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Competing Visions of the Purpose of Korbanot by Yaakov Bieler

March 12, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

A fundamental debate regarding the purpose of sacrifices.

In his commentary to VaYikra 1:9, after vehemently attacking RaMBaM’s suggestion that God Commanded the sacrifices for no other reason than to give man an outlet for his potentially idolatrous desires,[1] RaMBaN offers a hypothesis of his own. Regarding the general parameters of the sacrificial cult for sin and guilt offerings described in Parashat VaYikra, RaMBaN writes:

…Since the acts of man are comprised of thought, speech, and action, God Commands that when an individual sins and brings an animal sacrifice, a) s/he should rest his/her hands upon its head—corresponding to the sinful action that precipitated this expiation,[2] b) s/he should confess what s/he did wrong—thereby atoning for the speech that contributed to the transgression,[3] c) s/he should recognize that the innards and kidneys being burnt in the altar’s fire represent the need for atonement on the part of the seat of all human thought and passion,[4] d) the burning of the animal’s limbs corresponds to the need for atonement for the hands and feet of the sinning individual since these limbs carry out all of his/her activity,[5] and e) the casting of the sacrifice’s blood upon the altar should bring the phrase to mind, ‘his blood will be on his soul.’[6]  A person by either doing or watching all of these actions will come to realize that s/he has sinned against God with his/her body and his/her soul, and that s/he deserves his/her own blood to be applied and his/her body to be burned, had it not been for the Compassion of the Creator, Who Has Accepted a substitute. Therefore the sacrifice atones by its blood corresponding to the sinner’s blood, its soul corresponding to the sinner’s soul, its limbs corresponding to the sinner’s limbs, the portions (that are given to the priests) will give life to the teachers of Tora who in turn will pray on his/her behalf. And the daily Eternal offerings to remind people to avoid sinning continuously”…

Difficulties with RaMBaN’s hypothesis:

                a) Not all sacrifices involve the organs and substances that RaMBaN cites.

While RaMBaN’s explanation of aspects of the sacrificial ritual are interesting and moving, once one begins to think critically about his presentation, numerous questions arise: If a poor individual’s sacrifice is to be viewed as importantly as that of a wealthier individual,[7] how is atonement to be achieved when one brings a dove[8] or flour offering.[9] In these instances, particularly in the latter case, there is less or none at all of laying on of hands, confession, burning of innards, kidneys, and limbs, and casting of blood. Does the absence of these aspects of the sacrifice impair its power to atone? And if not, then perhaps these components of animal sacrifice are not intrinsic to the expiation of one’s sins?


                b) Not all sacrifices appear to be intended as responses to transgressions.

                Furthermore, it is striking that the RaMBaN’s symbolic explanation of what sacrifices represent, seems to apply only to a minority of the categories of sacrifices that were offered within the Temple context, i.e. sin offerings[10] and guilt offerings.[11] Yet instead of making his comment on the verses specifically dealing with such offerings, the commentator connects his explanation with the ninth verse of the entire book of VaYikra, suggesting that this perspective should apply to any and all Korbanot equally. Should we therefore draw the conclusion that in RaMBaN’s view, man is so sinful, that he needs to be constantly reminded by means of every sacrifice that he offers, whether or not the offering is explicitly associated with specific sins, of his flaws and constant need for forgiveness?

                While some of the sacrifices other than sin and guilt offerings could be understood as paralleling sacrifices overtly associated with sinful behavior, and since they constitute responses to less than ideal behavior, including: Korban Yoledet (offering brought by a woman just having given birth),[12] Korban Nazir (brought by an individual who has restricted himself from grape products, cutting his hair and becoming exposed to ritual impurity),[13] Korban Metzora (brought by someone who had been afflicted with a spiritual malady but has now been declared cured),[14] and Korban Sota (brought by a woman who has aroused suspicions regarding her faithfulness to her spouse),[15] other sacrifices do not appear to have anything at all to do with atonement. These include the Korban Toda (thanksgiving offering)[16], Olat Nedava (a voluntary gift offering),[17] Shelamim (peace offerings),[18] Chagiga (holiday celebratory offerings),[19] Musafim (additional offerings on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Rosh Chodesh),[20] sacrifices associated with the dedication of the Mishkan and the Kohanim,[21] and the Korbanot before the Tora is given on Sinai.[22] In addition to general categories of offerings, sacrifices presented up by various seminal personalities discussed in the Tora also do not appear to satisfy RaMBaN’s symbolic system: Kayin and Hevel,[23] Noach,[24] Avraham,[25] Yitzchak,[26] Yaakov,[27] and Bilaam.[28]  

In light of the above objections, it would appear necessary to seek out an approach different from both RaMBaM and RaMBaN.

                Consequently, if in fact we are to provide a universal principle that might account for Korbanot—naturally one could always resort to the fallback position that since sacrifices are to be considered within the category of commandments designated as Chukim,[29]  explanations should not be expected and we should scuttle the entire search for a comprehensive and rational one—it will have to be less specific than that suggested by RaMBaN.

Sephorno’s general approach to sacrifices.

                On VaYikra 1:2, Sephorno writes the following:

“An individual who offers “Mikem” (from you—the typical understanding of the prepositional pronoun would be ‘from amongst you’)”—When you offer a sacrifice, it should be “MeiAtzmechem” (of your very selves), by means of confession and subservience, in the spirit of (Hoshea 14:3) “U’Neshalma Farim Sifateinu” (lit. and our lips shall replace the cows; the typical understanding of the verb used in this phrase would be “and we shall repay, replace”, in the sense of in the event of the absence of the “cows”, i.e., were the sacrifices themselves to be discontinued, our words will have to stand in their stead and accomplish the purposes normally fulfilled by them. However Sephorno appears to understand the phrase as referring to a time when sacrifices are being offered, and the prophet is imploring that we “complete, make whole”—the root of “U’Neshalma” can connote not only “repay” but also “to make whole”—our sacrifices by means of our mouths.) And as it is said, (Tehillim 51:19) “The sacrifice that is desirous to God is a contrite, human broken spirit.”[30] God Has No Desire for fools to offer sacrifices when those bringing the sacrifices lack a sense of subservience and obeisance. And the Rabbis have already interpreted (Chullin 8a): “Mikem”—from you, but not from all of you, to exclude the apostate, i.e., the sacrifice of such an individual would not be acceptable.

Sephorno posits that sacrifices emphasize submission rather than contrition.

Sephorno suggests that the act of giving any sacrifice, no matter what the particular context, is a statement on the part of the individual bringing the offering, demonstrating his/her deference to God. While such an act might be commanded in the form of the need for confession with regard to certain offerings, such as sin and guilt sacrifices, in fact the articulation of one’s relationship with the Divine is intrinsic to the appropriateness of every sacrificial activity, whatever the context, however motivated, and regardless of the initial intent of the one making the offering. It must be clear that the worshipper, by means of adhering to a rigorous set of rules governing what is to be brought,[31] its condition, the manner in which it will be prepared, how the ritual is precisely performed, and what is done with the remainder of the sacrifice that is not burned or eaten, all contribute to demonstrating his/her dependency, respect, and loyalty to the Creator and the Mitzvot of His Tora.

Is it possible to extrapolate from thencommentaries of RaMBaN and Sephorno indications of respective  overall views of life and human nature even in an age where, at least temporarily, there are no sacrifices?

                Sephorno’s approach suggests an overview that not only applies to what sacrifices connote, but also to overall human nature, in contrast to the RaMBaN’s hypothesis, thereby suggesting an important attitudinal prerequisite for traditional Jews trying to live in a post-sacrifice age, at least for the foreseeable future. We don’t have to see sin everywhere we turn, and we don’t have to be personally guilt-ridden with respect to the manner in which we live our day-to-day lives. Rather we have to see God everywhere, to make Him a strong presence in everything that we do. This will require our reflecting upon as well as verbalizing several times a day via prayer and Tora study, our feelings for God and what we recognize to be our responsibilities to Him.

[1]Guide for the Perplexed 3:46. Among the objections to RaMBaM’s approach raised by RaMBaN is the fact that in Beraishit, various individuals offer sacrifices, and they are readily accepted by God who Appears to welcome such ritual observances. It’s one thing to view the Commanding of sacrifices to the newly freed slaves who had spent so much time in Egypt as a concession to a primitive religious sensibility, quite another to say the same about individuals, who, according to ChaZaL (e.g., Mishna Kiddushin 4:14) fulfilled all of the Commandments of the Tora prior to their having  been Commanded.

[2]E.g., VaYikra 1:4.

[3]BaMidbar 5:6-8.

[4]E.g. VaYikra 3:3,4.

[5]E.g., Ibid. 8:21.

[6]Ibid. 17:14.

[7]Ibid. 2:1 RaShI.

[8]Ibid. 1:14.

[9]Ibid. 2:1.

[10]Ibid. 4.

[11]Ibid. 5.

[12]Ibid. 12:6. Chizkuni cites ChaZaL’s contention that during the difficulties of labor, the woman giving birth might have said things that require atonement.

[13]BaMidbar 6:14. Among the explanations found in the commentaries re why a sin offering is required at the end of the Nezirut period are: the Nazir should never have prohibited to himself things that were intrinsically permitted (RaShI); once the Nazir took upon himself a higher level of holiness, it is improper for him to resume his previous lower level (RaMBaN); there were numerous commandments dependent upon wine that he could not fulfill, e.g., Kiddush, Havdala, four cups on Pesach, etc. (Meshech Chachma).

[14]VaYikra 14:4. All sorts of sins are listed by the Rabbis (e.g., Yalkut Shimoni on Zecharia #572) as causing Tzora’at, but BaMidbar 12 is considered the paradigm where Miriam incurs Tzora’at for her engaging in Lashon HaRa (evil speech) regarding her brother Moshe.  

[15]BaMidbar 5:15-6, 18, 25-6.    

[16]VaYikra 7:12 ff.  

[17]Ibid. 1:2 RaShI.

[18]Ibid. 3:1.

[19]See Chagiga 12b on Shemot 12:14. While the Pesach sacrifice is also associated with a holiday, according to RaShI on 12:6, there is at least one aspect of this commandment that is indicative of a shortcoming on the part of the Jewish people. The commentator posits that the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus from Egypt were devoid of Mitzvot, and therefore, two commandments centering

on blood, the sign of commitment, were created at this time for them, so that they would merit being redeemed by God. These Mitzvot were the Pesach sacrifice, whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of Jewish homes, and circumcision (the latter had already been a commandment, but was not being observed by the Jews while they were in Egypt.) 

[20]BaMidbar 28-29.

[21]Shemot 29:36-42; VaYikra 8:14 ff.  

[22]Shemot 24:5-6.

[23]Beraishit 4:3 ff.  

[24]Ibid. 8:20.

[25]Ibid. 12:7; 13:4, 18; 15:9 ff.; 22. According to RaShBaM on Beraishit 22:1, who sees the binding of Isaac as a punishment arising as a  result of sin, due to Avraham’s readiness to enter into a non-aggression pact with Avimelech so that Yitzchak might be safe, atonement would be a theme intrinsic to the Akeida. Since the Philistines’ land was eventually meant to be turned over to the Jews, a promise not to engage in hostilities with them for the sake of insuring Yitzchak’s safety, would threaten to undermine God’s Long Range Plan. Consequently, Avraham had to be taught a lesson via the potential loss of his son that his personal considerations should not be allowed to interfere with God’s overall Intentions. Had Avraham been allowed to literally carry out the sacrifice of Yitzchak, the RaMBaN’s interpretation would not have been symbolic, but literal.

[26]Ibid. 26:25.

[27]Ibid. 28:18; 33.20; 35:7,14; 46:1.

[28]BaMidbar 22:41; 23:29.

[29]RaMBaN on Devarim 22:6 details a significant dispute between two schools of Rabbinic thought with regard to whether or not cogent explanations exist even for Chukim.

[30]The ideal that is being presented is not one of depression and resignation. Rather an individual whose perspective regarding his/her self-importance is informed by keeping in mind his/her relationship with God, can never become to full of him/herself. See RaMBaM, Hilchot Yesodei HaTora, 2:1-2.

[31]It is reasonable to assume that Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, lacked this sensibility, which directly led to their deaths, while engaged in offering sacrifices. See VaYikra 10:1 ff. as well as various commentaries regarding the specific error that they made.

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