Over the course of Sefer Vayikra, we received numerous questions concerning Korbanos, the sacrifices that are discussed throughout the Torah, but especially in Sefer Vayikra, that are a major theme of our religion.
To the modern-day mind, it is perhaps the strangest tradition we have. It becomes even stranger the more we understand the concept of Hashem; the fact that He has no needs, wants, or desires seems to back the idea that Korbanos are completely unnecessary. While we understand Tefillah, which replaces the need for Korbanos nowadays to a certain extent, the idea of sacrificing an animal to please Hashem seems a little more foreign. In continuation of the Nation's Wisdom project, today we present a short summary of the purpose and meaning behind sacrifices in Jewish religion.
The three questions we will be discussing here are: 1) What is the reason behind the act of Korbanos 2) What is the purpose served by Korbanos 3) Why do we bring Korbanos in this fashion.
The laws of korbanos are extremely specific. Each korban is brought from a different animal, with different amounts of accessories (wine, oil, etc.), slaughtered in a different area of the Beis Hamikdash, with some only brought at specific times of year. These laws are laid out very clearly in the Torah and in Torah She Baal Peh; if one wrong step is made, the entire korban is thrown out. The reason for this specificity is because each aspect of the korban is arranged to provide us with a different type of hashgacha over us.
Root of Korbanos
We commonly translate a korban as a “sacrifice” which is correct, however, the root of the word is “kareiv”, meaning “to come close.” This is the true purpose of korbanos, to bring us closer to Hashem. Anything we would bring on the mizbe'ach, be it plant, animal, or mineral, is completely useless to Him. Picture it this way, imagine a little kid comes inside and hands his mother a bunch of wild dandelions while at the same time, sitting on the table is a vase with a huge bouquet of roses. Even though the roses are a lot more valuable and much more beautiful, the fact that her son has brought her a gift makes this tiny dandelion bouquet the most precious thing in the world. At the end of the day, it is the thought behind the gift that it important.
The same is true with korbanos. As long as we recognize the amazing opportunity that korbanos provide, as well as realize that Hashem accepts our korbanos only as a way of strengthening the bond between us, then korbanos will work. This is the major difference between our daily tefillos and korbanos. Tefillah is an amazing opportunity for us to come close to Hashem, however, in every relationship, part of its growth is dependent on those involved showing they care by giving each other gifts. That is the relationship aspect that korbanos gives us that nothing else can. That’s why there are so many laws about the condition the animal must be in when it is brought; since it is going to be a gift, shouldn’t it be the best you can get?
This shows the significance of the loss of the Beis Hamikdash, as now we no longer have that opportunity to improve our relationship with Hashem by bringing Him gifts. In fact, we see in Tanach how Bnei Yisrael stopped appreciating this opportunity to bring gifts, which in part led to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. (See Malachi 1:13.)
So we now understand why we bring korbanos, but why did Hashem choose animals to sacrifice? It seems a little barbaric. Wouldn’t a nice bouquet of flowers or a strong bushel of wheat be just as nice a gift? Perhaps Hashem is even a vegetarian!
Why Do We Bring Korbanos if Hashem Doesn't Eat?
There are several reasons why you bring a korban, it can be in order to bring Hashem a gift, to ask forgiveness for a sin, or for a specific mitzvah. There is an idea that at every step of the korban process, its’ owner is supposed to view himself as if that act is being done to him. When you see the Kohen performing Vidui, slaughtering, burning the animal on the big fire on the mizbe'ach… it’s a very powerful image if you transfer yourself in its place. However, the only way you can really picture yourself up there is if the sacrifice is alive. Watching someone cut the stems from flowers does not really give you the chills. Watching blood spurt from a cow’s neck can, however, make you start rubbing yours a little more often…
What About the Animal?
In case, you’re worried about the animal, being made into a korban is actually the best thing that can happen to it from a spiritual perspective. Animals don’t have mitzvos, they don’t learn Torah, and they cannot choose to serve Hashem. Not having those three things can severely limit your ability to increase your spiritual levels. Being brought as a korban, actually, even just being designated as a korban, is a tremendously spiritually uplifting experience for the animal that it would not receive if it was turned into, let’s say, a burger at your Memorial Day BBQ!
This idea can be proven in two ways. First, an animal that is designated as a korban and then for whatever reason is not brought, still retains a level of kedushah in that you can no longer eat it or use it for work in the fields. Also, when Yitzchak was almost brought as a korban, afterwards, he retained a level of kedushah that he was not allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael. We see from these two cases that simply being designated as a korban raises your spiritual level, whether you be man or beast.
Why We Have Korbanos
There is a famous machlokes between the Rambam and the Ramban, brought in the Ramban’s commentary to Vayikra 1:9. The Rambam is quoted that the reason Hashem gave us korbanos was in order to show us specifically that pagan concept of sacrifice was wrong. The religions that had begun before Judaism had their own concept of sacrifice that they used to serve their gods and Hashem wanted to show the Bnei Yisrael immediately that while it was a good idea to bring sacrifices (we see the Avos did it), the way the gentiles were doing it was all wrong. Therefore, He told us to bring korbanos, but with certain guidelines (such as only using salt as a spice, specifically no honey, only using kosher animals, etc.).
The Ramban asks four questions on this Rambam, we will only bring the first. There is no mitzvah in the Torah that was given to us just in order to show the goyim that they were wrong, why would korbanos be this way? Therefore, the Ramban explains similar to what we said earlier. Hashem set up the practice of korbanos in order to help us atone for sins, and He specifically commanded us in animal sacrifice because it corresponds more to the way humans sin. A person sins with his thoughts, words, and actions. So a person does an act of Vidui and leans on the animal in order to atone for his actions, the recitation of Vidui corresponds to sins with words, and the animal’s innards are burnt since the stomach and kidneys are considered the organs that control a person’s thoughts and desires. The limbs are burnt to represent the acts done by the person’s limbs, and the blood is thrown on the sides of the mizbe'ach and represents the person’s neshama. All this is to show a person how really he should be up there, but through Hashem’s kindness, He allows him to bring an animal to die in his stead.
In today’s modern society, animal sacrifice does seem to be a nonsensical custom. But similar to tefillah, when we consider what it does for us, we can look at korbanos the same way. First, we are giving Hashem a gift. Therefore, it must be a nice gift, in good condition, given with good intentions, and must come from the heart. Secondly, we specifically use animals in order that the korban process will make a stronger impact on us.
There is another amazing concept that comes out of korbanos that allows us to increase our relationship and understanding of with Hashem even nowadays. Slaughtering an animal is dirty, tiring work that you wouldn’t do unless you had to. Plus, when you did it, you wouldn’t wear beautiful clothing an stand in a beautiful hall; you would wear old clothing and bring the animal outside or to a place where nothing would get ruined. Yet, this is exactly what went on in the Beis Hamikdash! The Kohanim would be wearing their beautiful white clothing while standing in the gorgeous hall that was the azarah of the Beis Hamikdash.
We look at the act of sacrifice that we wouldn’t want to bring a korban unless we were specifically commanded by Hashem. Once we are commanded, we initially do it because we have to. But when all the work is done, after you’re covered with blood and exhausted from running all around getting everything ready for the mizbe’ach, and you see that incredible fire come down straight from the heavens and burn up the korban in a moment of pure kedushah, you realize that this whole act is an act of kedushah. Furthermore, you realize that this kedushah came as a direct result of your actions!
Three things come out from this idea: 1) bringing a korban is a way that Hashem shows how our actions can directly result in kedushah coming into this world. With most mitzvos, we don’t see this right away, but with korbanos we do. 2) Kedushah can be found anywhere. Even in apparently dirty and disgusting activities. 3) If Hashem commanded it, then it is not disgusting or debasing, no matter how much it seems to be that way.
Sadly, with the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, korbanos are not applicable. We pray for the day when the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt and we may once again enjoy the opportunity to bring korbanos.
Hopefully this gives you at least some understanding into the practice of Korbanos. Please understand that this is in no way a comprehensive essay and even this small article was edited down to size! Any questions can be directed to me at AimemTorah@gmail.com, and stay tuned for more of these essays right here at Nation's Wisdom! Lets us know what you want to learn about!
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