click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Vayikra(Leviticus 1-5)

The Mystery of the Sacrifices

One of the main topics of this week's Torah portion is the idea of korban, "sacrificial offering."

This concept may come as somewhat of a surprise, for if Judaism believes in an all-powerful, transcendental God, what is the purpose of the korban? After all, why would God, who creates and sustains all, need our offerings?

Clearly the answer must be that God has no "need" for these offerings. Yet, if this is the case, why does the Torah command us to bring offerings, and with such detail?

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, gives a rational explanation for the offerings.

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, gives a rational explanation for the offerings: The Jews, influenced by other cultures, had become accustomed to this type of ritualistic dependency. Rather than allowing pagan rites, the Torah made some basic adjustments, and called upon human beings to offer that which they desired. God, for his part, has no need for these offerings.

While this interpretation does solve at least the basic question, it leaves an unpleasant taste, for if the offerings were simply an accommodation to the relatively low level of the community at the time, why would the Torah deal with this issue in such detail?

Furthermore, why would these laws continue into the Second Temple period, when the Jews were no longer affected by pagan influences, having long since quit Egypt?

In short, while answering the main problem, Maimonides causes new ones. Furthermore one must note, that Maimonides himself, in another of his works, Mishne Torah, refers to the offerings as a chok, the type of law for which man does not know the reason. Therefore, he discounts even his own explanation!

 

* * *

 

AN OPPOSING VIEW

Nachmanides, in his Commentary to the Torah, strongly attacks this approach, one of his main arguments being that sacrifice predates pagan influence -- Cain’s offering being a perfect example. Furthermore, the korban is described as pleasant to God. If the sacrifice is simply a concession to frail, spiritually-challenged human nature, why would God be pleased by such an offering?

We might posit that God responds not to the korban but to what it represents -- a man’s way of seeking out a relationship with Him. But this argument seems to contradict the verses dealing with the offerings.

Nachmanides' position is that the various actions involved in making the offering are meant to relate to different aspects of man’s need for exoneration:

 

  • The most dramatic aspect, the spilling of the blood, is intended to serve as a symbolic reminder that the man who has sinned has, in a sense, forfeited his own life. It is the grace of God which will allow this person to achieve forgiveness. In this approach, it is not God who "needs" the offering, but man who needs to be rehabilitated.

     

     

  • The blood of the animal which is sprinkled serves as a vivid reminder of man’s vulnerability. This "near death" experience is meant to be an impetus for spiritual growth, calling on man to sacrifice the animal within himself which allowed him to sin in the first place.

 

In this view, the korban is a powerful cathartic experience which takes into consideration the psychological makeup of man.

 

* * *

 

SACRIFICES AND THE NAME OF GOD

After giving this explanation Nachmanides writes:

But the true (Kabbalistic) path has an elusive mystical reason for korbanot ... the name of God exclusively used in regard to the korbanot is not "El" nor Elohim ... rather YHVH, the unique name, ... that no one should think that the korban is in order to feed God.

Nachmanides reminds us that the name YHVH refers to the transcendent aspect of God; it is the name which indicates that God is beyond man’s understanding. The Torah employs this name in reference to the offerings --to the exclusion of all other names of God -- pointing up the incongruity of the idea of "God’s needs." The name Elohim, on the other hand, refers to God as judge, a concept which humans can grasp. Had this name of God been used in connection with offerings, one might have been tempted to imagine that a "bribe" is possible. But when we contemplate that the offerings are commanded by YHVH, we realize that no bribes can be offered.

Additionally, YHVH -- the singular, timeless name -- refers to God's trait of existing outside of time. This may help us understand how forgiveness takes place: If a man sinned yesterday, and repented today, how can his present attitude undo that which he did yesterday?

If a man sinned yesterday, and repented today, how can his present attitude undo that which he did yesterday?

If we understand that God exists outside of time -- indeed, God created time -- when we try to reestablish a relationship with God, then time becomes less of a factor.

When man connects with the transcendent God, "yesterday" becomes limited to the human perspective, which no longer confines him.

 

* * *

 

REPENTANCE, RETURN AND FORGIVENESS

This is the mystery of teshuva, "repentance" (which literally means "return") and of forgiveness. Man repents, returns to God, and God forgives him.

This also explains why the word korban is derived from the root
k-r-v, "to come close." The korban is the act which allows man to come close to God. Teshuva is not only a return to God, it is also a return to oneself, to the potential within man, to the image of God within each and every one of us. When man repents, he returns to the core of godliness within himself, that tzelem Elohim, the "image of God" that is his essence.

Judaism is a religion which sees value in the life of an animal - and sacrifices do not undo that.

The importance of the korban lies in the rehabilitation of man which is its intended result. Judaism is a religion which sees value in the life of an animal. Animal sacrifice is not an expression of disregard for animals. Rather, it is a statement of the importance of human life: If the price to be paid for the rehabilitation of a person is the life of an animal, then it is not a high price. The key is in man’s rehabilitation, in his finding the image of God within him.

As God is compassionate, so must man be compassionate. People, however, have a tendency toward paganism, and instead of undergoing real, profound change, man often prefers to "pay the price" financially, without affecting internal change.

In response to this type of behavior, the Temple came crashing down. Prophet Hosea, speaking on behalf of God, made it clear why: "It was your kindness which I desired, and not your offerings." (Hosea 6:6)

 

* * *

 

THE REAL REASON

The offerings were intended as a means toward an end, a path toward finding one's own tzelem Elohim. They were meant to be the key which would allow faltering man to regain focus and not some sort of magical ritual needed to placate an angry God.

The Torah, with its universal concerns, commanded the offerings as a way to take the profound religious experiences associated with the Temple into the lives of individuals.

Judaism is holistic, with "religious" concerns, resonating in both the "spiritual" and "secular" domains. The experience of the korban in the Temple was intended to have a "spill-over" effect, impacting every aspect of our lives. At the point when people compartmentalized religious concerns, placing ritual above social and moral issues, the Temple became a hindrance rather than a place of salvation.

When people began to place ritual above social and moral issues, the Temple became a hindrance.

This point is clearly evidenced by a tragic story told in the Talmud, of two priests who raced to perform the Divine service. When one preceded his friend, the latter plunged a knife into his colleague’s chest. He may as well have stabbed the Temple itself, for this story clearly describes misuse, and total misunderstanding of, religious life.

The Temple was to serve as the symbol of religious life but not as a replacement for ethical life. Because man strays from himself and from God, the offerings were necessary to remind man of his mortality on the one hand and his mission to repair the world on the other.

Man must remind himself that God has no needs, and that man’s purpose on this earth is to forge a relationship with God, which can be accomplished by emulating God. When we fail our mission we may still attempt to come close to God with an offering, but this will only be effective if we try to bring more Divine light into the world.

The way to bring more Divine light into the world is by manifesting the "image of God" within, and by seeing the image of God in others.

As God Himself told us long ago:

'It was your kindness which I desired, and not your offerings.' (Hosea 6:6)

Published: March 5, 2000

Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Marilyn Bennett, March 11, 2011 6:16 AM

You show clearly that Hashem is concerned with intent, not the korban.

Dear Rav Kahn, Again you illuminate our lives with the clarity of Torah. What Hashem wants is man's intent to be kind and moral, not to sacrifice animals merely for ritual. I think you show us a reason for no longer having animal sacrifice. Perhaps we have evolved a bit and are striving to inculcate the principles you have discussed. Let's hope so. Thank you again for bringing the Torah to life through understanding.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub