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Understanding the Sacrifices

May 9, 2009 | by Shmuel Silinsky

Barbaric? Bringing a sacrifice was actually a peak spiritual experience.

One of the most common misconceptions deals with the word "sacrifice."

We often think of sacrifices in the Temple in terms of buying off an angry deity with lots of blood and guts.

Alas, these pagan ideas show how much our thinking has been influenced by other cultures. God is not lacking anything and does not need our sacrifices -- animal or any other kind.The offerings that were brought in the Temple, like all the commandments, were not done for God. They were done for us.

Like all the commandments, the offerings were not done for God. They were done for us.

In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root korav meaning to "come close," specifically, to come close to God. The offering was meant to bring someone who was far near once again.

To understand something of the intense, elevating experience that bringing an offering must have been, let's take a look at a typical offering: the peace offering.


Imagine the scene during one of the holidays -- Pesach, Shavuot or Sukkot. Everyone has come up to Jerusalem, and Jake is no exception.

Jake takes his lamb up to the Temple. This is not just any lamb. He has kept it for at least three days to make sure there is no blemish. The big day arrives and he takes "Little Fluffy" up to the Temple.

Many of us enjoy lamb chops, or some other cut of meat. To eat meat, the animal must be slaughtered and the meat prepared. Most of us, though, have never actually seen an animal slaughtered. However, when bringing an offering to the Temple, the owner of the animal had to be present.

Most of us have never actually seen an animal slaughtered.

Jake brings Little Fluffy forward.He puts his hands on the lamb's head and rests his weight on it. In one sense, he connects with the animal so it was like an extension of himself.

To actually see a lamb killed right in front of you is an unsettling thing.A moment ago it was Little Fluffy, and now: dead meat. This shakes Jake up as it would anybody. Life and death are staring him in the face.Running through his mind is the startling thought: "This could be me.This animal is just like me with a heart, hair, gall bladder... What is the difference -- a soul?"

Then some of the blood is taken and put on the altar. On one level, the blood represents the animal nature of a human being. After that, certain fats are burned on the altar. This is represents desire, which should be elevated. Parts of the meat are given to the kohen, the Jewish priest, who helped with the offering.This reminds the owner of the offering that nothing actually belongs to him.It was granted to him by the Almighty and he must share with others.

At the end, the remaining meat is taken and can be eaten by the owner.Jake must eat it inside the walls of Jerusalem, a place specifically dedicated to spiritual growth. He must be in a state of ritual purity, which includes a state of heightened awareness for spiritual growth. This is not just another lamb chop on the plate. It is Little Fluffy and the whole process that went along with it.

This is not just another lamb chop on the plate -- it is Little Fluffy.

The animal has actually become a korban, a way of helping its owner to come closer to God. Eating this meal is now a very spiritual experience. It is being raised from the level of animal to that of human, by actually becoming a part of the consumer and by being the vehicle for the entire process.

(Unfortunately, at times the opposite is true. Everything that has the potential for great elevation has also the potential for abuse. People can be so involved in the food they are eating that they forget all about the higher aspects. Instead of elevating the animal to human level, they are dragged down to the level of animal. The vernacular reflects this by calling that kind of mindless stuffing of oneself "pigging out.")

One can easily see how a meal like this can be a focal point of holiday observance.


When the Temple was standing, there were many types of offerings, of korbanot, but the principles described above apply to them all.

Some offerings were not eaten at all, by anyone, and were entirely burnt. Some were brought on the national level, with the animal purchased by funds contributed equally by all Israel -- everyone in the nation was aware that these offerings were an integral part of life, going on regularly and binding all Jews together in commonality and focus.

A sin offering was brought when someone had mistakenly transgressed certain laws. (Sin is also a concept often misunderstood and should best be translated as "mistake" or "error." ) A mistake represents a lack of focus, and in the case of the chatot, the sin offering, the owner went through the whole process described above, which was designed to build focus.In this case, the owner did not eat the animal. Rather the kohen, the Jewish priest, an intrinsically focused individual, ate it.

Rav Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, said that all commandments have an intrinsic reality in their own right, which transcends any meaning or explanation that we may give.A commandment, a mitzvah is a mystical powerhouse, regardless of our understanding.On the other hand, the more we can understand any mitzvah, the more effective we can be.

This brief article has only touched on the tip of what was involved in the Temple service, but it should be clear that a korban is far more than a "sacrifice."

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