“Eternal Lessons from Ancient Sacrifices”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Can the ancient sacrificial rituals possibly convey a relevant message for contemporary times?

At first blush, not very likely. But, upon studying the sacrificial rites in depth we discover that there is indeed much that we may learn. (See the weekly messages of Parashat Vayikra for years 2002, 2004, 2005)

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, the Torah portion opens with the laws of the Olah–“the burnt offering” sacrifice. It is the only of the offerings that is entirely consumed by fire, from which neither the priest nor the donor eat of the animal’s flesh. Our rabbis tell us that the Olah symbolically represents the donor’s desire to offer himself to G-d, but, in lieu of himself, offers the animal. This is what is implied in the meaning of the Hebrew word “korban“–coming close to G-d.

The Torah informs us that there are three different types of animals that may be brought as burnt offerings–some more valuable than others. The large animals, such as oxen or bulls, are most valuable. Less valuable are sheep or goats. A person who can not even afford a goat could bring a tor or a ben yonah, a turtledove or a young pigeon.

While the procedures for sacrificing a bird are somewhat similar to the procedures for animals, there are some significant differences. After the bird is slaughtered, its blood is pressed on the altar wall. Certain parts of the bird are then discarded, and the priest offers the remaining parts up in smoke on the altar. The Torah (Leviticus 1:17), specifies that the animal is burnt “bikh’na’fav“–with its wing feathers.

The rabbis of the Midrash, Vayikra Rabbah 3:5, cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) ask: “But there is hardly a more repulsive smell than that of burning feathers? If so, why burn them?” The rabbis inform us that bird offerings are usually brought by poor people who can not afford the larger, more expensive, animals. Had the feathers been removed, the bird would appear so tiny and scrawny as to embarrass the poor donor. The message then is, endure the foul odor so that the altar may be adorned by a poor man’s offering.

The example of the poor person’s bird sacrifice is only one of many instances in the Torah that shows Judaism’s unusual sensitivity to people in need or in duress. The theme of “sensitivity” is repeated many times in Jewish law. A few examples:

  • The Code of Jewish Law states that one should try to show sensitivity to the limbs of one’s body when putting on one’s shoes by tying them alternately, rather than favoring one foot over the other. (Orach Chaim 2:4)
  • The priests wore britches under their cloaks and walked to the Temple altar on a ramp, rather than expose the nakedness of their bodies to the stones of the altar. (Exodus 20:23)
  • When a person is found guilty of a capital crime and is executed, the criminal’s body is not permitted to hang overnight. It must be buried by nightfall. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
  • A creditor who takes a poor person’s nightclothes as collateral for a loan, must return those clothes when the poor borrower is ready to go to sleep. If day clothes are taken as collateral, they must be returned by morning. (Exodus 22:25-26)
  • 36 times the Torah states that Jews must love the stranger and care for the people who are at a social disadvantage.
  • The Rabbinical Ethicists maintain that the challot on Friday night are covered so as not to embarrass them while all the attention is showered on the wine during the blessing of the kiddush.

Each of these customs and rituals are meant to teach a profound lesson. Surely, if we’re supposed to be sensitive to the limbs of our body, how much more must we be sensitive not to favor one person over another in daily life encounters, or one child over another. If we are expected to be sensitive to the feelings of a challah, we must be sensitive to the feelings of the people around us.

A fascinating practice that is frequently observed at traditional Jewish weddings is that the bride and groom do not embrace or kiss at the end of the ceremony. Why should that be? After all, if the bride had immersed in a mikveh before the wedding the husband and wife should be allowed to kiss? One common reason often proffered is that public displays of affection are not deemed appropriate. Displays of affection should be saved for the private yichud room. Another suggested reason for not kissing is to spare the feelings of the bride who has not been able to go to the mikveh before her wedding. And to be certain that no bride is embarrassed, Jewish women have agreed not to display any public affection at the chupah.

So, is there anything to be learned from the ancient rituals of animal sacrifice? There is much. Much that is in fact revolutionary: revolutionary human values, revolutionary moral concepts, and an uncommon surfeit of sensitivity.

May you be blessed.