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Substituting Sefer Vayikra

Rav Jonathan Mishkin


As we begin to read Sefer VaYikra this week, it is not uncommon for people to feel somewhat burdened by the parshiyot they are about to endure in the long and complicated journey through this the "Priests' Manual."  We are actually faced with two immediate challenges.  The first is the meaning behind the sacrificial system.  Various philosophers have presented different approaches to the ancient practices of animal sacrifices, several of which we will mention below.  The second difficulty we encounter is that although the sacrifices represent a large portion of the Jewish ritual laws, they are essentially irrelevant to today's practice of Judaism.  With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century CE, the sacrifices ceased - their laws, details and related philosophies relegated to the realm of academia.  There they await the rebuilding of the Temple and their reinstitution.


The sacrifices, however, are far from forgotten.  Besides the yearly reading of the Torah portions detailing the biblical commandments, the daily prayers contain several passages on these topics.  Among the readings is a paragraph from Numbers 28 (verses 1-8) which describes the KORBAN TAMID - the daily offering which was brought both in the morning and the evening.  The verses are preceded by this short prayer:


May it be your will, Lord our God, and the God of our forefathers, that you have mercy on us and pardon us for all our errors, atone for us all our iniquities, forgive all our willful sins; and that you rebuild the Holy Temple speedily, in our days, so that we may offer to you the continual offering that it may atone for us, as you have prescribed for us in your Torah through Moses, your servant, from your glorious mouth as it is said...


The Tamid offering description is then read followed by a second short prayer:


May it be your will, Lord our God, and the God of our forefathers, that this statement we have read be considered before you valuable and acceptable as if we have actually sacrificed the Korban Tamid in its proper hour and place and according to all of its laws.


These prayers contain two ideas : the first is a request that the sacrificial system be re-implemented (a theme that appears often in Jewish prayers); the second is a request that meanwhile God accept the mere reading of the Torah's descriptions as a substitute for the actual ritual slaughter and offering of animals.


The source for this idea is a gemara in Tractate Ta'anit (27b) which reads as follows:


R. Jacob ben Acha said in the name of R. Assi: Were it not for the MA'AMADOT heaven and earth could not endure, as it is said, "And he said: O Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" (Genesis 15:8) Abraham said: Master of the Universe, should Israel sin before Thee will You do unto them [as You have done] to the generation of the Flood and to the generation of the Dispersion?  God replied to him: No.  He then said to Him: Master of the Universe, "Let me know whereby I shall inherit it."  God answered: "Take Me a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old."  Abraham then continued: "Master of the Universe!  This holds good while the Temple remains in being, but when the Temple will no longer be what will become of them?"  God replied: "I have already long ago provided for them in the Torah the order of the sacrifices and whenever they read it I will deem it as if they had offered them before Me and I will grant them pardon for all their iniquities."


We must emphasize that this last promise does not appear in the Torah text but is being suggested by R. Assi.  In the original Hebrew text God says that if the Jews read the sacrifices, "MA'ALEH ANI ALEIHEM KE-ILU HIKRIVUM."  This phrase "MA'ALEH AL" is a curious one and appears often in the Talmud in a slightly different form.  For example, in Berakhot 10b, R. Yosi is quoted in the name of R. Chanina who, in turn, was repeating something he heard from R. Eliezer ben Yaakov: "If a man entertains a scholar in his house and lets him enjoy his possessions, MA'ALEH ALAV HA-KATUV KE-ILU - Scripture accounts it to him as if he had sacrificed the daily burnt-offering."  Similarly, R. Joshua ben Levi makes this statement in Sota 5b: "Come and see how great are the lowly of spirit in the esteem of the Holy One, Blessed be He, since when the Temple stood, a man brought a burnt-offering and received the reward of a burnt-offering, a meal-offering and he received the reward of a meal-offering; but as for him whose mind is lowly, MA'ALEH ALAV HA-KATUV KE-ILU - Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had offered every one of the sacrifices; as it is said, 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit' (Psalms 51:19).


I must confess that I have very little idea of what the Talmud means by the phrase MA'ALEH ALAV HA-KATUV KE-ILU, and my research has failed to turn up anything other than the literal translation.


Does the Talmud mean that if one reads the sacrifices, respects scholars or is humble, he is granted the same reward as if he had actually brought the sacrifices, or is he granted only partial reward since it is only KE-ILU - it is only AS IF he had brought the sacrifice.  And although our initial quote of R. Assi has God promising that He Himself will consider reading like doing, who exactly is making these equations in the other statements - KATUV - Scripture?  Does this mean that the Torah's presentation of the sacrifices somehow includes other possible ways of fulfilling these biblical commands?  Presumably, respecting scholars, or being humble, (or taking the four species on Sukkot - see Sukka 45a; there are a whole range of statements like these) is considered before God as equivalent to the sacrifices and not before Scripture.  Lastly, what do the words MA'ALEH ALAV mean?  Literally they say that "it is raised before him (the person who is getting credit for the sacrifices)" but why is the word "raised" used here when it might make more sense to say "it is recorded as if..." or "he is credited with?"


As I mentioned, I do not understand the phrase or how it relates to the dynamics of the Torah's system of reward and punishment.  But I do have a further question to which I will propose a theory.  The phrase MA'ALEH ALAV HA-KATUV is not unique to issues related to sacrifices - it is an approach found across the Talmud connected to the substitution of various mitzvot.  One such expression says that thought alone is equivalent to performance of any actual commandment.


R. Ashi says: If a man thought to fulfill a commandment and he did not do it, because he was prevented by force or accident, then the Scripture credits it to him - MA'ALEH ALAV HA-KATUV - as if he had performed it (Berakhot 6a).


Again, I am having somewhat of a difficulty understanding this statement.  To be sure, there are plenty of Jewish scholars who write of the greater importance that the human mind and emotions have over action.  Rabbeinu Nissim Gerondi (also known as Ran, 14th century) writes, for example, in his 5th Sermon (in Derashot HaRan) that there are three types of mitzvot: the first type includes those commands which are based entirely on the mind and hardly use the body at all.  Examples of this would be the command to believe in the existence of God, to believe in Divine Providence and to believe in reward and punishment.  The second class of mitzva comprises those injunctions which require the Jew to act but which include either a concomitant emotion (acts of kindness towards others) or an historical remembrance (eating matza on Pesach).  The third group of mitzvot is called CHUKIM and are those commandments whose meaning is unknown (kashrut for example).  These last laws also involve the mind in their performance since the Jew must think that he is acting according to God's will.  The Ran, thus, concludes that all mitzvot are rooted in the heart, that thought is the foundation of the service of God.


But this cannot mean that Judaism is a religion of thought rather than deed.  Were a person to claim that he was thinking about giving charity, few people would agree that that is a substitute for actually providing the needy with money or food.  All the Ran seems to be saying is that ours is not a culture of automatons, that going through the motions is an insufficient method of fulfilling God's will.


Perhaps the phrase MA'ALEH ALAV HA-KATUV as used say, by R. Ashi above, concludes with the word KE-ILU - as if, to say that thinking about a mitzva may not be equivalent to doing the actual mitzva, it may just be the best substitute when performance is not possible.  This may help in our understanding of the gemara's suggestion that we read the sacrifices (Ta'anit 27b): Since the Temple is destroyed and it is impossible to offer animals, studying about the sacrifices is the next best thing.  Still, where does that leave the other gemarot which claim that other actions which seem to have little to do with sacrifices can serve as a stand-in for their performance?


I'd like to offer another approach to our issue by turning to the traditional discussion of sacrifices which aims to reveal the meaning behind the sacrifice system.  I will quote here an excerpt from Ramban's (R. Moshe ben Nachman 13th century) commentary on Leviticus 1:9.  Arguing against the Rambam that the sacrifices do indeed have an inherent purpose, the Ramban writes:


The deeds of man include thought and speech and actions, God commanded that when a person sins he shall bring a sacrifice and place his hands on the animal parallel to his [sinful] deed, and shall confess orally parallel to his speech, and shall burn the innards - the kidneys which are the seat of thought and desire, and the legs - parallel to the person's arms and legs which do all of his actions, and shall sprinkle [the animal's] blood on the altar parallel to his own soul's blood - all this so that the person shall think about his actions - how he sinned against God in body and soul.  The person himself deserves to have his own blood spilled and his own body burned were it not for the grace of the Creator Who takes a substitute instead.


From the Ramban's perspective, it would seem that the whole point of korbanot is to correct a fault that has been committed.  Without recognition that the animal burning up there on the altar should really be the sinner, the sacrifice has very little meaning.  Even the Rambam (R. Moses ben Maimon) who takes a completely different, rational and historical approach to the sacrifices, admits that the kohanim must have purity of mind when performing in the Temple.  Any stray or improper thought can have dire consequences for the acceptance of the sacrifice (see Hilkhot Pesulei HaMukdashim 13:1, 14:1, 18:1).  Given these points, we might be able to explain how reading the sacrifices can substitute for action.  A further gemara in Menachot (110a) states:


Resh Lakish said: What is the significance of the verse, "This is the law for the burnt-offering, for the meal-offering, for the sin-offering, and for the guilt-offering?" (Leviticus 7:37).  It teaches that whosoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as though he were offering a burnt-offering, a meal-offering, a sin-offering, and a guilt-offering.


It seems that this gemara suggests that the study of the sacrifice passages and not merely their reading is the substitute for the actual performance.  In other words, if a person reads the passages with the understanding of their symbolic meaning, if the person accepts that he has sinned and resolves to repent, then the recitation of the Torah's descriptions will serve as the next best thing to offering an animal.  But mere reading of verses with no thought for what they represent is hardly any substitute at all.  Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin, 20th century) alters the wording of our original gemara.  Ta'anit 27b quotes God as saying that reading is sufficient, but the Mishna Berura (48:1) states that "he who is OSEK (busies himself with, studies) the sacrifices and their passages is considered in God's eyes as if he brought the sacrifices.


In conclusion, it must be mentioned that the gemara in Berakhot 26b states that the prayer services that we have today were instituted as substitutes for (or parallels to) the sacrifices.  Although the Halakhists debate the minimum amount of concentration and intention that a person must have to fulfill his obligations for prayer, it should be obvious that merely articulating words with no accompanying thought contains little meaning.  Similarly, offering sacrifices or reviewing their description instead must include intent and desire to repent and grow closer to God.

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