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The Symbolism of the Sacrifices

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

In this week's Portion, the Torah introduces us to two of the most important kinds of offerings: The Olah (elevation) offering(1) and the Shelamim (peace) offering.(2) The Olah is entirely burnt on the altar, all of it going up to Shamayim, (Heaven) whereas the Shelamim is only partially burnt, the rest being shared by the animal's owner, his family and the Kohen (Priest).

Rav Uziel Milevsky(3) discusses the symbolism of these two offerings. He begins by quoting the Torah commentary, Meshech Chochma(4) who brings a dispute between the two great Rabbinic leaders, Hillel and Shammai with regard to the Olah and Shelamim offerings. When a person comes to the Temple on the Three Foot Festivals he must bring a Chagigah offering, which is from the Shelamim category, and the Re'iyah offering, which is in the Olah category. These particular sacrifices had no upper limit to their value, however they did have a minimum value. According to Shammai, the Olah, which was completely offered to God, had to be worth at least two silver coins, whilst the Shelamim only had to be one silver coin. Hillel held the opposite - the Shelamim's minimum was two silver coins, whilst that of the Olah was one.(5) For some reason Shammai ascribed greater value to the Olah whilst Hillel saw the Shelamim as being of greater worth.

The Meshech Chochma says that this dispute is indicative of a fundamental difference in outlook between these two schools of thought.(6) The source of this difference is another disagreement between Shammai and Hillel with regard to the creation of the world. The Yalkut Shimoni notes a contradiction between two verses which suggest the order in which the heavens and earth were created: The opening verse of Bereishit states that first, God created the heavens and then the earth.(7) However, the second chapter implies that the earth was created before the heavens.(9) Shammai argued that the heavens were created first, whilst Hillel held that the earth came first. Rav Milevsky, based on the Meshech Chochma, explains that they are arguing as to which is most central in God's creation; heaven or earth. Shammai held that the world remains 'heaven-centric', this means that the cardinal principles guiding it are values that belong in the higher spheres, namely, Torah and Emet (truth). Hillel, in contrast believed that the world is 'earth-centric'. This means that its cardinal principles are based on human beings and the imperfections of this world. In order to understand the practical applications of Hillel and Shammai's ideologies and how they manifest themselves in our lives it is instructive to analyze a number of Rabbinic sources that illustrate other disagreements between Shammai and Hillel in both areas of law and hashkafa (outlook). We can then explain why Shammai ascribed greater value to the Olah, whilst Hillel gave more value to the Shelamim.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin discusses a significant difference between Moses and his brother Aaron, with regard to justice. When a legal dispute was brought to court, Aaron's view was that the judge should aim for compromise and try to engender a relationship of peace and harmony between the litigants, even if one party may, on occasion be less deserving than the other. Nonetheless, maintaining peace was a higher priority to Aaron than exacting pure justice. Moses, in contrast, believed that the judge should aim for the complete truth, handing down his verdict in accordance with that truth, regardless of the feelings of the litigants.(10) The Meshech Chochma observes that Hillel relates to Aaron, as is demonstrated in Pirkei Avot, where Hillel directs us to be among the disciples of Aaron in terms of bringing peace between our fellow man.(11) The implication is that Hillel is telling us to be more like Aaron than Moshe.(12) This is not because there is anything lacking in Moses' approach rather that his level is so high that it is of pure truth. On such a level there is no room for compromising because of people's feelings - the truth is the highest value. Shammai's approach is more in line with Moses's approach: He maintains that whilst we cannot attain Moses' exalted level, nonetheless, we must strive to attain whatever truth we can. In this way, Shammai focuses on heaven more than earth - in heaven, where there is no room for compromise of truth, the truth is unadulterated.

This difference in approach manifests itself in a disagreement with regard to truth and falsehood. The Gemara in Ketubot discusses the case of a just married couple; and the bride is not particularly worthy of praise - Hillel and Shammai argue about what one should say to the groom. Shammai says that you must say the truth as it is, regardless of hurting the feelings of the groom. Hillel argues that this will cause discomfort therefore one should praise her in a vague fashion. Shammai argues that Hillel's approach would constitute a transgression of the prohibition to lie, whilst Hillel holds that in such cases, maintaining peace and harmony between a bride and groom overrides the prohibition not to lie, therefore in such a case the prohibition doesn't apply at all.(13) Hillel's approach is that it is not truthful to cause pain and dissension amongst people. This dispute provides an illuminating example of the ramifications of Hillel and Shammai's divergent world views. Shammai adheres to a strict adherence to truth, whereas Hillel compromises the value of truth with that of peace.(14)

With this understanding of the approaches of Shammai and Hillel we can now understand the underlying reason for their dispute as to which korban should be of greater minimum value - the Olah or the Shelamim. The Olah, burnt on the altar entirely for G-d, is a 'heaven-offering' - for Shammai, the main focus is man's service of God and adherence to pure truth. For Hillel, however, the main focus is peace therefore he attributed greater value to the Shelamim, which was shared by the animal's owner, his family, and the Priest, thus enhancing peace and harmony amongst people.

We have analyzed the fundamental differences between Hillel and Shammai and how they reflect their conflicting rulings with regard to the Olah and Shelamim. We have seen that Hillel's view emphasizes compromise in addition to truth, whilst Shammai's focuses on pure adherence to truth. The Gemara in Eruvin states that after three years of debate between the two schools a voice announced, "The words are both words of the Living God, but the law is like Beit Hillel." (15) This means that both views are correct, but they have different approaches. In this world the most fitting approach is that of like Beit Hillel(16) because in this world the value of peace can sometimes appear to conflict with that of truth, and for the level of most people, the outlook of Beit Hillel is the most appropriate.(17) One application of this discussion is that a person may mistakenly feel that it is a quality always to strictly adhere to the truth, even when it causes pain to others or can lead to discord. We learn from the fact that we follow Beit Hillel in this world, that there are times when it is impossible to maintain pure truth without causing pain to others. It is highly recommended for each person to learn the laws relating to when one may and may not alter the truth for the sake of peace.



1. Vayikra, 6:2.

2. Vayikra, 7:11.

3. He was the Chief Rabbi of Mexico and later was a lecturer in the Ohr Sameach Yeshiva. He was famed for his deep explanations of the Torah. His lectures were later published in two volumes as. 'Ner Uziel'. This essay is found in the Second Volume, p. 16-20.

4. Written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the early 20th century.

5. Chagiga, 6a.

6. Meshech Chochma, Shemos, 20:18.

7. Bereishis, 1:1. The Yalkut also brings a passuk in Yeshaya that indicates that the heavens were created first.

8. Bereishis, 2:4.

9. Yalkut Shimoni, 1:4.

10. Sanhedrin, 6b.

11. Avos, 1:12.

12 Ner Uziel, p. 17.

13. Kesubos, 17a.

14. See New Uziel ibid, and Meshech Chochma, Shemos, 20:18 for more applications of the dispute between Shammai and Hillel.

15. Eruvin, 13b.

16. The students of Hillel who ruled in accordance with Hillel's approach.



17. However, the commentaries point out that in the next world the law does follow Beis Shammai, because in that world, there is no contradiction between Emes and Shalom.

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