“The Gifts of the Kohanim-the Priests”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, focuses on the animal sacrifices that were brought in both the Tabernacle and, in later years, in the Great Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the meal offerings that accompanied certain animal sacrifices.

The parasha describes the four main animal sacrifices: the עֹלָה, (Olah) known as the Burnt offering or the Elevation offering, the שְׁלָמִים, (Sh’lamim) the Peace offering, the חַטָּאת, (Chatat) the Sin offering and the אָשָׁם, (Asham) the Guilt offering. Of all the offerings, only the עֹלָה, the Burnt/Elevation offering, is entirely consumed by fire, representing giving oneself over totally to the Al-mighty.

With the exception of the Sin offering of Yom Kippur and the inner חַטָּאת, Sin offerings, all other animal sacrifices are eaten to some degree by the priests, their families and/or the donors. The חַטָּאת, the Sin offering, is eaten by the priests and their families, while the אָשָׁם, the guilt offering is eaten by only the male priests. The communal Peace offerings are also eaten by the priests themselves. The personal Peace offerings are eaten both by the priests and the donor of the sacrifice, as is the תּוֹדָה, (Todah) the Thanksgiving offering. The priests and their households receive the breast and the thigh, while the remainder of the animal may be eaten by all. Firstborn offerings are also eaten by the priests and members of their household.

One of the reasons that the Peace offering is called שְׁלָמִים (Shlamim), is because everyone gets a piece of the sacrifice, which increases peace (שָׁלוֹם) by virtue of it being shared with everybody.

Bringing animal sacrifices involved great expense. Oxen, bulls or cows, were particularly expensive, while sacrifices of sheep, lambs or goats were less costly. The least expensive were bird offerings, of doves or pigeons. But, all the animal sacrifices involved considerable expense.

Although animal sacrifices are not generally looked upon as a form of charity, or of charitable giving, to a great extent that is exactly what they were. The fact that almost all the animal sacrifices were eaten by the priests, underscores the fact that the ritual of קָרְבָּנוֹת, of bringing sacrifices, was a way of supporting the clergy and the institution of Priesthood.

Those who donated sacrifices were not entirely averse to undertaking the expense of bringing an animal sacrifice especially when they were allowed to get a piece of the animal to eat for themselves and their families, as happened with the Peace offerings and the Pascal offering. But, what of the Sin and Guilt offerings that were eaten exclusively by the priests, and the burnt offering which was not eaten at all, but was “given” entirely to G-d?

Donors of Burnt offerings who wished to devote their own lives symbolically to G-d, were likely to justify the expense. One truly has to be entirely committed to bring a Burnt offering with a full heart.

But what of those sacrifices where the donor receives nothing and only the priest and their families eat? Can one be expected to make such a donation with a full heart?

Perhaps by taking a deeper look at the broader purpose of animal sacrifice, some of the issues will be clarified. On the one hand, the ritual of animal sacrifice underscores the fact that Jews must support the institution of the Priesthood. Since ancient priests acted not only as clergy, but also served as the educators of Israel, the donation becomes more palatable, as great benefit accrues to the nation that has a class of devoted clergy and educators.

Another important lesson that is taught by these rituals is the need to recognize that not only the beneficiaries of charity but that even the charity collectors themselves serve an important function and contribute positively to the welfare of the people. Donors are often resentful that a certain percentage of donations to worthy causes is often allocated to fundraising, that covers the salaries of not only the “development department,” but is also used to pay for advertising, mailing and other soliciting expenses. Contributors may feel particularly resentful about these expenses, especially when they are not properly monitored and seem to be overly costly.

Perhaps the Torah is teaching that there must be fair limits to fundraising expenses by declaring that the priest, in many instances, receives only the breast and the thigh. But clearly, there are other sacrifices where the Kohen and his household receive the entire animal.

Tradition maintains that the Children of Israel are known as רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים, merciful people who are the children of merciful people. The sacrificial ritual and the allocation of the flesh of the sacrifices are meant to teach not only a preparedness to give charity with a full heart, but also to realize that ancillary expenses involved must be seen as acts of compassion and generosity as well.

It is in this manner that the sacrifices and charitable contributions of Israel may be seen as (Leviticus 1:9), אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ להשׁם, going up in fire on the altar to provide a sweet savor to the Al-mighty G-d.

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading