Shmini 5782 – Torah’s Sacrificial Cult

By: Fred Nathan

Shabbat Shalom
There are three themes worthy of a d’var Torah in this week’s Parshat Shmini. The first is a continuation of the laws regarding sacrifices, the second the death of two of Aaron’s sons and the third a listing of basic rules regarding Kashruth-

I chose, surprisingly, to discuss the Torah’s sacrificial cult.

Now you should be asking yourselves – Why?

Fred, this is a moot issue – we don’t have a Temple or animals without blemish etc. We haven’t offered a sacrifice for the last 1,952 years, since the year 70 C.E. , the destruction of the second temple.

And besides all this, it is an uncomfortable topic, killing of innocent lambs and goats to atone for our wrong doings or as a celebration in thanksgiving. Yuck!

There are, however, millions of our people who pray daily for the return of the sacrifices – its in the traditional siddur, the Orthodox siddur.

Let me quote just one prayer found in Musaf for Shabbat and Festivals
May it be thy will Adonai,…. that we will go up to our land in gladness….and there we will perform the sacrifices according to halacha- according to the law.

Our Conservative Rabbinic leaders recognized this dilemma –how can we pray, they asked, with Kavanah- with devotion for things we don’t believe in? For the return of animal sacrifices?
And so they edited the wording of that very same T’filah in our present siddur to: (Sim Shalom: page 435 Eng)

May it be thy will Adonai,…. that we will go up to our land in gladness….there our ancestors sacrificed to you with their daily offerings and their special offerings and there may we worship you with love and with reverence as in days of old…”
The mitzvah to sacrifice was rewritten to be in past tense.
Can we do this? Can we just rewrite the commandments because some of them make us uncomfortable?
Let me again quote from our Conservative rabbinic leaders:

As we enter the Book of Leviticus (we are about to read its third Parshah) we struggle with the role that sacrifice played in the lives of our ancestors in ancient Israel. These offerings seem not only foreign to us as modern Jews but terribly pagan as well. The first seven chapters of this book outline the complex system of sacrifices offered by the Israelite priesthood.
Are they suggesting by changing the references to sacrifices to past tense that we now and forever completely disregard the seven chapters in our Torah commanding us to bring Korbanot, to bring sacrifices?

Seven chapters, more than 100 times the space allotted in the Torah to
‘Thou shalt not kill” or to observe the Shabbat! Seven chapters of extremely detailed mitzvoth deleted, ignored, wiped out- poof they are no longer relevant?

And, please remember: the sacrificial rituals are not suggestions, they are commandments – they are mitzvoth in the Torah- very clearly outlined in our Torah. The question we face is: can we just ignore them if and when a third Temple is built?

Wait a minute! What third Temple – Yes, we, the Jewish People have been praying for a third Temple since the destruction of Temple number 2.

(Sheyebaneh Beit hamikdash Bimheirah B’yameinu… )
In Orthodox siddurim the Amidah prayer ends as follows:
“May it be Your will, Adonoy, our God, and the God of our Fathers that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our share in Your Torah. And there we will serve You reverently as in the days of old, and in earlier years. And let Adonoy be pleased with the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem as in the days of old and in earlier years.”

There is in fact, today, a small group in Israel, the Temple Mount Faithful, who are actually building the ritual objects such as the Menorah and an altar to be ready the moment the third Beit Hamikdash is completed.

And don’t scoff- we prayed for a reuilt Jewish nation and it happened after 2,000 years, but it happened and despite seemingly impossible odds, who here would deny that a third Temple cannot happen. Yes- probably not in our lifetimes but- who here will underestimate the power of G-d and prayer?
So how should the Conservative movement deal with the sacrificial services when a third Beit Hamikdash, a thirdTemple is built.

The Reform movement decided early on that this is a non issue –they do not see a third Beit Hamikdash with priests and sacrifices ever in the future.
One of our leading scholars in writing about the sacrificial offerings Professor Nahum Sarna states: “God desires sacrifices not out of the need for sustenance but out of a longing for the devotion and fellowship of worshippers. It is this insight that helps us understand the connection between sacrifice and prayer. Both are forms of Avodah, service of God.

Is Professor Sarna implying that Prayer or T’filah is equal to sacrifices and can be interchanged in keeping with the spirit of the mitzvoth of korban the mitzvah of sacrifices?

Yes, he is as did the rabbis of old following the exile and the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash.
Yes we take each mitzvah found in the Torah seriously, but we also often refresh or revise it within certain boundaries and based on modern life- incidentally this approach to the reworking mitzvoth is as old as the Torah itself.

So we need to ask ourselves: what was the purpose of the sacrifices? To answer this question we need to not use the English term for sacrifice but look at the Hebrew term, which is Korban from the Hebrew root close.

The Hebrew word karov קרוב means “near.” All the verbs that derive from the root of that word – קרב – mean “to come near, approach”.
The goal of the Korban our sacrificial cult was to bring us closer to G-d.

O.K. How does killing an inicent lamb bring us closer to G-d?

Because it wasn’t the physical act of animal sacrifice or even bringing of tne grain offerings that accomplished the goal of bringing us closer to G-d, but the intent behind the act- the motivation.
What was the motivation that brought our ancestors to the Temple to offer a Korban, a sacrifice?
It was to atone for the sins we committed accidentally, or even intentionally or perhaps in the process; for the community’s sins, for thanksgiving for a good life or following a dangerous, even life threatening situation and for sins or wrongdoings that you might not even be aware of or perhaps suspect you committed.

When we speak of Biblical sacrifices we wrongly concentrate on the physical act of the sacrifice on the what and the how and not on the why which is the reason we find ourselves at the sacrificial altar-
The why is the essence of the sacrifice not the offering itself. The why is the spirit of the Korban! The why is the fact that we own up to our shortcomings and pledge to better ourselves or we give thanks for the good life we lead and perhaps pledge to try to help others enjoy a better life.


And so we can understand from his conclusion that we did NOT give up the SPIRIT behind the sacrificial cult but replaced it with a similar form of Avodah OR worship) WE REPLACED IT WITH PRAYER!

This was the conundrum facing our ancient sages following the destruction 0f the second Temple – how do we perform the SPIRIT of the Korbanote, of the sacrifices without a Temple?

And these truly holy forward looking leaders developed a brilliant replacement for the sacrifices, the concept of prayer, congregational prayer.

This new approach to worship, in the absence of a Beit hamikdash, is argueably the major factor, which enabled our people, who were by then dispersed and largely living in small communities in exile, to survive as a people to this very day.

To summarize: the consensus of those turning away from the actual sacrificial act itself is that we can accomplish the goals of the Korban through prayer alone. We can fully fulfill the spirit of the Korban of the avodah, through T’filah, through prayer.
And prayer, unlike the sacrificial aspect of the Korban, doesn’t require a specific place or time- but allows Jews everywhere, even here at Kehillat Chaverim, to atone and to commit ourselves to do better, to try harder at making ourselves a better person and to become partners in helping make this a better world- and by extension to help us accomplish Tikun Olam – T’filah with Kavanah, Prayer with intent and feeling can accomplish the goal of the ancient Korban, that is, it can lead us towards creating a more perfect world.

Shabbat ShalomOlah: Burnt Offering
Perhaps the best-known class of offerings is the burnt offering. It was the oldest and commonest sacrifice, and represented submission to G-d’s will. The Hebrew word for burnt offering is olah, from the root Ayin-Lamed-Heh, meaning ascension. It is the same root as the word aliyah, which is used to describe moving to Israel or ascending to the podium to say a blessing over the Torah. An olah is completely burnt on the outer altar; no part of it is eaten by anyone. Because the offering represents complete submission to G-d’s will, the entire offering is given to G-d (i.e., it cannot be used after it is burnt). It expresses a desire to commune with G-d, and expiates sins incidentally in the process (because how can you commune with G-d if you are tainted with sins?). An olah could be made from cattle, sheep, goats, or even birds, depending on the offerer’s means.

Zevach Sh’lamim: Peace Offering
A peace offering is an offering expressing thanks or gratitude to G-d for His bounties and mercies. The Hebrew term for this type of offering is zebach sh’lamim (or sometimes just sh’lamim), which is related to the word shalom, meaning “peace” or “whole.” A representative portion of the offering is burnt on the altar, a portion is given to the kohanim, and the rest is eaten by the offerer and his family; thus, everyone gets a part of this offering. This category of offerings includes thanksgiving-offerings (in Hebrew, Todah, which was obligatory for survivors of life-threatening crises), free will-offerings, and offerings made after fulfillment of a vow.

Chatat: Sin Offering
A sin offering is an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It is an expression of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with G-d. The Hebrew term for this type of offering is chatat, from the word chayt, meaning “missing the mark.” A chatat could only be offered for unintentional sins committed through carelessness, not for intentional, malicious sins. The size of the offering varied according to the nature of the sin and the financial means of the sinner. Some chatatot are individual and some are communal. Communal offerings represent the interdependence of the community, and the fact that we are all responsible for each others’ sins. A few special chatatot could not be eaten, but for the most part, for the average person’s personal sin, the chatat was eaten by the kohanim.

Asham: Guilt Offering
A guilt offering is an offering to atone for sins of stealing things from the altar, for when you are not sure whether you have committed a sin or what sin you have committed, or for breach of trust. The Hebrew word for a guilt offering is asham. When there was doubt as to whether a person committed a sin, the person would make an asham, rather than a chatat, because bringing a chatat would constitute admission of the sin, and the person would have to be punished for it. If a person brought an asham and later discovered that he had in fact committed the sin, he would have to bring a chatat at that time. An asham was eaten by the kohanim.

Food and Drink Offerings
A meal offering (minchah) represented the devotion of the fruits of man’s work to G-d, because it was not a natural product, but something created through man’s effort. A representative piece of the offering was burnt on the fire of the altar, but the rest was eaten by the kohanim.
There are also offerings of undiluted wine, referred to as nesekh.

Parah Adumah: The Red Heifer
The ritual of the red heifer (in Hebrew, parah adumah) is part of one of the most mysterious rituals described in the Torah. The purpose of this ritual is to purify people from the defilement caused by contact with the dead. The ritual is discussed in Numbers 19. If you find it difficult to understand, don’t feel bad; the sages themselves described it as beyond human understanding. What is so interesting about this ritual is that it purifies the impure, but it also renders the pure impure (i.e., everybody who participates in the ritual becomes impure).

It is believed by many that this ritual will be performed by the messiah when he comes, because we have all suffered the defilement of contact with the dead. Thus, the existence of a red heifer is a possible, but not definite, sign of the messiah. If the messiah were coming, there would be a red heifer, but there could be a red heifer without the messiah coming.

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