Community > Jewish Life > Vayikra: The Rationale of the Sacrifices

Vayikra: The Rationale of the Sacrifices

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The sacrificial laws are like a sealed book to us: we comprehend neither their basic meaning nor their purport of their rules and regulations. Indeed, their lapse since the destruction of the temple may have blunted our feelings for the sacrifices. We shall endeavor to understand the views of some of our Sages and commentators on the underlying meaning of the sacrifices.

Let us begin with the great controversy between Maimonides and Nahmanides on the subject. In two passages Maimonides deals with the meaning of the sacrifices in his Guide for the Perplexed. Thus, at length, in Part III, Ch. 32:

It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; the nature of man will not allow him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make (the Israelites) a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6) by means of the knowledge of God. Cf.: “Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God” (ibid. 5:39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; cf.: “and to serve Him with all your heart” (ibid. 11:13); “and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Ex. 23:25); “and you shall serve Him” (Deut. 13:5).

But the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in temples containing images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them. 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 modes of worship; for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally clings to that which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these rituals to continue: He transferred to His service that which had formerly serves worship of created beings, and things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; cf.: “and they shall make unto Me a sanctuary” (Ex. 25:8); to have the altar erected to His name; cf.: “An altar of earth thou shall make unto Me” (Ibid., 20:21); to offer the sacrifices to Him; cf.: “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 us to do any of these things to any other beings.

By this Divine plan 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 aim was achieved 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.

Realizing the revolutionary character of his view, whereby the purpose of the entire sacrificial service (which occupies a significant position in the Torah) was merely designed to diminish an evil by steering it in the right direction, Maimonides argues the question as follows:

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange; you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other things; as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary end? What prevented Him from making His primary end a direct commandment to us, and to give us the capacity of obeying it? Those precepts which in your opinion are only the means and not the end would then have been unnecessary. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you.

There occurs in the Law passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following: “God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea’, etc (Ex. 13:17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to achieve His original aim. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread the knowledge of Him (among the people), and to cause them to reject idolatry.

It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; it would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of god’s wisdom that the Israelites were led in the wilderness till they acquired courage. For it is a well known fact that the rough conditions of desert travel produce tough fighters, whilst the reverse (soft conditions) is the source of faint-heartedness; besides, another generation rose during the wanderings that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery. All the traveling in the wilderness was regulated by Divine commands through Moses; cf.: “At the commandment of the Lord they rested, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed”.

In the same way the sacrificial portion of the Torah was prompted by Divine wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object (of God’s commandments).

Since the sacrificial service is not the primary object (of the commandments about sacrifice), while supplications, prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit any who desires to become a priest and to sacrifice.

On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed, “in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. 12:26); in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice; cf.: “Take heed to thyself, that thou offer not thy burnt-offerings in every place that thou see” (ibid. 12:13); and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of tzitzit (Num. 15:38); mezuzah (Deut. 6:9; 11:20); tefillin (Ex. 13:-16); and similar kinds of Divine service.

Accordingly, the Prophets frequently reprove their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices; the prophets thereby proclaimed that sacrifices were not essential, and God does not require them. Samuel therefore said, “”has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:22)? Isaiah exclaimed, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifice unto me? said the Lord” (Isa. 1:11).

Maimondes finds support for his view in the Torah. Indeed, the Torah states explicitly that all animals slaughtered for food must be brought to the Tent of Meeting to be offered up as sacrifices: ” To the end that the Children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest…. And they shall no more their sacrifices to the demons, after whom they have gone astray”

(Lev. 17:5-7). He sees further support for his view in the severely restrictive rules which determine the place, time and person who may perform the sacrificial ritual; it is performed only in the Sanctuary and only by a priest, the descendant of a particular lineage. Evidently, the offering up of a sacrifice must not be an impetuous act spawned by a momentary elation and liable to degenerate into idol worship.

However, not satisfied with this explanation, Maimondes proceeds to explain certain details of the sacrificial service. In his Guide for the Perplexed (Part 111, Ch. 46) he states:

…that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. Cf. “behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us?” (Ex. 8:22) and “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34) … Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animal in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu (India) 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 Torah commands us to offer sacrifices of only three kinds: “You shall bring your offering of the cattle, 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, diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles, which are diametrically opposed.

The sacrifices should thus keep us away from idol worship and blot it out of our memory, following Maimondes’ general view that the purpose of the Torah and its Laws is to achieve man’s total dedication to serve the Lord, and only the Lord, which requires an absolute rejection of idolatry and its aberrations, since “the whole aim of the Torah is to eradicate those ideas from our hearts.”

In his work on the rationale of the mitzvot, Professor Yitzchak Heinemann affirms that Maimondes has been misunderstood by many who accorded him the odd distinction of being the forerunner of the repudiators of all “ceremonial” commandments. Accordingly, the sacrificial service marked a deficient religious perception which would be abolished eventually with the progress and refinement (!) of the human race, whereas Maimonides explicitly accepts it as constituting a Service to God – albeit in an indirect form.

The following passage from Hilkhot Me’ila 8:8 clears up any misconception:

It is fitting for man to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not “break through to rise up against the Lord lest the Lord break forth upon him” (Ex. 19:24); nor should his thoughts concerning these things be like his thoughts concerning profane matters. Come and consider how strict the Torah was in the law of trespass! Now if sticks and stones and earth and ashes become hallowed by words alone as soon as the name of the Master of the Universe was invoked upon them, and anyone who comported with them as with a profane thing committed trespass and required atonement even if he acted unwillingly, how much more should man be on guard not to rebel against a commandment decreed for us by the Holy One, blessed be He, only because he does not understand its reason; or to heap words that are not right against the Lord; or to regard the commandments in the manner he regards ordinary affairs.

Behold it is said in Scripture: “You shall therefore keep all My statutes, and all Mine ordinances, and do them” (Lev. 20:22); whereupon our sages have commented that “keeping” and “doing” refer to the “statutes” as well as to the “ordinances.” “Doing” is well known; namely, to perform the statutes. And “keeping” means that one should be careful concerning them and not imagine that they are less important than the ordinances.

Now the “ordinances” are commandments whose reason is obvious, and the benefit derived from doing them in this world is well known; for example, the prohibition against robbery and murder, or the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother. The “statutes”, on the other hand, are commandments whose reason is not known. Our sages have said: My statutes are the decrees that I have decreed for you, and you are not permitted to question them. A man’s impulse pricks him concerning them and the Gentiles reprove us about them, such as the statutes concerning the prohibition against the flesh of the pig and that against meat seethed with milk, the law of the heifer whose neck is broken, the red heifer, or the scapegoat. How much was King David distressed by heretics and pagans who disputed the statutes? Yet the more they pursued him with false questions, which they plied according to the narrowness of man’s mind, the more he increased his cleaving to the Torah; as it is said: “The proud have forged a lie against me; but I with my whole heart will keep Your precepts” (Ps. 119:69).

It is also said there concerning this: “all Your commandments are faithful; they persecute me falsely, help You me” (ibid. 119:86).- All the laws (concerning the) offerings are in the category of statutes. The sages have said that the world stands because of the service of the offerings; for through the performance of the statutes and the ordinances the righteous merit life in the world to come. Indeed, the Torah puts the commandments concerning the statutes first; as it is said: “You shall therefore keep My statutes, and Mine ordinances which if a man do, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5)(Tr. from A Maimonides Reader by I. Twersky)

The views expressed by Maimonides in his Guide, denying the intrinsic value of the sacrificial service which was a mere concession leading indirectly to the desired goal found many opponents. In his commentary on Lev. 1:9 Nahmanides takes issue with Maimonides, after citing 3:46 of the Guide (not his detailed exposition in 3:32 cited above):

His statements are preposterous. They “heal the great hurt superficially”* (i.e. provide a shallow answer to a difficult problem), and render ” the table of the Lord disgusting” by limiting its use to placate the wicked and the foolish. But the Torah states that they (the sacrifices) are “food of the offering made by fire for a sweet savor” (and thus have an intrinsic value and not the mere polemical role of abolishing distorted conceptions). Furthermore, this will not cure the perverse Egyptian concept but will rather enhance it. The wicked Egyptians worshipped Aries and Taurus (ram and bull) because they ascribed to these animals special powers, and therefore did not eat them. Now if they are offered up as sacrifices to God, this would bestow the highest honor and distinction, and this is what they actually do…. In order to counteract that distorted idea it would be more proper to eat to one’s delight the very animals they consider forbidden and abominable (i.e. neither offer them up on the altar nor sprinkle their blood on it, but merely consume the animals holy to them, denying their sacredness and divine power).

Nahmanides further argues that if the sacrifices were confined to the war against idolatry, then the earliest sacrifices ought to have arisen after the advent of idolatry. However, this is contradicted by the Torah thus:

Behold, when Noah and his three sons came out of the ark – there were no Chaldeans or Egyptians in the world – he offered up sacrifices which pleased God as the Torah states “And the Lord smelled the sweet savor” (Gen. 8:21), and as a result He said in his heart, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake”. Similarly: “And Hevel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and the fat parts thereof. And the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offerings” (Gen. 4:4), although at that time there was no trace of idolatry in the world…Moreover, the sacrifices are described as: “My sacrifice, my bread for my offering made by fire, for a sweet savor to me” (Num. 28:2). It is unthinkable that they lack any benefit or purpose other than the elimination of idolatry from its foolish followers.

Nahmanides then propounds an alternative explanation which, as we shall see presently, does not reveal the depths of his mind:

A more acceptable rationale is the one set out as follows: Seeing that human conduct is expressed in thought, speech and action, God instituted that a person who has committed a transgression and offers a sacrifice, shall place his hands on it – symbolizing the deed, make a confession – as a reminder of the misused power of speech, and burn with fire the bowels and kidneys – which are the organs of thought and lust, and the legs – symbol of the human hands and feet, instruments which serve man in all his activities. And the blood shall be sprinkled on the altar – representing his life-blood. All this should make him realize that having sinned against God with his body and soul, he would deserve to have his blood spilled and his body burned. However, God in his infinite mercy, accepts this substitute for an atonement, and its blood in lieu of his, its main organs in place of his, the portions (of the sacrifice eaten by the priests) so as to sustain the teachers of the Torah that they may pray for him. Accordingly, the daily sacrifice is offered up because of the masses who are constantly caught up in the web of sin. This explanation is plausible and appeals to the mind even as the expositions of the Aggada. However, in the context of (mystical) truth, the sacrifices contain hidden mysteries…

The words “a more acceptable rationale” imply that this view is merely preferred to that of Maimonides, while the real explanation is contained in the mystical teachings of the Kabbala. This, however lies beyond our present scope.

But how can the scriptural reference to “a sweet savor” be reconciled with the Psalmist’s exclamation: “for You desire not sacrifice, or else I would give it, You delight not in burnt offering” (51:18) or: “You do not desire sacrifice or meal offering, You have dug open my ears, burnt offering and sin offering You have not required” (40:7). On the other hand we read: “then will You be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering …”(51:21).

In Tractate Menahot 110a, our sages state: Do not think that He needs the food, for it is written: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is Mine and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 50:12), and “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountain, and the wild beasts of the field are mine” (ibid. 10-11). I did not tell you to offer sacrifices so that you may say: I shall comply with His wishes so that He may fulfill mine (Rashi explains: I shall do God’s will, to offer him a sacrifice, for He needs it; I shall bribe Him And He will fulfill my wishes). It is not for my gratification that you offer the sacrifices (Rashi: It is not my purpose to impose upon you the offering of sacrifices), as it is written: “you shall offer it that you may be accepted” (li’retzonhem – “by your will” i.e., for your need – (tr.) (Rashi: To satisfy your needs, i.e., to fulfill My commandments, that you may gain atonement).

The view offered by the Sefer HaHinikh (see Portion Bo) on the role of the practical mitzvot also explains the obligation to offer sacrifices as rooted in human nature and psychological make-up. According to Maimonides, neither biblical. Nor modern man can worship God “in thought only, without practice.” This idea is propounded also by the Sefer HaHinukh, portion Terumah – Commandment 95, concerning the Building of the Temple) in his commentary on the sin offering:

As already stated, the mind is influenced mainly by deeds. It is therefore not enough for the sinner to cleanse his mind and commit himself to avoid further sinning with mere words. For this purpose a significant act must be performed, i.e., the sinner must take a he-goat from the sheep-pen and strive to reach the Kohen at the Temple where the ritual of sin-offering will be carried out fully as specified in the Torah. This weighty act will impress upon the sinner’s mind the gravity of his transgression so as to avoid it in the future.