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Parashat Tzav-Shabbat Hagadol

March 26, 2015

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

The practice of offering korbanot, sacrifices, was central to Israelite and Jewish worship for centuries. While during the Biblical period it may have been natural to offer an animal sacrifice, since then Jewish thinkers have been trying to interpret the meaning of the sacrificial system. The important 13th century Spanish Biblical commentator, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, the Ramban, wrote an extended discussion about the meaning of the sacrificial system in his commentary on Leviticus. (See Ramban on Leviticus 9:1)

In his commentary the Ramban brings the historical approach to the sacrificial system that was offered by Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the Rambam. According to the Rambam, in order to understand the korbanot we must historically contextualize them in their ancient setting. The Ramban disagreeed with the Rambam’s approach and offered another understanding of the sacrificial system, one that interpreted the sacrifices in all their details as a mirror image of humanity and human sins, thus offering an explanation for the relationship between sacrifice and repentance.

These different approaches towards understanding the korbanot that were brought by Nachmanides offer an example of the multi-vocal approach towards understanding the Biblical text, an approach that supports more than one way of understanding our most sacred texts. (The following texts are from C.B. Chavel’s translation of Nachmanides commentary on the Torah.)

Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] wrote in the Moreh Nebuchim that the reason for the offerings is because the Egyptians and the Chaldeans in whose lands the children of Israel were strangers and sojourners, used always to worship the herd and the flock, the Egyptians worshipping the sheep and the Chaldeans worshipping the demons whom they imagined as assuming the form of goats…It was for this reason that He commanded [Israel] to slaughter these three species [of cattle: the herd, the flock, and the goats], to the Revered Name, so that it be known that the very act which the idol-worshippers considered to be the utmost sin [i.e., slaughtering the above species], that same act should be done as an offering before the Creator, and through it Israel’s sins would be forgiven. For such is the way to cure people of false beliefs, which are the diseases of the human soul, for all diseases and sicknesses are healed by medicines which are antithetical to them. These are the words [the Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon], and he expounded them at great length.

It is far more fitting to accept the reason for the offerings which scholars say, namely that since man’s deeds are accomplished through thought, speech and action, therefore G-d commanded that when man sins and brings an offering, he should lay his hands upon it in contrast to the [evil] deed [committed]. He should confess his sin verbally in contrast to his [evil] speech, and he should burn the  inwards and the kidneys [of the offering] in fire because they are the instruments of thought and desire in the human being. He should burn the legs [of the offering] since they correspond to the hands and feet of a person, which do all his work. He should sprinkle the blood upon the altar, which is analogous to the blood in his body. All these acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against his G-d with his body and his soul, and that “his” blood should really be spilled and “his” body burned, were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator, Who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this offering, so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life, and that the chief limbs of the offering should be in place of the chief parts of his body. The portions [given from the sin-offering to the priests], are in order to support the teachers of the Torah, so that they pray on his behalf. The reason for the Daily public Offering is that it is impossible for the public [as a whole] to continually avoid sin. Now these are words which are worthy to be accepted, appealing to the heart as do words of Agadah.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.