by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – March 24, 2010
The Torah section of Tzav concludes a series of instructions beginning at the start of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, concerning the major sacrifices that make up the regular sacrificial service.
The priests – kohanim – were charged with the sacrificial order, both in the Temple – Bet HaMikdash – and, earlier, in the Mishkan. The sacrifices which were to be offered without blemish or defect (Vayikra 22:26-30) included various types: sin offering (chat’at), guilt offerings (asham), peace offerings (shelamim), burnt offerings (olah), meal offerings (mincha) and libation offerings (nesakhim).
The sin offering was in accordance with the position and circumstance of the one who offered it. Whereas the kohen gadol (high-priest) or the congregation who sinned brought a young bull (Vayikra 4:3, 14) and a nasi (leader) brought a male goat (Vayikra 4:23), all others brought the weaker and more docile female goat or lamb (Vayikra 4:28-32) and one who was impoverished, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, or, in extreme conditions, a tenth of an efah of fine flour could serve as the sin offering (Vayikra 5:7-13). Moreover, a sin offering of a male goat on behalf of the entire nation was brought at varying intervals: the first day of the month, all days of Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Bamidbar 25:22-24; 28:15,30; 29:5,11,16,19). Purification after childbirth, leprosy and the like required lesser sin offerings of lambs or birds (Vayikra 12:6-8; 14:12-31; 15:15,30; Bamidbar 6:10-11).
The guilt offering, which was brought when someone denied another his rightful due, was usually a ram (Vayikra 5:15,18; 19:21) and, like the sin offering, was taken by the priest for food (Vayikra 6:25-30; 7:6-7; 14:13).
For the peace offering, any domestic animal from cattle or the flock, male or female, was permissible (Vayikra 3:1,6,12); and after some parts were burnt on the altar, as in the case of the sin and guilt offerings, and the priest was given the breast and the right thigh, the one offering the sacrifice used it for a communal meal for himself, his family and the levites (Devarim 12:12-19).
The burnt offering, which could be a bull, sheep, goat or bird (Vayikra 1:3-14), was, unlike, the other offerings, completely burnt upon the altar, leaving only the hide for the priest (Vayikra 7:8). This burnt offering was regularly brought, every day in the morning and evening, and additional such offerings were brought on the day of Sabbath, the first of the month, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (Bamidbar 29).
A meal offering, comprised of fine flour, oil and frankincense in the form of baked loaves, wafers or small pieces, normally accompanied burnt offerings and peace offerings along with libation offerings of wine.
To be sure, prophets during the time of the first Temple (Bet HaMikdash) spoke light, at times, of sacrificial offerings. Isaiah proclaims, in the name of G-d, “To what purpose is to me your multitude of sacrifices” (Yeshayah 1:11). The prophet Michah wonders, “With what shall I precede before the L-rd…shall I precede before him with burnt offerings?…Will the L-rd be pleased with thousands of rams?” (Michah 6:6-7). And Jeremiah declared in the name of G-d, “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable nor your sacrifices sweet unto me” (Yirmiyahu 6:20). But, in contrast to scholars who understood these statements as the prophets’ condemnation of sacrificial offerings, R. de Vaux in his Ancient Israel rightly points out that the prophets did not attack the institution of sacrifices per se. In fact, the prophet Isaiah also spoke against prayer (Yeshayah 1:15). Rather, like multitudes of prayer expressed without a devout heart, Isaiah informs us, so are a “multitude of sacrifices” from the hands of those who forsake “justice…the oppressed…the orphan…the widow” (Yeshayah 1:17). Similarly, Michah wonders, “Shall I precede before Him with burnt offerings?…Will the L-rd be pleased with thousands of rams?” Rather, of primary importance is “to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d” (Michah 6:8). We must precede with a just, merciful and humble heart that completely commits itself to G-d; only then can we offer sacrifices, but only within G-d’s prescription, not a meaningless onslaught of “thousands of rams.” Likewise, Jeremiah explains in G-d’s name, “Because they have not hearkened to my words…your burnt offerings are not acceptable nor your sacrifices sweet to me” (Yirmiyahu 6:19-20). Not because of their intrinsic character, are the sacrifices unacceptable, but because they do not come from the hands of those devoted to G-d’s law, but out of an idolatrous expression of appeasing the gods.
Only when we are so devoted to G-d and His holy ways that we freely and wholeheartedly take the time necessary to choose only the most wholesome and pleasing animal in our possession, a docile, domestic and unblemished animal, an animal that we would find most desirous to satisfy our own physical and emotional desires, and unselfishly bestow it for the purposes of the L-rd, does our offering take on real meaning. Indeed, if we take this most desirous animal and, after committing a wrong, use it in the form of a sin or guilt offering to do good, namely to produce an active demonstration of our devotion to G-d and give of this animal that we would so desire to the priests, who have not possessions of their own, to partake of, this act has special meaning. If we take this most desirable animal and, instead of consuming this ourselves, we, in sight of the Temple, as an active sign of devotion to the L-rd, share it in the form of a peace offering with our families, and with priests and levites who are not as financially secure as we, then this act has special meaning. And, by the total consumption of the burnt offering “for G-d” with only the hide remaining, for the priest’s use, we manifest the total consumption of flesh and blood allowing the being to be “for G-d” and, nevertheless, leave a reminder of its existence on earth – its hide. This manifestation, in turn, represents the ideal life of a human being, who, only after shedding his physical veneer of flesh and blood and, thus, remaining in the form of spirit alone, can one truly associate with G-d, and yet leave a residue of his existence on earth – his good deeds. Consequently, when we take this most desirable creature, which we would so wish to partake of ourselves, and unselfishly, in sight of the Temple as an active sign of our devotion to G-d, and as an active representation of an ideal life, bring it in the form of a burnt offering, this act has very special meaning.
It is this unique manifestation of our relationship to G-d and the rest of humanity – the sacrificial order – along with the very unique manifestation of G-d on earth – the Temple – that we continue to look forward to in our prayers and continue to recite every day: “May it be your will O L-rd our G-d and the G-d of our fathers that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days…And there we will serve you with awe as in the days of old and as in ancient years and shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant to the L-rd as in the days of old as in ancient years.”
Let us hope that the sacrificial order can teach us all to sacrifice of our materialistic desires for the greater existential growth and good of each and every one of us in particular and of our people and our nation as a whole. May the character of the Jewish people not be marked by the limitless and never-ending striving for and hoarding of wealth and material possessions, but by the ability to utilize the possessions we have been blessed with for loftier and more meaningful purposes, so that we can grow as individuals, as a people and as a nation.