Parashat Vayikra – The sacrifices: ritual and significance

Rambam’s view of the purpose of the sacrifices, both in the Tabernacle and the Temple was that the Jewish people needed to make the transition from idol worship to practices consecrated to G-d, and that man could not go suddenly from one extreme to the other.


The effect of keeping the rituals of animal sacrifice and the burning of incense was to replace the memories of idol worship with the principle of the existence and unity of G-d. Rambam argued that G-d gave the Jewish people laws of the sacrifices so they could strengthen their faith while keeping the practices to which they had become so strongly attached.


R’ Munk quoted Ramban who emphasised that the words “korban”(sacrifice) and  “reyach”(fragrance), are linked to the words “karev”(to come closer) and “ruach”(spirit) indicating that the purpose of the sacrifices was the elevation of the sensual instincts to the level of holiness, so that the sacrifices brought man closer to G-d.


 At the same time there was a risk that the people would be preoccupied by the ritual and the material value of the offerings and lose the possibility of spiritual elevation in the process.This was repeatedly referred to by the prophets, Samuel,Isaiah,Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, when they argued that the offerings had lost their value to G-d and the Jewish people, because of the general loss of morality. As Samuel said ”to obey is better than  sacrifice, to hear is better than the fat of rams”. Hosea said ”I desire mercy and not sacrifice and the knowledge of G-d rather than burnt offerings”.


The meal offering was for the poorest people and consisted of the amount of flour an  individual would need in a day. The individual will have had to go without food to bring this offering and is referred to as a soul.  Rashi explained that G-d looked upon a poor man’s offering as if he’d brought his very soul.  A wealthy person offering this would not be considered worthy.


R’ Munk quoted R’ Eliezer Ashkenazi who commented on the meaning of the expression “a satisfying aroma to the Lord”. He argued that this referred to the adequacy of the offering rather than it’s great value.  The satisfying aroma is but a hint of the good deeds that can follow from the offering.  The person giving the sacrifice is bringing evidence of what he intends to do.


R’ Jonathon Sacks(1) wrote that the whole system of sacrifices was evidence that we can redirect our animal instincts,can rise above mere survival, are capable of honouring boundaries, and can step outside our environment.He wrote that by bringing that which is animal within us close to G-d, we allow the material to be suffused with the spiritual, and we become something else:no longer slaves of nature but servants of the living G-d.


(1) Covenant and Conversation.March 20th 2010.

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