelled the needle does he willingly go to the slaughter.


Until this point the unquestionable hero of the story is the ox. Despite initial appearances to the contrary, the ox is committed to being a proper sacrifice on the altar. He saves his owner from having slaughtered an expensive ox only to find out that it is unfit for use. The poor man is at best an enabler, who helps the ox get rid of the needle. It does not appear that the poor man has any intentions beyond giving the ox something to eat.


The last scene of the story changes our perspective entirely. The owner of the ox learns through a dream that, ‘The poor man's sacrifice preceded thee.’ Until this point, we are not even aware that the poor man has given a sacrifice, let along that it precedes the sacrificing of the ox by its owner. Now, we learn that the poor man’s offering of his vegetables to the ox is considered like a sacrifice. This bunch of vegetable is worth less than a bird offering or even a meal offering. It was never offered up on the altar. Nevertheless, because he offered freely of the little that he had, his offering was considered of even more merit than that of the ox.


The final story reads as follows:


Once a woman brought a handful of fine flour,

and the priest despised her, saying: ‘See what she offers!

What is there in this to eat?

What is there in this to offer up?’

It was shown to him in a dream: ‘Do not despise her! It is regarded as if she had sacrificed her own life.’

And may we not draw [a deduction from] minor to major,

[viz.] since even with reference to one who does not offer up a life

the word nefesh is used by Scripture

[thus: And if a nefesh you bring as a sacrifice (Lev. 2:1)],

surely, then, when one offers a life (nefesh),

it is as if one is offering up one's own life.


          This story presents only a single sacrifice, that of the poor woman.  Her offering is contrasted not with that of another, but with the response of the officiating priest. This woman is so poor that she cannot afford even the efah of flour normally used in the meal offering. All she can afford is a mere handful of flour. The priest is indignant that one could want to offer such an insubstantial sacrifice. He has a quantitative view of sacrifices, like King Agrippas initially did. The value of a sacrifice is based on its size.


          The priest may also have a more selfish motive for berating the woman. As we said, a meal offering usually consists of an efah of flour. A handful (kometz) was put on the altar and the rest was given to the priests for their own use. The woman brought only a handful, enough for the altar, but leaving nothing for the priest and his friends!


Once again, a dream comes to fill a crucial gap in the story. This time, it informs the priest as to the true value of the woman’s sacrifice. This is based on a derasha on the phrase “nefesh ki takriv” which introduces the meal offering. Literally this means, “When an individual offers” (a meal offering).  However, the midrash here understand this verse as meaning “When an individual offers himself”, namely, that giving a sacrifice is like giving oneself to God. The voice in the dream declares that this is especially true in the case of the woman who had actually offered all that she had. Once again, the story advocates a relative view of sacrifices: it matters not what the absolute value of the sacrifice is.  Rather, what matters is the relative sacrifice that the individual makes.


We can now consider these three stories as a unit.  The stories all contain dreams as key elements of the plot. In each case one of the main characters learns something important through a dream. There is, however, an important difference between the first story and the next two, on this count. In the last two stories, the dream serves to supply both the reader and the characters in the story with an evaluation of the poor person and his sacrifice. In the first story, this evaluation is done by the High Priest and the king, both of whom acknowledge the superiority of the poor man’s sacrifice. The dream plays a more technical role. It informs King Agrippas of the fact that the poor man has been allowed to interrupt his thousand sacrifices to offer his own modest sacrifice.



          Furthermore, as we have already stated, these stories are held together by a common theme - the greatness of the sacrifices of the poor, despite their inherently humble value. However, each story emphasizes a slightly different aspect of the poor person’s sacrifice.


The first story emphasizes that the regularity of the poor man’s sacrifice, as well as his faith that the sacrifice will ensure his livelihood, elevate it above that of the king. In the second story, the poor man does not even offer an actual sacrifice. Nevertheless, his donation toward the cause of another’s sacrifice is counted as if he has given a sacrifice himself of even greater value than an ox. Finally, the last story presents a poor oppressed woman. Her sacrifice is great because she has given all she has for her sacrifice, even though it was only a handful of flour.