The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26

by Avraham ben Yaakov

The book of Exodus concluded with the account of the completion of the Sanctuary, or "Tent of Meeting". Directly following, Leviticus opens with God's call to Moses from the Sanctuary, just as He had promised:

"And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, about all that I will command you for the children of Israel " (Exodus 25:22).

Prior to the construction of the Sanctuary the Torah had emanated from Mount Sinai, but once it was erected, all revelation of the Torah came forth from this Tent of Meeting - where God meets man and man meets God. While many different laws were later given to Moses from this Sanctuary, the very first were the laws of the services of the Temple itself and how they were to be conducted by its "officers" - the Cohanim (Priests).


The concept of sacrifice - a "gift" of some kind that a person offers to God - appears very early in the Torah:

"And Abel was a shepherd of flocks while Cain worked the land. And after a period of time Cain brought from the fruits of the earth as an offering to God. And Abel also brought from the first-born of his flocks and from their fat, and God showed favor to Abel and to his offering" (Genesis 4:2-4).

All the various offerings described in our present portion are likewise either from living creatures (oxen, sheep, goats, doves and pigeons) or from the fruits of the earth (wheat, barley, olive oil and grape wine).

In modern times everyone admires those who "sacrifice" their own selves and personal resources for some greater cause or purpose. However the pouring of libations and burning of grain flour, loaves and wafers etc. on an altar is widely seen as primitive, while slitting an animal's throat, sprinkling its blood and burning its fat and limbs on the altar would be considered quite barbaric by many - though most of them have no qualms about the sacrifice of barbeque and other meats down people's gullets for the sake of human gratification. Even so, there is a widespread tendency to view religious blood sacrifices and burnt offerings as a pagan method of trying to propitiate angry gods in order to elicit their help and protection. Many would be highly resistant to the idea that the Temple sacrifices as set forth in our portion should be reinstated.

Yet whether they like it or not, the Temple services will indeed be reinstated by King Messiah, as stated clearly in the conclusion of the comprehensive Mishneh Torah Law Code of Moses Maimonides (Rambam): "King Messiah is destined to arise and restore the kingship of David to its original glory and he will build the Temple and gather the scattered of Israel and all the laws will be restored in his days as they were originally: they will offer the sacrifices and practice the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and everyone who does not believe in him or does not wait for his coming not only denies the other prophets but the very Torah itself and Moses our Teacher" (Laws of Kings 11:1).

Those who refuse to accept that the Temple sacrifices will be restored will either not be there to see them, or will be forced to bow to the higher wisdom of the Torah and seek to understand why it prescribes the KORBAN. This Hebrew term is normally translated into English with the word "sacrifice" but its true meaning is impossible to render in a single English word. KORBAN derives from the Hebrew root KAROV, "near", and signifies that the offering brings the creations of this world - people, other living creatures, trees and plants and even the mineral world - NEARER and CLOSER to their divine roots.

Some of the offerings described in our portion are to be brought daily or on Sabbaths and festivals and at various other junctures on behalf of the entire people of Israel through their representatives - the priests. The purpose is to accomplish certain spiritual repairs required by the Israel, by the other peoples of the world, animal, vegetable and mineral creations, angels and other spiritual levels, as discussed in the Torah mystical texts. Other offerings are prescribed for individuals to entrust to the Cohanim for sacrifice either as freewill gifts or to atone for certain sins.

Atonement for sin does not come about automatically and vicariously through the killing of the animal. Without repentance and prayer on the part of the sinner, the animal sacrifice accomplishes nothing. In the words of Maimonides: "When people bring sin and guilt offerings whether for unwitting or willful offenses, no atonement is given to them through their offering until they actively repent and make verbal confession, as it is written, 'And he shall confess over it the sin he committed'" (Leviticus 5:5; Rambam, Laws of Repentance 1:1). Immediately prior to the slaughter of the animal, the sinner had to place his two hands upon it and pour out his heart in grief and contrition over his sin (see Rambam, Sacrificial Procedure 3:14). He would then witness the terrifying spectacle of the animal having its throat cut and being flayed, cut to pieces and burned on the altar, plunging him into humility and broken-heartedness. The service requires the utmost intense concentration and all the correct intentions on the part of the priests, or else the sacrifice is invalid.

Categories of Sacrifice:

Our portion sets forth the four main categories of sacrifices brought in the Temple by the Children of Israel:

1. Olah, literally "rising up", often translated as a "whole-burnt-offering" because not only was the animal's blood sprinkled on the Altar but all its fat and limbs were burned on thereon. The Olah offering might be an ox, sheep, goat, dove or pigeon, or grain flour, loaves or wafers.

2. Shelamim, "peace offerings", where the blood and fat went on the Altar, but all the portions of the meat were consumed by the Cohen, the person offering the sacrifice and his guests.

3. Hat'at, sin offerings, where the blood and animal fat were burned on the Altar while the meat was eaten ceremonially by the priests in the Temple precincts.

4. Asham, guilt-offerings for certain specified sins or certain cases of doubt if one had sinned. Like the Hat'at sin offerings, blood and fats of the Asham guilt offerings were offered on the Altar while the priests ate the portions.

Sacrifices by Gentiles in the Temple

Our portion is specifically addressed to Children of Israel: God's opening words to Moses from the Sanctuary were: "Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: when a man from among you offers a Korban to God." (Leviticus 1:2).

Is there a place for offerings in the Temple by Gentiles? The answer is Yes, as Maimonides states: "From gentiles only Olah burnt offerings are accepted. even an Olah offering of a bird may be accepted from a gentile even if he worships idols, but neither Shelamim peace offerings nor meal offerings nor sin or guilt sacrifices are accepted from them. If an Israelite reverted to idolatry or publicly desecrates the Sabbath, no sacrifice whatever is accepted from him: not even the Olah offering that can be accepted from the gentiles is accepted from this renegade." (Laws of Sacrificial Procedure 3:2-4).

Sacrifices by Gentiles outside the Temple:

A significant difference between the people of Israel and the Gentiles is that since the inauguration of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, Israel are strictly forbidden to sacrifice anywhere except on Mount Moriah (Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 1:3). The gentiles, on the other hand, are permitted to bring sacrifices in any suitable place anywhere in the world.

"Gentiles are permitted to offer burnt offerings to God in all places on condition that they offer it on a Bamah-altar which they build. It is forbidden [for an Israelite] to assist them since we are forbidden to bring offerings outside [Jerusalem], but it is permitted to instruct them and teach them how to make offerings to for the sake of God, blessed be He" (Maimonides, Laws of Sacrificial Procedure 19:16).

To begin to grasp the purpose of the Torah sacrificial system requires earnest prayer to God for enlightenment. The external ritual comes to break the inner human heart, until we are truly willing to sacrifice and submit our ego and headstrong will to God.

"For You do not delight in sacrifice, or else would I give it; You have no pleasure in burnt-offering. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Psalms 51:18-19).




© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5770 - 2009-10 All rights reserved