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The Significance of the Sacrifices

Rav Zvi Shimon


            In this week's Torah reading we conclude the book of Exodus and commence the book of Leviticus. Despite being different books in the Torah, the content of Exodus and Leviticus is intricately connected. The last half of the book of Exodus, from chapter 25 to the end, deals primarily with the construction of the Mishkan, the abode of God. Exodus concludes with God's dwelling in the newly constructed Mishkan: "When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle" (40:33,34). The book of Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch, follows with the rules regarding the offering of sacrifices. The Mishkan is the abode of God where one goes to encounter the divine and to worship him. Furthermore, it is the location where all sacrifices are to be offered. Several week's ago, in parashat Teruma, we discussed the significance of the Menorah. This week's discussion will focus on the underlying idea behind the offering of animal sacrifices on the brass altar of the Mishkan.


            What is the significance behind the offering of sacrifices? What is their function in man's worship of God? (We do not intend, by our question, to inquire into the significance of the different types of sacrifices but rather wish to find an underlying idea imminent in the sacrificial enterprise as a WHOLE.) The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) discusses this question in his classic philosophical work, originally written in Arabic, 'The Guide to the Perplexed'. In the section which deals with the rationale behind the different commandments of God, the Rambam offers the following explanation for the offering of animal sacrifices.


"It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.... The custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us.  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used [to].... For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; "And they shall make unto Me a sanctuary" (Ex. 25:8); to have the altar erected to His name; "An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me" (ibid. 20:21); to offer the sacrifices to Him; "If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord" (Lev. 1:2), to bow down to Him and to burn incense before Him.  He has forbidden to do any of these things to any other being; "He who sacrificeth unto any god, save the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed" (Ex. 22:19); "For thou shalt bow down to no other god" (ibid. 34:14).  He selected priests for the service in the temple; "And they shall minister unto Me in the priest's office" (ibid. 28:41).  He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices.  By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them." (Guide to the Perplexed 3:32)


            The worship of God by the offering of sacrifices is not the preferred form of worship. The Torah commands it only in an attempt to curb idolatry since sacrifices were the universally accepted form of worship. According to the Rambam, it would have been impossible, for the Torah to totally annul the custom of sacrifices since it was so ingrained in people's behavior. Instead, God limited the scope of sacrifices to one location, the Mishkan, and designated the sons of Aaron to be responsible for sacrificing on the altar. In a similar vein, he Rambam explains the Torah's determination of the animals suitable for sacrifice:


"Scripture tells us, according to the version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt: "Behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians," etc. (Exod. 8:26); "For every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians" (Gen. 46:34).  Some sects among the Sabeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore "goats" [se'irim].  This worship was widespread: "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto demons, after whom they have gone a whoring" (Lev. 17:7).  For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats' flesh.  Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation.  Therefore the people of Hodu [Indians] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered.  In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: "Ye shall bring your offering of the cattle [viz.], of the herd and of the flock" (Lev. 1:2). Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite." (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46)


            The Rambam posits that the reason for offering sheep and cattle as sacrifices, and not other animals, is to negate and uproot the mistaken and skewed beliefs of the idolatrous world. The Torah commands us to sacrifice the idols of the other peoples in order to distance the Israelites from the idolater's faulty conceptions. Do you agree with the Rambam's approach?


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) rejects outright the Rambam's explanation:


"But these words are mere expressions, healing casually a severe wound and a great difficulty, and making 'the table of the Eternal polluted,' [as if the offerings were intended only] to remove false beliefs from the hearts of the wicked and fools of the world, when Scripture says that they are 'the food of the offering made by fire, for a pleasing odor.'  Moreover, [if the offerings were meant to eliminate] the foolish [ideas] of the Egyptians, their disease would not thereby be cured.  On the contrary, it would increase the cause of sorrow, for since the intention of the above-mentioned wicked ones was to worship the constellations of the sheep and the ox, which according to their opinion possess certain powers [over human affairs], and which is why they abstain from eating them in deference to their power and strength, then if these species are slaughtered to the Revered Name, it is a mark of respect and honor to [these constellations].  These worshippers themselves were in the habit of so doing, as He has said, 'And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs,' and those who made the [golden] calf sacrificed to it.  Now the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] mentions that the idol-worshippers used to sacrifice to the moon on the days of new-moon, and to the sun when it rose in a particular constellation know to them from their books.  The disease of idolatry would surely have been far better cured if we were to eat [these animal-deities] to our full, which would be considered by them forbidden and repugnant, and something they would never do!


"Furthermore, when Noah came out of the ark with his three sons, there were as yet no Chaldeans or Egyptians in the world, yet he brought an offering, which was pleasing to God, as concerning it Scripture says, 'And the Eternal smelled the pleasing odor,' and on account of it 'He said in His heart, 'I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake.'  'Abel likewise brought of the first-born of his flock and of the fat thereof.  And the Eternal had regard unto Abel and to his offering.'  Yet there was as yet not the slightest trace at all of idol-worship in the world.


"The Scriptural expression concerning the offerings is, 'My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, for a pleasing odor unto Me.' Far be it that they should have no other purpose and intention except the elimination of idolatrous opinions from the minds of fools!"  (Ramban Leviticus 1:9)


            The Ramban rejects the Rambam on several grounds. First, he rejects the Rambam's approach since it attaches no inherent value to the sacrifices, and regards them as being only are only a protective guard against idolatry with no independent significance. The Ramban rejects this argument because it contradicts verses such as, "My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, for a pleasing odor unto me" (Numbers 28:2), which relate positively to the sacrifices. I would add to the Ramban's reservations the fact that sacrifices entail a whole complex of commandments so that it is hard to relegate such a large number of commandments to such a minor role bereft of positive meaning. Second, the Ramban critiques the Rambam's approach on its own grounds, claiming it is factually incorrect. The idolaters, themselves, sacrificed these animals to the constellations. They did not object to sacrificing these animals but rather refrained from eating them. Were the Torah's intention to negate the beliefs of the idolaters it would encourage eating the animals, not sacrificing them. Finally, the Ramban rejects the Rambam's explanation on historical grounds. The Torah recounts instances such as the offerings of Abel and Noach where sacrifices were offered before there existed any idolatry and God nevertheless looked favorably upon them.


            The Ramban offers an alternative explanation to the sacrifices:


"It is far more fitting to accept the reason for the offerings which scholars say, namely that since man's deeds are accomplished through thought, speech and action, therefore God commanded that when man sins and brings an offering, he should lay his hands upon it in contrast to the [evil] deed [committed].  He should confess his sin verbally in contrast to his [evil] speech, and he should burn the instruments of thought and desire in the human being.  He should burn the legs [of the offering] since they correspond to the hands and feet of a person, which do all his work.  He should sprinkle the blood upon the altar, which is analogous to the blood in his body.  All these acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against his God with his body and his soul, and that "his" blood should really be spilled and "his" body burned, were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator, Who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this offering, so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life, and that the chief limbs of the offering should be in place of the chief parts of his body."  (Ramban ibid.)


            The sacrifice is a substitute for the person himself. The punishment deserved by the person offering the sacrifice is symbolically transferred to the animal. The owner of the animal, through the act of sacrificing, inculcates his culpability and realizes that because God is merciful, his sins are forgiven and his sacrifice accepted. Can you spot any weaknesses in the Ramban's explanation?


            Rabbi Hoffman (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Germany, 1843-1921) points out several difficulties in the Ramban's approach.


1. Not all sacrifices are brought for the atonement of sins. Besides the sin offering there are also burnt offerings and meal offerings which are not brought for the atonement of sin. Therefore, the Ramban's explanation does not encompass the whole gamut of sacrifices since he only refers to the sin offering.


2. Even the sin offering is not brought for a sin which carries a punishment of death but rather for a sin perpetrated unwittingly. Therefore it is incorrect to see the sin offering as a symbolic representation of the punishment deserved by the sinner.


3. According to the Ramban's explanation, the focal point of the sacrificial procedure should be the slaughtering of the animal, the actual infliction of death. However, this is not the case since anyone, even a non-Levite, can perform the slaughtering. The most important part of the sacrificial process is actually the sprinkling of the animal's blood onto the altar, an act which can only be performed by a priest.


            As Rabbi Hoffman points out, the sprinkling of the animal's blood is the most important part of the sacrifice. Although the different types of sacrifices have different laws with regard to the flesh of the animal, (either burning the whole animal on the altar or having parts of it eaten by the owner, or offering parts to the priest,) one aspect never changes in all the animal sacrifices. The blood of the animal is always brought to the altar. The bringing of the blood to the altar is therefore the common denominator in all animal sacrifices. If we are to search for an underlying explanation to all animal sacrifices we must focus on the offering of the blood.


            What does blood represent, what is its significance? The Torah gives the following answer in explaining the prohibition of eating blood:


"But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the LIFE, and you must not consume the life with the flesh"(Deuteronomy 12:23).


It is forbidden to eat blood since it is the life of all creatures. The Torah states another reason for this prohibition:


"And if anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them partakes of any blood, I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood, and I will cut him off from among his kin.  For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making atonement for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects atonement."  (Leviticus       17:10-11)


            It is not only that the blood is life but as a result of its being the essence of life it is reserved for the altar. We are now better equipped to understand the significance of the sprinkling of the blood onto the altar? The offering of blood is a proclamation of God's ownership of our lives. The blood sprinkled on the altar, as the Ramban explained, represents the blood (the life) of the person offering the sacrifice. However, its offering is not an act of atonement, a symbolic transfer of the punishment of the person offering to the animal. Rather, it is a statement, a symbolic portrayal of God's dominion over our lives. Through the sprinkling of the animal's blood on the altar (which represents life), we acknowledge that our lives are not our own but belong to God who created us. The sacrifice reiterates our commitment to God and the devotion of our lives to the fulfillment of His will. A Torah lifestyle carries with it the awareness and the responsibility of choosing one's course of action and direction in life based on the will and commandment of He who is the provider and owner of all life.


            Rabbi Hoffman proves this explanation of the underlying idea behind the sacrifices by analyzing some of the earliest cases of sacrifices in the Torah.


"Noach, who saw with his own eyes the destruction of the world and its evil inhabitants [in the flood], and who was miraculously saved by God, grasped that his life was a gift from God and totally dependent upon Him, and he vividly expressed this awareness through the sacrifice of animals. The blood , the "life" of the animal, which was offered on the altar, symbolized the soul of man and his life, and in this sacrifice Noach's feelings flowed forth and were given an outward expression, that not only his wealth but also his very life belongs to God..."


This idea is explicitly and most powerfully expressed in Abraham's sacrifice in the  binding of Isaac.


"God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his favored son, to whom he was connected with all his soul, and whose life was more dear to him than his own. After having displayed his full willingness and unrestrained compliance [with God's command], came a call to preserve his son's life, and then appeared suddenly a ram which he offered instead of his son. Through this was expressed clearly the idea that via the life force which we offer to god by means of the sacrifice of a living creature, we symbolize our complete submission to God and our total obedience to His commands... This is the essence of the fear of God: unlimited obedience of God. "For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me" (22:12).


            This idea implicit in the sacrifices of Noach and Abraham serves as the foundation for the understanding of animal sacrifices offered in the Mishkan. The sacrifices are not only aimed at curtailing idolatry. They are a powerful, dramatic and most vivid expression of man's devotion to his Creator.


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