Chumash Themes #15: Understanding Korbanot
In mentioning Temple offerings, the images that appear in the modern mind are barbaric, pagan and primitive. Animals being slaughtered, blood and guts being brought on altars, incense burning, and elaborately-dressed priests performing intricate but seemingly meaningless rituals.
However, since a major section of the Torah – most of the book of Leviticus – is devoted to the detailed laws of offerings, it would seem that something much deeper is at work here. To reach a greater level of understanding, we need to deal with the following basic issues:
- What right do we have to sacrifice animals?
- Does God need sacrifices?
- Conversely, what do people get from such offerings?
- Why are there so many intricate and detailed laws?
The Privilege to Sacrifice
In the six days of Creation, man was not only the final act of creation, but a summation of all that was created before him. He is made up of water and earth, and an animal spirit. In the Midrash this is formulated as, “man is a microcosm of the entire world.”1 To that mix, God added the ineffable spirit of Godliness. Thus just as God infused the physical part of man with Godliness, so too man’s goal is to actively infuse all of creation with Godliness.
One of the methods to accomplish this is to utilize physical things in the service of God. I am entitled to use these physical things also for my personal pleasure – as long as I direct my goals toward the service of God. In as much as one uses creations for selfish purposes, that is abusing one’s trusteeship over the world.
In a certain sense, the question of our right to offer animals is really moot. In a society where animals are utilized for physical benefit (belts and burgers), there would seem to be no question that we can use them for spiritual benefits, too. The only difference is that with a hamburger, we see and taste the benefit. But what is gotten from an offering?
Benefits of a Korban
First, we have to differentiate between Greek mythology and Judaism. The pagan sacrifices were to appease finite gods who had control over a limited aspect of existence. Every god needed something else and the humans could avoid the wrath of the gods by giving them what they needed.
Jewish offerings are not for God. Nor is this some type of bribe to get on God’s good side. He doesn’t need it. God is all-powerful and has everything already.
The answer lies in a correct understanding of the Hebrew term for offering, korban. This does not mean ‘sacrifice’ or ‘offering’ as it is used in English. Actually, its root means “to come close.” Man’s goal is to strive to come as close to God as one possibly can. Bringing an animal to the Temple, and elevating its parts on the altar to God, declares our intent to bring our material side closer to God.2
This is a very realistic actualization of a man’s Godly aspirations. When one desires the ultimate closeness to God, it becomes a consuming fire that could swallow one up. The Torah, which was given to man to fulfill in this material world, channels that emotion into bringing an animal, rather than yourself. The idea of offerings teaches us to take the physical – the body – and sanctify it.
There is another approach, which is the feeling of thanks. When we want to express our gratitude, one of the means is to give a gift of some type. This is the idea of a thanksgiving offering.
Two early episodes in the Torah serve as the basis for these two types of offerings. The first is when Noah exits the Ark, and recognizes that he and his family have survived. So Noah brings a thanksgiving offering to God.3
The second is probably the most famous of all sacrifices – the Binding of Isaac. There, Abraham brings his son to the top of Mount Moriah, and is about to sacrifice him, when God stops Abraham. Abraham then brings a ram in place of Isaac. If we examine the events from Isaac’s standpoint, this is the epitome of self-sacrifice to God.
Korbanot do not influence God, but they are an expression of our inner yearnings to draw close to God.
Types of Offerings
There are different types of offerings:
- Burnt Offering – Olah
- Grain Offering – Mincha
- Peace Offering – Shlamim
- Sin Offering – Chatat and Asham
The Todah is a type of Shlamim, and is an offering of thanksgiving and praise, generated by one’s understanding of the good that God has done for him.
The Shlamim, a volunatary offering, is unique in that one part of the animal is burned on the altar, one portion goes to the Kohen, and one portion is for the owner to eat. The Hebrew word Shlamim comes from shalom – peace; as this offering is shared by three parties, it symbolizes creating peace in the world.
The Olah (Burnt Offering) is brought from an animal or bird, and is burned completely on the altar. This is brought for someone who contemplates a sin, but does not actually perform the physical act of sin. That is why it is completely burned on the altar, and there is no eating of such an offering. This represents the purification of one’s thoughts and the complete sublimation of oneself to God, even unto all my thoughts.4
The Chatat and Asham (Sin Offerings) atone for one who sins with action. Acting in accord solely with one’s desires, and transgressing the will of God, is a behavior not befitting a human being. Therefore one brings as an offering an animal that also acts without thought. We slaughter that animal as if to say: "I have made a mistake and regret the damage it caused my soul. My animal side got the best of me. I don’t want to repeat that mistake again. I hereby pledge to slaughter animalism as the dominant force in my life."
However, this is generally only applicable to someone who transgresses accidentally.5 One who sins intentionally cannot atone with an offering, for as the verse says, “…and the blood of your bulls I do not want.”6
All in the Details
The potential downside of bringing things to God, is that we get caught up in the numbers game: i.e. How much did I give? Therefore the intricate details of the offerings provide certain safeguards against this misconception.
For example, people sometimes think that the ends justify the means. In our case, that could take the form of “it’s okay that my offering comes from ‘not kosher’ money, as long as my intention is good. To disavow this notion, the section of offerings begins with the word ‘Adam’: “When an Adam (person) wants to bring an offering…”7
This hints to the idea that Adam, of all people, understood that he did not acquire from his own effort, but is only returning God’s gift to Him. And just as Adam did not bring an offering from stolen goods – since everything in the world was his – so too we cannot bring offerings from stolen goods.8
Not How Much, But Why
The second offering mentioned in Leviticus is the Mincha, the flour offering. In terms of bringing something valuable to God, this seems quite measly. It is a small amount of flour, with some oil and spices. Why is it listed second, immediately after the basic burnt offering? Furthermore, the section of the Mincha uses an unusual word for person, nefesh, which is also one of the words for “soul.” Why?
The answer lies in the basic understanding of what it means to come close to God. God does not need our offerings. It is more about who I am, rather than what God seems to need. What type of person would bring a Mincha? A poor person. For someone like that, even a small flour offering is a great expense. He cannot fool himself that the magnificence of his offering is bribing God. He is truly bringing himself closer to God. As the Talmud says, “It is irrelevant whether you bring a large amount or a small one, so long as your intention is for Heaven.”9
And the word used to describe this person is nefesh. This flour offering is so dear to a poor person, that it is considered as if he is offering his very soul.10
Our forefather Abraham said to God, “How do I know for certain that my children will inherit the Land of Israel?”
God responded, “In the merit of the sacrifices it is guaranteed.”
Abraham responded, “This will suffice only when the Temple is standing; what about after it is destroyed? What will guarantee their right to the land then?”
God responded, “Let them recite the sacrificial sections, and I will consider it as if they are offering the sacrifices!”11
In our day and age, with no Holy Temple in Jerusalem, we do not merit to bring offerings. Only when we are true stewards of the physical world, directing it toward God, are we allowed this ultimate power over other living creatures. Till then, the study of these ideas are to inspire us to strive higher and closer to God.
- Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 3)
- Sefer HaIkrim 3:25
- Genesis 8:20 with Rikanti
- Rikanti (Leviticus 1:6, 5:10). Generally, the Olah provides atonement for transgressing a negative precept that can be nullified by a positive precept (Talmud – Yoma 36a).
- Though the Talmud (Shvuot 37a) describes a Korbon for an intentional sin.
- Isaiah 1:11
- Leviticus 1:2
- Midrash Tanchuma (Tzav 2)
- Menachot 110a, Brachot 5b
- Talmud – Menachot 104b
- Talmud – Megilla 32a