Confronting Korbanot

  Context With the opening of the Book of Vayikra, we enter the world of korbanot.[1] In chapter upon chapter of text, God commands the newly formed Jewish nation, encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, concerning the rituals that will define the sacrificial rite in the Sanctuary.   Questions The very existence of korbanot creates a powerful quandary. On the one hand, no area of Torah law seems more alien to modern sensibilities than that of korbanot. As we confront the Torah’s sacrificial rites, we find ourselves at a total loss, unable to relate to these seemingly primitive rituals, wondering why an all-powerful, incorporeal God would demand the offering of animals and grain in His worship. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the sacrificial rites are an integral part of Jewish law. Not only are substantial portions of Torah text dedicated to detailed descriptions of korbanot, but these rituals apparently remain, to this day, a critical component of our national aspirations and dreams. Jewish liturgy is replete with prayers seeking the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstatement of the sacrifices. An honest approach towards the Torah text demands that we not ignore the existence of korbanot. The questions raised by these puzzling rituals must be dealt with head-on. Why does God demand offerings of animals and grain as part of His worship? An all-powerful, transcendent God certainly has no need for physical gifts from man. Do the Torah-mandated sacrificial rites speak to us, on any level, today? Can any relevant lessons be learned from these seemingly archaic rituals? Do we really desire a return to the practice of korbanot?   Approaches

  1. Historical Development

Our analysis begins, as it should, at the beginning, with a brief review of the historical development of korbanot as described in the Torah. This review reveals a number of surprising and significant points. A The first textually recorded physical offering to God is brought during the second generation of man’s existence by Kayin, the eldest son of Adam and Chava. Kayin is promptly followed in this act by his brother, Hevel.[2] As we have noted previously (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3, Approaches D), the Torah’s testimony concerning God’s selective acceptance of these offerings is particularly telling: “And God turned to Hevel and to his offering, but to Kayin and to his offering He did not turn.”[3] The language seems superfluous. The Torah could have made its point by simply stating, “And God turned to Hevel’s offering while to Kayin’s offering He did not turn.” Why specify that God turns to “Hevel and to his offering” but not to “Kayin and to his offering”? Apparently, with the very advent of man’s physical offerings to the Divine, God wants to establish that He will not consider these rituals in a vacuum. God does not “accept” or “reject” korbanot or, for that matter, any ritual observance, arbitrarily. He bases His judgments upon the motivations and actions of the supplicant. While the Torah is not clear why, something in Hevel’s behavior moves God to accept him and his offering. Conversely, Kayin’s conduct apparently merits divine rejection. Kayin is unable or unwilling to appreciate the ramifications of this rejection. Paralyzed in the face of the divine demand for personal introspection and behavioral change, he instead lashes out against his brother, with tragic consequences. With the first appearance of ritual worship in the Torah, God immediately places such worship in its proper context. Through a seemingly simple turn of phrase, He communicates that He does not seek meaningless, arbitrary acts from man, but, instead, thought-filled, meaningful religious devotion (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3). B Another telling, continuing pattern is initiated in the Torah with the offerings of Kayin and Hevel. From this point on, until the birth of the Jewish nation with the Exodus from Egypt, all korbanot emerge in the Torah as man-initiated events. Driven by a desire to communicate with an unfathomable God, early man, of his own accord, develops a sacrificial rite. Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov each voluntarily bring offerings to God. At no point does God demand any of these sacrifices. The only two possible exceptions to this rule prove, upon analysis, not to be exceptions at all.

  1. During the Brit bein Habetarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, God commands Avraham to slaughter a series of animals and divide each animal into two. “Passing through” the pieces, God then reveals to Avraham a prophetic vision of the Israelites’ eventual descent into bondage and their ultimate redemption.[4]

On a level of pshat, however, the scholars maintain that the animals used in this ritual are not offerings in the classical sense. Rashi, for example, explains that, as God enacts a covenant with Avraham, He employs symbolism common to the society of the time. “It was the custom of those involved in a covenant to divide animals and to pass through them.”[5]

  1. During Avraham’s most dramatic test, Akeidat Yitzchak (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak), God commands the patriarch to “raise” his son as an offering on the summit of Mount Moriah. This “offering,” however, never takes place. Avraham is stopped at the last moment by a heavenly angel.[6]

While the true purpose of the Akeida remains an ongoing subject of discussion (see Bereishit: Vayeira 4), one aspect of the event remains unchallenged. The only offering actually brought on the summit of Mount Moriah occurs after Yitzchak is spared. At that point Avraham, of his own initiative, offers a ram “in place of his son.”[7] Once again, the korban actually offered is not commanded by God. C Everything changes, however, centuries later, on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt. As the Egyptians brace for the final, devastating plague, the Israelites retreat, upon God’s command, to their homes. There, in separate family meals, they participate in the first God-commanded sacrifice recorded in the Torah: the Korban Pesach.[8] Simultaneous with the birth of the Jewish nation, a divinely ordained sacrificial rite is “born.” Beginning with that event, korbanot became an integral part of Jewish tradition. Why do things change so dramatically with the birth of the Jewish nation? Why, at this point, are korbanot transformed from man-initiated to God-commanded rituals? Why does God now desire korbanot? Answers to these questions are suggested in the deliberations of the rabbis.  

  1. Philosophical Approaches

A Two separate approaches proposed by the Rambam are central to the rabbinic discussion of korbanot.

  1. In his halachic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam categorizes korbanot as chukim, mitzvot for which no reason is given in the Torah. While one is encouraged to seek meaning in such mitzvot, says the Rambam, God’s true reasoning may well remain elusive. Shrouded in mystery, chukim such as korbanot emerge as a true test of our loyalty to God’s will.[9]
  2. In his Guide to the Perplexed, however, the Rambam offers a vastly different, rational approach to the inclusion of korbanot in Jewish law.

Many phenomena in the Torah, he maintains, are based upon the principle that abrupt major change in human behavior is impossible. Man simply cannot journey immediately “from one extreme to the other” (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 2, Approaches A). God cannot expect the Israelites, reared in idolatrous surroundings replete with sacrificial rite, to totally reject rituals that they have come to see as necessary for communion with the Divine. He therefore commands his chosen people to sanctify the profane by adapting aspects of the prevailing sacrificial rite to His worship within the Sanctuary. From this perspective, korbanot emerge as a divine concession to man’s need. The Israelites’ difficult transition to their newfound faith is eased through the incorporation of a familiar ritual path.[10] While the Rambam’s rational explanation for korbanot in the Guide to the Perplexed sets off a firestorm of controversy among his contemporaries and later scholars (see below), his observations may not be as revolutionary as they seem. The Rambam’s theories, according to some authorities,[11] are actually foreshadowed in an earlier Midrashic source recorded in Vayikra Rabba: Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Levi: The matter [of sacrifices] can be compared to the story of a prince whose haughtiness leads him to the consumption of despicable substances. The king determines: “Let my son attend my table regularly and he will abstain [from his evil doing] of his own accord.” Similarly, because the Israelites were drawn to idolatrous practices in Egypt and regularly sacrificed to pagan deities, the Holy One Blessed Be He declared: “Let them offer their sacrifices before Me at all times in the Sanctuary and they will separate themselves from idolatry.”[12] Even the Torah text itself seems to lend credence to the Rambam’s approach with the following commandment concerning the centrality of the Temple service: “And they shall bring [their offerings] to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to the Kohen . . . and they shall no longer slaughter their offerings to the demons after whom they stray. . . .”[13] Finally, the Rambam’s suggestions also find support in the earlier described historical development of korbanot in the Torah. Sacrifices emerge as man, of his own initiative, determines a mode of communication with the Divine (see above). With the birth of the Jewish nation, God recognizes the Israelites’ continuing need for such symbolic communication and allows for the retention of the sacrificial rite in his newly given law. B Many authorities defend the Rambam’s rational explanation for the existence of korbanot in Jewish law.[14] Numerous other scholars, however, remain severely critical of the Rambam’s approach, unwilling to categorize the Torah’s extensive, detailed sacrificial rite as a concession to human frailties. After dismissing the Rambam’s proposals as “empty words which address a deep concern in superficial fashion,”[15] the Ramban quotes an alternative approach for those seeking a rational foundation for korbanot (the Ramban himself prefers a mystical approach). Sacrifices are offered, he notes, in large measure as a response to man’s failure and sin. God, therefore, designs the steps of the sacrificial rite to correspond to the three components of human activity through which sin occurs: thought, words and deeds. Sins committed through deed are addressed through the ritual of smicha, whereby the individual bringing the korban “lays his hands” upon the animal prior to its slaughter. Sins committed through speech are reflected in the vidui, the verbal confession offered by each supplicant. Finally, the sinful thoughts and desires that have coursed through the supplicant’s heart and soul are referenced through the animal’s consumption in the fire of the altar and through the sprinkling of its blood. As an individual witnesses and participates in these graphic rituals, he is forced to recognize the extent of his own sinfulness and culpability. Were it not for God’s merciful acceptance of this korban “in his stead,” the petitioner himself would have merited a place upon the altar.[16] C Numerous additional approaches to the concept of korbanot are offered within traditional Jewish literature. Following are several of them. Rav Saadia Gaon maintains that the sacrificial rite enables the Israelites to demonstrate the depth of their dedication to God by offering of the “best of their possessions.”[17] The Ba’al Hachinuch remains true to his general postulate that a person’s thoughts and sentiments are shaped, in great measure, by his concrete actions. The performance of symbolic mitzvot is thus critical to the process of attitude formation. A sinner cannot purify his heart simply through a passive confession “between himself and the wall.” Such confession requires no real effort and, therefore, has minimal effect. If, however, the individual is forced to act—if he becomes obligated in a demanding series of atoning rituals; if he must select from his flock, bring his offerings to the Sanctuary and participate in the detailed sacrificial rite—he will then become acutely aware of the extent of his sin and he will avoid such failure in the future. The Ba’al Hachinuch also suggests that the very act of offering a korban reminds man of the tenuous nature of his own superiority over the beasts of the field. Man’s distinctiveness lies in his ability to reason. When an individual’s reasoning fails and he consequently sins, that individual loses his status as a man and becomes no different from the animal. The Torah, therefore, commands the sinner to offer a korban in the Sanctuary. The slaughter of the animal and the consumption of its remains upon the altar graphically demonstrate that a “reasonless” being is valueless and ultimately destined to destruction. The depth of the supplicant’s failure and the toll of that failure upon his soul are thus underscored.[18] For his part, the Maharal of Prague perceives the sacrificial rite, with its intimations of mortality, as a fundamental reflection of the inconsequentiality of all creatures in the face of God’s greatness. Nothing exists in the world except as a result of God’s kindness and munificence.[19] Finally, numerous commentaries move beyond general explanations for the phenomenon of korbanot and painstakingly analyze the symbolic significance of each detail of the Temple ritual. We will encounter some of their observations in our continued analysis of the book of Vayikra. D Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Torah’s sacrificial rite, however, is the most obvious: the vast majority of korbanot are simply not “sacrifices” in the commonly accepted sense. With singular exceptions (such as the Olah, the burnt offering, which is consumed in its entirety upon the altar), portions of every korban are designated as food for the Kohanim, their dependents and/or the individuals bringing the offering to the Temple. Even more, the very first obligatory korban recorded in the Torah, the Korban Pesach of the Exodus, was, in its entirety, a family meal (see above, I, Approaches C). No altar was present, no Temple service involved. The Israelites were, instead, commanded, on the eve of the Exodus, to physically consume the Paschal Lamb within the sanctity of their homes and to burn the remainder in the morning. What then, defines the Paschal Lamb as a korban? How does this puzzling, seminal ritual set the stage for the entire sacrificial rite to follow? Why were portions of so many of the later korbanot designated as food? Shouldn’t each korban have been a true offering to God, consumed entirely in flames upon the altar? We are forced, it would seem, to reexamine our understanding of korbanot. In contrast to classical “sacrifices,” consumed entirely on the altar, korbanot were, in large measure, shared meals with God. Faced with the naturally developing distance between man and his Creator, forced to address the separation from God that results from sin, the Torah proposes a path, astoundingly profound in its simplicity: invite God to your table. A korban, deriving from the root word karov, “to draw near” (see Vayikra 1, note 1), is the mechanism through which an individual can begin to repair and reestablish his relationship with a personal God. Just as, in the human realm, a shared meal is a powerful relational tool, so too, a meal consumed with God’s symbolic participation can begin to address His estrangement from our lives. Consumed with pomp and circumstance in the very shadow of the Holy Temple—with some portions placed upon the altar and others shared with the priests and, often, with the supplicants themselves—each korban became a potentially powerful rehabilitative tool. God’s presence as an invited, honored guest was palpable and concrete. To the participants these observances were far from meaningless rituals. They were, instead, shared meals with God, the first steps back to a fuller awareness of the Divine in their lives.  E What, however, of the future? Do we truly anticipate a return to sacrifices, as maintained in our prayers? Or, is the sacrificial rite rooted in a past from which our nation has moved on? The vast majority of classical Jewish thinkers insist that our final redemption will feature not only the rebuilding of the Temple but a full return to the sacrificial rite. Particularly noteworthy is the position of the Rambam. In spite of this scholar’s willingness to postulate the origin of korbanot as a concession to man’s limitations (see above, II, Approaches A), he gives no indication that this earthly origin limits the future applicability of these rituals. After dedicating major portions of his Mishneh Torah, his practical compendium of laws, to the strictures surrounding korbanot, the Rambam clearly states towards the end of that work:   The Messianic king is destined to rise in the future and reestablish the Kingdom of David, to build the Temple and to gather the dispersed of Israel. In his day, all the laws will return to their original state. Korbanot will be offered [my italics], the Shmita and Yovel years will be observed. . . . Anyone who does not believe this, or does not await his [the Mashiach’s] arrival, not only denies the words of the prophets but denies the Torah and Moshe, our teacher.[20] A solitary alternative position is raised by the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook. After first maintaining that “with regard to sacrifices it is correct to believe that all aspects will be restored to their place,” Rav Kook builds on kabbalistic literature and envisions a “distant time” when all aspects of the world will be elevated. At that time, he states, humans will no longer need to take the lives of animals for their physical, moral or spiritual needs. The prophet Malachi perhaps references this future period when he states, “Then the grain offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old and as in former years.”[21] Strikingly absent from Malachi’s vision is the reinstatement of animal offerings. The Midrash seems to go even further with the startling prediction “All sacrifices will be nullified in the future.”[22] To further strengthen his position, Kook identifies a series of clues within the Torah itself which he claims reflect the secondary status of animal sacrifices. These offerings remain appropriate as long as man makes use of animals for other needs, such as food and clothing. The time will come, however, when man, reaching his highest state of refinement, will no longer feel the need to take animal life for any purpose. At that point, only grain sacrifices will be offered in the Temple.[23]   Points to Ponder A number of years ago I fielded a strange phone call in my synagogue office. “I represent,” the caller said, “a group of Korean Christian ministers who, in the interest of studying comparative religions, would very much like to visit your synagogue during a Sabbath morning service.” I was immediately struck by two concerns. Firstly, I wondered how my congregation would react when a group of Korean Christian ministers walked in, en masse, without warning one Shabbat morning. Secondly, and more importantly, I wondered what the ministers themselves, absent prior preparation, would make of our service. They would not understand the language; the rituals would be alien and difficult to follow; and, to top matters off, the apparent lack of decorum would be startling (this was before our synagogue’s successful efforts at decorum improvement). How would these ministers respond, for example, to children running up and down the aisles, to groups of adults talking at various points and on various topics during the service? The entire prospect carried, it seemed to me, potential for disaster. I therefore made a stipulation. The group would be welcome, I said, as long as they were willing to come to the synagogue beforehand for a private briefing with me. At that time, I would explain the various symbols within the sanctuary, the nature of our service and our approach to prayer. We would then schedule and announce their Shabbat visit to the community, thus preparing my congregation for their appearance. The caller readily agreed and the date was set for my preliminary meeting with the group at the synagogue. Having spoken before to groups of other faiths about Judaism, I knew that I had to be prepared for the unexpected during the question period that would inevitably follow my presentation. It is always difficult, and at the same time refreshing, to view our traditions through the eyes of total outsiders. On one such previous occasion, for example, the first question raised by a group of Catholic schoolchildren was, “What is the significance of the different colored skullcaps that you wear? Do they represent a hierarchy within your tradition?” Armed by this time with years of experience, however, I felt prepared for whatever might come my way. Early on a Thursday morning, therefore, I found myself in conversation with a group of roughly twenty Korean Christian ministers in the main sanctuary of my synagogue. After reviewing some of the philosophical and practical particulars of our Shabbat service and after showing them various ritual items such as the Torah scroll, the aron kodesh and the ner tamid, I opened the floor for questions. There was a moment of silence , , , Suddenly a hand shot up: “Rabbi, where do you do the animal sacrifices?” “What?” I stammered, caught completely off guard. “Where do you do the animal sacrifices?” Regaining my composure, I began to explain that animal sacrifices were indeed a part of our tradition but that they had been suspended since the destruction of the Temple. My visitors, however, would not let go. For forty-five minutes they continued to pepper me with educated questions concerning animal sacrifices, convinced that somewhere, somehow, I was hiding a goat or cow in the basement of the synagogue. Halfway through the session, I began to realize what was really happening. The assumptions of my guests actually said more about the foundations of their own faith tradition than about mine. Fundamentalist Christians, these ministers were driven by a simple developmental equation. Man, tainted with sin, cannot relate to God directly. To address this basic problem, the “Old Testament,” therefore, prescribes a Temple rite in which offerings of animals and grain enable man to gain atonement and approach an unfathomable God. These sacrifices serve as “substitutes” upon the altar, taking the place of the sinners themselves and redeeming them from sin. Upon entering the world stage, however, Christianity moves past the “primitive” Temple rite by substituting the death of Jesus for the sacrifices. When Jesus “dies for the sins of man,” he replaces the animals on the altar and becomes the essential intermediary between limited man and a limitless God. The possibility that Judaism could be practiced without sacrifices was, therefore, to the minds of my guests, simply unthinkable. Given our lack of belief in Jesus, how else could we relate to an unreachable God? Only a Judaism incorporating sacrifices as intermediaries between man and the Divine could serve as a precursor to their own faith system. No amount of persuasion on my part could, therefore, convince my guests of Judaism’s fundamental belief in a direct relationship with God without intermediary. No explanation of the sacrificial rite as symbolic or educational in purpose could sway them from their firm assumptions. While my guests and I parted ways agreeing to disagree, and while their Shabbat visit to my congregation a few weeks later went without a hitch, their powerfully mistaken assumptions concerning korbanot have haunted me for years. Not because they need to know the truth, but because we do. I find myself wondering. . . . How many of my students or congregants would have been able to respond to the questions raised by the ministers who visited my synagogue those many years ago? How many Jews today give even a second thought to the purpose and significance of the sacrificial rite within our tradition? We understandably avoid confrontation with elements of our tradition which, like korbanot, are difficult to comprehend and uncomfortable to encounter. Such evasion, however, cedes the intellectual high ground to those who would challenge our beliefs and question our traditions. As our brief study of korbanot has demonstrated, every element of the Torah is filled with relevant meaning and message. We avoid the discovery and study of those messages to our own detriment and at our own risk.  

  Unlocking the Torah Text: Leviticus, [Gefen Publishing House & OU Press, Jerusalem, Israel, 2013], pp. 3—12 Reprinted with permission of the author   [1] The term korban is usually translated as “sacrifice” or “offering.” As will become clear in this study, however, these translations do not do the concept justice. The root of the term korban literally means “to draw near.” Korbanot are, therefore, rituals through which the supplicant attempts to “draw near” to an unfathomable God. For want of a better alternative, however, we will initially use the popular translations in our text. [2] Bereishit 4:3–4. While the Talmud does maintain that Adam offered korbanot (Talmud Bavli Avoda Zara 8a) we will limit our discussion to the evidence of textual pshat (straightforward explanation of the Torah text). [3] Bereishit 4:4–5. [4] Ibid., 15:9–16. [5] Rashi, Bereishit 15:10. [6] Bereishit 22:1–12. [7] Ibid., 22:13. [8] Shmot 12:3–28. [9] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Meila 8:8; Hilchot Temura 4:13. [10] Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 30:32. [11] Abravanel, introduction to Vayikra, chapter 4. Note: Other authorities maintain that this Midrash does not support the Rambam’s views but only suggests that involvement with Torah ritual will inevitably result in abstinence from idolatrous practices (see Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Sefer Vayikra [Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1972], pp. 60–61). [12] Midrash Rabba Vayikra 22:7–8. [13] Vayikra 17:5–7. [14] Ritva, Sefer Hazikaron, Parshat Vayikra; Abravanel, introduction to Vayikra, chapter 4. [15] Ramban, Vayikra 1:9. [16] Ibid. [17] Emunot V’deiot 3:10. [18] Sefer Hachinuch, mitzva 95. [19] Sefer Gevurot Hashem 5:69. [20] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 11:1. [21] Malachi 3:4. [22] Midrash Rabba Vayikra 9:7. [23] Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, Otzrot Hare’aya, vol. 2, pp. 101–103; Olat Re’aya, vol. 1, p. 292.

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