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Physical Perfection and Sacrifices by Yaakov Bieler

May 9, 2012 by  
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Physical perfection of sacrifices and Kohanim.

One of the major topics in the Parasha is the necessity for sacrifices as well as those who offer them, to meet certain objective criteria with regard to outward appearance.[1] While the rationale for offering only physically perfect specimens of animal and plant life can be understood in light of the following prophetic statement:

Malachi 1:7, 8

Ye offer polluted bread upon Mine Altar. And ye say: ‘Wherein have we polluted Thee?’ In that ye say: ‘The Table of the LORD (the altar in the Temple) is contemptible.’ And when ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it no evil? And when ye offer the lame and sick, is it no evil? Present it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee? or will he accept thy person? Saith the LORD of hosts.

and strongly implied in the biblical story of the first sacrifice:

Beraishit 4:3-5.

And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

it is more difficult to comprehend the demand that the Kohanim engaged in the Divine Service must also be of a certain “perfect” appearance. When it comes to people attempting to come close to HaShem (the word “Korban” derives from “Karov”—close) the Psalmist appears to suggest that, on the contrary,  God is Interested in the person’s appropriate internal qualities and intentions, feelings that are more likely to be engendered by physical limitations than not, more than anything else:

Tehillim 51:18-9

For Thou Delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it; Thou hast no Pleasure in burnt-offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not Despise.[2]

RaDaK’s interpretation of this verse appears to sharpen the question further:

…And the essential reason for sacrifices is that God Commanded that you engage in such a practice in order to “break” the heart and to mitigate the bodily passions from one’s heart. And by means of the burning of the limbs, there is a metaphor for the burning of the animalistic passions…

By extension, wouldn’t the ideal type of human beings to facilitate these sacrifices reinforce the symbolism of the sacrifices themselves if the people offering the sacrifices physically “imperfect” and as a result, humble of spirit? (See fn. 2.) While the “perfect” Kohen parallels the animal prior to its being offered, if the essence of the sacrifice is its burning on the altar, wouldn’t that state be more congruous with the “broken” Kohen?

An hypothesis that redirects the focus from the Kohanim to others who are part of the drama of sacrifice.

Sefer HaChinuch #275, “A Kohen Possessing a Blemish Should not Serve in the Temple” offers the following rationale for the Tora’s requirement:

The roots of this Commandment include the idea that most human actions are acceptable to the hearts of the onlookers in accordance with the importance of the ones carrying out the actions, for when a person is important in terms of his appearance and good in his actions, he will find favor and understanding for all that he does in the eyes of all that watch him. Conversely, if there are shortcomings in his form and irregularity in his limbs, and if he is not righteous in his actions, what he does will not be deemed so pleasant in the hearts of the onlookers. Therefore truly, it is appropriate for the surrogate upon whom atonement is dependent to be a person inspiring grace, of good form and appearance and pleasant in all of his actions, in order that the thoughts of all people become attached to him. And aside from this, it is possible that with regard to the wholeness of his form, there are hints of things, that by means of reflecting on them, he will purify his soul and be exalted. Therefore it is inappropriate that there be in any way an irregularity in any aspect of his form, less there be distracted the soul of the contemplator as a result of the irregularity and he will digress from the desirable (state of mind.)

On the one hand, it is notable that the Chinuch assumes that perfection of physical form also includes righteousness of actions (see the underlined phrases). There is no indication in the Tora text (see fn. 1 VaYikra 21:16-23) of such a requirement.[3] [4] Although a figurative interpretation of the term “blemish” could suggest an additional moral, religious standard, and that would certainly be in accordance with the spirit of the law, yet that does not appear to be the simple literal meaning of the term, particularly in light of the numerous specific examples cited by the text in VaYikra 21.

More striking is the suggestion by the Chinuch that there is an element of “performance art” in the service carried out by the Kohanim. In addition to the need to be precise in all they do and think, their appearance during the Avoda, not only in terms of the “uniform”, i.e., the simple clothing that they wear, but also their physical appearance, will either add to or detract from the experience of the “audience” who have come to be spiritually inspired by virtue of the entire pomp and circumstance entailed in the offerings. Since it is the onlookers for whom the service is intended, their sensibilities must be considered, regardless of whether we feel they are credible, appropriate, even respectful of all types and forms of humanity. A tension appears to be created between what should ideally be a person’s positive, spiritual reaction when he encounters human physical deformity—respect, empathy, even a blessing of God[5] —and the unfortunate reality of how people typically react to those who are externally different. Apparently the need for the sacrificial service to have the maximum effect upon those who are watching trumps considerations of egalitarianism with respect to which Kohanim will be able to take an active role in the service.

Even if the psychology of the onlookers is the basis for the physical standards for Kohanim, perhaps it is what sacrifices represent in general rather than any specific act of offering that is being addressed.

Whereas the Chinuch’s argument focuses upon the immediate psychological effects of the Temple service upon those who are watching, R. S.R. Hirsch conceptualizes the requirement for the Kohanim to be without physical blemish as a conscious effort to make an ideological and theological statement regarding the focal point of Judaism in general and the Divine Service in particular:

R. S.R. Hirsch on VaYikra 21:17

…It is not the afflicted and the infirm, not the blind and the lame, the disfigured and crippled, the broken and the sick, for whom the Jewish Altar is erected, so that weary, burdened humanity can drag itself up to it to find compassionate consolation or even miraculous healing. It is life in its completeness, in its freshness and strength, which there is to gain consecration to an active life of God-serving deeds, and thereby acquire the everlasting freshness of youth and unbroken forces of life. Life and strength, not death and weakness, live at the Altars of God…

Like the Chinuch, R. Hirsch also appears to be concerned about the associations that onlookers will make should they see Kohanim with physical aberrations conducting the services. However, he goes beyond the immediate visceral reaction of the onlooker and reflects upon what the impression that will be left regarding what usually takes place in the Temple and the role of religion in life in general. It is typical that men’s minds turn to religion, thoughts of accountability and the afterlife, when they come up against their mortality. Pilgrims to holy places are often afflicted by all sorts of maladies and are in search of a cure for their ailments. God is viewed by some as a “last resort” when all other measures for recovery have proven ineffective. By having vigorous, vital, healthy human beings associated with the Temple service, suggests R. Hirsch, a different impression will be imparted, i.e., religion is a mindset and series of practices which is to be associated with the prime of life,[6] when all possibilities remain open, and the individual is in need of structure and direction. While spiritual activities can provide comfort to those in physical need, particularly when they approach the end of life, it should not be viewed exclusively as such. And the active roles of a certain Kohen whose look is healthy and vigorous, to the exclusion of others who might not engender such thoughts, will go far to make the desired positive impression.[7]


Both the Chinuch and R. Hirsch attempt to account for the physical standards applied to Kohanim who wish to serve in the Temple as a function not so much the Kohanim themselves, as of those who will witness the offering of sacrifices. The discussion becomes one centering upon human nature—what will make the deepest, most lasting, most positive impression when individuals come to Yerushalayim and participate in communal worship of HaShem.

[1] VaYikra. 21:16-23

And the LORD Spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto Aaron, saying: Whosoever he be of thy seed throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: 1) a blind man, or 2) a lame, or he that hath 3) anything maimed, or 4) anything too long, or a man that is 5) broken-footed, or 6) broken-handed, or 7) crook-backed, or 8) a dwarf, or that hath his 9) eye overspread, or is 10) scabbed, or 11) scurvy, or hath his 12) stones crushed; no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire; he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy. Only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not My holy places; for I Am the LORD Who Sanctify them.

Ibid. 22:17-24

And the LORD Spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: Whosoever he be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers in Israel, that bringeth his offering, whether it be any of their vows, or any of their free-will-offerings, which are brought unto the LORD for a burnt-offering; that ye may be accepted, ye shall offer a male without blemish, of the cows, of the sheep, or of the goats. But whatsoever hath a blemish, that shall ye not bring; for it shall not be acceptable for you. And whosoever brings a sacrifice of peace-offerings unto the LORD in fulfillment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a freewill-offering, of the herd or of the flock, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein. 1) Blind, or 2) broken, or 3) maimed, or 4) having a wen, or 5) scabbed, or 6) scurvy, ye shall not offer these unto the LORD, nor make an offering by fire of them upon the altar unto the LORD. Either a bullock or a lamb that hath 7) anything too long or 8) too short, that mayest thou offer for a freewill-offering; but for a vow it shall not be accepted. That which hath 9) its stones bruised, or 10) crushed, or 11) torn, or 12) cut, ye shall not offer unto the LORD; neither shall ye do thus in your land.

[2] During the period when worshipping God centers upon the synagogue and the prayer quorum in the absence of the Temple, it could be maintained that the role of “Kohen” is occupied essentially by the Shliach Tzibbur (the representative of the community) who leads the service. Just as in the Temple only the Kohen was allowed to carry out the sacrificial service from after the ritual slaughter of the animal and onwards, for those members of the congregation who are unable to pray on their own, as well as for parts of the service that are recited only in the presence of a Minyan, e.g., Kaddish, Kedusha, Chazarat HaShaTz, etc., the ShaTz not only coordinates the speed of the service but even literally does for the Tzibbur (congregation) what it cannot do for itself. (On those days when “Birchat Kohanim” [the Priestly Blessing] is not only read by the Shliach Tzibbur, but is actually enacted by the Kohanim in attendance at the service—in the Diaspora on Festivals; in Israel every day—the contrast between the ShaTz and the Kohanim is starkly experienced. Yet even then, when the Shliach Tzibbur leads the Kohanim line by line in their recitation, one could say that he is acting as a “Kohen” for the actual Kohanim. The counterpoint between them takes on another dimension when the ShaTz happens to be a Kohen himself. Then someone else, typically the Rabbi or Gabbai, becomes the honorary “Kohen”.) The essential difference between the “quasi-Kehuna” of the Shliach Tzibbur and the actual Kohanim is reflected in the Mishna Berura’s clear statement to the effect that physical characteristics do not enter into the determination of who can serve as the ShaTz, at least not “MeiIkar HaDin” (according to the essential Halacha):

Mishna Berura on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 53 #13 d.h. Hagun

Physical defects disqualify only Kohanim, not the ShaTz. On the contrary, (Tehillim 51:19) “…A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not Despise.” (The ironic implication is that one with physical problems, which in turn result in personal humility and a powerful sense of human limitations, is not only not disqualified, but might be even better qualified to serve as ShaTz then one who is physically “perfect”.) And there are those who are strict about this apriori when there is one who is also worthy and appropriate. (This is the view of Magen Avraham who follows Chavot Yair with respect to a blind individual. However, Chavot Yair makes his comment only in terms of the Days of Awe—[as opposed to the services of the rest of the year.]) See later #41 with respect to a blind person (serving as ShaTz).

Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 53:14

A blind person can serve as a Shliach Tzibbur as long as he does not read the Tora (Ba’al Koreh) because of the rule (Gittin 60b) “Things that were transmitted in written form (the Written Tradition) one does not have permission to recite them from memory” (and a blind person will obviously not be able to read the words.)

Mishna Berura #53

…And in the responsa Chavot Yair #176, he states that despite this (the view of the Shulchan Aruch) a blind person should not serve as ShaTz during the Days of Awe, even if he is blind in only one of his eyes as long as there is another who is worthy and appropriate like him, look there for his reasoning, Eliyahu Rabba #10 disagrees with him. It seems to him that even according to Chavot Yair, it is only apriori that one should not appoint a blind person for this role, but one must not remove a blind person from his role (it is usually a matter of livelihood with the ShaTz having been at some previous point hired for this role) should he afterwards become blind. Concerning a ShaTz who is completely deaf, it is concluded in the Novella of R. Akiva Eiger that he should not be the Shliach Tzibbur, that although when one cannot hear what he says he is considered to have fulfilled his Mitzva, since apriori he should hear what he says, he cannot fulfill the Mitzvot of others apriori.

While it could be contended that the Kohanim performing the Sacrificial service neither had to read or hear anything, in contrast to the ShaTz, and it is furthermore possible for blind and deaf individuals to appear “perfect” if their “defects” were due to internal physiological causes rather than external ones, RaMBaM does list blindness (Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Biat HaMikdash 7:5) as a disqualification for both man and animal in the Temple Service. Deafness, on the other hand, is not listed by him.

With respect to Birkat Kohanim itself from the perspective of the Kohanim (as opposed to the ShaTz who leads their recitation that was discussed above), the Talmud in Ta’anit 27a clearly distinguishes between the rules governing who is qualified to enact the service in the Temple and Birkat Kohanim. Among the Rishonim, whereas RaMBaM (Hilchot Tefilla U’Nesiat Kapayim 15:3-4) appears to equate the rules for both, Tosafot (Ta’anit 27a) distinguishes between them. So even according to those who view Birkat Kohanim today as at Tora mandated law, and it is a practice that originally took place in the Temple, whether the standards regarding the Kohanim transfer today is a matter of dispute.

[3] The Midrash Halacha includes a category derived from inference that could represent the need to disqualify a Kohen who behaves badly:

Sifra, Emor 3:3

The only cases (of disqualification) are these (listed explicitly in VaYikra 21:18-20). From where do we know to include other physical blemishes? The text states “Mum” “Mum”  (the term appears five times in 21:16-23) as an inclusionary derivation. (Due to the superfluity of the word for “blemish”, the Rabbis saw fit to include other categories of physical deformities in addition to those explicitly listed in the text.)

From where do we know to define as disqualified 1) the dark-skinnned, 2) the lame, 3) the albino, 4) the exceedingly tall, 5) the dwarf, 6) the deaf and dumb, 7) the drunk, and 8) one afflicted with skin afflictions that are declared ritually pure? The text states “Ish” “Ish” (a redundancy of the word “man”, appearing five times in VaYikra 21:16-23, leading to the conclusion that additional categories of types of people who are not considered blemished per se—someone who has dark skin cannot be said to be “blemished”; furthermore in a society where everyone is dark, it would be considered the height of normality!—are  to be disqualified.)

Of the eight specific cases listed in the second portion of this Midrash, only the seventh, “the drunk”, is a condition that the individual willingly takes upon himself which could lead to improper behavior. Yet the presence of this element on the list appears problematic in light of VaYikra 10:9 “’Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.”  Could it be said that the earlier verse prohibits entering the Heichal in a state of inebriation—Nadav and Avihu brought a strange fire, i.e., Ketoret (incense) and that can only be offered on the golden altar within the Heichal—while performing the sacrificial service on the Mizbeach HaZahav, the outer altar upon which animals and other sacrifices were offered is only covered by the hermeneutic interpretation from “Ish” “Ish”?

[4] Just as we have suggested a contrast between the Kohen and the Shliach Tzibbur with respect to physical blemishes (see fn. 2), an interesting parallel between them, particularly during the Days of Awe appears in the Codes:

RaMA, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 581:1

And they should be careful to search for a Shliach Tzibbur who is the most appropriate and the most accomplished in Tora and good deeds that it is possible to find, that he should lead the services for Selichot and the Days of Awe. He should be at least thirty years old, he should also be married. Nevertheless all of Israel are worthy, as long as he is acceptable to the congregation

It would seem that an individual who draws undo attention to himself for whatever reason, could become someone who will be unsettling to the congregation and therefore will not be able to carry out his mission. Whether or not we feel that it is appropriate for the congregation to be distracted, if a significant percentage—or even a small minority—is disturbed, it would appear that this individual is not the proper choice. According to the Chinuch, it would seem that a similar calculus is being applied to the reason why blemished Kohanim are disqualified from the Temple service.

[5] Berachot 58b

R. Joshua b. Levi said: On seeing pock-marked persons one says: Blessed be He who makes strange creatures. An objection was raised: If one sees a negro, a very red or very white person, a hunchback, a dwarf or a dropsical person, he says: Blessed be He who makes strange creatures. If he sees one with an amputated limb, or blind, or flatheaded, or lame, or smitten with boils, or pock-marked, he says: Blessed be the true Judge! — There is no contradiction; one blessing is said if he is so from birth, the other if he became so afterwards. A proof of this is that he is placed in the same category as one with an amputated limb; this proves it.

It would appear from the contrast of the two blessings that only the second, i.e., Baruch Dayan HaEmet, is a negative reaction, reflecting sorrow for the changed condition of the individual who once had been “whole” and no longer is, whereas the former, i.e., Meshaneh Et HaBriyot is a positive comment comparable to other blessings made when seeing a remarkable phenomenon, e.g., a rainbow, lightning, a scholar, fruit trees in bloom, etc.

[6] R. Hirsch presents a parallel interpretation when discussing the symbolism of ritual purity and impurity on Shemot 28:38. He contends that since impurity associated with a dead human body is the Avi Avot Shel Tuma (the archetype, quintessential form) therefore all forms of ritual impurity are associated in one way or another with death. The strong emphasis that Tuma not be associated with the Temple, sacrifices, Kohanim, etc. constitutes a life-affirming dimension of Judaism which starkly contrasts with some other religions which emphasize death and other-worldliness.

[7] It is interesting to reflect on such ideas in light of the ever-increasing concern within our society to insure that disabled individuals not feel unduly discriminated against. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ( ) constitutes an attempt to define the rights of such individuals as within the rubric of civil rights. Should it then be concluded that Judaism as manifest in an essentially “discriminatory” policy regarding who can serve as Kohen in the Temple, is not sensitive to such considerations? Individual rights and sensitivities regarding handicapped and disabled individuals is pitted against rituals and practices that are communal and social in essence. Is it possible for someone dedicated to these types of individual rights to make peace with the laws governing which Kohanim are qualified for Temple service? For those who believe that the Tora is given for all time, and is not reflective of a perspective that can be “dated”, how ought one to understand these requirements? I would be happy to receive views addressing this question.

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