Introduction to the Sacrifices (1)
Sefer VaYikra is no doubt the least conceptually understood book in the Chumash. Its primary subjects, sacrifices on the one hand and laws of ritual fitness on the other, are not only highly formalized and painfully detailed, famously arcane and difficult to master, but also seemingly irrelevant to our modern condition. The contents of the book and its practical application are in the main inextricably bound up with the physical landscape and tangible edifice of the Mishkan and its successor Temples at Jerusalem, and these have lain in ruins for thousands of years. In fact, most modern readers who are still devoted to the text and to the tradition, don't quite know what to make of Sefer VaYikra. Though they may pay lip service to the idea of a resumption of the sacrificial service and its related tenets of "tuma" and "tahara," this is because the resumption of that service seems anywise so distant and eschatological. "We will worry about how to spiritually, emotionally, and experientially relate to implementation when the time comes," they seem to say, hoping in their heart of hearts that the time never does come, for how else to make one's peace with the formalism, the contrivance, and the sheer grotesqueness of sprinkled blood and burning fat, acrid smoke and frightful fire, all of it centered about a huge stone platform of sinister proportions!
TWO RABBINIC SOURCES – PRACTICAL AND CONCEPTUAL
But for the Rabbis, surprisingly enough, Sefer VaYikra was an object of special affection. According to an ancient practice still observed in some communities, a small child's first tender educational experiences were in fact associated with this Chumash: "says the Holy One blessed be He: let the pure ones (the children) come and occupy themselves with purity ( the contents of Sefer VaYikra)!" (quoted in commentary of Siftei Kohen to Shulchan Arukh Chapter 245:8). Thus, a Jew's first practical instruction in Torah and mitzvot, the initial development of his textual and analytical skills in study as well as his earliest and most vivid acquisitions of critical information and knowledge would all be derived from his primary study of Sefer VaYikra. How shocking, some of us may think, that one would intentionally expose (and before all else!) innocent and impressionable minds to such disturbing subject matter.
Yet according to a statement in the Midrash that complements the custom adduced above, if anything, Sefer VaYikra was to be regarded as a particularly powerful source of enlightenment:
Said Rabbi Simon: there are five mentions of "light" (in the passage of Bereishit 1:1-5) corresponding to the five books of the Chumash. 'God said: let there be light' parallels Sefer Bereishit, for with that book God occupied Himself and then created the world. 'And there was light' matches Sefer Shemot, for in its narratives the people of Israel went forth from great darkness (slavery in Egypt) to light. 'GOD SAW THE LIGHT THAT IT WAS GOOD' IS ANALOGOUS TO SEFER VAYIKRA, FOR IT IS FULL OF SO MANY LAWS. 'God separated between the light and the darkness' refers to Sefer BeMidbar, for in that book a division was drawn between those that left the land of Egypt and those that entered the new land. 'Gods called the light – day' relates to Sefer Devarim, for it too is full of so many laws.
Rabbi Simon's colleagues raised an objection: but (didn't you already say that) Sefer VaYikra is full of so many laws? He responded: here too, the text was repetitious (Bereishit Rabba 3:5).
A WEALTH OF MITZVOT AND A DEARTH OF NARRATIVE
For Rabbi Simon, the unique fixation of Sefer VaYikra with ritual or ceremonial injunctions was itself the source of its proverbial light. The other books of the Torah certainly had their messages of illumination, whether these related to the Divine preoccupations (and corresponding ideals of human concern) with constructive purpose, redemption, or destiny. But, for the Rabbis, what made Sefer VaYikra exceptional, its inherent 'goodness', was its single-minded focus upon ceremonial and cultic laws complemented by its numerous ordinances concerning holiness. In fact, by simple computation, there are about 247 mitzvot that are mentioned in Sefer VaYikra, making it the most commandment-intensive Chumash by far, for it contains almost half of the Torah's total number of 613 commandments. By comparison, Sefer Devarim – the other source of "intense light" in the Midrash of Rabbi Simon above – contains 200 mitzvot, while Sefer Shemot, running a distant third, has but 111. Completing the picture, Sefer BeMidbar contains 52 commands, and Sefer Bereishit has but 3!
In this connection, it should be noted that there are correspondingly few narrative sections in Sefer VaYikra at all. Unlike Bereishit that is entirely narrative, and Shemot that is primarily narrative with some laws that are introduced only against its narrative background, VaYikra is almost exclusively about injunctions. Its few narratives (if we may even employ the term here) only serve as introductions to more laws! Thus, for example, the tragic but exceedingly concise tale of the untimely death of two of Aharon's sons, those that offered "strange fire" at the dedication of the Mishkan (10:1-5), is immediately succeeded by a much lengthier passage spelling out the appropriate laws that are to be exercised by Aharon and the surviving brothers in the aftermath of the disaster (10:6-20). We would be, in fact, hard pressed to provide another narrative section in all of Sefer VaYikra!
With the reading of Sefer BeMidbar, the Torah reverts back to the narrative model, for that book describes the physical peregrinations and associated spiritual challenges of the people of Israel as they journeyed from Egypt towards the land of Canaan. And while it is true that Sefer Devarim also contains much legislative material and a dearth of narrative (as suggested by the passage from the Midrash Rabba above), such is to be expected, for at its very outset Moshe introduces the book as the repetition of the Torah. Nevertheless, insofar as Moshe's reminisces are concerned (and there are many in the book), there is decidedly more narrative in Sefer Devarim than there is in Sefer VaYikra. The correspondence is thus clear: more narrative indicates less mitzvot, for the Torah's guiding message is effectively conveyed in two distinct (but reciprocal) ways: by the recounting of a story as well as by the proclamation of laws and ordinances.
RELATING TO THE SUBJECT MATTER OF SEFER VAYIKRA
Thus, some of us are left in the uncomfortable situation of being at emotional odds with the position of the Rabbis. While they venerated Sefer VaYikra and pored over its numerous detailed provisions with care and with love (notwithstanding the fact that many of them lived after the Second Temple had been destroyed and the majority of the book's provisions had thus been reduced to theoretical discussions), many of us in contrast fidget in our seats during the Torah reading, waiting impatiently for relief to come in the form of the accompanying Prophetic passages that follow. How indeed to relate to the book?
Perhaps we ought to begin by attempting to isolate the essential elements of the sacrificial service (leaving the discussion concerning tuma and tahara, the second supporting pillar of Sefer VaYikra's sacred edifice, for another time). What features of the service are common to all types of sacrifices, whether these are "burnt offerings," "meal offerings," "peace offerings," "sin offerings" or "guilt offerings," whether they are brought from animals, birds, or grains? First of all, there is a formal presentation by the supplicant. Sometimes this presentation is mandated (sin offerings or guilt offerings), but in the main it is not and is rather a free-will expression of the supplicant's desire to show devotion to God or else feel attachment to His presence. During the course of the presentation, the sacrificial animal is brought to the Mishkan, one's hands are often laid upon it (depending once again on category), and then it is slaughtered, whether by the supplicant or else by the priests. The blood of slaughter is received by the Kohanim into a vessel that is then brought towards the altar. >From that point of receiving the blood in the vessel and forwards, only a Kohen may officiate.
Depending on the sacrifice, the giving of the blood on the altar may involve its placement upon the corner protrusions (the so-called horns), its throwing against the altar's sides, or else its ceremonial sprinkling within the holy confines of the building proper followed by its pouring out at the altar's base. After the presentation of the blood, some parts of the sacrifice, typically internal organs and fats, are burned on the altar, and the remainder of the flesh is then consumed according to strict provisions and within sacred confines by a combination of the Kohanim and the owners. For some classes of sacrifices such as the burnt offerings, almost all of the parts of the animal are offered on the altar, while nothing at all is consumed by the officiating priests.
CONSTRUCTING A BASIC OUTLINE
If we were to construct a basic outline of the matter, we would tend to isolate two main stages in the service, each of which is in turn divided into two smaller steps. The first stage pertains to the presentation and preparation of the animal, its slaughter and the collection of its blood. In the early sources the two constituent steps of this stage are known as "shechita" (slaughter) and "kabbala" (literally reception – of the blood) respectively. The second stage addresses the altar to which the blood and the sacrifice are then brought, to be consumed in part or in whole by its perpetual fire. The two constituent steps of this second stage are known as "holakha" (causing to be brought – to the altar) and "zerika" (literally throwing – of the blood), and the matter is finally concluded by the "haktara" or burning. In essence, we have blood on the one hand and fire on the other, with the cohesive link of the altar that draws them together.
While the meal offering of course contains no blood element, the Mishnaic sources (see Mishna Menachot Chapter 1) nevertheless preserved a striking correspondence between the respective ceremonies of the two: the slaughter of the animal was paralleled by a taking of the fistful ("kometz") of the meal offering, while the collection of the blood in a vessel was not unlike the placing of the meal offering in a sanctified vessel for bringing to the altar. The presenting of the blood on the altar was matched in the meal offering by the burning of the "kometz" with its attendant frankincense in the fire.
While an attempt to ascertain the experiential meaning of the sacrificial service though we are woefully removed from its historical reality may be a futile exercise in self-delusion, perhaps we can be assisted somewhat by other Scriptural references that are contemporary with it. We cannot say with certainty what the supplicant of 1000 BCE felt or experienced at the time that their offering was presented, but we may nevertheless attempt to at least gauge the matter by considering some of the extant texts. Next week, God willing, we will continue our investigation by considering some of these other Scriptural sources as they shed light on the profound symbolism associated with the blood, the altar and the consuming fire. Perhaps we will discover along the way that the matter of sacrifice as depicted in Sefer VaYikra can yet speak to our hearts even today.
TO BE CONTINUED