Sacrifices versus Idolatry

I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around the concept of korbanot (sacrifices). To me it seems like such a primitive act, offering meat to God, a throwback to pagan practices. Where is the room for such a commandment in Judaism?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that the notion of animal sacrifice appears very unusual to us. But this is in part because of an association it has in our minds with pagan religions. In truth, although the act of bringing a sacrifice superficially resembles the primitive practice, the meaning behind it could not be more different.

The ancients saw animal (or human) sacrifice as giving a gift or a bribe to their gods. Their gods were hungry and needed to be fed. By giving them some delicious cooked meat (or something even more precious to the giver, such as his child), they would get on the gods’ good side and get what they wanted – rain, crops, girlfriends, conquest, etc.

In a deeper sense, the sacrifices of the ancients perfectly summed up the type of relationship they had with their gods. They were not attempting to build a relationship with their deity or become subservient to it. They were looking out for themselves. They wanted whatever blessings they were after – be it girls, wealth or conquest – and they saw the gods as having the power to grant it. At the same time, the gods needed food and just loved fresh meat. The bringing of offerings reflected a marriage of convenience, with each side looking out for itself and getting what it wanted.

As is clear, the notion of sacrifices in Judaism could not be more different. To begin with, God is perfect. He has no needs. Imagining that we bring Him sacrifices because He’s hungry and wants our meat is heresy. It not only misunderstands the notion of korbanot, but the Jewish notion of God altogether.

Rather we bring korbanot for the same reason we perform all the commandments – for our own sakes. And sacrifices in particular carry a profound message.

R. Samson Raphael Hircsh relates the word korban to l’hakriv – to bring close. Sacrifice is a way of coming close to God, of giving ourselves over to Him. The basic message of the sacrifices is that in a sense, we would like to do to ourselves exactly what we are doing to this animal. We would like to give our entire selves over to God, body and soul. (This could either be to make up for a past sin or just to get close – the particular meaning of each type of offering is beyond the scope of this response.) We would like to bring ourselves as an offering. But since God wants us to go on living, we bring an animal in our stead, one which is completely devoted and given over to God, body and soul – precisely the way we should live our lives.

See here for a more detailed explanation of the purpose of korbanot. This article also gives important perspective on the correlation between sacrifices and idolatry.

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