Sunday, April 16, 2017

Prominence of animal sacrifices in Torah - Tzav

At the end of the Passover Seder last week, a former student asked me why the Torah includes so much detail about animal sacrifices. I haven't found a satisfactory answer yet. This aspect of my tradition “doesn’t work for me”, yet it is talked about endlessly in the Torah. Animal sacrifice has not been practiced in Judaism for two millennia, and is barely a “thing” for modern Jews. However, the vast number of chapters dedicated to instructions about sacrifices in the Torah is evidence that this aspect of my tradition is highly significant (1). A shocking story I read on Saturday makes it clear that traditional Judaism has little tolerance for avoidance of this confronting practice.

Modern Jews are not the first to have reservations about animal sacrifice. At first glance it seems that the ancient Hebrew prophets already thundered against the practice. Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want(2).

However, the critique of sacrifices by the prophets is not what it might seem. The verse preceding the one about the unwanted goats blood, sets the context by referring to Sodom. Sodom primarily represents cruelty to strangers and the poor, and theft in Jewish tradition (3), rather than homosexuality. Later in the chapter the prophet calls on the Jews to “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow”. He call their leaders “…companions of thieves” (4). So the critique is not of sacrifice itself, which if done properly should remind people about God and lead them away from sin and therefore be pleasing to God, but a complaint about sacrifices that have not fulfilled their purpose (5).  

The Talmud (6) tells a gruesome story about a priest who was less than thrilled with the honor of offering sacrifices. the Temple courtyard cried four cries...Leave here, Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai, who honors himself and desecrates the items consecrated to Heaven. He would wrap his hands in silk and perform the service.

What ultimately happened to Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai? ...the king and the queen were sitting. The king said that goat meat is better, and the queen said lamb meat is better. They said: Who can prove which one of us is correct? The High Priest can, as he offers sacrifices all day. Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai came, and when they asked him this question, he signaled with his hand (in a mocking/humorous way) (7) and said: If goat is better, let it be sacrificed as the daily offering.The king said: Since he has no reverence for the monarchy, sever his right hand. He gave a bribe and the official severed his left hand. The king heard and had the official sever his right hand as well.(8).

The story is clearly linked to the symbolic and potent spiritual meanings of the sacrifices. Yissachar, in his covering his hands exhibited the opposite of the spirit of humility required in seeking closeness to God which is at the heart of these rituals (9). In fact, the Torah’s word to describe animal sacrifices is קרבן, which means “to bring or come close”. The verse the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn it(10),  is interpreted symbolically as describing processes of the soul and the heart. “All the evil and dark thoughts (represented by) the night, and unsavoury lusts..need to be burnt...consumed by love of God...” (11).

A mystical interpretation draws attention to the Godly fire that descended from heaven, which consumed the sacrifices, while the animals themselves are also identified with fire. In this approach, inanimate things are related to the element of earth, the vegetable kingdom is linked to water, while animals are related to fire. The ritual of an animal being sacrificed is meant to evoke a reaction in the fiery animalistic aspect of people to assist them in a spiritual journey of subduing and ultimately transforming the animal aspects of the soul (12).

None of this mystical or symbolic talk is much comfort to a goat that is being slaughtered. However, for those of us who are not vegetarian, I don’t think it is a deep respect for the life of animals that causes us to recoil from animal sacrifice, as much as it is a squeamish distaste for the confronting image of a life being extinguished. Yet, it appears that the confronting and messy nature of the killing, processing and burning of animals fat, flesh and blood is, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a vital part of the Jewish tradition (even if not actually practiced any more). Judaism is not meant to be an opium of the masses or source of inner peace. It is meant to be a disruptive, disturbing confrontation between finite sensual humans and their demanding, engaged God who calls them to justice, worship and self transcendence.     


  1. Ramban in his refutation of Maimonides.
  2. Isaiah 1:10-11.
  3. Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.
  4. Isaiah 1:17,23.
  5. Radak on Isaiah 1:11. Rashi takes a similar approach.
  6. Rashi on Pesachim 57b.
  7. Maharsha on Pesachim 57b, points out the significance of his right hand being severed in that the main service in the temple was done with the right hand and he put silks on his hands during the service, it was decreed in heaven that he he could not save himself with his left hand.
  8. R. Bchaya, on Leviticus 6:3, p. 423 (Mosad Rav Kook edition).
  9. Leviticus 6:2.
  10. Abarbanel based on Kuzari, p. 80.
  11. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in Likutei Torah, Parshas Pinchas, p.150

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